Sunday, 29 July 2012

Elephant No. 301: Thread Painting

A couple of months ago, one of the women at my fibre arts guild showed us a piece of art made entirely of thread stitches. It looked a bit complicated, but I tucked it away in my mind to try for this blog. Since I have a bit of time today to fool around with something new, I thought I'd try thread painting for today's elephant.

Thread painting can be done in a number of ways. Some artists stitch over a preprinted design on fabric, or paint something themselves that they then stitch over. Others draw a design on water-soluble material, lay it on top of fabric, and stitch through both layers. The water-soluble material is then removed. A third type involves stitching through water-soluble material onto tulle, in order to create delicate lace. Almost all forms of thread painting use a sewing machine.

Thread painting by fibre artist Jan Rickman. This piece is stitched onto a
hand-dyed background.

Although much thread painting is similar to machine embroidery on fabric, the type I decided to try for today's elephant involved stitching directly onto a water-soluble material. Once the design was complete, I would soak the piece in water to remove the backing, leaving me with fabric composed entirely of thread. That was the plan, anyway.

This was the brand of water-soluble material I bought, which feels a bit like non-woven interfacing. I remembered someone telling me that there are certain brands that rinse away more completely than others, but I wasn't sure if this was one of them.

Because I'd never tried thread painting before, I looked up a couple of tutorials online. I found this set of printed instructions useful, and these. A "thread painting" search on YouTube turns up a number of helpful tutorials as well. My favourite was a Nancy Prince video called "Stitches with Attitude", but it wouldn't upload here.

I started, as all the instructions suggest, by putting a piece of the water-soluble material into an embroidery hoop—upside-down to how I'd normally use it. The hoop apparently makes it easier to manoeuvre the piece of embroidery around in the sewing machine.

Next, I drew a loose rectangle and sketched an elephant shape onto it.

I decided to tackle the background first, which I thought would look interesting in multiple shades of green. The stitching method is rather weird, to be honest. For those of you who sew, you don't use the presser foot or pretty much any other kind of guide or tool. The needle just sort of goes up and down and floats wherever it wants, unless you're fairly careful to guide it with your hands. I didn't like this rather chaotic approach. Then again, if you use a presser foot, you can't see what you're doing at all.

I started with a forest green, making a bunch of loose vertical lines.

Next, I layered over these with an olive green. I really had no clue what I was doing, but I did like the interplay of colours. I was less fond of the way the water-soluble material stuck to the needle sometimes.

I also discovered that the water-soluble stuff has a marked tendency to tear if it's subjected to any strain at all. The elephant actually began ripping away from the background. This made me think that it might be a good idea to start laying in the elephant—if for no other reason than to secure the elephant and background to one another.

Stitching the elephant part just about made me toss the thing in the corner. I had mistakenly used inexpensive thread, which wrought havoc on my sewing machine's ability to stitch anything sensibly. It skipped stitches, broke the thread more times than I could count, and both bobbin and top thread became hopelessly tangled at least a dozen times.

When the elephant was roughed in, it was so lumpy, ugly, and stringy-looking that I began thinking I should have had a backup plan for today's elephant.

After a restorative cup of tea, I decided that I'd had enough of the freeform-no-presser-foot business. Accordingly, I put the presser foot back on, and began running lines of stitching all through the elephant. This tidied it up considerably. The downside was that I couldn't clearly see what I was doing most of the time.

Once I'd more or less repaired the grey of the elephant, I added a couple more shades of green to the background. I stuck to a vertical pattern, except around a few tricky corners. I also had the sinking feeling that the vertical lines might not overlap enough to keep them from shredding apart when the water-soluble stuff was rinsed away, So I added a few sweeping lines of green across the background.

To finish up the elephant, I added a bit of pink in the ears and mouth, a bell and necklace, and an eye. I also thought it needed a bit of definition in a couple of places, so I added a few single lines of black stitching.

This is what it looked like when it was still dry.

I was tempted to leave it at this and just clip off all the white stuff. But since I'd gone to all the trouble and trauma of using the water-soluble material, I decided to soak the piece in a bowl of hot water.

The instructions for the water-soluble material say to launder it. That was not going to happen with this particular piece, because I just knew I would end up with an unrecognizable wad of coloured thread.

I left it to soak for about an hour, occasionally rubbing off a bit of the water-soluble stuff, which becomes a bit like wet paper when soaked.

Eventually I'd had enough of that as well, and began running the piece under hot water. This still didn't remove every last shred of the water-soluble material, but it was at least presentable now.

The whole thread-painting process was highly irritating at times, but the result is interesting enough that I'll probably try it again. The final piece isn't as pretty as I'd hoped, but I may remedy that by adding a few beads and maybe a bit of hand embroidery, or even machine-stitch some darker grey to add a few shadows.

A few tips if you decide to try this:

1. Work on background and main design at the same time, or the water-soluble material will tear all over the place.

2. Keep extra bits of the water-soluble stuff on hand to lay under torn areas, then stitch over them.

3. Use good thread and sharp needles. The needles will become dull quickly, and the frustration of frayed thread and skipped stitches isn't worth the money you might save on cheap thread.

4. Make sure you have lots of thread on hand in your desired colours. My final piece measures only about 10 cm (4 inches) by 7.5 cm (3 inches), but I went through the combined equivalent of two 500-metre (550-yard) spools of thread. This activity is, however, a good way to use up weird colours you may have lying around.

5. Be prepared for your shape to deform along the way. Despite the fact that this was secured in an embroidery hoop, the water-soluble material is very fragile, with a tendency to shred and stretch. In my case, I went from a rectangle to something that looks like a template for a tiny lampshade.

This piece took me hours, so there is no way I'm trying it again anytime soon. On the other hand, I learned enough that I'm sure I will use this technique at some point. Next time on something even smaller, and with top-of-the-line thread.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants are known for their intelligence, but not much is written about their ability to assess a problem and find a solution.

In 1922, W. Henry Sheak, who had worked around elephants most of his life, wrote about a large female Asian elephant with the Ringling Brothers menagerie. This particular elephant was often used as a "pushing elephant", manoeuvring wagons into place with her head.

One morning, the assistant superintendent of the menagerie used the elephant to push a heavy wagon across a muddy lot. At one point, the wagon got hopelessly mired in the mucky ground. Unfortunately, the more the elephant pushed, the deeper the wheels sank.

The elephant pushed for a minute or two, then stopped, stepped back and eyed the vehicle. To Sheak's astonishment, the elephant then stepped forward and reached down with her trunk. Heaving one of the wheels free while pushing with her head, she freed the wagon in no time.

Asian elephant pushing a wagon in Australia, ca. 1908.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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