Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spring is a Promise

In the northern hemisphere, we are more than ready for spring this year. In Canada, we have had months of snow and cold but it has not been anything like as difficult as it has been in the United Kingdom. Right now, the snow drops are up but have been eaten by the rabbits. Aconites are just through the ground. Hyacinths have their noses up to sniff the air. They are still undecided.

To encourage spring's arrival, here is a spring garden project for you. Look at the garden carefully and see how many of the flowers you are able to recognize. Gardeners have an advantage with this.

Yes, here is a book that tells you how to stitch recognizable spring flowers. Published as an eBook, you can have it in your computer within minutes of reading this. If you are more comfortable with a printed copy, you can print it and put it in a binder. This is a convenient way to acquire it, it is inexpensive and you will be the owner of the first book on embroidery written and published electronically. As such it is a landmark though I expect there will be more embroidery books in the future. For the author especially, and for the publisher, it was a huge technical challenge.

Stitching Idyllic: Spring Flowers uses only four basic stitches: Straight, Detached Chain, Buttonhole and French Knots. But these stitches have been adapted in new ways to achieve the results needed to portray recognizable plants and flowers. Written with a novice stitcher in mind, the section on preparation will tell you how to bond two layers of fabric to make one stable piece of fabric for the background. It explains how to mount the bonded fabric drum tight on a stretcher bars frame. Stranding and mixing thread colours to achieve the correct colour for each specific flower is included. There is also a simple way of planning the layout of your garden as not everyone feels comfortable drawing a design.

What more can you ask? Make this your Easter gift to yourself or for a friend. If I had not written it, I would be buying one for myself.

To see this book and browse the contents, go to If you should then decide to purchase, the directions on how to do so are included.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Royal School of Needlework - Part Two: Let's Step Inside

In early September 1950, the rest of my life started. Having just turned 17, and leaving an unhappy school life behind, I started travelling daily from an outer region of London into Kensington and Prince's Gate.

RSN was housed in a magnificent building which had seen even more grandiose days in the previous century. The central hallway was two stories high, wood panelled, and had an impressively grand staircase and upper landing with a railing along two sides forming a balcony. The room beside the front door was an office. The other two rooms on the ground floor were large and gracious with floor to ceiling french doors or windows that opened onto a stone terrace. Beyond this was a sunken garden with large trees and an immaculate lawn. You can see this hidden garden on Google Maps aerial view; viewing it today makes me wonder, idly, how many other such hidden gardens there are in London.

One floor up, the workroom occupied the front room while the class rooms were in the two elegant rooms overlooking the garden. These rooms all had light coloured panelled walls and parquet floors. New overhead lighting had been installed and we had no trouble stitching anywhere in the rooms though most of us had young eyes. This is where our easels with slate frames stood. The easels were all ancient and finding and keeping a matching pair was a challenge. The cleaners could get them mixed up. There was also a huge high table where our teachers, or us, cut fabric, transferred the design (prick and pounce) and finally mounted it and laced it onto masonite. On the floors above were more class rooms where we learned history, dressmaking, pattern drafting, design, and something called small samplers.

Elegant as all this sounds, let's get down to reality. English society was still full of rules, regulations and restrictions and it never occurred to us (or to me, anyway) to question them. We were not allowed to enter through the front door but instead went down the stairs by the front door to the basement where we left our coats. We were not allowed to enter the front hall or walk on that magnificent stairway but used the steep and narrow servants' staircase instead. You can see this on the left side of the floor plan. It was a long climb to the upper floors. We were not allowed to enter the workroom or talk to the staff. The showroom containing the threads and other supplies was located on the main floor in the larger room at the back. It was off limits except to select thread colours. Mostly, the threads and wools were set and did not require us to make choices. We were absolutely forbidden to set foot on the terrace or go into the garden. Did I feel hard done by? No. This was normal in England at that time and for a long time after, too. No one questioned this that I was aware of. We knew and expected nothing else.

And we started to learn our stitches immediately. We all knew the basic stitches but we had to stitch them perfectly or else they came out. Others were new to us, particularly the composite stitches which contained several stitching stages; I do not think I have used any of them since then. Feeling very virtuous, I stitched small. Not only can I now no longer identify the structure of the stitch but it made me slow with the result that I was the last one in our group of about seven students to complete their work. Being last meant that I had the last choice of background linen fabric for the next sampler and finished with a brilliant pink which I hated and still do. This second sampler was appliqué and on it we learned to stitch accurately and fast. It was a boring project and I think that everyone was glad to complete it. Frankly, it was sufficiently tedious and demanding enough to make anyone but the determined quit on the spot. Having survived that one, we progressed to the crewel work sampler stitched with wool on linen twill. I do not know what the wools we used were. Certainly not Medici. Materials and thread for embroidery still had limited availability but RSN had a stock on hand from prewar days. There seemed to be enough of everything but colour ranges and choices were not always complete. Our teacher, Marguerite Randell, was excellent. She was elderly but eternally patient and always available when you needed assistance. But, she had her standards. Stitching had to be up to that standard, and the best you could do or else it had to come out. Some careful snipping of threads released the offenders but the remainders (called dead stitches) had to be removed in their entirety. I remember clearly, being in a hurry to get on to the next stage and not getting all the thread whiskers out. She sat down and told me this was inadequate. The offenders were quickly removed but it was a very very long time before she came back to show me the next stage. A lesson never forgotten.

Next entry: We continue to stitch, the press comes to call and we meet other students.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Royal School of Needlework - a Historical Perspective - Part One

Are you curious about what it was like to be student at RSN? I would be if I had not had the good fortune and an accommodating father to pay the bill. Actually, I remain curious to hear about being a student at Hampton Court Palace and hope others with more recent experience will add to this account.

You can Google this address but, for those not familiar with London, Prince's Gate is a terrace off Kensington Road. Crossing the road to the north is Hyde Park with the Serpentine and Rotten Row, a horse and carriage riding route. Connecting Kensington Road to the south is Exhibition Road which leads to South Kensington Underground station. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are all located on Exhibition Road. To the west, you will find the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College and Kensington Palace, the home of several members of the Royal family. Going east will take you to Knightsbridge and Harrods. I found the history of the development of this area of London to be interesting and hope that you will, too.

In the late 1600s, a gardener named George London and partners established the Brompton Park Nurseries, part of which is now the site of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Influential in garden design and innovative plantings, he nurtured plants and trees brought to him by travellers to other countries. He supplied plants and trees and landscape designs in London, elsewhere in England and in Europe. In the 1700s the neighbouring rural village of Brompton experienced a building boom with an influx of terraced houses and the creation of a busy metropolitan borough. A further building boom in the early 1800s transformed the area into a prosperous residential area. Portions of the nursery garden were appropriated for building.

All this is linked to the Industrial Revolution (1760-1870). Water and steam power and the development of machine tools influenced every aspect of daily life in Britain. Massive population and income growth created the first capitalist economy leading to both great wealth and abject poverty. Steam-powered ships and railways were late developments of the Industrial Revolution

In 1850, Britain decided to celebrate its huge achievement with a Grand Exhibition. The contract was awarded to Joseph Paxton who built a modular style building of cast iron and glass and erected it in the southern part of Hyde Park. Punch, the magazine, dubbed it the Crystal Palace. With so much glass, it needed no electric lighting system but the glass panelling was not watertight and there were widespread leaks in the roof. After the Exhibition closed the Crystal Palace was dismantled and rebuilt in south London where it survived until destroyed by fire in 1936.

Britain had money to spend and Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, proposed that the area south of Hyde Park be developed as an area for enrichment and education. Thus began the founding and building of Exhibition Road, the museums and the Royal Albert Hall. He died in 1861 before seeing the completion of these projects. The Albert Memorial was built in Hyde Park opposite the Royal Albert Hall and commemorates his contribution. Queen Victoria was devastated by his death and went into mourning for the rest of her life.

To move back to Prince's Gate, this area just north of the original Brompton Park Nursery was a market garden growing vegetables and fruit to supply the London area. In the early 1800s, plans were drawn up for a four sided block of rental town houses enclosing a private and ornamental garden. Of necessity, the first buildings were stables and a carriage house. Prince's Gate faces onto a carriage way. This private road was set apart from the the main road and allowed horses and carriages safe access to the front doors of the houses. It is now a convenient place to park your car. Speculative building of houses with four to five storeys over a basement began in the 1840s. This was a large project and took several years to complete. The houses were slow to rent initially and then fell out of favour during the building and use of the Crystal Palace as prospective tenants complained of the loss of their view of Hyde Park and all the traffic and noise created by the Grand Exhibition. NIMBY is nothing new! Gradually, the houses were occupied by the newly rich bankers, industrialists, ship owners and minor aristocracy who wanted smart and convenient town houses in this new and fashionable area of Kensington. Despite interior differences, the facades were similar and Italianate, three windows wide with a porticoed entrance on the ground floor. The stuccoed exteriors were painted white and remain white to this day as you will see in the photograph.

The photo is courtesy of Google Street View and is current; in the 1950s, there were far fewer cars. No. 25 is the first house and entrance beyond the black railing. It is a bit larger than was normal as it is L shaped taking advantage of an indentation in the previously built house on the right of the photo; that building is now a boys' school. No. 25 was occupied by The Royal School of Needlework from 1949 to 1987 when RSN moved to Hampton Court Palace. In the 1990s the whole house was refurbished and restored to a single residence. This area of London is now the location of foreign embassies with several located in Prince's Gate.

British History Online provided the information for this précis. Of further interest to stitchers are the designs for the floor and ceilings of these houses to be seen on the British history sites.

Having taken you on a historical tour, my next entry will be about being a student of RSN in this historic house during a time, just five years after the end of WW 2, when London was still bleak and dirty and food was short. But we survived and the RSN experience was certainly an interesting one.