Ragged embroidery

The Oseberg ship burial is the best source found so far for showing what we know about Viking textiles, and in the future I plan to make two entire mixed media books based purely on the finds from Oseberg. For this collection, though, loosely titled ‘excavations’, this little fragment is perfect. As usual, I collected prints of the source material in my sketchbook:

It’s very beautiful in itself, and I really wanted to preserve that fragile delicacy of stitch.

I first painted and layered some papers to form a background. That very light, lacy paper is ideal. I worked the little bits of embroidery on some lightweight linen covered with hand-dyed cotton scrim, and then stretched it on an embroidery frame. I drew the embroidery motifs onto very fine tissue paper and pinned it over the layered fabric. Of course, I should have taken pictures of this bit, but got so engrossed that I forgot. Next time I use this technique I’ll try to remember 🙂

The stitches are satin stitch and chain stitch, worked over the tissue paper drawing, then the tissue paper was torn away (with very fine tweezers) after the stitching was complete. I used a hand-dyed silk noil thread for the stitching. Once all the motifs were worked over separate areas of the layered fabric, I cut away the linen from the underside, leaving more scrim around the edges than linen. You can probably see the edge of the linen through the scrim if you zoom or enlarge. I could then stitch the scrim to the paper backing.

And the finished page, 8″ square:

                                                                                         Possibly my favourite so far.

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Still on the subject of Mammen, one of the other discoveries there was a pair of decorated bands. They appear to be a combination of embroidery, appliqué and tablet weaving, and would probably have been used to embellish a garment of some sort.

You can see from my notes that I initially intended the central filled area to be some kind of needle weaving, rendered in something like ceylon stitch, which is what it looks like to me. That seemed like a sensible idea in theory. In practice, I realised that the stitches would have to be really tiny in order to maintain the right sense of scale, and that I would have to spend much more time on it than I was prepared to set aside. In the end I decided to interpret it slightly more simply, as a collection of couched threads and ribbons.

While it’s not quite as beautiful or delicate as the Viking version, I’ve tried to preserve some of the main features. The vertical threads are couched onto a piece of very fine silk muslin, with silk sari yarn couched along the edges. 

This panel is then stitched onto a piece of distressed linen (I scratched it with the point of some sharp scissors, wincing and apologising profusely throughout) and then stitched that onto some open weave cotton fabric with a small buttonhole stitch. The backing is textured handmade paper.

I applied a piece of tablet woven braid along the bottom of the sample – one of my very early attempts, using 2-ply wool yarn – and a piece of vintage lingerie strapping, to represent the original horizontal bands.

The samples for this first book are deliberately being worked fairly quickly and intuitively because I intend them to look – on the surface, at least – incomplete. The idea of digging up something from the past is one that I find particularly intriguing, and I’m really interested in what time does to tangible objects and to intangible memories. Remembering past experiences often illuminates that same kind of incompleteness, where the visual memory of the experience itself is somewhat ragged around the edges, but the feeling that comes with it is often powerful enough to produce a very real physical effect.

It’s never just stitches on cloth, is it?

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Half a Creature

In Mammen, Denmark, a Viking burial was unearthed by a farmer in 1868. The burial dated to around 970 and featured a man dressed in an elaborately embroidered tunic. The textiles in the grave showed evidence of fine needlework and a very strong sense of design. I collected some copies of the designs in my sketch book:

 I found the fragment of creature – I presume it’s some kind of leopard – particularly fascinating. You can see that I had a rudimentary go at reconstructing it. Actually, on reflection, I preferred the incomplete version. This current project is mostly about collecting and re-imagining fragments, so half a creature seemed more fitting somehow.

This is the same size as the other pages so far (8″ square) and is made by layering medium weight linen fabric, open weave cotton and handmade paper on a paper base. I stained the paper with some ink and watercolour to knock back the whiteness of the paper. The creature is worked in the same stitch used on the Mammen fragment, which is either stem stitch or outline stitch, depending on the direction of the line.  I used stranded cotton embroidery threads for this one and followed the colours of the original. I see that the belly stripe on my creature is rather thicker than on the drawing, but I’m not too bothered about that. I’m not trying to copy appearances exactly here, but rather to get the feeling of the thing.

I really like the way dress net works in these situations. You can layer a single ragged strip over something and it creates a very slightly darker tone that suggests something like a shadow, a bit like a watercolour wash:



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Viking appliqué 

A textile fragment was found in Lund that appears to consist of narrow strips of fabric stitched onto a ground of red silk:

It measures approximately 13 cm x 5 cm and is widely (and incorrectly, as far as I can tell) referred to as ’embroidery’. The thin strips of golden yellow appear to be actually turned edge appliqué, and the fragment is believed to have been part of a garment.

It’s a relatively easy thing to reproduce, and an interesting exercise in surface decoration.

The background is a modern dupion silk woven with fine stripes; the applied strips are taken from a fragment of very old silk that I was once lucky enough to find on that well-known online auction site. The antique silk dates to (I believe) the late 18th century, and you can still see evidence of a gold thread that runs through it. Despite its age, it’s robust enough to use, and of course it was perfect for this exercise.

Although I’ve chosen to reproduce the colours as they appear to be, I’m not necessarily convinced that the strips would originally have been yellow. Time and environment work on fabric dyes in a peculiar way. I know that the Vikings would have had to dye twice to get green – they would dye the fabric yellow first, then over-dye with blue. My feeling is that these strips could have been green, and that the second dye has worn away to reveal the original dye beneath. I know it hasn’t been exposed to light during its approximate millennium in the earth, but the acids and chemicals in soil might well have some effect on dye structures. Not that I have any kind of chemical knowledge or expertise, but it strikes me that this is possible. I’m thinking in terms of perfume, with its top notes and base notes, and I feel that colour perhaps works in a similar way.

I’ve nestled the little appliqué fragment on a layered ground of hand-dyed silk gauze, silk chiffon, and cotton open weave fabric. The tacking stitches you can see around the edges are a first tentative step in trying a couple of pages back to back, to see how they will look when I bind them into a cloth book at the end.

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Square stitches

Still on the subject of Oseberg and its textiles, I transcribed one of the designs into my working sketch book.

You can probably see that it was difficult to get it right. I tried it on graph paper, just to try and understand the angles and lines better.

Since the design was now squared up, as it were, the simplest way to make it work as a stitched sample was to do it in needlepoint on canvas.

I used hand-dyed 4-ply cotton yarn on 14 count mono canvas. I turned the canvas through 45 degrees so that when it was finished, the stitches would be upright rather than slanting as they would in half-cross stitch or tent stitch.

As with the other pages in this series, this is roughly 8″ square. I stitched the completed needlepoint sample onto sturdy hand-made paper, then covered the unstitched edges of the canvas by layering strips of fabric, scrim and yarn to form a border around the sample. I want this first mixed media book to contain a wide range of techniques as well as designs, and while I wouldn’t ordinarily do a huge amount of counted or charted stitch, I think this is probably a reasonable method for exploring this particular design.

I really like the way hand-dyed cotton scrim works in these experimental situations. It’s perfect for this project because of its loose, ragged/frayed quality. I don’t want anything that looks too polished here, because this first book is all about the excavation of something that has been underground for a long time. I’m aiming for the impression of something that has been brought into the light after a long sleep.

As you can see, all of the surrounding stitches in this sample are worked very simply and informally across the surface. The blue and white strips around the edge are actually a narrow strip of selvedge cut from a vintage checked fabric that’s been in the drawer for many years, and which happily turned out to echo the squareness of the canvas stitches. I wonder how much safer we’d all feel if the world’s people could agree to live side by side so peacefully as fabrics.

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Samite silk

One of the best sources for Viking textiles is the Oseberg ship burial, which dates to around 834 AD. Two women were given a splendid burial in a purpose-built chamber on a ship, which was then interred. The grave appears to have been robbed in antiquity, so most of the women’s jewellery is missing. The textiles, however, remained largely undisturbed, and there is evidence for clothing, bedlinen, and decorative tapestry/embroidery, with some truly astonishing fabrics.

Some fragments of fabric appear to be samite silk, of varying qualities, and probably from Byzantium or Central Asia. Samite silk is made with a complex twill weave, and some of the Oseberg silks were catalogued and sketched by Sofie Krafft in the early 20th century. I collected a few in my sketchbook and had a go at reproducing some of the patterns.

I can totally vouch for the complexity of these designs. I needed the rubber much more often than the pencil!

I wanted to create a double page spread in the mixed media book, since there were so many fragments of patterned silk, and I wanted to preserve that feeling of tiny scraps of precious fabric. I didn’t want to embroider the designs on fabric because I felt that it wouldn’t have looked quite right. I also wanted something that felt a bit more ‘found’ than contrived. I found, after some experimentation, that I could draw the designs on a small piece of silk taffeta with a fine pen, and that I could also use coloured pencils on the fabric. Silk taffeta is very strong and smooth, so it takes colour and line quite well.

I’ve roughly stitched the samples onto a background of hand-dyed open weave cotton fabric, with small bits of scrim, paper, and silk sari yarn to suggest the edges of something eaten away by time.

Since I’m using the pages of this first book mainly to collect design elements and patterns, I’m already thinking ahead to how I might use some of the motifs in these fabrics in later works.

I have big plans for later books, but for now I’m really enjoying this one.

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After our annual visit to the Jorvik Viking Festival in February, I found myself increasingly fascinated by Viking culture, and specifically with Viking textiles and sewing techniques. I made myself a Viking costume – linen under-dress, linen long-sleeved over-dress, and the characteristic Viking apron dress (photos to follow, when I have the time to gather it all together, put it on and be photographed wearing it). Making clothes entirely by hand is absorbing, and actually doesn’t take that much longer than sewing by machine.

I became really interested in how textiles were made and used in tenth-century Europe, and I started to look for evidence of fabrics in the various Viking burials that have already been explored in Sweden and Norway. The main problem, of course, with fabrics is that they generally fail to survive long periods buried underground. Linen, in particular, tends to rot down to nothing relatively quickly – not surprising, given that it starts life as a plant in the first place.

Then I found that there are a handful of sites – notably Mammen (Denmark) and Oseberg (Norway), plus a few others – where not only fabrics have been preserved, but also examples of embroidery, appliqué and other techniques. Textiles are central to any culture – we all handle them every day, and we use them to convey various cultural messages about status, individuality and community.

I wondered how I would interpret these fragments of cultural messages, if I were to stitch something similar to the shreds of decorated fabrics that have been uncovered by archaeologists. So I’m planning to make four mixed-media books: one based on excavations; one based on reconstruction; and two based on the Oseberg ship burial, looking at clothing in the first, and home furnishings in the second.

I’ve begun work on the first one, interpreting the fragments of fabrics that have been uncovered. I’m collecting images, drawings and photocopies in a sketchbook, and then taking single examples to work up into 8″ square pages using fabric, thread, paint and paper. The first sample page I’m showing here is based on a fragment of braid found in Birka:

And my interpretation of it:

The base is hand-made paper, with fabrics layered, stitched and painted to convey the impression of something buried. The braid is made from hand-dyed silk yarn, with a little gold paint brushed over the surface. I thought I would have to use some sort of stabiliser (Vilene or similar) before sewing on  the paper, but it’s surprisingly robust, and soft enough to stitch quite heavily without any need for support.

I added little stone chips and beads to suggest the stones and grit in the earth that would have held the braid. Strange to think that something so fragile could survive burial for so long, and that it would one day look again on daylight.

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Picking up the threads

I’m beginning to feel nearly ready to pick up where I left off, though not quite in the same way. Having completed my PhD, I’m now returning to full-time work. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this, having organised my own time for so many years. The main benefit, of course, is a reliable income, which is something I haven’t had for over a decade. The other benefit, I’ve decided, is that I can continue to stitch in my own time, at my own pace, without the pressure to promote and/or sell.

excavations 1

I didn’t expect to ever come back to the blog, but I’ve learned that life bombards you with surprises most of the time.

I’ve been collecting a few thoughts, and stitching them down before they can run away.

oseberg 1

Watch this space.

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500 and out

I did promise something spectacular for my 500th post, and here it is:

Not quite what you were expecting.

I’ve been quietly making some spectacular changes to my life. During my blog break in June/July I researched, wrote and submitted an application to study for a PhD in English, and have recently received confirmation that my application was successful.

This means that from September I’ll be a full-time student for the next three years. At my age that does sound faintly ridiculous, but there it is.  Clearly, a PhD is going to involve quite a lot of work – 100,000 words and a bibliography the length of a football pitch. I aim to give it my full and undivided attention, which means that I’m withdrawing from my online and blog-related activities.

Writing a blog takes a surprising amount of time and effort, as those of you who maintain blogs will know. Keeping up with the blog circuit also takes a lot of time and effort.  Art doesn’t pay enough; at least, not in my case.  Admittedly, gaining a further qualification also isn’t going to pay the bills, in the short term, but in the longer term at least it has some reliable earning potential. I hope that this period of study might lead eventually to further work in research, publishing or undergraduate teaching.

Obviously I will continue to stitch in whatever spare time I end up having, but only for my own amusement. I’ve already closed my flickr account and will be making a decision about my facebook page in the coming weeks.  I still have a few pieces of work for sale here on the blog (see the tab at the top of this page). I have course fees to pay, and, frankly, I need the money.

So, there it is – my 500th post is also my last, at least for a while.

It’s been a lot of fun: I’ve met some incredible people from all over the world, some of whom have become real, true friends and will (I hope!) remain such. Most of you have made me laugh at some point; all of you have made me think. It’s been good to show my work here, and to write about it, and to read your thoughts about it. It’s been very satisfying to know that my work lives with some of you in your homes; little stitches on cloth witnessing the passing of time, the living of different lives.

But mostly it’s been good to travel with you on this brief passage through my life – your life, our lives – and I thank you you for it.

This is it!

Thank you.


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Well, I can’t carry on calling it Beardie Quilt, can I? And every artist, at some point in their life, produces something called ‘Untitled’.

It turned out all right in the end. I like the back, too:

I’ve added this to the ‘work for sale’ tab at the top of this page.

WordPress informs me that this is my 499th post.

Better start working on something spectacular for the 500th!

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