Heart of Soil sketchbook

Settle down with a cup of tea or something because there are lots of pictures today.

You might recall I enrolled on the Heart of Soil online workshop last month – you can see my earlier post about it here. I collected all the lessons into a little sketchbook, and it’s been a lot of fun to revisit some techniques I haven’t used for a while. I particularly liked the limited colour palette – just blues and yellows – and the pages in the resulting book are nicely coordinated.

Front cover with strip of hand dyed silk wrapped around
Front and back covers
String of Hearts class taught by Tiffany Sharpe
Bluebird of Peace class taught by Megan Quinlan (mine is a blue tit, since I think that’s the closest thing we have to a bluebird in the UK)
Buds class taught by Michelle Schratz

I went a bit off-piste with some of these and added some lines from a vintage poetry anthology to some of the pages, and I added a teabag pocket to this one too. I made a stencil from Tyvek for the background leaf and flower images.

The lines of poetry on the page below are from a Rupert Brooke poem, mixed up to create a found poem.

Pebbles and Peace classes taught by Leaca Young
Paper doll class (I adapted this one a fair bit just to get it on the page) taught by Kim Smith (@slaphappystudios on Instagram) and painted watercolour tubes class taught by Kelly Hoernig (@kellyhoernig.artist on Instagram)
Watercolour wildflower garden class taught by Tracey Wozniak
Watercolour/mixed media backgrounds and mark making class taught by DeeDee Catron
The one-page journal technique, shared by Kiala Givehand (@kialagives on Instagram) and a sunflower for Ukraine taught by Lorraine Bell (@lorraine_bell on Instagram)

Of course the sketchbook itself is based on the one-page sketchbook technique (you fold a single sheet of paper, cut it strategically and fold it into an eight-page booklet) but I thought it would be fun to make a tiny sketchbook to tuck inside the bigger one. The smaller version is made from a sheet of A4 paper; just me enjoying myself, really.

Collaged pages in mini-sketchbook with various marks and papers
Pages from mini-sketchbook, collaged and painted, with lines from a vintage poetry anthology

I thought it might be fun to include a little video run-through but then I noticed the colour of my hands and thought I ought to explain. I did some dyeing this morning and – I do it every time – forgot to put the gloves back on when rinsing. My hands are not normally purple, just in case anyone is worried.

A very happy collection of classes and I enjoyed them immensely. Next up, I’m doing the Traveller Blanket course with the lovely Dijanne Cevaal and am looking forward to that. Next year I hope to be teaching online classes myself, and I’ve figured that the best way to see what works is to sign up for a few myself. And of course there is always something new to learn.

September

What a month.

September on the stitch journal

There I was, merrily stitching the passing of time, celebrating my mother’s birthday and generally looking forward to all the colours of autumn. Then the Queen died, plunging the country into ten days of national mourning.

Grey for mourning

I wouldn’t describe myself as a staunch royalist, but I felt it was important to mark these days on the journal. For one thing I wasn’t sure what national mourning was going to look like, so it was an opportunity to experience something I had never seen on that scale. I actually like the colourlessness of these days and the way they stand slightly apart from the rest. There was definitely something different about that time.

Stitch journal, September

We were away in North Yorkshire for part of the mourning period. We walked a lot, and climbed a mountain, and enjoyed lots of peace and fresh air. We encountered American and European tourists wanting to know how we felt about the Queen and expressing their sympathy. I don’t normally feel any particular national sentiment, but it seemed as if everyone assumed that this was ‘our’ loss. It was really quite moving at times. There was a palpable sense of subdued sadness everywhere we went.

September, detail

I stitched the day of the Queen’s death and the day of her funeral in black, and all the days between in shades of grey. They look a bit otherworldly now. It was a strange time.

Early September

The unworked part of the stitch journal is getting shorter and shorter, as is the year. The days are really hurtling past. I have made some big decisions, and the end of the year will be a turning point for me. Until then, it’s a matter of keeping calm and carrying on.

October ahead

Blue buds

Still having lots of creative fun with paint and paper in the Heart of Soil class – it’s a lovely course and for an excellent cause – there is still time to sign up, which you can do here.

Accidental discovery of the day is that you can very easily make your own stencils from Tyvek. Apparently Tyvek is used for making envelopes in the US but you’re more likely to find it in a DIY shop in the UK – I think it’s used in building/construction and in PPE, but it’s also been used in mixed media art for several years now for its propensity to shrink and bubble when heated. It’s about as thick as copy paper but is much more durable, and very easy to cut with a craft knife.

Simple stencil made from Tyvek, coloured with watercolour paints
Heart shape cut from Tyvek used as a stencil with dry-brushed watercolour paint

This page is based on a technique taught by Michelle Schratz (if you’re an Instagram person you can find her here.)

A6 sketchbook page based on Michelle’s Heart of Soil class

I found a couple of lines of poetry (Rupert Brooke, from a vintage anthology) and used an old teabag as the pocket for the cut-out flowers.

Teabag pocket with flowers cut from sketchily-painted vintage papers

The yellow ribbon, saved from something many years ago, is exactly the right colour, which is proof that you should Keep All Your Collage Supplies For Ever. One of these days I will need a bigger house.

Yellow and blue flowers

I am really enjoying the limited palette and am already thinking way ahead with ideas to try this in various other colours and media. Also it’s immensely enjoyable to make something just for the fun of it, without any pressure for it to turn out ‘right’, whatever that is. Wishing everyone a happy week.

He(art) of Soil

I have given myself too many things to do: no surprises there. I have signed up for three online courses, all running at the same time, while continuing to work three days a week at the desk job. I did know what I was doing, and all of it seemed like a really good idea at the time, and I’m already slightly behind. But then I get lifetime access to all three courses, and you can do them all at your own pace, so there is no rush really.

One of the classes I signed up for is a delightful mixed media watercolour course called He(art) of Soil, organised by Leaca Young (you can find her on Instagram here). It’s very accessible, with ten mixed media artists each contributing a simple project, and there’s still time to sign up if you’re interested – go to Leaca’s website in the link above for more information. All the proceeds go to World Central Kitchen, in aid of the conflict in Ukraine. The projects in this course are based on a very limited palette: just three shades of blue, and three shades of yellow, for the Ukrainian flag. The paints are made from soil and pigment and look really beautiful. You can see more about how they’re made here. I didn’t purchase the paints – it would have been very expensive to have them shipped from the USA to the UK, and I don’t need more watercolour paints, so I’m adapting what I’ve already got. You can see my substitute palette below.

A6 folded sketchbook for The Art of Soil online class

I don’t need much of an excuse to splash some paint around, so I had a very happy hour or so this afternoon painting some collage papers in these colours.

delicious pile of vintage and modern papers painted with acrylics and watercolours

I’m collecting and completing all the lessons in a little folded A6 sketchbook made with three sheets of A3 paper, folded and cut to make a little zine-type booklet. If you’re not familiar with the technique, you can find instructions for making a one-page booklet here. One of the tutorials in this class includes instructions for making this kind of booklet, which will be perfect for keeping everything together.

The projects are very simple and suitable for all abilities, and I guess you could make them as quick or as complicated as you like.

Page based on Tiffany’s Hearts project – find her on Instagram here

It’s really interesting to work with such a limited palette, and surprising to see just how many shades of blue, green, and yellow you can actually make. A lot of the artists remark on the texture of the watercolours that they’re using, describing them as quite gritty. My paints are all very smooth, so I might try using some watercolour texture medium for some of the classes, just to see how it turns out.

Loosely worked page based on Megan’s Bird of Peace tutorial. You can see her work here

Regardless of how long you might have been making art, in whatever medium, I love the fact that there is always something more to learn, something more to practice, and plenty more ways to grow. I really like the fact that this online class supports a great cause, and that the artists have given their time and skills so freely. I’m looking forward to completing more of the classes in this course.

On storing thread

A few people have asked about how I store my embroidery threads, so I thought a brief tour of my collection might be helpful.

I use a wide variety of threads, from very chunky cotton yarns (mostly for couching) to very fine silks, and pretty much everything in between. I will write a post some time about the various weights of thread that you can get and what you can use them for. For now I’m focusing on how to organise thread. This jumble of blue threads doesn’t look very organised, I know. I guess all things are relative.

Blue threads

When I dye threads, I dye them in skeins. They look really pretty in skeins, but I find them difficult to use like that because they very soon get horribly tangled, especially if you keep them all in the same box. I find the only way I can make them useable is to wind them somehow. I went through a phase a while ago of winding threads from skeins into little balls, but these also get tangled quite quickly.

Skeins of thread

I used to use sections of plastic drinking straw for winding threads from skeins after dyeing, which works quite well if you cut a little snip in the ends to anchor the thread before you start winding. The straws were left over from the olden days before we knew how damaging they are, and I figured it was better to use (and re-use) them than to let them end up in landfill.

Drinking straw bobbins

Some of my threads are still on straws, but these days I tend to use little squares of regular 80gsm copy paper, about 3” square, and roll them up.

Squares of copy paper ready to roll

Again you need to snip the end of the paper tube so that the thread has somewhere to anchor itself to stop it unravelling. I find you don’t need to glue the roll of paper; the thread keeps it rolled quite securely.

Purples. That horribly tangled black thing (top left) is coton a broder and needs winding

I find it quite therapeutic to wind threads from skeins onto tubes, but it can take a long time depending on how fine the thread is.

Green threads. Some of these are commercial threads; most are hand-dyed cotton and silk

The only time I use the commercial card bobbins (the kind that you can buy from embroidery shops) is for winding DMC stranded embroidery floss. I don’t like these card bobbins much because when you get to the end of the skein the thread ends up with permanent creases from being wrapped round the flat edges of card. I find there is no other sensible way of storing these though – I can’t see colours clearly enough with them piled up in skeins, and you need to label them in case you need to buy that particular colour again.

DMC stranded embroidery thread

So there’s a little tour through my threads. I know lots of people who use sticks and twigs, and the old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, to store thread. They look lovely, but I imagine would be bulky in large numbers. So – how do you store your threads? Let me know if you have any good tips.

August

Up early this morning, before going to the day job in the office, to sit with the stitch journal for a few minutes to complete the last day of August.

August

I am starting to feel autumn in the air, and I can see the light starting to change. Summer is my least favourite time of year – too bright, too hot, too noisy – so I’m looking forward to a little more quiet and a bit more darkness. I think of darkness as restful, like a cosy blanket or a thick curtain, but I know a lot of people struggle with the shortening days.

We are lucky to have seasons in this part of the world, to move through the months and be able to see the continuing cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Many of the flowers in our garden are just seed heads now, but they contain a whole new cycle of life ready to begin again after the winter. I guess stitches are like seeds too. There is a pun here, right, about sewing and sowing but I think I’ll probably just leave that there.

August, detail

I worry sometimes that the stitch journal will become too busy, too much of a maelstrom of colour and texture, but so far it seems to be still quite cohesive. The colours and textures need quite careful managing but the stitches themselves just seem to happen along and pop out of nowhere.

I’m already thinking about how I will structure next year’s stitch journal and I think it will be different from this year somehow. I may choose a coloured background rather than white. It’s still a way off, so there is time to think about it some more.

August, with a glimpse of September ahead

Needles (2)

Thank you everyone who recommended Tulip and Bohin needles. I tried some, and I like both – on balance I prefer the Bohin, just because they’re more like what I’m used to. I like the little glass test tubes that the Tulip needles come in though.

I started with the Tulip sashiko needle. It’s enormous! It was like sewing with a harpoon. It sews well though and is a good choice for this thick cotton thread.

Tulip sashiko needle on the stitch journal

I also tried the Tulip silk needles, which are meant to be fine enough to glide through silk. I’m afraid it didn’t, really, even after a swipe with the emery. I tried this one on a scrap of fine silk sari ribbon covered with a bit of silk organza, using my finest silk thread (I think it’s Coats fine silk but can’t read the small print on the tiny label. My ageing eyesight frustrates me no end).

I also used a fine hand-dyed silk thread in shades of purple. I used the Tulip silk needle for one half and a Bohin embroidery needle for the other. I don’t think you can tell which is which, but the Bohin was easier to use.

Scraps of fine silk covered with silk organza; running stitch with silk thread using two different types of needle

I guess the moral here is that a good needle is a good needle, whatever that turns out to be for you. It’s useful to try a few different types just to see how they work.

Birdie likes Bohin

On Needles

I’m often asked what kind of needles I use, and what size. If you’re new to hand sewing, needles can be a minefield as there are various brands and different sizes within each type. I wondered if it might be helpful if I gather some thoughts, and needles, together this morning.

Birdie is carrying far too many needles at present. He can barely stay on his feet

My favourite needles are made by John James, who have been manufacturing needles since 1840. In my view their needles were better before they developed the association with Entaco, who appear to be overseeing the manufacturing, but they are still good quality needles. You can read about the history of the company here. I am not on commission, by the way – I just like a good needle. What I especially like about this company is that they do a downloadable needle catalogue, showing each needle at its actual size – you can see that here.

The needles I use most often are embroidery needles, and quilting needles. You can buy embroidery needles in a range of sizes; in the picture below you can see sizes 3 to 10 (the higher the number, the smaller the needle). Embroidery needles are sometimes sold as crewel needles – they are more or less the same thing. They have a fine, pointed body with an elongated oval eye which is ideal for stranded cotton (other threads are available – I generally use this kind of needle for my hand-dyed silk and cotton threads). The size of needle you need depends on the type of thread you’re using as well as the kind of fabric you’re sewing on, and the kind of stitch you’re doing. If in doubt, go for matching the needle to the thread. Your thread should go through the eye of the needle comfortably without too much effort. If your thread rolls around in the eye or falls out, you probably need a smaller needle; if it feels too tight (you can sometimes hear it when this happens, and you will feel some resistance when you pull the thread through), then you probably need a larger size. I don’t take much notice of what the size is called, I just use whatever feels right for the thread.

Embroidery needles: from the left (ignore the two random ones on the far left, photobombing – they are a size 5 embroidery needle and a size 24 tapestry needle) – sizes 3, 5, 7, 7, 9 and 10

Quilting needles (often sold as Betweens) are shorter, stronger, and more flexible than embroidery needles. They are designed to pass easily through all three (or more) layers of a quilt, and to enable you to make small, fairly regular quilting stitches to hold the layers together. I often use these for general sewing as well because I like the shorter length. I use mainly size 10 and 11, and I like the Big Eye variety because my eyesight isn’t what it was. These needles also allow me to quilt with thicker threads.

John James Big Eye quilting needles, with grid ruler for scale

For utility hand sewing (sewing seams, piecing patchwork, etc – anything that needs regular cotton sewing thread, the kind that you would use in a machine) I use sharps. These also come in a range of sizes, and probably the easiest way to buy them is in an assorted set so you can choose the best needle for the job. Sharps are flexible, but not as strong as quilting or betweens, which makes them prone to breaking more easily. I generally use size 11 for sewing most lightweight fabrics together (quilters cotton fabric and lighter), and size 7 if I’m sewing thicker fabrics like medium to heavyweight linen.

Sharps needles, sizes 7 and 11

Probably the easiest way to see which needles you like, if you’re a complete beginner, is to buy a set of assorted needles and try them all on various fabrics with different kinds of thread.

Assorted needles: betweens, sharps, darners and tapestry

I am very bad at looking after my needles, which is why all these packs look so new. I’ve had to replace most of my needles recently because I leave them out, stuck in pincushions (like birdie), where they pick up dust and moisture from the atmosphere which turns them rusty in the end. They also become blunt over time. I thought it was probably time I made myself a needle case.

Birdie watches with interest. He will not be redundant, but he will have a bit of a tidy-up.

I’ve used a bitty background that I made a while ago – layered scraps covered with a sheer, with hand stitching across the surface. I’ve backed it with some hand-dyed cotton fabric, added a button and a buttonhole bar, and that was a very nice Sunday morning’s productive stitching.

Little needlecase

So there we are: a very quick gallop through some needles for hand-stitching, which I hope has been useful.

Many people these days tend to refer to hand-stitching as slow-stitching (though they’re not necessarily the same thing, as I understand it) and most of us are all about taking time out and slowing down. Needles in the past were valued for their ability to enable hand stitchers to sew more quickly. How times change.

Vintage needles: no friction no stop rapid work!

A good plan

Focusing on the Big Plan is taking most of my time and energy at the moment, but it’s utterly absorbing and much more immersive than I had expected. At the moment it feels like a good use of my time. I’m seeing things more clearly as a result of taking the time to work on these visual representations of where I go next on the journey, and it’s so much more effective than writing words in a box with a biro. It turns out I had completely underestimated the power of creative journalling.

I do like a nice lighthouse. On this page it’s a metaphor for my strengths.

The concertina sketchbook turns out to be perfect for this (it’s the Seawhite Octopus sketchbook, with eight 4-page foldouts). I’ve never used one extensively before, and I’m really liking the format. Ideas can spread across the page, ideas and pages unfolding together. I think the subconscious mind enjoys these metaphors.

A little digression here: it’s also a really fun way to explore some mixed media techniques. I made my own acrylic ink spray.

Home made acrylic ink spray on cartridge paper painted with a little gesso for texture

You can buy ink sprays, of course, but most of them are not colourfast when dry. I wanted something that would allow for using watercolour over the top without it rediluting. There is nothing complicated about this – it’s just a fine mist spray bottle with one part acrylic ink and three parts water. You could probably dilute it more or less according to your needs. Of course I’m now making a mental note to try this on fabric as well – I’m fairly confident (or maybe just hopeful) that it will work.

The Right Brain Business Plan has a section called ‘painting your business landscape’. I grew up by the seaside on the east coast of the UK and this page has ended up looking a bit like the cliff top walks I used to enjoy as a teenager. I remember the feeling of freedom, the wildness of the wind blowing in from the sea, and the sense of space and perspective you get from a high vantage point. Interesting how your mind shows you these meaningful images once you turn your attention away from the left brain and all its fretting.

Business landscape, showing strengths, competitor analysis, barriers and opportunities

I’ve been asking myself this question most of my life:

Finding my place

I guess it’s about identifying the values that you want to live by. Life is short, and living my best life is becoming more important the older I get.

Values. I like quiet and calm, living at my own pace, taking time to think

This is definitely giving me time for reflection, and the format makes it really easy to connect ideas and see the bigger picture. Sometimes on paper is the most useful place to be.

Planning, the right way

I’ve been trying to write a business plan, because I know I will need one if I ever get to give up the day job, but haven’t made much progress.

I don’t know what operations and logistics even means

It’s all boxes and straight lines and charts and columns. I have no idea what to write. I don’t even understand some of the questions. Key findings from desk research, marketing strategy, financial forecasts… how are you supposed to know all that when you haven’t started yet?

And then I found this:

Right Brain Business Plan by Jennifer Lee

I’ve had it in my hands for about three hours and already it has changed my life. It comes with a handy checklist:

Yes, yes, and yes

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself, but there we are. It’s much easier to think ‘what’s wrong with me?’ rather than ‘what is it about this format that isn’t working for me?’ My left-brained husband wouldn’t dream of hanging a picture without a spirit level. I would bang a nail in and eyeball it. It wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t even straight.

Almost every sentence in the first chapter has me jumping up and down in my chair. This particularly:

“The challenge is when left-brain thinking comes too early in the visioning and planning process and kills the party with its questioning, judgement, and need for every single piece of the puzzle to make absolute sense before taking that first step. This limits your thinking: good ideas are quashed before they’ve even had a chance to form.”

So now I know a business plan can be pictures and colours and shapes, there is nothing stopping me and I find I know exactly what I want and where I’m wanting to go.

Business plan

The Business Plan book says ‘let it unfold’. I’ve had this accordion-style sketch book since Christmas and have been waiting for it to tell me what it wants. Of course, all this time it’s just been waiting for me.

A call to action, from an old poetry anthology

I’ve gone from constantly putting it off because it’s dull to actually wanting to get started on it.

Business plan in progress
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