Cross stitch designers are a breed apart

I'm sure that cross stitch designers, like myself, lead a unique lifestyle.

In my family the definition of work was something you didn't actually enjoy. It wasn't until some years ago when I was on an intensive computer course to bring my office skills screaming and kicking into the late 20th century that it dawned on me that it didn't have to be this way.

While my fellow students were getting quite excited about accounts packages and dreaming of desktop publishing; my contribution to the coffee breaks was a progress report on a wonderful angel I was stitching late into the night, that had loads of beading and three different metallic threads.

I never did finish that course. I went down with flu instead and while recuperating decided I was going to do something I enjoyed. Since I couldn't make a living stitching, I was going to become a cross stitch designer. It was going to be so easy, or so I thought!

Any training for cross stitch designers?

My local careers office in Bristol is marvellous. They have courses on everything from learning obscure languages to bee keeping. If I'd wanted to take up organic goat farming they could have put me in touch with someone and probably found me a grant to boot. However nowhere in their vast data bank or their copious library could we find anything about embroidery.

Now my friend Carol firmly believes that when you want to learn something badly enough a teacher turns up. In my case a moaning session at the counter of my local corner shop attracted another customer whose cousin had done a now defunct City and Guild course in embroidery. She promised to talk to her cousin and for several months, every time we bumped into each other at the freezer section, she'd pass helpful tips over the frozen peas

It was then that I discovered there was another problem in the way of joining the ranks of cross stitch designers. Having not picked up a pencil to draw since O level art at school I'd forgotten how! I also realised however much you think you can copy someone else's style it doesn't work. You have to develop your own.

My solution? Design dragons! No-one could criticise the anatomy of my dragons since there weren't any around to compare my drawings to.

My early design technique

Other cross stitch designers probably do it differently, but in my early days every painstaking drawing was cut out and then I would draw around it on the fabric with a water-soluble pen. Further details were sketched in loosely and then stitched. Every hour I'd check what I had stitched and unpick bits that didn't look right. However, there was no guarantee that the second attempt would look any better; or the third.

This process took forever. I couldn't see how anybody made a living being a designer. The first dragon was taking months of work and I was developing carpel-tunnel syndrome in my non-stitching hand, from holding the fabric bunched up.

When I finally finished the dragon it was time to visit the print shop. Using their older photocopier I took a copy of the stitching before transferring it stitch by stitch again to a grid, via a computer. Later they suggested I may like to use the more modern machine that copied colour more accurately but the exaggerated and slightly distorted results from the older machine made it much easier to differentiate the various coloured stitches.

When the print shop finally retired their old machine I was forced to adopt the far faster method I use today. Now I trace the initial drawing with tracing paper that has a grid printed on it and transfer that tracing, line by line, stitch by stitch onto the computer and then I start pruning, changing and tweaking until the completed design is ready for stitching.

Cross stitch designers and cats!

Throughout all this I have neglected to mention the effect of the cats. I had two ginger and white brothers at the time and as working late into the night became more common I learnt how gregarious they were.

Up and down the road people were going to bed and putting the cat out. On wet, cold and windy nights a variety of these animals wandered through my cat flap, evidently knowing that the heating was still on. They made themselves comfortable as my two positively encouraged them. These strangers were not fluffy lap cats but independent animals, who, in a lot of cases made it clear that if I needed my fingers to stitch with I'd better not touch!

When I eventually met the neighbours who owned Jet the black Havana from up the road I was told how quiet and well behaved he was, never heard to utter a word. Well, in my house at 3am, he was usually under the table talking at the top of his voice to the elderly tomcat I called The Beast, using language which had my two listening felines entranced as he extended their vocabulary considerably. They'd never heard anything like it. Purely educational they called it.

Blossom, pure white and very pretty also made it clear that stroking was off the agenda but he did bring me presents. Loads of presents and the were often live ones! The toad and I, for example, became great friends.

One summer I also got to know the bat rescue man very well. I learned that bats can get very cross, though not as irrate as the green woodpecker who was dragged through the cat flap one morning unharmed but furious.

Imagine if you will. There you are, happily stitching away, when a cat jumps on the table and drops a very angry bat on your embroidery and just for good measure leaves muddy paw prints behind as well. Ever tried scrubbing your embroidery to get rid of mud? I quickly learned that if you can't succeed, then embroider something over it, fast. Oh yes, and I now know what bats look like up close and personal if I ever decide to stitch one . . . I wonder how many other cross stitch designers have such intimate knowledge of wildlife?

Cross stitch designers need critics

Looking back a lot of designing is about adapting. You can start with one idea and end up with something totally different, even taking muddy paws out of the equation. Therefore one of the essential tools of the trade is the objective observer.

I had a succession of lodgers who would peer at my design in progress and make helpful comments like 'Did you mean to put a right hand on a left arm?'

One even got her weight lifting boyfriend out of bed, so they could for pose for my mermaid and the pirate design so that I could see exactly where his hands would be when he was holding her. Yes the model really is that pretty and quite petite but doesn't have a tail.

But fellow cross stitch designers are the best, because as well as being a uniformly kind and supportive bunch, they'll not only spot what is wrong but understand how hard it is to make it work. Accordingly they tend to be more tactful. After what feels like days struggling over a hot computer a little sympathy and practical advice can go a long way.

Always listen to your observer because even if you decide to do it your way, you have at least an argument for the next person who points out the same thing.

Moving on to blackwork

Designing blackwork was the result of a challenge by two other cross stitch designers who promised me it grew faster and was ridiculously easy because only backstitch or double running stitch was used to create the most amazing effects.

They neglected to point out that it was harder to go wrong and much easier to unpick if it did - my kind of embroidery!

When you show a piece of blackwork to those not in on the secret, they think you are an amazing needlewoman. Probably a lot of you reading this already are, so I'm not offering to take my stitching out of the frame to show you the back of my work, which is a dead giveaway.

There is something terribly addictive about needlecraft and practice does get you nearer to perfection. I don't intend ever retiring from it.

Apart from anything else, I can't afford to, since there is still that invisible sign on the gatepost that advertises "here lives a soft touch".

Stray cats often feel free to pop in for a meal with the option to move in later. There are only three resident cats here at present but they sometimes still like to bring a friend home.

By the way Blossom is getting older and I haven't seen a bat in years!

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