The thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

—excerpt from “Hope” is the thing with feathers – by Emily Dickinson


It started with single strokes of ink on small squares of watercolor paper…trying different brushes out to see which ones made good feathers in one swoop. Got some nice shapes…lovely puddles of gathering color.

Then: what if I stitch the barbs (using feather stitch, naturally) with thread to form the vane?

Encouraged by this, I tried the process out on small stretched canvases, adding some shading to the original ink stroke with acrylic paints and a rigger brush. The central calamus and rachis was worked in stem stitch. The thread is a variegated DMC coton a broder.
Nice, but the feather stitch was hard to keep neat over so wide an area, so eventually I abandoned the feather stitch altogether, and just used straight stitches to work the barbs. Alternated between long and short straight stitches, as well as between coton a broder and a synthetic iridescent thread.
I first got the idea to embroider on top of painted, stretched canvases when I was 18 or so. Never finished the huge tree of life that I started then, but the idea of over-stitching a painting has been with me a long time. I dug the idea up again in 2009 when I added cross-stitched roses to my oil painting of a 19th century Filipina in traditional dress for my exhibit Encarnación.
I’m very fond of this stitch-and-painting mashup technique, and think I might be using it more often from now on, because it gives a dimension of texture and structure to a painting that I haven’t been able to get from using paint alone.

P.S. The feather paintings/embroideries are for a series that I’m putting into the TactileARTS (The Crafts Council of the Northern Territory) Members’ exhibiton this April. The theme is Birds.


Embroidery: the tear-away transfer method


A very old, traditional way of transferring an embroidery design to fabric is by drawing the design on very fragile paper, basting it to the ground fabric, and then stitching the design with a running stitch through both paper and fabric. When the whole design has been outlined, the paper is gently torn away. This isn’t a how-to, by the way…it’s probably more like a how-not-to.

I tried this method the other day. I don’t know why I did—I already have my preferred technique for transferring a design to fabric that is clean, precise, and reliable—but I guess it all boils down to laziness and impatience. Didn’t feel like tracing the design to interfacing that night, didn’t feel like reversing the drawing, either. I just wanted to start stitching right away, so I plunked the drawing (of my camera) on top of some brown linen, and basted it down.

I’m not disparaging this method…it’s been used for centuries by some of the greatest embroidering cultures of the world (Chinese, Japanese, Indian) so it obviously works, and that it proves a little difficult is more likely the fault of the practitioner than the method.

The design moved a bit as I stitched…I found that by stitching down a large part on one side of the design, the paper would warp a bit between the stitched and unstitched parts. Very possibly because of the poor basting job I did!

Sometimes, a very short stitch would tear the bit of paper underneath it, so that the stitch would disappear beneath the paper, and often I couldn’t tell whether I’d stitched that part or not, and so had to push the paper aside with the tip of the needle to see whether there already was a stitch there.

I used a backstitch, rather than a running stitch, and found that because I couldn’t actually see the fabric, my lines weren’t always straight, my stitches didn’t always line up end-to-end. This little bit of crookedness didn’t bother me for most of the design, but for the little letters at the top of the camera, little gaps and crooked stitches did matter…

None of which compared with the annoyance of removing the paper, afterward. I didn’t mind the slow job of gently tearing paper away in small pieces, or having to pick dandruff-like fragments that were stuck underneath the stitches with a pair of tweezers. What really bugged me was how, no matter how gently one worked, the job of pulling the paper bits out would sometimes yank on the stitching, loosening it and creating loopy bits of thread…in some cases, when the part pulled on was the end of a thread, the bitter end would come popping up to the surface of the fabric—after I had so carefully woven these loose ends into the stitches on the back of the fabric, because I don’t use knots.


It came out all right in the end, I won’t have to repeat the whole thing, though I must say the thread looked a bit scruffy and fluffy after all that, and the lines have a slight jitter to them, and some of the stitches are so loose that from the side they look like terry cloth. 😉 Not really, but you know what I mean. And I don’t know if it really allowed me to start embroidering sooner…I was still picking bits of paper out with a pair of tweezers this morning.

The verdict? It works, and in a pinch (in a granite hut, in a remote rural area of Szechuan Province, during the Warring States Period) it’ll do the job admirably. It certainly isn’t an excuse for the subsequent embroidery to be poor—marvelous work has been done using just this method of transferral to first mark the fabric.

But there are so many more precise ways to do this, now, and I think any transfer pen or transfer paper, iron-on, or print-on method would be preferable.

Experiment over, I started stitching today. Had an intense craving for shades of green (I can crave certain colors the way others crave salt, or chocolate. For the next 48 hours I’ll probably be all “Green is my favorite color EVER!” And then I will drop it, fickle and unfaithful, and declare an all-time-high of passion for ecru. But right now, I am loving this Kermit the Camera.