Tag Archives: embroidery


I am always curious about where and how my creative friends find inspiration for their projects. I listen with awe as someone describes how a major event in their life became an artwork, how specific images and experiences became fabric and stitches that speak without words. I have thoughts I hope to share one day, when I find the images and textures and my mind, hands and eyes have learned more about how to make things that speak. I understand now that everything I make is working to that end. And I am gaining courage with my understanding: if I see something I love, some image or idea, I am allowed to try to make it my own. So, a story.

in which I encounter unexpected delights in Copenhagen
In 2016 we went to Denmark, mostly to see the Vikingskeetmuseum in Roskilde (which is superb), but also to pay my respects to Egtved Girl and other Bronze Age displays in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen (and eat wonderful food at Torvehallerne). I led my poor husband back and forth through the museum rooms, pursuing trains of thought and interest, returning several times to the display describing ‘The journey of the sun across the sky‘ based on the motifs found on Bronze Age razors and rock carvings throughout Scandinavia. I had vague memories of reading about some of this, somewhere, but seeing the items themselves was gripping. Something about this story, those motifs, caught my imagination, spoke to me. I took photos to be sure I would remember the images but in truth it wasn’t necessary: I have not forgotten the story.
I took other photos, too.

This is ‘Skyrdstrup Woman’, who lived and died c.3300 years ago in southern Jutland.
Less well-known but more evocative for me than ‘Egtved Girl’. Any of these people might be my ancestors.

The journey of the sun across the sky
As summarised on the text of the museum display

At sunrise a [Sun] Fish pulls the Sun up over the horizon from the Night Ship to the Morning Ship.
At noon the Sun Horse takes the Sun from the Morning Ship.
In the afternoon the Sun Horse delivers the Sun to the Afternoon Ship.
As the sun sinks the Serpent takes the Sun and, once it is extinguished, delivers it to the Night Ship.

The captions on this image of the museum display are illegible at this resolution so I’ve summarised them.

Isn’t it a wonderful story? I think of people living by and on the ocean, seeing fish glittering briefly as they catch the light, turning in the water. The waves glitter on the eastern horizon as the sun approaches (see the line of wave symbols on the horizon behind the morning ship as the fish pulls the sun up, up to the surface). And then the sun sinks, dimming (trapped in the coils of a serpent) down into the western ocean to travel through the night and rise again.
But where did this story come from? Is this truly a story from the Bronze Age?
We don’t know. We can’t know.
Since I first read it this has felt to me like a charming storyteller’s tale, a story invented to connect the motifs rather than a story summarised by the motifs. To me this is part of its charm, this proof that humans seek patterns, find stories everywhere.

The images come from razors. Similar (when new) to the replicas shown below, from a website that no longer exists (bronsereplika.no).

The story seems to come from Ships on Bronzes: A Study in Bronze Age Religion and Iconography by Flemming Caul, published in 1998. I can’t find a copy of the book, but the one review I have found doesn’t seem completely convinced by the story. In fact the reviewer points out some rather large flaws. But the motifs are real, the story could be real (I am smiling fondly as I type that) and research into the possibilities continues. I particularly liked Warmenbol’s paper pointing out that in one view (imagine the broad razors in that image turned 180°, broad head to the left and tail curling under the narrowing body to the right) the razors look like a bit like sperm whales, so that the ‘broken ship’ motif could in fact be reference to the razor as sperm whale.

The tale of the razors: how the Bronze Age came to Scandinavia
The journey of the sun may be nothing more than a charming story, but the razors are real. They tell us an almost equally remarkable story. Looking idly for more information about Scandinavian Sun Cycle/Sun Cult imagery I found an article about a ‘golden calendar’, a reinterpretation of the designs on a golden bowl found in a Swedish bog in 1847, which in pursuit of documented links between Sumer, Babylon and Scandinavia included mention of the inscription on an obelisk in Nineveh
“In the search for cultural trading links to Europe and Scandinavia, it seems significant that, on an obelisk in Nineveh dated at about 1850 BC … the following text is found… “on the sea of changing winds my merchants fish pears, and on the sea where the North Star culminates they fish yellow amber”. The first sea must refer to the Gulf of Persia, and the second is likely to refer to the Baltic (because only there is the North Star high to the north, and the shores full of yellow amber…)”
Really? The bronze for the razors came from the Mediterranean?
The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area.

And the Sun Cult is thought to have travelled north with the bronze.

The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult, 2013, Nils-Axel Mörner, Bob Lind    

I knew the Vikings traded from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, but this is far earlier.
And even more remarkable because bronze is an alloy of copper and tin: there were Bronze Age copper mines in the Mediterranean, in Cyprus, Turkey and possibly Crete, but the tin often came from Cornwall in the southwestern UK. Tin from Cornwall alloyed with copper on Cyprus, then shipped north to Sweden. Where great ships are carved into the granite, and the jewellery found in graves has the same quadruple spiral ornamentation as the gravegoods in Mycenaean Greece.

Figure 2 from Mörner and Lind’s paper.

I wonder if you share the sense of wonder I feel when I try to imagine some aspects of the lives of these people. We fly across oceans, we travel across the land at speeds unimaginable to them. And yet their work speaks to us, we try to understand them. We invent and reinvent and tell their stories to ourselves, all of us understanding the importance of the sun.

My first sun horse, gold silk on Japanese cotton on a square for a quilt. There will be many more.


The Hat of Authority

That’s a gripping title if ever I saw one. Thanks to Freyalyn, who named the hat during the ‘Spinning for Weaving’ workshop on Saturday as I put it on to call the class to order. It’s hard to miss, especially as the coins and charms chime as I move.

hatwalkingWearing The Hat in public for the first time, hiking in Derbyshire.

Two previous blog posts tell the story of the fabric of the hat: ‘The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time‘ describes how a highly unsuitable fibre preparation was re-processed to become something far more suitable (if any of the workshop attendees are reading this, note the use of a small cardboard loom-equivalent to establish whether the fabric would full), and ‘A project for the Cotswold.‘ briefly describes how I came to make a hat from it. I didn’t post more because the description became an article for Spin-Off Magazine (Summer 2014, ‘Uzbekistan by Hat’.

The executive summary, in pictures:
I work primarily with handspun singles. To prevent loss of twist, to make the yarn easier to manage and (to some extent) to protect it during the weaving process, the singles may be sized. Here the sized warp is drying on a makeshift stretcher in front of the bathroom radiator. (Workshop people, note that’s a hiking pole and chopstick stretcher, not the broom handle and hoe I use if I have more skeins!)WarpSized

From left to right: the Cotswold warp as it came off the bobbin, after steaming to set the twist, and lastly the dry sized skein.Warp

The hat fabric on the loom: Cotswold warp and handspun ‘Falklands’ (unspecified blend of Romney, merino and similar) weft.Fabric

I chose Falklands for the weft because I wanted to full the fabric, which I did in a hot indigo vat. Here the fabric is drying immediately after dyeing. I agitated it considerably in the vat to aid the fulling; the end result was not entirely even, but very beautiful. Or at least I think so.FabricDyed

Samples of the fabric for my records. Despite the fact it would be difficult to duplicate these handspun yarns (not that I can see any reason to try), the samples are useful records of how the wools and the fabric behaved. Note the tracking (the twill-like diagonal ridges) visible in the finished samples.Samples

I’d never made a hat from fabric. Clearly before I could make a hat I had to make a pattern. Having decided to make a hat inspired by those worn in Uzbekistan, I chose a style that looked as though I might be able wear it in public without dying of embarrassment, and started cutting up bits of paper to work out a pattern.hatplan

My first attempt proved to be a tiny yurt suitable for wearing on my head. But after some adjustments and more waste paper, I tacked together a fabric version to test the size and fit, then untacked it for use in cutting my fabric.TheHatProject.hats

Time passes. A LOT of time passes.

Sheila Paine and many others have written many words about the significance and meaning of folk embroidery. A gift from Sara Lamb, ‘Skullcaps of Uzbekistan‘ proved particularly interesting and useful. Reading and re-reading, I eventually could no longer postpone putting needle into cloth. What to use for the embroidery? Silk, in bright – and significant – colours. Some I dyed and spun for The Hat (it had acquired initial capitals in my thoughts), some were thrums of silks dyed and spun for my tablet-woven bag.embroiderysilks

Research suggests traditional makers usually embroider the hat fabric before the pieces are cut but, as I had never made a fabric hat before and had very little clue about what I was doing, it seemed wisest to make a hat that fit and embroider that. Having used some of the finer silk to sew the hat together, I rapidly discovered that I needed guides for the geometric patterns, hence the lines of white sewing thread.HatAgain1

Each of the patterns has – or is thought to have – a meaning or purpose, generally protective: bringing good fortune, or warding off bad luck and demons. The colours, too, have meaning: in many cultures across the globe red is apotropaic: it wards against evil.

In the photo above, the maze of complex swastikas is a demon trap in the making: entranced by the complexity they wander into the maze and are lost. The mirrors of the shisha embroidery dazzle and confuse any that elude the maze. Above, ram’s horns symbolise strength, courage and protection.

Below, one of my personal favourite symbols, a non-traditional orobouros symbolising infinity and the cycle of life becomes two owl eyes to frighten demons. The mother-of-pearl buttons used for the eyes and the silver coins are traditional embellishments, catching the sun to distract and confuse evil spirits. Hatback

Below, just visible on the left side band are two traditional Uzbek stylised birds. Apparently there is an old belief that if a bird sits on a man’s head it will make him happy (don’t ask, I don’t know). At the front is a sun disk, offering protection from the evil eye and any passing impurity. It is flanked by guardian cats.hatFront

Somewhat distorted by perspective, at the top of the hat is a band of shepherd’s crooks (protective), below which is a band of ‘amulet triangles’. Thought to be based on very, very early depictions of the Goddess, these are protective. Some of mine have diamond-shaped ‘heads’ containing four squares, the shape known as ‘fertile field’ that usually means fertility in the sense of offspring but I’ve used as heads because I’m interested in fertility in the sense of ideas. Tiny gold stars (light to distract demons) and the s-shape that may be a greatly simplified dragon (protective) also appear.  Dangling from the top of the hat are glittering, noisy coins and a miniature silver Maes Howe ‘dragon’.


When I presented my project to the spinning group I found my voice breaking with emotion as I tried to convey how I’d felt as each stitch linked me more closely to the many, many others who for millennia have made clothing to protect those they loved. Writing this I find the same emotion rising again. Think of the work involved in making a garment, even a hat, when women clothed their families in the days before millspun, machine-woven cloth. Gathering the fibre, preparing it, spinning it, weaving it, thinking of the person for whom you’re making it. Saving and bartering for cherished bright silks, shiny coins. Hoping and believing with every stitch that your embroideries are more than embellishment; you are creating a garment that may offer guidance and protection to the person who wears it, a tangible expression of your love and skill.

We’ve lost that. Our lives are so much easier… but we’ve lost something along the way.

Denim jacket yoke leads to a new obsession

I mentioned last June that I’d bought a vintage denim jacket that proved to be in worse condition than I’d thought, so it became an excuse for my first sashiko stitching project. As Wikipedia says, this is traditionally done using white thread on blue fabric, although the truly daring use red thread for decorative effect. I thought it would be interesting to go beyond daring into eccentricity and use the stitch grid as a basis for changing colours. Of course there had to be a skull somewhere too.

This is what it looked like when I showed it to you in June.JeansJacket1

This is what it looks like now.


I am rather pleased with this. The stitching is far from geometric perfection – the old denim has stretched and as a twill fabric it moves – but it has life. I extended the stitching onto the front left shoulder (see the photo at the end of this post) when I realised how thin that fabric was; this wear, taken with the visible wear on the seams on the left side leads me to think that someone who owned this jacket carried a shoulder bag on their left shoulder.

purplecornerThis shows the details but the colours are dark and lifeless thanks to the dim British winter light.

I didn’t plan the colour changes before I began work, just decided I’d move from a relatively pale blue on the left shoulder to purple/red on the top of the right shoulder, and picked colours on the spur of the moment to effect the changes as I stitched from left to right.


I laid out a grid of stitches for the skull. Each grid square contains 6×6 fabric threads and is true to the grain of the fabric. The skull is counted cross-stitch calculated to fit on the area of the internal label, 4 stitches per grid square, worked with a single strand of embroidery floss. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that most people who see it, even local Guild members, assume it’s painted with fabric paint until they look very, very closely. I intended to leave the grid in place as background to the skull – I like organic shapes set in visible opposition to geometry – but the more I looked at it the more the ‘busy-ness’ of the grid+twill lines detracted from the skull. So I cut the threads and pulled the grid out, thread by thread. skullfinished

I confess I find this sadly exciting. I can paint with thread! In January I attended an Opus Anglicanum workshop at Hand & Lock in London. Working from 10am until 4pm with 30 minutes for lunch I managed to cover about 2cm^2 with stitches… but what stitches! The tiny patch of underside couching at bottom left was a revelation (I can live without pearls). opusang

We started with embroidery floss to establish the technique and finished with gold. I loved it. Tiny stitches requiring precision (and magnifying glasses), exactly what I love. Then Helen McCook (the hare, look at the hare in her header!), the tutor, mentioned Or Nue: tiny stitches requiring precision, painting with colour on gold so the density of stitches influences both colour and shine…  I MUST TRY THIS. LOOK AT IT!
I have acquired an Elbesee ‘sit on it’ hoop stand and hoop (that I have to wrap), I’m stitching a cotton square to mask the areas of embroidery I’m not working on. I’ve ordered gold thread for a trial design, a pack each of gold and silver thread for my first real projects. I know what I want to do but I’ve learned patience: I will start by working something very simple to test my understanding of the technique. And before that I must get some paying work done.

If anyone reading this knows what type of transfer paper might have been used to copy what looks like a laser printer image onto the fabric, I’d really like to know. It’s slightly stiffer than the fabric around it, but there’s no thick layer of plastic as I’ve seen on other transfers.

And of course I get to wear my jacket. First rock concert of the year is in May. I will practice using a wallet so my backpack/purse does not obscure and eventually damage it.