The relaxing, fun part of working with an embellisher is the "frolicking in the fabrics" mode that naturally occurs. This is not the 'Sewing' that I learned in 8th grade home ec. It is instead a very left-brained smooshing fabric and fiber around just for the fun of experimenting. But, after awhile, my art history background and fascination with figurative work starts to creep in. The Embellisher seems very painterly, and I am wanting to see how that can be translated into fibers being pounded together.
This piece is a work in progress.. send thoughts, ideas and inspirations.
Last year at an antiques auction, I saw a footstool with circular wool patterns on it. I had to leave before the bidding for that item, but it has lingered in my mind. From my research, I have discovered that these are called 'penny rugs', though they are neither the traditional floor rugs, nor use pennies. One definition of the object: "Penny rugs are not actual rugs for the floor, but decorative coverings for beds, tables and mantles. They were even used as wall hangings. They seemed to have started around the time of the civil war in the United States. They are made out of felted wool scraps that are appliquéd with a blanket stitch to a wool background. Some designs feature circles (or pennies). Coins such as pennies were used as templates for the circle appliqués, thus the name penny rug." The current state of this craft is somewhat sad. Through the marketing efforts of craft suppliers, it would seem that 'penny rug' has come to mean any felt decorative object that is intended to lie flat. ick.
Rug Collector, R. John Howe has some wonderful illustrations of penny rugs, and an illustrated explanation of the process: "Here is, roughly speaking, how Penny rugs are made. First one selects some wool felt in various colors for the circles (the “pennies”). One then cuts circles from the felt in three sizes and sews the smaller ones (in a concentric way) onto the larger ones, being careful to combine colors attractively.
Finally, one sews the larger felt circles onto a cotton or linen backing, again arranging colors in ways that seem pleasing. The rows of circles are usually alternated with each subsequent row positioned in between the previous one."
A bit more information on the history of the penny rug: "In the 1800s, women would use scraps of wool or wool felt from old clothing and hats to create designs for mats or rugs. They would make circles using coins as a template. Each piece was then stitched in blanket stitch fashion. Sometimes, the mats or rugs were backed with old burlap bags or feed sacks. And to make the piece lie flat, a penny was stitched under one of the circles to weigh it down. Coins were so valuable then, that in today's world, if you are fortunate to find an antique piece containing one, you would have a very rare piece. Nineteenth century women were very creative and not wasteful. Thinking back to my own amazing grandmother, she was able to work her nimble fingers to the fullest whether in the kitchen or in the sewing room. How blessed I feel to have inherited her talents!"
Paula Scaffidi is the woman who introduced many of us in the South to the Babylock embellisher and machine needle felting. Fiberella.com is Paula's new web presence. There is a wealth of resources on the site, making it the perfect place for novice and more experienced user (these machines are pretty new - how experienced is anyone?) There will soon be a forum to discuss needle felting and embellishing issues.
A good starting place is the FAQ page (Frequently Asked Questions) Paula was an art instructor for over 20 years and it shows in the clarity of her information. Some of the opening questions discuss the differences between the Babylock, Bernina and Brother machines and component parts: "How machine needle felting works is mostly about the needles. The needles on BabyLock's Embellisher, Bernina's Punching attachment and the Brother attachment are all designed to basically do the same thing. The have little barbs or hooks with soft shoulders above the hooks (I think of the tiny hooks on a crab's leg). As these needles travel down through layers of fiber, fabric, yarn, etc., they pull fiber from the top layer(s) and move some of this material down through, underneath the bottom layer."
Best of all, there is a complete tutorial on site, presented in a variety of ways. The completed object is a felted leaf that can be added to scarves, landscapes or other fiber pieces. The Techniques page, shows a variety of leaves; a link to Resources has full directions for the leaf (.pdf format). For visual learners, there are four short videos that show Paula creating a leaf on the Embellisher.
Image above is Old Stream , a purse featured in Paula's gallery.
Lynne Heller is a Canadian artist using of a combination of traditional quilting and digital images to create an art experience that is evocative and haunting. A few excerpts from the press release for her 2001 show, Found at 13 Moons Gallery in Santa Fe:
"Toronto textile artist Lynne Heller is at the crossroads of three cultures, digital technology and traditional sewing in her new exhibition of quilts based on Swedish oral histories. Heller brings a contemporary Canadian interpretation to 19th century tales about quilts made by Swedish women who returned from immigrating to America, bringing the New World quilting tradition with them...
...The Found group is based on a collection of stories about 19th century quilts by Swedish immigrants to America who returned home. They brought the techniques of quilting with them and transformed them using their own designs. Heller starts with wide borders, a unique characteristic of Swedish quilts, and abundantly layers lace, wool, silk, printed fabrics, organza, transparent, and quasi-transparent materials using a variety of stitching techniques. Each quilt takes its title from a poignant phrase in the stories about the particular original Swedish quilt that inspired the contemporary work of art. "When I read phrases like 'There had been order in this house' or 'Under an old piece of brown paper' or "One for a year, until she died,' I immediately had a sense of what the final piece would feel like even thought I had no idea what it might look like" said Heller. 'Most of the references to the Swedish quilts are more in tone and sympathy rather than any formal resemblance," she said.'"
The artwork to the right, '...and I have plenty to do...' (2000, 72" x 48") was inspired by this story: "Rivas, March 15, 1891
"The letters must be taking a terribly long time. I don't think mail is sent off to Europe more than twice a month from here. Thought at least that you would get my letter by Christmastime.
Now we know that the postal service is late so we must try to stay calm on both sides if we don't get letters as quickly as we wish.
"We still here in the same place as when I last wrote and I have plenty to do. A lot of starched shirts are worn here, and as the pay for a well-ironed shirt is quite good, I have started to do the ironing for certain people. For one shirt with collar and cuffs I get up to 25 cents, in Swedish money, 75 ore. When I have finished ironing one shirt I have paid for the day 's food. On account of the heat, I don't have the strength to do a lot of ironing but it still helps out. There is no one here who knows how to iron and now the whole town is curious to find out how I do it and I take all precautions so they won't steal the art from me as I would then lose my earnings. Then I only wish I had a Swedish girl here to help me.
Matagalpa, May 17, 1891"
Heller's recent work is more conceptual than the Found exhibit, yet it continues to explore the relationships of women within their world and their work. She describes the growth in her artistic vision: "The trajectory leading to my current focus started with a solely formal attention to quilts and considerations of structure and material. Making quilts over many years led to a specific concern with functional, heritage quilts. I became intrigued with the lives of the makers and the stories embedded in their work. It is through that interest in the people behind the objects that I have begun to work with sound, image and communication technologies—addressing the disconnect between our hopes and desires versus the concrete manifestations of those needs."
Punch Needle embroidery (or Bunka) seems to be creeping back into favor, after decades of disgrace from its visual abuse in the 1960s and 70s. Needle punch is an old Russian technique, which uses embroidery floss in a continuous feed system to create looped surface images. Rissa Peace offers this description of punch needle embroidery, "Punch Needle Embroidery is often referred to as thread painting, since it can be used to depict very complex scenes, not unlike an oil painting. This technique and its variants are know as Punch, Punch Embroidery, Punch Needle Embroidery, Russian Embroidery and Bunka (the Japanese variation). These terms are not universally interchangeable, but they use the same tool, a punch needle. The basic concept is pretty simple, yarn is punched through a fabric with a hollow pencil shaped needle and leaves tufted loops yarn on top of the fabric. You can create intricate, durable images out of the pile. The actual technique is more closely related to rug-hooking than embroidery, but the application and end product are better described as embroideries than rugs." Rissa provides a list of resources as well as an introduction to the craft of punch needlework.
The best illustrated directions that I could find online are from Amherst Antiques. They have images of the needles, threading directions, pattern transfer and 'Working the Design', as well as online patterns for beginning projects. Their emphasis at this site is on rug hooking though; the pieces tend to use wool and look like miniature rugs.
Libby Magnello has a page of needle punch work that she has integrated into her crazy quilts.
As I have mentioned before, to my mind, Missy Stevens remains the unrivaled artist in contemporary punch needle embroidery. Stevens created the artwork to the left, "Sanctuary,", 9" wide X 13-1/4" tall.
"Anni approached textiles almost like a sculptor. She was of the opinion that "the thread should speak for itself, that somehow the hand of the artist, the hand of the craftsperson, the hand of the weaver wasn't going to interfere with how the thread wanted to be seen," says Matilda McQuaid, a Cooper-Hewitt curator. So significant were Anni's contributions that in 1949 she became the first woman textile artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Interestingly, Anni had not wanted to take up weaving. As progressive as the Bauhaus was, its directors still had limited ideas of what women could do. But once herded into the textile workshop, Anni eventually took the process to new heights. She was known for experimenting with the new materials - combining more traditional linen and cotton with metallic and plastic fibers." from The first couple of modern design
Josef and Anni Albers were Bauhaus thinkers and designers, creating Europe's new world vision, based on the promise that high quality design of everyday objects could improve the lives of every person. These aspirations led the Albers to become refugees from the Nazis in Germany, to flee to New York. They were allowed to follow their vision as some of the fist professors at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A decade after Anni ALbers' death, she is the subject of a retrospective at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.
image: Anni Albers. Design for Wall Hanging. 1926. © The Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation
Ray Materson is an ex-con who embroiders tiny works with shiny fibers unraveled from socks. To learn more about Materson's work, listen to this interview with Materson on NPR. The NPR quick summary of Materson's life reads, "Ray Materson taught himself to embroider while in prison, where he was serving a 15-year sentence for drug-related offenses. By fashioning a hoop from a Rubbermaid top and salvaging threads from old socks, Materson was able to create intricate, multi-colored scenes depicting everything from prison life to football emblems to romantic sunsets. These scenes are only 2-by-2 inches, with 1200 stitches per square inch."
If you want more details still, Materson's story is told and illustrated in a book, Sins and Needles.
The Diane Rehm Show offers a one hour interview and book discussion with Materson. The emphasis in this interview is on overcoming addictions through art as well on the art itself.
"Creativity is part of our very makeup," he says. A failure to nurture or encourage the creative urge, he believes, can lead to crimes against others and oneself, such as drug addiction and alcoholism."
I apologize for the long silence. It was the holidays. I went to DC and Baltimore and had a wonderful time! The most fun was to be had at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. I have been hearing about this place for years, but nothing prepared me for the sheer delight enclosed in this museum. I have never laughed so much in a museum before. There were also many thought-provoking and heart-rending pieces - as well as pieces that were just purely astonishing.
The Baltimore Sun describes the variety of the work, "..the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) has been designated by Congress as America's national museum and educational center for self-taught art. The AVAM's working philosophy is that while anyone can create art, only a small reserve of those creators are visionary. Many of the self-taught artists are farmers and other rural inhabitants who choose not to mix much with society. Painting is a part of the self-taught artist's medium, but many use materials such as matches, glue, paper plates, crayons, metals, machinery parts and even unraveled thread from wash cloths."
I missed seeing works from the rotating permanent collection by Chapel Hill artist/hero Clyde Jones as well as the embroideries by Myrellen. Baltimore Sun on Myrellen's work, "One of my favorites, housed in the permanent collection, is a jacket titled "Myrellen's Coat." Myrellen used bed sheets and threads from rags to embroider while she was institutionalized. The stitches tell her life story, visually and verbally. Years later, Myrellen received new drug treatments and electro-convulsive therapy and denied she had ever constructed the garment."
The Esther Project by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz is a travelling embroidery show at the American Visionary Museum. The project consists of 36 large scale embroideries depicting the holocaust experiences of Esther. Esther Project Website describes the works, "In October 1942, after living under Nazi occupation for 3 years, the Jews of the village of Mniszek were ordered to report to the nearby train station. The 15-year old Esther decided she would not go but would instead take her 13-year old sister Mania and look for work among Polish farmers. Turned away by Polish friends and neighbors, the sisters assumed new names and evaded the Gestapo, pretending to be Catholic farm girls. They never saw their family again."
At the Visionary Art Museum, these works are all hung in close quarters within a single room. My initial impression was "ho hum." Esther began these works in 1977, at the age of 50. To be frank, the art suffers from the style of that time. There is way too much cloying calico print, cutesy 3 dimensional pigtails and shag roofing - that was at first glance. After a superficial look, I began to read the narrative stitched at the bottom of each piece. It was then that the art superseded the stylistic limitations. The coziness of the images belie the harsh, heart rending story that is told. The image to the right, No. 24 We Find No Refuge, carries the following lines: "October 30, 1942. After dark, we went to the house of our former neighbor, Zebina. As her daughters, our friends, watched, she told us we had to leave because the Gestapo were looking for Jews. In the darkest night, we headed for the woods but stumbled into a pile of debris where we spent the night."
The Esther Project website gallery has the full set of images on line with accompanying captions. Take a few minutes to look at the images and read the captions. It will be time well spent.
image: No. 24 We Find No Refuge by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. © Art and Remembrance Inc. 2004