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  • Writer's pictureJoJo

How to Art

My recent making escapades have been a little out of my current comfort zone.

I was sorting through all the random sewing machine accessories I’ve collected over the years and came across this free machine embroidery foot.

Free machine embroidery foot

This foot was given to me in a starter sewing kit that all GCSE Textiles students received and was intended for use on a Husqvarna sewing machine. I currently own a Pfaff and a Singer but, on a bit of a whim, I decided to see if the foot would work on either of these machines.

This led to me doing something I haven’t done in many a moon. I tried to make some art simply for the sake of it. I had a crack at creating an interesting collection of colours, shapes, and textures for no other reason than entertaining the eye.

As I mentioned in a previous post about creativity versus practicality this kind of thing does not come naturally to me. Although I generally want the things I make to be aesthetically pleasing, they tend to serve a specific purpose.

Chalk bucket.

Dog cushion.

Quick-change friendly crow costume.

That sort of thing.

In my experience, free machine embroidery doesn’t have a specific practical purpose (please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about this). It’s a decorative process, as the name suggests. By dropping the little metal teeth that push the fabric along when you sew and deploying the free machine embroidery foot, you can use the sewing machine like a pencil or a paintbrush and create lines of stitching in any direction you like.

I used this technique a lot during GCSE and A level Textiles. Although I tailoured these courses (pun totally intended!) to focus on my interests in clothing and theatre, the courses were about exploring artistic techniques and styles rather than dressmaking skills.

Each GCSE and A level project would consist of a portfolio of samples of folded, gathered, melted, embroidered, distressed, and general manipulated materials and a final piece that drew the best of these techniques together. We didn’t have a specific brief to follow so the final pieces didn’t need to meet any particular needs. These images give you an idea of the kind of work I produced.

Please forgive me for the quality of the photos of my old artwork. The photos were taken by a clueless teenager about 15 years ago with a shoddy camera. I tried to dig out the few pieces of work I kept in order to take new photos. However, I’ve been living partially out of moving boxes for the last year and I couldn’t find what I was looking for without playing an epic game of extreme Jenga. So shitty photos will have to do.

The face on the left, which is the face of Big Brother from 1984, is one of my favourite creations. It was the final piece of an A level project with the stimulus word “Surveillance”, which I apparently decided to think very much inside the box for. The veins are stitched with free machine embroidery and the barbed wire across the face is real barbed wire. This seemed like an excellent artistic choice when I made the piece but created a slightly awkward conversation with the guy at left luggage at Edinburgh Waverley station when I tried to leave my portfolio there for a few hours before my interview for a degree in Costume Design and Construction.

This piece also quite accurately reflects the majority of the art I created at school. As an angsty teenager with a taste for Tim Burton films, gothic clothing, and emo music, a lot of the work I produced was not exactly the kind of thing my parents wanted to hang on the wall.

The final piece for my animal themed project was not a cute picture of something sweet, fluffy, and adorable but a side view of a dog with a green rubber glove with red fingernails and black veins all over it emerging from its torso, reflecting the horrors of animal testing.

When given the stimulus word “Maternal”, I created a series of slings for carrying babies close to the body. The early slings were made from earth toned and soft fabrics but as the project evolved the slings became cages and less supportive structures made out of chicken wire and aspects of potentially mundane and frustrating domestic life like rubber gloves and washing lines. Maybe my seventeen-year-old subconscious knew motherhood wasn’t going to be my kind of thing!

As dark as some of the work I produced may have been, I enjoyed experimenting with different fabrics and techniques. I put hours and hours of work into my portfolios and happily spent multiple nights a week after school in the textiles room perfecting my final pieces.

Aside from school and college work, the last piece of artwork I created was this picture of the solar system I made for Husband at least a decade ago. I believe Husband is still very fond of it (at least that’s what he’s told me!) but I always feel rather underwhelmed when I look at it.

Textiles picture of the solar system

My impatience got the better of me when I put this together. I didn’t do any of the sampling and prep work I spent so many hours doing for my GCSE and A level projects and I think it shows.

I like the bubbly fabric that forms the slice of sun at the bottom of the picture but I think it would look better with more of the shiny fabric around the edge of it worked into the bubbles. It doesn’t look molten or hot enough and it doesn’t contrast as strongly as I’d like with the textures and materials used for the planets.

I also think I was a bit lazy and didn’t use a large enough range of processes to create the different planets. There are little beads on most of the planets and the background and that feels a little boring. It also bothers me that there’s a big lump on the right side of Jupiter where it sits over the bigger beads making up the rings of Saturn. Because of how I sewed the beads on, it would have been an arse to take off a chunk in the middle, so I just slapped Jupiter right on top of them.

I certainly don’t hate this picture. But it would have been better had I put a little more effort into the prep work. Turns out they actually did teach us something useful at school. Who’d have thought it?

With this in mind, I didn’t simply jump into creating a whole piece of artwork when the creative mood swept over me this week. I started off slowly by just making swirly patterns of free machine embroidery. I hadn’t used this technique for about 10 years so it took a while to get a feel for it again. At this point, I also didn’t have any idea what I wanted the end result to look like so I went merrily round and round with the needle making random patterns in the fabric.

Eventually I swapped from swirly patterns to zigzag patterns, something hopped across a synapse in my brain and I decided that the shapes looked like jagged mountain tops. This in turn reminded me of this beautiful photo Husband took of the mountains near Madrid covered in a gentle frosting of snow. If you look very closely, you can see the 4 skyscrapers (although a fifth was being built when we moved away from the area) to the left of the highest peak.

Photo of mountains around Madrid

I spent a very happy afternoon layering up and stitching over some pieces of cheap lining fabric to make an admittedly abstract interpretation of the sky. I used some preprogrammed stitches and some free machine embroidery to join the pieces together and create some texture. Personally, I prefer the preprogrammed stitches and I like that, because the fabric is thin and translucent, you can see the other colours underneath the top layers. I think this adds a bit more depth to the image.

Then I moved onto the mountains and their snowy coating. My sewing machines didn’t have a preprogrammed stitch that I thought would work for the snow so I gave my good friend free machine embroidery another go. Of the different lengths of stitching I tried, I prefer the short stitches on the left. I think it looks more realistic and consistent when used to create heavy patches and lighter sections of snow cover.

I also used a zigzag stitch to cover the raw edge of the piece of fabric I used to make the shape of the mountains. My intention was to give it a slightly jagged edge rather than a smooth outline. As many of the mountains near Madrid are very rocky, a smooth silhouette didn’t seem appropriate.

Finally, I finished up my fun afternoon of fabric manipulation by having a crack at the clouds. While looking through old photos for this blog post I was reminded of a technique involving folding fabric into pleats and then stitching them in alternate directions. This transforms the pleats from flat folds into 3D waves. I don’t know why I find this technique so delightful but for some reason it makes me very happy.

I think these short folds created by rows of stitching about 1.5cm apart work very nicely for the section of clouds in the top left corner of the picture that are broken up into small rows and bubbles. I don’t think this technique works well for the larger fluffier looking section of cloud on the right-hand side above the highest peak. I’ll have to do a bit more sampling and exploring to establish what material and technique will work best for this section.

This is very much a work in progress and I’m not even sure I’ll ever put together a full and final piece of art based on this picture. It may turn out to have been simply a fun way to fill an afternoon fannying about with fabric.

I’ve often thought that I’d like to make another version of the solar system picture. One with a bit more thought behind it that I’d like as much as Husband likes the original. So maybe that will be my next artistic pursuit rather than the mountains of Madrid.

Or maybe I’ll go back to patching holes in the knees of jeans and sewing rogue buttons back onto my ever-growing collection of shirts. Who knows when the creative mood will wash over me again? For now, all I can say is that it’s reassuring to know I can still flex my creative flare when the mood takes me and I haven’t forgotten everything I learned at school all those years ago.

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