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….