Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Elephant No. 16: Needlepoint

At the fibre-arts meeting I attended last week, I was generously invited to join a tapestry-weaving group. The first meeting was today, and if I'd been incredibly ambitious, I might have decided to make a tiny tapestry when I came home. Instead, I decided to make a small needlepoint elephant, since this is something I actually know how to do.

The earliest known needlepoint dates back to Ancient Egypt. The slanted stitching used on canvas tents of the time has even given its name to the most common needlepoint stitch—the "tent stitch". Fragments of needlepoint have also been discovered in the cave of a pharaoh who lived around 1500 B.C.

During the sixteenth century, simple needlepoint patterns on canvas became popular, later superseded by the stylized bargello patterns of the seventeenth century. Some pictorial needlepoint was also produced in the seventeenth century, sparked by the rising popularity of upholstered furniture.

One of the most intricate and attractive forms of needlepoint is Berlin work. Originating in early-nineteenth-century Germany, Berlin work quickly spread to Britain and the United States, where it became something of a craze. Traditional Berlin work is characterized by a shaded, painterly style, and usually features bucolic landscapes, animals, birds and elaborate florals.

Needlepoint is most often stitched in wool, although silk, cotton, metallic threads, ribbon and even fibre such as raffia can be used. Stitches can be very plain, simply filling in a pattern, or they can add texture. A special, open-weave canvas is used for needlepoint, and comes in a range of gauges—from a relatively small number of holes per inch (requiring thicker yarn), to a large number of holes per inch, allowing for considerably delicacy in the design. If you choose a larger number of holes, be prepared to stitch for many hours/days/weeks/months.

Designs can either be printed directly onto the canvas, or produced as graphed charts. I personally prefer charts to printed canvas, because it gives me more control over the final size of the piece, and because there is far more choice in printed charts than in printed canvases. It is also possible to create your own charts in a number of ways: paint or draw a design on graph paper; paint or draw a design on the canvas itself; or print a design from your computer onto graph paper.

Throughout history, many famous people have enjoyed needlepoint. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were both afiicionados, as were Princess Grace of Monaco and football player Rosey Grier.

For today's elephant, I started with part of a design by well-known needlepoint artist Elizabeth Bradley.

I used a small-gauge canvas with 22 holes to the inch, partly because I like the finer size, and partly because it's what I already had in the house. The yarn was Paternayan Persian yarn, which is my favourite because it comes in a wide range of colours, and because it's easy to split into single strands.

The finished elephant head took me about two hours.

Thinking that it was a little on the drab side, I decided to slap on a neck ruff and a party hat. I drew the general outline of these freehand, then filled in details and added shading on the fly. Adding these two elements took another hour or so.

The background took the longest. This was partly because I had first chosen an apple green. Unfortunately, I realized only after I'd stitched some of the background that I was going to run out of that particular colour, so I had to unpick it. There are very few stitching-related things I find more tedious than unpicking something, and unpicking thin needlepoint yarn from tiny-gauge canvas has got to be the worst.

The finished piece is only about 7.5 x 9 cm (3 x 3.5 inches), but the background took me the rest of the day and into the early evening. Although something like this can be a rather zen sort of activity, a plain background is also pretty boring, and your eyes get very, very sick of the looking at the same colour for hours on end. At least mine do.

That being said, I really like this little guy, and will probably turn him into a coin purse or pincushion at some point.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of history's more unusual elephants was Batyr: an elephant who could supposedly speak human words.

Born in 1969, Batyr was an Indian elephant who lived his entire life in the Karaganda Zoo in Kazakhstan. Born in captivity to a pair of elephants presented to Kazakhstan by India, Batyr died in 1993, having never seen or heard another elephant.

When Batyr was eight years old, zoo employees began noticing his ability to "speak". Batyr was soon entertaining visitors by appearing to ask for water, count, and even praise or criticize himself. By 1979, his fame as the "Speaking Elephant" had spread, and Batyr was being described in scientific papers and books on animal behaviour.

According to Dr. A.N. Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff, a scientist who studied Batyr's abilities, the elephant "spoke" words by putting his trunk in his mouth, pressing the end of his trunk into his jaw, and manipulating his tongue. At night, he was said to speak to himself softly, at a pitch similar to a buzzing mosquito. It was claimed that Batyr had a vocabulary of about 20 words in Kazakh and Russian. He also reportedly imitated the sounds of other animals, and even spoke human slang. Among his favourite words were his own name spoken in a variety of ways, as well as "water", "good", "yes", "give me" and "one, two, three."

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society

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