Gallery of past work

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Improvisation and stitched sketches .. or doodles if you prefer

The heart of improvisation is the free play of consciousness as it draws, writes, paints, and plays the raw material emerging from the unconscious    Stephen Nachmanovitch

Inspired by Connie Rose, I've just begun reading Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch, from which the above quote is taken.  The book so far has been a discussion of the significance of improvisation or 'free play' in creativity across the arts. I think it's going to be a fascinating read (thank you very much for the recommendation, Connie).

It occurred to me as I read the initial chapters that improvisation in stitch is exactly what I'm up to when I do my stitch sketches or doodles, the most recent of which is shown here. I am playing in an unconscious way with fabric, needle thread and my thoughts.

For these little pieces, there is no prior planning, focused photography or sketchbook work - just a hint of preliminary thought about how things might go before I pick up my needle and start, but that is all. They are truly a wandering across the cloth, a taking of my needle for a walk, based on what is going on subconsciously in my head.

I begin with a piece of fabric, often printed simply and in an abstract way and not more than 8 or 9 inches square. Then I find suitable threads - maybe contrasting, maybe harmonious, but always in a limited colour palette. Too many colours and I lose that improvised edge and think too much about what I'm doing.

With this simple starting point I look in my fabric for the initial suggestion of where and how to work and begin to stitch. My hands and my eyes may tell me where to start but after only a very few moments, instinct takes over and I find myself drawing a picture and telling a story. That story may be an abstract one but I always have something of a story developing in my head as I stitch.

As I work, it seems to be all about creating balance and subtle contrast in the image I'm making - but unexpected, unpredictable in terms of stitch and pattern. I like to surprise myself as I consider 'what ifs' and possibilities.

My choice of stitch is usually made from a small repertoire of marks - running and its straight stitch relatives, seeding (both real favourites), French knots, and perhaps sorbello. The chosen stitch, though, is not really of great importance as it is the resulting image that concerns me. The stitch is merely the mark I make to represent the image I feel the urge to create.

So far, all my sketches have been hand stitched but I'm sure the same approach could be taken with a machine though I'm not sure machine stitch would bring me personally the same reward. As I've said so often before, stitching by hand has for me a meditative quality and in these little pieces that sense is magnified as I tap into the quiet of my mind.  I like the feeling of the cloth directly in my hand and, on a practical note, I find the decisions about where to stitch next are easier when there is no machine foot to get in the way.

I find stitching in this way enormously satisfying and it was great to see that my recent post has enticed blogging friend Sharron Deacon Begg  to have a go and to post the results on her blog, Threadpainter's Art. I hope that she and anyone else who feels moved to try finds as much pleasure in it as I do.


  1. I love your thread sketches. And thanks for the link to Sharron's work! So glad you're enjoying Free Play. SOON, I will begin...

    1. Thank you Connie.
      Things can't be rushed - even thread sketches need thinking time, time just to be with the thoughts in your head.

  2. Improvisation - in the theatrical form - was the subject of a book that was life-changing for me, four decades ago: Impro, by Keith Johnstone. Most of all I remember how the participants in theatrical improvisation must trust one another, and how they must function as friends do - being able to change status, sometimes one is "top dog" and sometimes the other, and that's ok. Translating this to art and cloth, I suppose it means we must know and trust the materials in order to be in reciprocal harmony with them.

  3. Thanks Margaret for the link !
    I am still working on my piece and thoroughly enjoying working the world's problems out as I stitch in the peace and quiet of this house and cats that I am sitting. I will be home in 2 days an hopefully have it ready for a post.
    What will we stitch next ? ;)


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