OK, so I had to break the rule about not buying stuff. Yes, already. Well, what can you do? I needed more textured/shiny/glittery stuff for my Viking ladies. I like these space-dyed variety threads from Oliver Twists Fibres because you get a little of a lot, and when just a little is all you need, they’re perfect:

They look lovely in that twisty skein, but they’re impossible to use like that. Once you pull one thread out, you tend to end up with a chaotic heap of loveliness that tangles itself up the minute you turn your back on it, as you can see in the white pile on the left. I needed a way of organising the threads, just so that I could see what I’ve got. I have used those little card bobbins in the past, and still have a lot of threads that have been wound like that for many years. Largely, I don’t like them, for this reason:

I don’t like the creases. I like my thread to be smooth and straight. I don’t like that zig-zaggy effect it gets from being permanently pressed like that, and I worry about whether it weakens the thread. So I did a bit of lateral thinking and came up with this:

Plastic drinking straws, cut in half, with a slit cut into each end, make excellent thread bobbins. Who’d have thought it? The bendy end works just as well as the straight end, and very fine threads can be wound onto quarter-lengths. Of course now I want to do this with all my threads, so I’m taking a break while I focus on that.

I may be some time

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The queen’s red dress (2)

Flying past with a quick update: here is the first sample, which I’m imagining as perhaps a section of the hem of the red dress.

Various silk fabrics, with little tassels made from textured yarns. And yes, OK, the Vikings probably didn’t have tiny gold beads, but if they had, they’d have used them on everything. And in any case, this is entirely imaginative and any semblance to realism will probably have got quite out of hand by the time I’ve finished.

And now a collage of glorious red:

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The queen’s red dress (1)

The older of the two women interred in the Oseberg ship was wearing a red dress. She appears to have been important in her community, and, for the purposes of this project, I’m calling her a queen. The first little sample I’m making is a fragment of what might have been the cuff end of the sleeve of her dress. I’ve based the design on one of the Oseberg silk fabrics:

The drawing of the dress is done on watercolour paper and coloured with pencils and watercolour, then cut out so that I can position it somewhere on the finished page. It’s basically the shape of a Viking dress, though it appears to be doubtful that they would have decorated the hem in that way – but then this is a purely imaginative project, so I’m telling myself I can do what I like. It’s only for my amusement, so it doesn’t really matter too much if I go a bit rogue. 

Those little triangles on the design looked like patchwork to me. Scholarly opinion seems to state that the Vikings didn’t do patchwork, given that none has ever been found. This doesn’t seem logical to me. If fabrics were difficult to produce, and some were expensive, it seems obvious (to me, at least) that any Viking woman would sew small bits of fabric together to make something bigger rather than waste them. It’s true that the cutting pattern for dresses generated very little waste (it’s a bit like cutting out kimono, more or less a series of rectangles) but there’s always something left over, in my experience. Anyway, there’s my first major departure from accepted Viking technique. Pretty impressive, really, since I haven’t even started yet. Going back to the design, I thought I’d have a go. I wasn’t sure this would work, given that the triangles are about half a centimetre on their right-angled sides:

(Normal-sized glass-headed pin for scale). The fabrics are fine silk dupion and batik Pima cotton. It took a while, and a bit of concentration, but – well, of course it worked:

And now I’m having a rummage through a little pile of red.

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Oseberg Book One begins

Here’s the plan: two mixed media/cloth books based on the textile finds from the Oseberg ship burial. The first one will be to do with clothing; the second to do with home furnishings, linens, wall hangings, etc.

There is enough evidence to state that the two women buried in the ship were wearing, respectively, a red dress and a blue dress. There was also some sort of veil covering the older woman’s face, and there appears to have been a caftan-type open-fronted coat, with at least one fine shawl plus various other garments. In this first book, I plan to imagine fragments of these clothes. I’m not setting out to recreate anything realistic or full-size; I just want to explore bits of what might have been there, using fabrics and techniques that a Viking woman might broadly recognise.

The pages of these books will be a little larger than Excavations, at about 11″ square (ish). The front cover, barely begun, shows the spiral-headed prow of the ship, couched in brown wool. I didn’t have enough dark brown fabric so I had to improvise. I’m intending to complete this series with whatever I already have in because I don’t want to buy more stuff. Let’s see how far I get with that.

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The end of Excavations

I mentioned a while ago that I’d had to rethink the way I was going to attach the pages of this mixed media book, since they are all 8″ square and so don’t have any kind of gutter or margin along the bound edge. There are a few ways of fixing this, one of which is to simply leave all the pages loose, and keep them together in some sort of wallet-type-thing. I decided, however, that I did want the pages to turn, so I added a strip of denim layered with a strip of felt between each pair of pages:

You can see the pen marks that show where they’ll be sewn together. The easiest way of marking where the binding stitches will go is to use a strip of masking tape, with holes punched along its length for a pen to poke through. The tape can then be easily removed and repositioned for all the signatures. The layer of felt is to add bulk in the binding margin so that the spine isn’t so tight that the pages fan out.

Once I’d stitched through the marks with some strong linen thread, it was pretty much finished. I thought about making some wrapped cords to tie the whole outer case together, but then I found a strip of openweave that was already exactly the right width and length, so I went with the serendipity and used that.

The thing holding it all together is a brooch pin blank, wrapped in thread, with beads suspended through the three holes in the brooch pin.

And there it is, finished. I started this project in April, so it’s been around four months in the making. Most of that time was spent thinking, and this is probably true of most art forms: most works of art (and I mean art in all its forms, like writing, music, drama, visual art, sculpture, textiles, etc) are probably something like 80% thinking and 20% doing.

Now I’m going to be thinking about the second (and third) mixed media books in this series, which will be based on the textile fragments found in the Oseberg ship burial. Endings and beginnings; so often part of the same thing.

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Nearly a wrap

Just now working on the outer cover for Excavations, my interpretation of found fragments of Viking textiles.

It’s basically just strips of fabric and couched yarns on a base of hand-dyed calico. It’s a good way of using up those short lengths and narrow widths that you find in your scraps collection. I decided on this wrap-around cover to further emphasise the ‘uncovering’ element that inspired this collection. Whereas you would just open a book, with this arrangement you have to flip out the right-hand wrap and then open the cover on the left. It will all become much clearer when the pages are in position.

It always amazes me how very simple stitches used as mark-making can be so expressive, and I now find that I only want to use really simple, irregular stitches rather than very neat, even rows of proficient stitching.

Next week I hope this will be finished, and that the pages can finally be stitched into the cover.

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End papers (2)

And the inside back cover:

Again, the base is dark green Aida (thank you again, Mo), stitched very simply into an unmeasured nine-patch formation – a few straight stitches over a narrow ribbon yarn, with little scraps of treasure stitched into each space. I’m thinking ‘finds’ for this little sample, arranging small-scale mystery objects on a background. The outline you can see marked with tacking thread is the eight-inch square boundary where it will be matched up with the outer cover, when I get round to dealing with that.

It’s at times like these that I feel very pleased with myself for having kept 1″ square bits of linen and lace 🙂

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End papers (1)

Inner front cover:

It’s not based on anything at all, really. It’s meant to be an exploration of how it might feel to uncover layers of ancient textile and finding treasure that has been buried for a long time.

I started with a piece of black Aida (thank you, Mo), which makes a good base for this kind of layering because it’s quite firm and yet is easy to stitch on. I added a bit of very ornate black lace fabric that is studded all over with little gold globules of something – I’m not sure what, exactly. It’s quite opulent, and a little goes a long way. Nothing subtle about it! Over that I layered a bit of denim from the knee of my husband’s discarded Levis, which already conveniently had a large hole in it. Goodness knows how he does that to jeans, especially given that stitching Levis denim by hand is a lot like stitching cardboard. Tough fabric. Anyway, I layered another narrow strip of the ornate lace diagonally across the square and covered the whole thing with a piece of hand-dyed silk organza.

I also layered a piece of very sheer chiffon over the hole in the denim, again to slightly knock back the in-your-faceness of the gold-patterned lace, and also to suggest the uncovering of something precious. I added some bits of metallic viscose chainette under the corners of the organza and fixed these in place by scattering some seeding stitches around the edges.

I really like the combination of these very different fabrics – the tough/strong denim and Aida somehow seem to work quite well with the sheerness and fragility of the chiffon and organza. I’ve begun work on the inner back cover, which I hope to post next week.

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More Oseberg embroidery

When I first came across this design, taken from embroidery found in the Oseberg ship burial, I thought of couched lines and fly stitch.

First, of course, I had to transcribe it and somehow get it onto fabric. Easier said than done. I tried copying the drawing – several times – each attempt so epic a fail that I didn’t take time to photograph the efforts. Viking design is often extremely complex, and this one particularly so. In the end I resorted to squaring it up and transferring the lines one square at a time:

Still not that easy! I traced the basic design onto tissue paper, then pinned that over cotton fabric stretched in an embroidery hoop. I found that if you go over the traced lines with a permanent marker pen, the ink soaks straight through the tissue and appears on the fabric. Since I knew that the whole surface would eventually be covered by stitch, it didn’t matter that there were ugly black lines all over the fabric. Goodness knows how the Vikings did it.

Eventually, and after a reasonable amount of effort and concentration, it was ready to stitch. I used mostly space-dyed cotton embroidery threads for the spiral, with spun silk thread in the chain-stitched leaf motif, and 4-ply cotton yarn for the terracotta background couching.

Once the stitching was complete, I could cut the design area out (to help it look more like a fragment of found embroidery) and stitch it to a paper background.

I confess I was glad when this final page in this first series was finished. Now I’m thinking about how to put it all together. 

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I noted in my working sketchbook that currently around five excavation sites have yielded fragments of Viking-age embroidery.

This one, from Gokstad, seems to be worked in something like chain stitch. I’m not sure what size it would have been. My reworking of it is about 2″ or so in diameter.

The page is 8″ square, like all the others in this series. The embroidery is worked in space-dyed cotton thread on Pima cotton fabric, which is very crisp with a tight weave. The fragment is attached to the layered paper background with the little brads you can get for card-making, and reinforced by a few overcast and running stitches.

I didn’t intend the background to look a bit like a map, but I quite like the effect.

I think there’s only one more page to complete after this one, and then it will be ready to assemble into book form. When you embark on a cloth book project, you need to think about how you’re going to put it all together before you start. This is so that you can plan for a wider margin on the side that pages will be bound, or so you can at least plan where the holes will be when you stitch the pages together. I was going to just tie the pages together through holes on the left-hand side, with loose 8″ square covers front and back. Now I’m thinking of a slightly different way, which will involve a bit of a re-think. Should have had a Plan B from the start!

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