Posted on

Inspirations Mekong Cruise – First post!

A few of you have asked why I haven’t done a blog post on the Inspirations Mekong Embroidery cruise. It was fabulous and so well organised, deserving of more than one post and I’m going to do something soon. I have had a problem though and to explain myself, the first thing I’m going to post is the email that I sent to our vet friend yesterday evening. Enjoy, and don’t be appalled. It happens and it is completely and utterly my fault.

” Flop,

I am going to tell you a long, sorry story. Whilst reading it, you may question my reasons for telling you. They will become clear.

I spent part of November in Cambodia and Vietnam, teaching on a cruise on the mighty Mekong River. Fascinating, amazing, an assault on the senses. All of them, particularly the sense of smell because although we were on a five-star boat with everything that entails, it was basically floating on the widest sewerage drain you are ever likely to encounter. After that was over four of us went up to Hanoi and then over to Ha Long Bay for a 3-day, 2-night additional cruise. We treated ourselves, because you can’t go to Vietnam and not go to what is quite possibly the most beautiful spot in the world.

Those two countries do not have a square inch to spare. Everywhere, other than the shoulders of the roads, is either inhabited or cultivated. In fact, even the shoulders of the roads have motorbikes buzzing along, each carrying four to six persons and a load of building materials. Apparently they drive on the right hand side of the road, but you could never tell that by looking. They drive wherever there is a gap. Full of people, hot, humid, very tropical and really rather dirty. I had promised the dogs before I left that I would be careful of what meat I ate. I kept that promise. No street food, the rumour is they eat dogs there. You are jostled in crowded streets, there is litter, most buildings could do with a coat of paint and everything is ‘cheek by jowl’. It was wonderful. An experience that I was privileged to have had.

I got home on the 2nd of December and on the 5th of December I started itching. Initially it was thought that I was having an allergic reaction to penicillin because I’d had an ongoing tooth abscess problem. The antibiotic was changed, the tooth was extracted on the Thursday and I still itched. On the Sunday evening I took myself off to Mediclinic emergency, desperately looking for relief. I was given a cortisone drip, an anti-histamine injection and one or two other things, but still nothing changed. By this time I was covered in spots, pretty much everywhere. Went to my own doctor on the Wednesday, he upped the cortisone and provided me with soothing lotions. They didn’t soothe, nothing changed. I was back on the Sunday and now – because I’ve been in South East Asia – I am treated for scabies, head lice and every other kind of vermin on the list. No change. My skin is feeling raw and I’m thinking these things survived Napalm and Agent Orange in the 70s, they must be extra resistant. Back on Tuesday, next available medication not in stock and a suggestion is made by one of the pharmacists that dog dip might help. Wendy and one of your colleagues may have told you that I had popped in to buy some. Somewhat wide-eyed, your colleague had not wanted to record it for human consumption. I said, put it down for Gladness who is the most likely member of our armed response team to have got mange, because of her heritage. He did. It was reasonably soothing – of all of them the most helpful – but still no real change. I continue to scratch, desperately.

By now my doctors are saying that we need a dermatologist, but it’s two days before Christmas and theirs being a non-emergency speciality, they’ve all gapped it to an Indian Ocean island, or wherever it is they go to escape acne and dermatitis over the festive season. So, I’m put on Tramacet, which I gather is the last stop before morphine, to dull the itch and I continue with all the cortisone, anti-histamines and lotions that aren’t working. The first half of each day, after I’ve been awoken from my Zolpidem induced (only four or five hours) disturbed sleep by the itch at about 4 in the morning and have dosed myself, I manage quite well but from mid-afternoon and every evening there is an eruption. Christmas is desperate, New Year no better. All that I’m doing is waiting for just one of the dermatologists to come back from wherever they are, I’m sitting in a corner scratching like a mongrel dog, drinking far too much red wine every evening because it helps, chain smoking and wild eyed. Two inches from an asylum. We’ve also fogged the house twice, brought in the steam cleaners, the washing machine is overworking with sheets and towels being changed daily. Handsome son says he feels dirty. You know, my mother went to Asia and didn’t even bring me a t-shirt. Just scabies.

At lunch time today I finally saw a dermatologist, and that is why I’m telling you this long sorry story, and because you once asked me for a report back on a new product. She’s taken a sample of skin, I have two stitches in my back and I will get the results on Thursday – but in the meantime, she is fairly sure of a probable diagnosis.

Between returning from Australia in October and leaving for SE Asia, I was frantic. We were in the middle of that dreadful postal strike, parcels had gone astray, we were organising couriers, resending orders, tearing our hair out. My new book is proving popular and that didn’t help. But got it all sorted out, hopped on SA Airlink to Johannesburg where I later strapped myself into Cathay Pacific, took off for Hong Kong and heaved a sigh of relief. Had got it all done.

But I hadn’t.

When I returned about three weeks later, on the first night I was home, I noticed that the dogs were crawling with fleas. I had forgotten to give them their flea tablets. Too preoccupied with getting myself and my passport off to the exotic East. Tail in between my legs, feeling ashamed, I dosed them with Comfortis there and then. Do you know where I’m going with this?

The fleas jumped off them and, not wanting to jump back because of Flop’s Marvelous Muti, infested the house and mostly, the chair I sit in every evening. I recall a few flea bites, one or two, nothing major. But, basically, I’ve had an allergic reaction to fleas which should only have lasted about three weeks, but for the fact that they are in my favourite chair and contribute a bit more saliva or whatever every evening. I haven’t seen a single flea, of course, and I have been checking for every kind of insect, believe me.

I am now on new medication, more lotions and, if the biopsy says that the dermatologist is correct, after itching to near-insanity for one full month (exactly a month, as it happens) there is light at the end of the tunnel. Swat Pest Control have been phoned with a request for a deep, deep fumigation and I await a confirmed day from them, that infested chair has been moved out of the TV lounge and my general state of mind is back on track so that I can finish the book I’m writing by the end of this month.

And your report back? Comfortis is good, too #&%$ing good. We will continue to use it – of course we will. It’s amazing. However, don’t. Do not break the cycle. Particularly in summer. I’ve learnt my lesson.

We must arrange a dinner date. Soon.

Kind rgds Hazel”

Posted on

Rumours and Strikers

I tend not to belong to organisations like Guilds or women’s clubs like Book Clubs.

I did join some of these things when I was younger but didn’t last very long because they just weren’t for me. I tend to want to get on with things on my own and I can’t be doing with all the time that is wasted talking around problems when they could be solved in an instant with logical thought and decisive action. If I am to be honest, though, the main reason why I tend to keep away is because I don’t do gossip, rumour and scandal. I just don’t. I’m not interested. If you tell me something it is likely to go nowhere because usually I forget it within a moment, and even if I do remember it I don’t pass it on because that would either be unkind or dishonest. Because let’s face it, most of what is passed on by people who love to spread rumour is, at worst, completely untrue or, at best, has become rather blurred along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint. I am a straight talker and I have a foul mouth. So foul, in fact, that when I developed a tooth abscess with a swollen face in Australia recently, my fellow South African teachers who accompanied me to a Medical Centre to find a Doctor, came to a general consensus (while I was in his consulting room) that it was because my foul mouth had finally erupted! They were probably correct and I agreed with them. But if I were to choose between the vices, I know I would rather that the words coming out of my mouth were interspersed with a few choice ones than that they were untrue or hypocritical.

I live in a smallish city that has only one representative for each of the brands of sewing machines that are available. The previous owner of the shop that represents one of the brands was a person whom I liked very much. I got on well with her because, like me, she didn’t mince words. If she could do something for you she told you and if she couldn’t, she said so. She was never rude (she was too much of a lady for that) but she didn’t have time for unreasonable requests or complaints and she didn’t pamper anyone. And that’s why the local Guilds said terrible things about her.

That business has now changed hands and I am hearing that they now don’t like the husband of the woman who has bought it. I’m not really entitled to an opinion because I’ve only been in there once since the changeover and I haven’t met the man. I am, however, willing to bet that they were looking for faults and were waiting to pounce the moment he put one foot wrong. Because that is what a pack does. Although pounce is not really the correct word. Their methods are more insidious than that. Whatever word you use, though, it is unkind and potentially very damaging to a business that is, after all, supplying their needs and, as far as I can see, doing it well.

Over the years I have seen doctors’ careers damaged and shops being forced to downscale because of vicious rumours that started in embroidery classes, Guilds and book clubs. Just this week I was told that a friend of mine, who has recently been very ill, was poisoned by her husband. Can you believe that? What sorts of minds dream up these things? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that they are minds that are not sufficiently occupied. They hear something, add a little bit of their own stuff, embroider on it and pass it on. Very quickly.

But onto the reason why I decided to write this post in the first place. This week I received this in an email:

“I was talking to a friend who was in your class at Country Bumpkin (how I would have loved to be there) and she mentioned errors in the plaid instructions. Have you done an errata at all?”

She is, of course, referring to the workshops I did recently at Beating Around The Bush in Adelaide, Australia. A wonderful event, truly wonderful and one you should all put onto your bucket list.

The plaid instructions she talks about are the weaving stitches that feature in my new book, Crewel Intentions, and there are no errors. None whatsoever, or certainly not any that we have picked up since publication in June. We are, of course, all simple human beings and everyone is fallible, so it is perfectly possible that something will come to light in the future. But for now, no. As far as we aware there no errors in the weaving instructions.

So I guess what I am doing is appealing to you. If you hear this story, please scotch the rumour for my sake, the sake of my publishers and for the sake of those shops that are stocking the book. It’s not fair to any of us.

And now that we have that out of the way, on a slightly different subject, I would like to thank all of our customers who have been so patient while we have been dealing with the protracted postal strike that we are having to endure. I think it’s sitting at about 11 weeks and counting. All of our parcels, but for one, have reached their destinations and we are using couriers to get our parcels out. Their rates are excellent and in many cases, cheaper than the post office – so guess who we will be recommending in the future. Because their service is excellent. They can’t, however, match the post office rates on lighter international parcels and we are asking our customers to hold back if they want to place small orders.

The news from the post office is that they have now obtained a High Court Interdict against the worst of the strikers, which prevents them from intimidating those that want to go to work, and that sorting has started again in many of the main sorting centres. They aren’t yet running at optimal levels so as soon as the contact (that took me two weeks to find) emails me to tell me that anything we post will run smoothly through the system, I will be emailing everyone on my list to suggest they go ahead. In the meantime, the post office shipping option is disabled on the website and the only choice is Aramex Couriers.

If you want to place a small order (or even a bigger one) you are welcome to send us a list of what you would like. We will work out the comparative rates for you and, also, if there is a huge difference and you choose to wait, we will add your name to the list of those we need to inform once this post office nightmare is just a distant bad dream.

Posted on

The Digital Age and Embroidery Magazines

Since the advent of the internet and the advances that it has made, particularly with regard to publishing, it’s a subject that comes up regularly. I am often asked if (and when) my books, designs and patterns will be available in digital format. My answer is always no they won’t be. Not for now, anyway. There are few reasons for that.

The first is my favourite gripe. Theft. If you spend time in the company of young men who are computer savvy you very quickly learn from them how easy it is to get anything you want off the internet. It’s all out there from movies, television series, books, magazines……. The only thing that would stop you from committing wholesale theft is your own ethics. Because nothing else is going to put the brakes on your actions.

The other thing that might stop you would require deeper reflection.

For all of my life books and magazines have been a source of inspiration. From embroidery to home decoration, cooking to gardening (well maybe not cooking and gardening, I do as little of those two as I can possibly get away with), I have bought magazines and books to inspire and instruct me. It is not how I learnt to embroider, but it is how I have expanded my knowledge of stitches and techniques. If it wasn’t for books and magazines I wouldn’t know the name of, say, a Roman Blind, let alone how to make one. I would still be calling a Festoon Blind ‘one of those puffy blind things’. I would not know the difference between a duvet, bed spread or comforter and, and, and…….. These are not things that you necessarily learn from your mother or grandmother because they came from a time when there was less interplay between the regions and cultures of the world. They didn’t think there was a difference!

It is magazines and books that keep all of us up to date, inspire us and tell us about things we’ve not heard of before. And for that to happen there have to be teams of people gathering that information and putting it together in tempting publications. These teams of people need to make a living. If readers are going to steal digital copies off the internet or pilfer in the old fashioned way by photocopying their friends’ magazines and books, it goes without saying that these teams of publishers can no longer sell enough copies of their publications to make a decent living and will cease to exist.

The next reason why I reject the idea of embroidery books and magazines in digital format is because for me, personally, I want the real thing in my hand.

When it comes to novels and other books that are ‘just words’, my Kindle is my favourite device. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it might be the best gadget that I have acquired in recent years. I read before I go to sleep every night and when I’m travelling, reading is the treat that I give to myself in order to endure long haul flights and interminable waiting at airports. I can take all the books that I might want to read on a trip in one handy little device that fits in my bag and I whip it out the moment I am seated on an aircraft, or in an airport lounge. The same goes for my iPad. Quite apart from sending and receiving emails, I read the ‘newspapers’ on this little gadget before I get out of bed every morning. I use it as my telephone directory, my dictionary and my encyclopaedia. It’s also meant that I can live a relatively paper-free life. Documents that I need to refer to often are not printed. They are stored on my tablet and referred to from there. It’s always on, always connected and constantly in use.

But not for embroidery books or magazines. I have bought precisely one digital embroidery book and subscribed only once to a digital embroidery magazine. In each instance, I didn’t go back for more choosing, instead, to purchase the real thing. It’s just not the same when its on a screen. It needs to be on paper, not shining out from a screen that decides to switch itself off all too regularly. I think that, even those who have chosen to go completely digital, would agree with me if they tried it, instead of just thinking about it. Yes, it’s slightly cheaper in digital format but it’s not the same and I am always prepared to pay the extra to have the hard copy shipped to me.

The proliferation of digital publishing coupled with the state of the world’s economies means that times are tough for publishers of magazines and books, particularly if their subject is as ‘niche’ as embroidery. Fabulous magazines have disappeared off the shelves, never to return. They are the victims of the fallout caused by the adjustment to the internet. I suppose there has to be an adjustment but I find it rather sad that these publications had to go for that to happen and I’m not sure that there is yet anything that has proven to be a suitable replacement.

One that remains, for now, is Inspirations Magazine. Probably because they have always been, for me, the best of the bunch. On Friday, however, they sent out a call for help. If they don’t manage to increase their subscriptions in the near future they, too, will go the way of the others. And we can’t let this happen.

I’m not a person who supports lost causes and I don’t believe that saving Inspirations Magazine falls into that category. It is worth saving not only for us but also for future embroiderers. If that magazine were no longer available to me, I would be very sad. It’s always a feast for the eyes, quite apart from the information it provides. The peripheral events too. Beating Around The Bush embroidery convention, needlework cruises, newsletters that keep us up to date on new products. If the magazine goes, those will too and it’s hard to imagine how much poorer we will be.

If you agree with what I’ve said in the previous paragraph and you are in a position to subscribe, or to give a gift subscription to someone special, get your credit card out of that dark place in your wallet and go to Click on all the right buttons and help to give Inspirations Magazine the power to continue publishing. It’s something worth fighting for.

Posted on

Bopha It With Wire

It suddenly seems that I have finished just about everything that I have to finish before I go off and pack my suitcases to fly over to Brisbane, Australia for Koala Conventions. I’m not sure how that’s possible and I fear that I’m suddenly going to remember that there is a whole body of work that I have to get through, but maybe not. Even if that is the case, I am nevertheless going to take some time to post on this blog.

Yesterday I received stock of my new book, Crewel Intentions, and we have been able to send out the first orders. It’s always an exciting time, to see it in print and to see Darren taking all of those parcels off to the post office – because people have actually ordered it, which means they want it. It’s a gratifying end to two years of hard work. But, at the same time, I am lucky to have the most fabulous publishers who take my ramblings on a memory stick and turn them into a work of art. It’s an ongoing friendly argument that I have with Metz Press who are always humble and will tell me every time that it’s the content that counts. I do know, though, that without their magic touch it would all be a bit mediocre and have very little outward appeal. No matter how good the content may or may not be.

But onto what I was thinking about this morning. The irritating things people say. Deliciously irritating pronouncements in every sphere of our lives, but oh so many of them, so I’m going to stick to embroidery pronouncements for the purposes of this post. Aside from mentioning my favourite irritating sentence about copyright (“But it’s so complicated.” It isn’t. Don’t copy. That’s not difficult, is it?), the most irritating of the lot is:

“It’s all very well to break the rules, but you must at least know them before you can break them”.

Imagine for a moment that you are woman born in the 16th, 17th, 18th century (it doesn’t matter which) and that you are adept with a needle and thread. Rather like you are in the 21st century, happy to sit for hours playing nicely, you’re passionate and you’re artistic. You’re not creating grand works of art, just embellishing your linen or your clothing. There is not a store of reference books out there as in the modern world so, having learnt techniques from your Grandmother or your Mother, you build on that.

You play with knots and loops, straight stitches and weaves. You go over and under, out and through, making different combinations and in doing so, keep yourself interested and inspired. Every now and then you might combine a few things that make up something that is truly inventive and inspiring to others. Your neighbour sees it and asks you to show her how. So you do, because you’re a woman and you share things. You don’t immedately run off to a patent office. That’s a man thing.

But back to your neighbour. Her best friend sees your little stitch combination, likes it and wants to do something similar, so your neighbour shows her. And so it goes on, until the whole community is doing it. Nobody knows who originally thought of it, and it doesn’t matter. It isn’t important. What is worth noting though, is that this is how regional styles would have developed. Combine this inventiveness with the fabric available in a time and place, the (much smaller) variety of yarns, the types of objects that were being embellished and you come out with your hardanger, your hedebo, your schwalm and so on.

Because travel was difficult, these stitch artists didn’t move around much. They spent their entire lives in one village and that is why, historically, many techniques can be pinpointed to a specific region or town. If they had travelled, all of these styles would have far more in common than they do. In fact, where an influence has crept in from somewhere else, the person who travelled and spread that influence is very often named and documented.

I don’t know when it happened, I suspect around the beginning of the 20th century, much of that evolution stalled. Researchers started documenting things and once a regional style was written about, it became set in stone. Those were the “rules” and they were enthusiastically adopted by people who like to form committees and become chairpersons. Thereafter, heaven help anyone who had a mind of her own and thought that she might like to inject a little of her own personality into her work. Or to combine her hardanger with a little bit of, oh who cares, pulled work. It didn’t matter if her finished product was beautiful, a masterpiece. It was wrong. It broke the rules and that was that.

If you want to recreate the embroideries from history, the rules will work for you but if you want to be inventive, innovative and a small cog in the evolution of hand embroidery, they are a pernicious thing and, sadly, they endure. They really do, despite what people claim. One of the reviews written – only two years ago – about my book Crewel Twists said something along the lines of “I have always admired crewel embroidery but was told I could only do it with wool, and I am allergic to wool, so have never done it. Now I can, because this book uses stranded cotton.” Now isn’t that sad? A whole genre of embroidery, one that to my mind is the most enjoyable of the lot, excluded from a person’s stitching pleasure because of the “rules”. That it took a short, plump, foul-mouthed South African author, one always covered in dog hair, to tell this reviewer that she could use something other than wool. I do hope that stitcher is now having a ball, using any kind of yarn that she chooses to create crewel or Jacobean shapes.

We live in rather a lawless society with a rather inept administration here on the tip of Africa and for that I am grateful. I suspect you have just gulped and asked yourself why I would be so stupid as to consider myself lucky to live in a place where the likelihood of being a victim of crime is so high, or a region where it is more difficult to get things done to one’s satisfaction. I’m going to tell you why.

It means that I have to think. I have to be guided by my own ethics, my own rules, not someone else’s idea of how I should behave. I have to find a way of coming by the things I need to do what I want to do. And if I can’t get those things, I have to find an alternative. Or invent one. I grew up on a farm in central Africa where it was usually impossible to purchase spare parts for farm implements on the one hand, and household appliances on the other. So, if something was broken and you couldn’t purchase a spare part, or didn’t have the time to wait for one to come from abroad, you would “bopha it with wire” (bopha is a Zulu word common to many African languages that means bind, tie together, etc.). It usually worked but, more importantly, it meant that we all had a mindset that said you can always find a way, albeit often an alternative one, to achieve an end. And that’s why I consider myself lucky.

It didn’t matter what the manufacturers instructions were, you couldn’t follow them because you didn’t have the wherewithal, so you made up your own rules. “Bopha it with wire” is a technique that I apply to my embroidery. I know what I want to create and I find a way to do it, whether it fits in with anachronistic rules or not. I bopha it with wire.

Which is why I find that aforementioned sentence so irritating. You don’t have to know the rules before you can break them. No. All you need to know is the techniques and once you know them, build on them, go mad, have fun, be creative and invent what you want to invent. In other words, bopha it with wire and continue the evolution of hand embroidery. Because it has stalled.

And now, off to pack my suitcase. Looking forward to meeting up with all you lovely Australians again next week.

Posted on

Crewel Intentions is almost here….

It’s almost here. The ship bringing the South African edition of my new book docked in Cape Town on Monday and as soon as it has landed in the warehouse, boxes of books will be sent up to me. I hope to receive them by the end of next week.

This is what it looks like, and if you go back to my January post, you can see what’s inside it.

It doesn’t matter how many books or articles one writes, it’s always exciting to see it in print and so, we decided that a brand new website was in order. Aside from any celebratory reasons, the present website has been too complicated and customers have often had problems registering and shopping.

My son, known to many of you as Dude, is one of our local experts in this field. He has written a new website from scratch, coding it to my specific instructions. Those instructions being that it should be user friendly. That our customers are not teenage boys who know how to hack into systems that I dare not mention here, in case I am tagged by, say, the military. It will go live tomorrow, or the next day, and existing customers may receive an email asking them to update their details. This so that you will be able to shop with ease. Not just for the new book, but also for all the packs that you will need to complete the projects.

It is entirely possible that problems can still occur, but we will be on alert asking you to bear with us while they are ironed out. We’re pretty smart down here on the tip of Africa and we get it right, but if we don’t sometimes, it’s not as if we are in the business of saving lives or taking care of someone’s life savings. It’s just embroidery and that does not constitute a medical or other emergency.

In the past we didn’t ask you to pay, instead sending you an invoice or Paypal notification. That will change as the website has been written to accommodate alerts to us if stock levels are low. It will calculate postage and ask you to pay either through Payfast, which will accommodate EFT for South African customers, or through Paypal for international customers. Please be assured that we have taken security very seriously, with both of these payment platforms being as secure as anything ever can be.

So, as soon as it is live, South African customers will be able to order the new book and the packs. Customers in the rest of the world will need to order the book through whatever channels you usually use – Amazon, Book Depository, Fishpond, etc. and of course, your local booksellers or needlework shop. I expect the books to be available to you from the end of this month. Packs can be ordered from our website. They’re all packed, ready and waiting for you.

On a very different note, I would like to apologise to anyone who has experienced glitches with their orders in the last few months. It is only one or two of you and it’s because for the better part of six months I have not had my eye on the ball as well as I should have. I’ve had a ten year shoulder niggle that finally got to the point where I was forced to do something about it after hurting it again in December. The comforting cortisone injection that usually did the trick had lost it’s zing and I had surgery in March. I have gained a new respect for anyone who goes through anything that involves cutting into the bone. In future I will be able to say, “I feel your pain” and really mean it.

Constant low-grade pain is exhausting and, if I’m to be completely honest, there were times when I just didn’t care what was going on in my studio. I sat around looking grim, feeling sorry for myself and I let Darren just get on with it. He really stepped up to the plate and has done a marvelous job, but there is too much for one person to cope with on their own and the odd thing slipped through.

I am now back up running, ready for everything that goes with the new book, the travel abroad and whatever else comes along. Even bought myself a new set of suitcases with four wheels, instead of two, so that I can push, not pull. I still can’t get my left arm around to the back to do up my most necessary piece of underwear, but have solved that by doing up the hooks first, stepping into it as if it were a pair of trousers, then pulling it all the way up. My family laugh at me, but it works! And I’m sure they were tired of being asked to do up the hooks even if, bless them, they never complained. Well, my husband didn’t. If I was forced to ask my son he did it uncomplainingly, but with very long arms.

The main thing is, the light has started shining at the end of the tunnel and I am back to full speed in the important areas.

Posted on

Little Flowers……..

It is so easy, as an embroiderer, to get caught up in only what one has around oneself. It may be the work being done by the ladies that are attending either your own class, or the same class as you. Maybe it is what you see at the Guild meetings that you attend or what is published in the books and magazines that you (and everyone else in your circle) are buying. What is going on in your life, embroidery-wise, is the same as everyone else in your town. Which is why I consider myself fortunate. I do embroidery-travel to many parts of the world, usually with my friend and fellow embroidery artist, Di van Niekerk

Don’t for one minute think that it is glamorous. It isn’t. There is nothing less seductive than two grubby middle-aged women pulling heavy suitcases around Dubai airport at six in the morning. Crumpled individuals, with yesterday’s teeth, who have walked off a cramped overnight flight, have to find their onward connection, have no idea where to go and mostly stand around looking confused. This is the picture I get in my mind when acquaintances and friends, who know that I travel a lot, suggest that I am a member of the jet-set. Oh please! But, after the long-haul we land at a destination where we meet talented artists. Innovative master embroiderers who are inspired by what is going on in their own environment – always so different to our own.

On a trip to Russia in 2012 we met Marina Zherdeva, a talented silk ribbon artist. Her innovative works needed to be looked at again and again, because each time you looked, you saw another clever little thing that she had done. And now, as a result of their meeting up, Marina and Di van Niekerk have co-written a scrumptious book called “Little Flowers”.

It is so appealing. Each of the eight projects is small – maximum 15 x 15 cm – but the innovation, the new techniques, the interesting stitches in each of the projects is immense.

Di’s books have always included step-by-step photographs and Little Flowers is no different.

Along with a comprehensive stitch gallery at the back of the book,

each step of each project is, not only described in detail, but is accompanied by a clear colour photo.

I was privileged to have been asked to proof read this book. Part of the proof reading process involves making sure that the instructions make sense. Having gone through every word and chapter more than once, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is easy to understand.

The first four designs in the book were designed and stitched by Marina, whilst those in the second half are Di’s work. It is truly an international colaboration with its roots at opposite ends of the world.

The book uses Di’s hand painted ribbons throughout. The charm of these ribbons is that they are, in a sense, self-shading. This adds depth and interest to each flower, fruit or leaf.

For South African stitchers, the Metz Press edition will be available from Di van Niekerk’s website within days. It will also, in the near future, be available on Kalahari and Loot. For stitchers in other parts of the world, the Search Press edition will be available on Amazon, the Book Depository and the websites in your country that carry craft books. It will also be available at selected needlework stores.

Whilst each design is accompanied by a line drawing that you can trace onto fabric, if you are unsure of how to do this or would prefer a pre-printed panel, these are available on Di’s website. Each panel is screen-printed on Dupion silk, backed by cotton voile and overlocked around the edges. Ready for you to put into your hoop and start without any of the preparation fuss.

The hand-painted ribbons used throughout the book are also available on Di’s website, along with the threads, additional fibres and beads.

From the moment I received the first proof of this book, I knew that its charm lay in the fact that the projects are small and do-able with techniques that are very, very clever. Along with normal ribbon stitches, it shows you how to manipulate your silk ribbon to create three-dimensional flowers that look realistic and natural. It is a book for everyone from the beginner to the more accomplished stitcher.

If you are lucky enough to be attending Beating Around The Bush in Adelaide, Australia later this year, Di will be teaching the “Wild Roses and Pink Blossoms” on the 29th and 30th of September.

On the 2nd and 3rd of October, she will be teaching the “Chamomile” design pictured above

Treat yourself. It’s a beautiful book.

Posted on

A Jolly Funny Read………

Many of us, along with our passion for stitching, adore our pets. If the truth be told, they’re not really pets. They are our children. Anyone who knows me, or has done a workshop with me, will know that I talk a lot about my dogs and that, instead of carrying pictures of my husband and children in my wallet, I have pictures of my dogs on my iPad and will show them off to anyone who is prepared to look.

I have a good friend who, along with his wife, have been mates of ours for years and years. He is one of the veterinary surgeons that treats my animals whenever they need attention. I’ve always appreciated his sense of humour and the fact that, like me, he’s always up to a jolly good party. You know, the kind where you talk far too much rubbish, drink far too many glasses of whatever takes your fancy, and wake up with a very nasty headache the next morning. What I didn’t used to know, though, is how amusingly he writes

For a while he has been writing a weekly column in our local newspaper. Stories about the things that go on in the normal, everyday life of a vet in Africa. So different to the life of a practitioner in a first world suburban practise, they are sometimes close to the bone (that’s Africa for you), but always funny. His style of writing is such that you can picture exactly what he is talking about and you find yourself giggling while you read. And again when you read it a second time because it was so funny.

A few weeks ago he set up a blog and he will be posting, probably, a weekly article. And this week’s article is about our African dog.

I’ve always had Boxer dogs and will travel as far as I have to and pay as much as I need to for a fine puppy, but a few years ago my son and some friends rescued a pregnant African dog on the Wild Coast. We gave a home to one of the puppies she produced and the article is largely about her.

Her life with us so far has been an interesting and perplexing journey. I am however pleased to report that in the last six months or so she has obviously overcome all her genetic demons. She is confident, healthy, playful, a happy member of our dog family and much loved. Which means that if she were a project (which she isn’t) I would have to say that her growth might just be the most satisfying project that I have ever been involved in. And I have never known a dog to be as intelligent as Gladness appears to be. She’s amazing.

So, if you love your animals and like to read amusing animal stories, go to and read about our dog, Gladness. Then read the other articles that have been posted. Have a jolly good giggle and then subscribe so that you can have a heartwarming giggle every week or so.

Posted on

The Royal School Of Needlework: Sampler Competition

Last year I had the privilege of an insider’s tour of the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace near London. I wrote about it on this blog.

At the time, my overriding impression of the School was that of creativity combined with innovation, taking embroidery into the twenty first century without any of the stuffiness that one finds in Guilds and the organisations that set themselves up to judge handwork at Agricultural Shows. The ladies and gentlemen at the Royal School of Needlework are better placed than most to be fully aware of what has come before us, but this doesn’t hold them back in their quest to keep hand embroidery alive by taking it forward.

Di, Wilsia and I had a wonderful afternoon at the Royal School. We were made to feel so welcome. Consequently, my thoughts have been with them rather a lot in the past week, as I watch the television footage of the horrible floods in England. Hampton Court Palace is not far from the banks of the Thames, a little too close for comfort to my mind at the moment. So, I sent off an email to Monica Wright to find out if they were dry. They are, which is good and they don’t seem to be too concerned, at this stage.

In our correspondence she told me about the 21st Century Sampler Competition that they are having and invited to me visit the website to read about it. I did that, and I think you should too.

Their challenge is for you to design a sampler with no limits as to what elements it may or may not contain. How inviting is that?

In my lifetime Samplers have, mostly, been worked in cross stitch. That is not, however, the full story of the sampler. It was originally a vehicle for trying out stitches and techniques, and this meant all stitches and techniques, not just cross stitch. As time went on they became a method of recording information, hence the wedding sampler and those that record the details of a birth. What this means to me is that you can use any stitch or technique in the construction of your sampler. Likewise, you can record just about anything in the motifs that you put into the design. Imagine a record of a wonderful holiday that you had. Scrapbooking in hand embroidery if you will.

Some years ago I designed what I call our Family Sampler. I took a photograph of our house, turned it into a line drawing by tracing the lines off the photograph, and used this as the starting point for my sampler design. Sticking with the sampler tradition, I included letters of the alphabet and numbers. I also put in a lot of floral elements, but those were to make it look like a sampler.

To make it relevant, other than the picture of our house, I included motifs that depicted the interests of each member of our family. Obviously there was picture of a Boxer dog as well as one of a Maltese Terrier, which is our other breed of choice. My son was studying film making at the time, so I put in a motif of an old cine camera. My husband is a lawyer and so is my daughter – she was studying law when I designed this – so I included some old leather bound books that look like those that sit on the bookshelf behind any lawyer that you will see interviewed on television. Our family enjoys music and plays musical instruments (in my dim and distant past I even produced musical shows), so I included an old wind-up gramophone. And in the floral border are all of our initials.

Historically, samplers were highly prized and were often mentioned in wills, being passed down from generation to generation. Now, I’m not sure if my children will think that my family sampler is worthy of the same, but whatever they feel about it, I enjoyed designing and stitching it. It does form at least a snapshot of our family life. Looking at it now, however, I am inclined to think that I was a bit boring.

If I were to enter the Royal School’s competition I would have such fun. I wouldn’t stick to the mostly satin or long and short stitch that I worked with then. I would go mad with needle lace techniques, weaving stitches, beads and maybe even some goldwork techniques. I have a picture developing in my head and I have to supress it because I’m writing another book and that deadline is getting closer.

So I will have to leave it up to you. On their website you can read up about it and download the entry form. If you live near enough, you can get inspiration from the Sampler Exhibition that is being held at the Royal School from January to July this year. If, like me you live too many thousands of miles away, you will have to be satisfied with surfing the internet, and there is a lot to be found on the subject if you type ‘embroidery sampler’ into Google. While you’re doing that don’t forget to visit the Royals School’s Facebook page, and click on like.

If you win it, your piece would be become part of the RSN’s collection. Wouldn’t that be a feather in your cap?

The Royal School is, for all of us who love embroidery, a precious organisation. They form the base of the network that we need to keep hand embroidery alive. I think this is a wonderful concept for a competition and by taking part you contribute something for all of us. Think about it, and don’t forget to pass the information on to your Guilds, customers and fellow stitchers.

Posted on

Crewel Intentions

I have a new book coming out in June this year. .

Called ‘Crewel Intentions’ it will be published in South Africa by Metz Press. At the same time, it will be published in the rest of the English-speaking world by Search Press. So, that includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

As its title suggests, it continues the theme of my last book, Crewel Twists. That traditional Jacobean or Crewel embroidery motifs are empty canvases waiting to be filled with anything that inspires you. It uses stranded cottons, satin threads, perle threads, cordonettes, metallics, beads, crystals and absolutely no wool.

Along with up to date materials, the techniques featured in the designs are diverse and different. In Crewel Twists I used, along with crewel stitches; bead embroidery and needle lace techniques. Many of these stitches are used in Crewel Intentions and I have added Brazilian embroidery stitches, stumpwork techniques, a nifty way to add flat back crystals to your hand embroidery, and most important of all, some really interesting needle weaving.

I spent many hours investigating the world of loom weaving and, having done that, converted those techniques for use in embroidery. Apart from adding a whole new category to my repertoire of stitches, it has been absorbing. It is so fascinating to watch your efforts develop into a tartan or a check, a gingham or a houndstooth, or even a texture that resembles twill.

Eight projects provide the vehicle for the techniques and, like my last book, have been made into useful objects.

The first is worked on Dupion silk and is mounted in a small sherry tray. It is fine work and the weaving stitches are a lot less complicated than they appear. I will be teaching this project at Beating Around The Bush in Adelaide during September/October 2014.

The second, worked on Hopsack, is a large project and is mounted on a round footstool. I will be teaching this project at Koala Conventions in Brisbane during June and July 2014.

Designed specifically to be mounted in a music box, the third project is worked on Dupion silk. It is a small, quick project that should appeal to those with limited time. I will be teaching this project at Beating Around The Bush in Adelaide during September/October 2014.

Inspired by the colours in English bone china, the fourth project is worked on a linen/cotton blend fabric and has been mounted with handles on the picture frame, so that it can be used as a tea tray.

Also worked on a linen/cotton blend, the fifth project has been designed to form the face of a mantel clock.

Another project designed with the busy person in mind, the sixth project is worked on Dupion silk and mounted in a small paperweight, although the lady who has proof-stitched the project for me is going to make it into a pouch for her mobile phone.

Project number seven has the needle woman in mind. It forms the front cover of a large needlebook, guaranteed to accommodate many needles and pins.

Inspired by the colours in an African autumn sunset, the final project has been mounted with handles on the picture frame, so that it can be used as a drinks tray.

For embroiderers who want to mount their projects in the same objects as I have, a buyer’s guide at the back of the book gives you the links to where they can be bought. From Australia, the United States and England, all of these accessories come from reputable companies.

Still at the layout and proof reading stage, the book has not yet gone to print. Although I don’t have an exact date, publication will be in June 2014. Like Crewel Twists, it will be available on Amazon, Kalahari, through Leisure Books, the Book Depository, your usual embroidery book suppliers and, of course, from me. Because of my contract with my publishers, I will stock the Metz Press edition, so will only be able to supply those of you that live on the African continent. If you live anywhere else, you will need to look for the Search Press edition. The Book Depository is a good place to start.

With the publication of Crewel Twists and the increased traffic on my website, we discovered that was not as user friendly as we would like it to be. My Geek is hard at work designing a brand new website which, without compromising its security, will be simple and very easy to use. We expect it to come online in the next month or two and we will be asking all of you who are registered to confirm your username and password. You will receive an email from us when that time comes. .

And finally, Crewel Twists which is available in English, Afrikaans and Russian, is in the process of being translated into French. The anticipated launch of that edition is August 2014.

Posted on

Intellectual Snobbery

Now that my children are all grown up, I can do things that I could only dream about when they were younger. One of those things is a ‘series binge’. That is when you sit for an entire day (or even a weekend) watching every episode in a DVD box set. You make sure that you have every thread, bead and needle that you are going to need. You set it up around you, switch on the telly, start the series and then sit down. With your embroidery. There is no one to interrupt you because the children are no longer children, but adults off doing what young adults do. Pure heaven.

A few days ago, we watched a multi-episode documentary series on Russian art. I had been saving it up for a time when my husband would be available to watch it with me. Because we went to Russia and, as was to be expected, were blown away by the art that we saw everywhere. Sadly, this series had the wrong billing and I was bitterly disappointed. They should have called it Russian Painting and Politics.

The iconostasis dominates every cathedral or monastery that you visit in Russia. It is exquisitely and intricately carved, usually gilded and incorporates the icons, an integral part of the Russian orthodox religion. By far the most exquisite thing that you will see, in every Russian church, it merited only a passing mention.

The interior of the Church Of The Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is like nothing I have ever seen before. It was only when I was halfway around that it dawned on me that the murals are, in fact, mosaics. So superbly crafted, it is hard to tell the difference at first glance. Every available surface, even all the way up into the central dome, is decorated with these intricate works of art. On closer inspection, it is possible to see that each mosaic component is tiny, which is why the shading and colour is so masterful. Once again, mosaics received but a short mention in this series. Only to slot Kiev’s St Sophia’s cathedral into historical chronological order.

Even a visit to Arbat Street in Moscow is an art tour. When you look at what passes for a curio in our part of the world there is, quite simply, no comparison. Almost any souvenir that you may want to buy in the Arbat district is a work of art. Wooden Matryoshka dolls and papier-mache trinkets hand-painted by talented artists, with, seemingly, a single horsehair. Wrought or filligreed precious metal objects and treasures carved from all manner of semi-precious stones, so exquisitely crafted that you wonder at the affordable prices being asked.

From lamp posts to bridges, churches to shops, decoration is everywhere with gold onion domes peeping out of the cityscape, wherever you look. And this documentary saw fit to mention nothing of that. Because in the world of the intellectual snob, it is not art. In their minds, the only media that pass for art, are painting and sculpture with maybe a few additions like etchings, ink drawings, etc. It’s only fine art if it can be analysed to within an inch of its life and, preferably, found to have deep political meaning. Art for the sake of mere decoration, is not at all important.

I can paint and I can sculpt. I studied art and I had to do things like this. The fact that my pieces were good enough to pass the practical examinations surely proves that I am reasonably competent in those media. But, I do not enjoy them. I would rather embroider. Having done the other stuff, I can say with complete conviction that a piece of well-shaded long and short stitch is finer art (in both the physical and metaphorical sense) than oil painting, or watercolours. But it’s woman’s work so, like the Russian craftsman, my creations will never be fine art.

It doesn’t matter that the splendour of the iconostasis in any number of Russian cathedrals surpasses an abstract painting or something that is categorized as Modern Art. You can ignore the genius, the years of work, the forethought, the added inspiration for just a little extra of this or that to complete the object, to balance it and to take it into the realms of sheer wonder.

Universities and colleges the world over, are populated by people who would like to be able to write a novel, carve a piece of wood or paint a picture. They can’t do these things well enough to derive an income, so instead they teach them, analyse them and criticize them. The problem with the exquisite art in Russia and with your embroidery is that it is functional. It’s not supposed to mean anything, or say anything. It is made to decorate our environment, to enrich our lives and it has no hidden agenda.

I know it’s art and you know it’s art but it serves no purpose for the person who categorises it. The intellectual who has devoted his or her life to a nothing job. I don’t mind. They have to earn a living somehow. I’m afraid, though, that you cannot spend ten minutes of a documentary telling us about Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Cube’ and fail to mention the iconostasis in the Cathedral of Christ The Saviour in Moscow, even if you think you’re an expert. (Google those two, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) It means that you have inhabited your ivory tower for so long that you have lost your grip on reality, if indeed you ever had one.

What I do know is that before I again commit my limited time to a documentary series on any kind of art, I will find out more about it so that I am not similarly disappointed.