Janet Haigh : Her Work

Textiles: ideas, drawing, design, stitching….

I make no apologies that for this long and detailed post of my most recently published commission, the nature of the commissioning aspect of my work makes for total secrecy until the publishing dates, in this case July 4th 2019. As I am now working on several more commissioned projects of different types of work it is a relief to actually show the work behind ‘Her Work’. I started this particular commission in June 2018, here is the story so far….

A phone call for my brother-in law, Howard Jacobson, in the spring of 2018: Was I interested in stitching an illustration or possibly (who knows) a book cover for his next novel? This sounded an unlikely combination, an embroidered cover for one of his irreverent and caustic novels?

He quickly explained that the book was about a very old woman, Beryl, with a very selective memory, much married, cantankerous and given to expressing herself in expletives; an obsessive stitcher of morbid samplers and scenes from her life. But this story was about her late flowering love affair with a just slightly younger bachelor, Shimi, who forgets nothing; they are both in their 90’s. I was immediately intrigued, not least by the choice of embroideries within the novel, they sounded familiar – I said yes.

I read the novel on my computer and immediately started to research hearts, skulls, playing cards and typefaces for name and title.
The lettering used for the author’s name came very quickly, I took the negative/positive block idea straight from a 1960’s American needlepoint alphabet book.

Next Howard and I met with the publishers at Jonathan Cape Vintage, who having accessed images from this blog, were ready to discuss their ideas for a cover. Basically they wanted a traditional sampler with the author’s name at the top of the page, the title beneath and some of my broken & mended heart imagery and the regular sampler border. They gave me the dimensions of the actual book wrapper and a month to come up with samples and ideas.

Later that day Howard and I discussed what he might want me to focus on, death, blood, destruction, worms, spiders, cobwebs, skulls and decay….

samples following conversation with author

I started to experiment with different letter forms; cursive italics for the title set against the simple strong text for the author’s name. I particularly liked an alphabet that used positive and negative forms for the name. The use of different alphabets is a major a feature of traditional samplers. For the “LIVE” I wanted cursive, italics written in capitals, these ideas that were important to me as I saw this forward bold energetic word as a symbol for whole message of the book. Then ‘a little” obviously needed be lower case and static. Finding and fitting the larger letter forms into the small space available was tricky, so I decided to stagger them – I liked the ‘dance’ they made.

My first cover designs below, featured skulls and broken hearts for Beryl. My second used playing cards and suits, for Shimi.

Both designs had to work to scale for my chosen gauge of counted thread linen, and both had to be incorporated into the 2 wrapper design ideas that I eventually sent to the publishers. Regardless of which design the publishers eventually chose, I had fastened on my colour scheme, red and black, stitched on neutral linen. I set to work on the back cover…using the boneless Buddhist hand used in many of my earlier embroidered mending mottoes.

At the publisher’s meeting everyone had liked my idea of the thread wrapping around the entire cover to incorporate the ‘blurb’ on front and back covers. Here with original boneless stitching hand is the ‘skulls’ cover.

and the ‘cards’ cover

Above are the 2 working ideas drawn to scale and up for discussion, that I sent in July to the publishers. I also sent these images to Howard to keep him in the loop, and for his comments…he replied with “Where are all her rings? She wore lots of rings, they were important to her”

Back to the drawing board and if he wanted such characterful detail then I needed to age the hands as well and introduce and ‘old gold’ thread.

my drawings showing the original Buddhist hands and eventually the jewellery placed onto a drawing of my own hand, with fabulous false nails!
drawing I used to trace for the embroidery

Meanwhile the publishing team had their own comments – and while really liking the entire concept, choosing the skulls (yippee) and approving the writing for the author’s name (which meant I could make a start on the actual piece of work) they and the marketing team thought the title was illegible and did not like the title block…not at all.

I was able to start work on the cover with the approved alphabet

They countered with their own version of my design…

I really liked the way they had translated the meandering thread around the whole cover but was disheartened and disappointed with their new design of the same blocked alphabet for the title and the ‘dancing skulls’. BUT the stitching goddess was at hand – it just could not be stitched in this technique at this scale.

Counted thread embroidery relies on mathematically calculated 1 square per stitch for any design. Anything at an odd angle is difficult, as are curves on such a small scale. There were only 2 sizes of stitch available on this linen for my design. I sent sample images to illustrate the point.

A long and detailed set of emails, more images of sample stitching and new lettering bounced back and forth for some time….

Above are the last 2 versions of the new one line of LIVE lettering, I was not happy to lose the italic version of leaning forward letters in order to show energy and I particularly mourned the loss of the energetic capital ‘A’ in the final cover, but by now it looked defunct – hey ho – a successful design is almost always a successful compromise

So I completed the embroidery, placed a real needle in the stitched hand leaving the red thread loose for the photographer’s placement, starched and stretched it and sent it off . Several weeks later it came back, they wanted the title stitched on the spine….remember the problem of the size of the linen count? Keep up!

the computer generated version of the spine form publisher – sadly not possible on this gauge linen

back to the calculations, I had only one option, one stitch per thread…….

re-spaced and counted spine text, 1 stitch per thread.

I must admit that the people I dealt with at the publishers, Suzanne Dean and Rosie Palmer were really helpful to work with but throwing this at me this was quite a challenge….after much more re-calculation and manoeuvring between Rosie and me, we finally achieved the finished design for the spine .

front and back cover of finished embroidery.

The finished back of the book cover has an extra border, making it very rich and even more ornate. I really like the effect of the shadows for the loose thread.

And in an early and very favourable review of the book in the Jewish Chronicle, says on the very last line:

The novel’s brilliant cover tells it all: hearts and skulls, love and death“.

and now an image for once of current work – new title for the Italian edition of the novel – I have yet to stitch the spine….

 


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Flower show quilt

Flower Show Quilt

garden illo leaflet

The following post explains why I have been silent for several months since completing the quilt for Kaffe…I have been working on the bedding for Sleep Well (a garden that was designed by Julie Dunn for the RHS summer flower show at Tatton Hall in Cheshire) since early in the year..it was quite a challenge.

daybed trial

Early April and I had my first glimpse of the bed and canopy so now I had the precise (I thought) measurements, I needed to proceed with sorting out the bedding and the patchworks….

Pinning the illustration to the quilt wall I started to make the quilt – it was very big, appox. 2 metres square and all colour co-ordinated to the chosen plants.

quilt top1

the finished quilt top ready for the borders

by early May and I was getting on well with the quilt, the top was finished, I had designed a large border as a sort of valance to cover the unsightly drop-down bed legs of the day bed. However I realised that this would  not now work as the arms of the bed stopped the  border being  attached to the quilt. I drew some versions of how I could design my way forward and sent the sketches to Julie…

bed1

It sounds absolutely mad but Velcro became the solution to this first of my many design dilemmas.

However the next dilemma was although more simply sorted out it was  time consuming. Julie could not find a plant that was a major lynch-pin of her planting design, Sanguisora that is a brilliant pinky purple colour …..and  we had perfectly matched a fabric in the centre of the quilt to it….so back to the un-picker and sewing machine,

By mid-May the valance/border desperately needed to be designed and made – this took a lot of thought as I was now designing by the seat of my pants, working with Julie as she was getting news of her specially grown plants from the nursery and seeing the reality of how they all looked together. My colours needed to be softened considerably..not easy using when using the Kaffe Fassett Collective ranges!!!

valance

I was still undecided as to what the valance should be applied to, even if it was with Velcro, it was either to the quilt or the fitted sheet and I had to decide now as our dress rehearsal was looming in late June and I still had to organise the mattress covers, the pillows and the canopy – why oh why did I imagine this would just be a simply made and straightforward project ?

But she was correct, her choice worked best! but not everything fitted – the mattresses  were a tad wide after my oh so careful measuring- so we had to cut them down and recover them. Hey ho!

matress

when I got home it was all systems go, 3 weeks to the show and I had lots to do. BUT first the small patchwork cushion that would help pull all the different bedding and quilt  fabrics together – and such a pleasure in the face of all the work ahead

cushion

and so eventually to the show…Julie had already spent 2 hot and humid weeks with the help of her family planting the garden

 

 

 

The champagne tent beckoned but sadly we dared not visit it

julie bed

end of the day before judging

The judging day arrives

judges

the judges checking under the bed – yikes

Relief all round, the girls all pile on the bed for photographs and Julie models the perfect dress chosen for the garden!

 

tatton garden silver

And our award?

medalnot bad for  her company Trug’s first garden design at any show, let alone the RHS.

Edit

 


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Embroidering a Thangka

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the last stitching on the inner halo of textile Tangka

I enjoy working to commission, there are several pluses: someone actually wants my work and is willing to pay for it, I get a clear idea of the task ahead during discussions into the personal likes/wants/needs of the commissioner and I also get a time limit. The designer side of me likes working to deadlines as I can choose the type of techniques best suited to that limit and to the fee charged for the work.  But best of all – I work with a sense of purpose – not my own purpose as usual – so this lets me off the hook of why am I doing this? where will I place it? Is it a worthwhile use of my time and energy?

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A Tibetan Buddhist Thangkha

I was shown a painted Thangka by a friend,  who practices the strict discipline of Tibetan Buddhism; he also showed me an image of the Primordial Buddha ( the Buddha with his female partner Samantabadri, signifying the union of wisdom and compassion) that his partner found particularly resonant, she has a small postcard pinned up of it in her study. He wanted it translating into a fully formed Thangka……and asked me if I would like to attempt it – as her birthday present.

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first fabric search for making the embroidery

Looking at the wealth of fabrics surrounding the Tibetan paper image that he brought, I was enthralled. I suddenly  knew why I kept all my old fabrics, silver woven saris, Japanese and Chinese silk brocades – to use for this glorious commission. I showed him several of the fabrics I had that I thought would work as the frame, I precisely measured the large Thangka and gleaned as much information as I could about the meaning and purpose of the image chosen and Thangkas in general. I made a “worst scenario” price and it was accepted….

To calculate a real price and make an estimate of my time to fulfill the deadline – some 6 weeks ahead – I first made a tracing of the art work

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traced and squared-up photocopied image

and then a full-scale working drawing, the sampling for this would decide how I would work the piece: the techniques, the fabrics and the overall time it could possibly take.

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scaled up working drawing

Basically the smallest detail will decide the quality of the work, how and with what can I stitch this to look its best. within the budget and the time limit?  I now knew the work ahead of me, I emailed with the news and the price, roughly half the original cost –  happily it was  accepted and extra thrown in for the use of my beautiful metal woven antique fabrics….how good is that?

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real gold leaf for the “halo”

I must say that the fabrics materials I used for this work were really sumptuous,real gold leaf for the 2 bands of light surrounding the figures. by some alchemy I had every piece of material needed in my own stash; the gold leaf and threads, the heavy silk brocades were in the perfect colours. Later in the project a few would have to be hand painted and dyed.

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gilded silk bands of light pinned to studios wall.

The colours were kept brilliant by my own choice as I knew the taste of the person I was making this for  – she really loves strong colours,  so I did not soften them to look old, which is how the original image  appeared. The gold really shone threatening to dominate the entire piece – but it would become more worn as I made the work.

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machine applique for the silk halos prior to stitching on the figures

Each element had to be made and slotted in the whole composition – like a jigsaw puzzle.

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Samantabadri cut from pure silk satin with hand stitched silk hair

The simplicity of the figures lent themselves to machine applique, not my forte, but quicker by far than hand embroidering them –  and I can manage quite accurate  applique by machine.

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the appliqued figures embrace one another

On the original post card the outer edge of the flower garland surrounding the figures  had been cut off – I had to invent a large area of the embroidery based on just a few flower buds at the top of the picture I set about dyeing raw silk for appliqueing the petals of the white lotus flowers

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hand dyed raw silk for petals of the lotus flower garland

The lotus flowers were bonded into position, petal by petal with leaves underpinning them into a garland which were then machine stitched in a gold flecked thread.

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petal of lotus flowers bonded into position

the whole halo area was hand stitched in a dull gold thread to illustrate the rays emanating from the Buddha and his partner.

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the inner image is complete

now the s of the thangka had to be made – I had all sorts of different ideas for using my wonderful silver woven fabrics …but they had other ideas – traditionally the first 2 bands are gold and red – with a dreaded bias seam at the corners I sewed this by hand so that I get perfect alignment. also I had noticed of several fabric surrounds that the fabrics were pieced to make the lengths necessary – a common practice where fabrics are appreciated for their own beauty and worth.

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bias cut joined woven silver silk fabrics for frame.

The remaining strips of the frame just came together very simply, I found that I had just about enough of each material I wanted to use – and where I didn’t I researched the traditional Thangkas for ideas of how to make them work together.

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machine stitching the seams of the frame together.

There was one area that really gave me some problems though – the area below the image has often an apron or square of fabric but whatever i chose just dominated the whole piece. I tried several colours and systems, but eventually after dyeing an old silver brocade a dull turquoise green, I found the perfect solution to the surround.

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For a more in-depth, behind the scenes, version of this post, please  go to the Commissions pages of the site.


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Dog Project

Last month at a party in London and  I was asked by Anne Coggle, a friend of the hosts, if we ( Steve my husband and I) would like to make a piece of work each for a charity which she supported; when she explained that it was the Dog Project, ( information available at simon@dogprojectart.org) I accepted at once. I had seen the earlier Dog Project which was for Great Ormond Street Hospital, Boil, the dog was originally drawn by a child being treated there. I was delighted to be offered the chance to get involved apart from the obvious enjoyable contribution to a good cause – most of the currently fashionable artists and designers had made works for the last project, as well as many children from the hospital.

first doodle for making Boil into a fox terrier.

The new charity is for The Evelina Children’s Hospital which features on YouTube. After a few weeks 2 packages arrived for us, each containing a small stretched canvas with an outline drawing of Boil, and there were  several more copies on very good quality drawing paper –  to practice on, how thoughtful; plus  lots of information and illustrations of other works inspired by Boil.

From the moment Ann mentioned the project I knew I had to embroider him, but how? My first idea was to make him into a Wire Haired Fox Terrier and I immediately started doodling on the letter head as I was checking the package out. But Boil had too much character to be dismissed so easily.

drawing for a crazy patchwork version of Boil.

I considered what a strange shape he was and realised that he could be made up in patches, so a crazy patchwork was the obvious answer – and as it is a children’s charity it would make a cheerful, colourful and hopefully saleable work when  eventually auctioned

Meanwhile Steve got on with his version, he saw him as a sort of Henry Moore sculpture on the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London – aren’t imaginations amazing?

drawings and reference for Boil aloft on the 4th Plinth

when I look at the finished works they are so amusing and telling. Here in response to the exact same project our two completely different visions and characters are illustrated; he is all cool, finely modelled academic drawing..

Boil on the 4th plinth, pencil drawing. Steve Jacobson

while I am all clashing colour , riotous pattern and wonky decoration….

Crazy Boil embroidered patchwork Janet Haigh

but both works exhibit various aspects of the good humour we share.

If you are interested in getting involved in working on a dog portrait for this project please contact Simon Freeman on simon@dogprojectart.org for more information and please say you heard it from here.