The Age Of Discovery

Last week I made an MP3 player cozy using a technique called cross-knit looping. While I was stitching, I had some time to think about how much my world has changed recently.

In rural areas like ours, internet options are very limited. Until two months ago, we were still on dial-up. Now, with a faster connection, pages load before I’ve lost interest and I’m learning a lot. In the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve traveled around the world and through time.

That reminded me of an article I read some time back by Jennie Durkin. Published in 1989 in the Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, it’s called Loop-Stitch Embroidery: Peruvian and Elizabethan. Thanks to the University of Arizona, here’s a link to the PDF.

Durkin’s study of Peruvian textiles led to her recognition of an apparent connection between the embroidery version of cross-knit looping (from Peru’s Nazca region) and Ceylon stitch (which apparently was not used in England before the reign of Elizabeth I).

A skilled embroiderer in the Elizabethan age would have been able to look at a sample of a foreign technique and figure out how to reproduce it. There may be no direct connection between the Spanish conquest of Peru and the English court, but there were plenty of indirect routes by which the connection could have been made. As she says,

“The absence of direct contact did not prevent the spread of potatoes and tobacco by the later 16th century. The nature of the interest in embroidery at that time required only one example to reach a competent embroiderer.”

As my voyages continue in my own Age of Discovery, I can’t help but wonder what the Virgin Queen would have worn if her ladies had been reading the blogs.

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What’s In A Name Tote Bag Tutorial

Recently I promised a step-by-step tutorial on how to make a quick gift using a purchased tote bag and inkjet heat transfer paper. It’s personalized, but subtle. I made these bags for a couple of tween girls, and didn’t want their real names plastered on the side. Here’s how to make your own.

Gather Your Materials
You’ll need:
Translucent Inkjet Heat Transfer Paper
— Large hardcover book
— Aluminum Foil
— Baking Parchment
— Iron
— Tote Bag in a light color (I used a ready-made one)

Prepare The Image
Use a search engine to find a site like this one that will help you find the meaning of the recipient’s name.

Open a blank 8-1/2” x 11” document. You can use photo imaging software, Microsoft Publisher, or even Word. Using a word-art tool, type the meaning of the recipient’s name, choosing a font that matches the recipient’s style. Make the text more subtle, if you like, by making a copy of the text block, changing the text color to white in the copy, then layering the white element over the original element just slightly off-register. Flatten, merge or link the two elements. Copy that and paste several versions on the page. Flop (mirror image) some of them. Fill the page with this background.

Use a search engine again to find a site like this one that will translate a name from English into Chinese characters. If you can’t find the name you need, translate the meaning of the name instead of the name itself. Right-click on the image to copy the Chinese characters.

Paste the characters on your document on top of the word art. Resize the element as necessary. I used characters in two different sizes – a large one centered on the page, with a much smaller one centered below it.

Frame the Chinese characters with ruled boxes and put a frame around the whole image. It’s almost ready to print on inkjet transfer paper.

Print The Transfer
This kind of transfer reverses the image when you iron it to the fabric. So before you print, find the mirror image feature in your print properties box.
Read the directions so you know which side of the paper to print on, and run a test print on regular paper to make sure it looks “backward.”

Put one sheet at a time in the paper tray, print, and remove the sheet from the outfeed tray before printing anything else. Let the ink dry completely before stacking printed sheets. Important: Never run an inkjet product like this through a toner or laser copier; the heat could melt the coating and damage the machine.

Make The Transfer
The manufacturer’s directions may tell you to work on a hard surface like a pillowcase spread on a counter. I prefer to work on a hardcover book covered with aluminum foil.


Place the foil book at on a firm surface at a height that lets you apply pressure with the iron – maybe a table, rather than a countertop, if you’re short like me. In any case, you probably won’t get the best results if you work on your ironing board.

Trim away the margins outside the ruled box that frames your image.

Place the foil-covered book inside the bag. Position the trimmed transfer element printed-side-down on the fabric. Apply pressure with a dry iron preheated to the hottest setting (for a cotton tote bag). Do not use steam!

Keep the iron moving but don’t apply pressure as it moves. Once the transfer is warm, the image can slide and smear if pressure is applied while the iron is moving. But if your iron has steam vent holes on the sole plate, you must reposition the iron. Otherwise, you may not be heating the parts of the transfer under those vents.

The manufacturer’s instructions may say to heat for 2-3 minutes. If you’re working on a foil-covered book, reduce the time. If you do transfers one after the other, the book will get hot and you may need to reduce the time for later transfers.

Let the transfer cool, then peel away the paper. It may look kind of plasticy. Not to worry. Cover the transfer with baking parchment and iron (still using a hot, dry iron). Let cool, then peel away the parchment. Repeating this step will make the transfer less glossy, more satin.

That’s it. If you like, you can add fabric paint or embroidery around the image. Or you can just wrap the tote in recycled fabric and ribbon, and it’s ready to go under the tree.

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One Pink Pig

Bill and I don’t have children, but kind friends have produced kids we love dearly. The door frame in my studio is where we mark their heights when they come to visit. There’s a new mark on the door frame because the 7-year-old who is a very good speller was here for the weekend making holiday gifts with me, her mom and her aunt.

When her oldest brother was this one’s age, they still lived nearby. Sometimes the boys would spend a day with me when school was closed. On one of those days, we got out some Dye-na-Flow and silk scarf blanks from Dharma Trading Company and the boys made gifts. This time, their little sister got to paint silk scarves. And she colored another cotton bandana with FabricMate markers, like we did last summer when they were here canoeing. She made another gift, too, but that one’s a secret until after Christmas.

What really tugs at my heartstrings is the pink pig she’s embroidering on a dish towel. Her mom stretched stamped fabric on a hoop and helped her get started, but leaves her alone unless asked to rethread the needle. The 7-year-old stitches for a while, then reads, then romps with the dog, then stitches for a while. There is no clock ticking on this project.

The three of us who do not have our heights marked on the door frame are conscious of the calendar, already turned to December. But there’s a 7-year-old nearby stitching a pink pig for fun. Tis the season to savor that look of contentment and concentration on a young embroiderer’s face. What better gift could there be?

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New Age Looping & A Whole New Mind

Last week I had the pleasure of doing a workshop and lecture on New Age Looping for the North Shore Weavers Guild in Evanston, Illinois. Before I do this lecture, I always spread out the contents of my Looping Trunk Show — a rolling carry-on bag filled with some of the more portable pieces I’ve made over the years. I also put out my bead looping cell phone case, my looped MP3 player pouch, and a few other looped pieces I use daily. Then I fill my travel mug with tea to sip as I speak to the group.

Invariably, after a program I expect to hear two questions: “How long did it take you to make all that?” and “May I look at your mug?” It’s a simple thermal mug I bought because it has a lid I can close completely (I’m a recovering spiller). The freeform looping sheath I made to go around it gives me something textured to hold onto and something pretty to look at.

After the lecture, I drove home sipping tea from that same mug, thinking about the lovely people I had met and replaying snippets of conversations in my mind. One guild member is an archaeologist, and I hope to continue our brief discussion of one of my favorite books, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

Somewhere north of Milwaukee, I was struck by an unexpected parallel between Women’s Work and a book I read recently. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink describes a new age of a different kind – one that prizes aptitudes he calls “high concept” and “high touch.”

“High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in other, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

For 20,000 years, stitchers and weavers have done just that. If you’re going to make something that people will see or touch or use, it might as well be beautiful. As Barber notes, for most of human history time wasn’t perceived as a commodity. Something takes how long it takes.

I’ll drink to that.

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Puppy Love & Dog-Eared Pages


Like a lot of fiber artists, I learned much of what I know because I found it in print. I still have and use that little orange embroidery booklet from Coats & Clark. A circa 1959 copy of Good Housekeeping’s Complete Book of Needlecraft by Vera P. Guild, which I pinched from my mom years ago, was my introduction to netting with shuttle and gauge, and much more. In high school, I bought Mara Cary’s Basic Baskets and some reed and taught myself to weave. My idea of a good time is scouring a used bookstore for titles that may be long out of print but still offer insight and ideas.

In the studio today, I needed someone else’s opinion (winnowing or threshing?), and thought maybe I’d find it in Ed Rossbach’s The Nature of Basketry. I got sidetracked in his chapter on Temporary Baskets. That’s where, years ago, I dog-eared the page corner and underlined this:

“The perishable thing which survives speaks most potently of time, of all time rather than the moment of its existence.”

Later today, I read the first issue of a new online magazine, Needle. Fabulous images, lovely articles. Don’t miss Jayne Coleman’s “The Wisdom of Grannies”. My first thought was, how do I dog-ear this page? I want to stumble upon this again when I’m looking for something else.

It’s hard not to think of magazines as perishable, and online magazines even more so. But this one created a beautiful memory for me. I haven’t figured out how to store it with the back issues of Piecework in my basement, but I’ll keep you posted.

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Another Collaboration


When Joan Molloy Slack and I first met, it didn’t take long to discover that we’re both fascinated by the work of our ancient ancestors. For a recent show at Nicolet College, we honored that work with a collaboration that combined her pottery and my netting.

Most objects the ancients used in everyday life were made of perishable fibers that disintegrated long ago. But archaeologists have found 28,000-year-old clay fragments marked with the impression of netting. The skilled execution of the knots shown in those impressions suggests that netting wasn’t new to them, that people had been using the technique for some time to catch fish, snare game, and carry unwieldy objects. People still sometimes decorate pottery with the imprint of netting.

The ancestors who once pressed a net into wet clay left us an even greater legacy than physical evidence of ancient material culture. They left us a tradition of collaboration. In Niche, Joan and I celebrate the women who went before us and those will come after us, working together to make even everyday objects more beautiful.

If you have a chance, go here to read a 1998 article from Discover magazine by Heather Pringle called New Women of the Ice Age. Archaeologist Olga Soffer’s comments about net hunting are offer a wonderful example of the power of working together.

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What’s In A Name Tote Bag


This week I was scrambling to get stuff done before Thanksgiving and almost forgot: I needed two small gifts. It’ll take me longer to write a tutorial than it did to make them, so I’ll save that for another day. For now, here are the high points:

Look up the meaning of the recipient’s name, use a search engine to find that meaning translated into Chinese characters, combine the name elements into one graphic, print the graphic on translucent inkjet heat transfer paper, use an iron to transfer it to a pre-made tote bag, and wrap in recycled fabric and ribbon. Done.

I’ll just give you a heads up on a product you might want to have on hand for last-minute gifts like these. I’m devoted to Dharma Trading Company’s inkjet transfer papers. I use Dharma’s Professional paper #IJP8 on woven fabrics like the What’s In A Name tote.

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Standing Stones Collaboration


Joan Molloy Slack is a felter and a potter I got to know recently when we collaborated on two pieces for a show. One of the pieces Joan sent me a piece was from her series of Standing Stones. I loved the energy of the shape, and the subtle mystery of the markings on it.

For my part of the collaboration, I used an ancient fiber technique called looping to create a sheath that embraces the form. You can read more about looping here.

Some of the markings on the pottery are covered by the looping, but they’re still there, echoed in the shapes of the stitched motifs. Like mysterious artifacts of the ancient world, the power of the piece is not diminished because it’s no longer seen exactly the way it was by its creator.

Perhaps someday another artist will pick up this piece and add another layer of markings, another chapter to the story of this standing stone. And perhaps after many, many somedays, a scholar will study it layer by layer, trying to determine what it was we meant to say.

I hope so. I left a door open for them.

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A Different Kind Of Snippet

Bear with me here, friends. I’ve seen the T-shirt “Code Is Beautiful” but I’m a fiber artist: I’m used to snippets that involve scissors and fabric. Technorati wants me to include a snippet here to verify that I am, in fact, the author of this blog. I may also embroider it on a pillow.

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Fiber Friday Fun

River Run Center for the Arts in McNaughton, Wisconsin, is now hosting a once-a-month open studio session, and last week I got to be part of the fun. It was great to spend time with my friend Rhonda and see some of her recent work, and lovely to meet some new people. Most were needle felting, and there was some good-natured 12-needle embellisher envy going on. My thanks to owner Joan Molloy Slack for the invitation!

In rural areas like where I live and where River Run is located, it takes a bit of effort to create a community. It’s hard to pop into a shop or coffee house on the spur of the moment to join a group. Online groups are fabulous, but it’s very nice to get to know people who share your interests AND your time zone.

So I’d love to hear: What fiber communities do you belong to, and how do you create them? Hit the Comment button and share your thoughts, or email donnastitches[at]gmail.com.

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