Back in the days when the Americas were being settled, colonizers shipped 20 ponies and a stallion aboard the Santo Christo, headed for Peru. The horses were to be used to work the gold mines. During a storm at sea, the Santo Christo sank, and all human passengers except the captain were lost.
The wild horses managed to survive by swimming to Assateague, a small island off the coast of Virginia. Once safely on land, they established themselves there, and they've been contentedly roaming wild on the island ever since.
The last time I was in Virginia I made a point of stopping at Assateague, because I've always found the raw, powerful beauty of wild horses inspirational for stitchery. Then, you can imagine my excitement on a recent flight to Salt Lake City when a fellow traveler informed me that mustangs still roam the plains outside the city. I was sure I'd see them when several local residents offered to show me the most memorable "sights of the city." Then they escorted me to their brand-new shopping mall!
In studying wild horses, I appreciated all the more the way the Chinese have interpreted them in painting, using simple, flowing lines, which really accentuate the animals' powerful movement. I adapted a design for a needlepainting from a Chinese painting of a spirited pack of horses at full gallop. I worked it in a stylized manner to best express their movement. I used colors I'd borrowed from the real thing -- duns, tans, chestnuts, blue-greys and antique blacks -- and filled in the silhouette shapes in split stitch because its long, flowing lines work so well in representing a body in motion.
If you want to work a similar needlepainting, outline the major forms of the horses' bodies and faces in stem stitch, then work split stitch across each form, letting the stitches rise and fall to suggest the muscular action of each animal. Work the manes in stem stitch for a rougher, "ridgey" effect and a nice contrast to the smooth bodies of the animals.
Mount your work in a frame so you can clearly see the shapes of the animals and, using two threads of yarn, split up through your stitches with stitches of about 1/4-inch length. Work your rows about a needle's width apart; these flowing lines, slightly separated, will help express movement. Have your stitches follow the curved outlines of the bodies and, when you have a widening area, a back leg say, splice in your extra rows by tucking the stitches under the stitches of the previous row, gradually spacing them wider and wider. Otherwise, your rows will be too separate and even, and you'll lose the smooth, flowing effect.
If you're a needlepointing horse lover, you could work a wonderfully realistic horse's head by using an enlarged color photograph as your design. Go to an art store and ask for a sheet of acetate with a grid printed on it; otherwise, buy acetate and make your own grid, 10 squares to the inch -- the same as your canvas. The tricky part is matching the exact shades of your threads with those in the photo, but once you've done that, the plastic grid will show you where to place them.
If you're a quilter, a horse's head can be interpreted another way, either appliqued to your background fabric or painted directly on the cloth. A fabulous idea came from one of our winners in the Great Quilt Contest, organized by the Historical Society to pick a winning quilt from each state. Yukon Norman appliqued a simple profile of a horse's head onto brown cloth, then surrounded it with a colorful patch work oval, with horseshoes and a horse's head in each corner of the quilt.
To make this, you can draw a silhouette of a horse's head from a photograph, then make a cardboard template of your design. Use the template as a guide for tracing your design on fabric, then applique your cut-out horse's head to the background fabric. Surround it with an oval of patchwork using brilliantly colored pieces, then work the patchwork into two rows of squares on either side to frame the bed.
Rather than quilting, you can tuft the quilt, tying it in brown cotton at regular intervals. Put your three layers -- quilt top, batting and lining -- together, then thread a needle with 6 to 12 threads of cotton floss. Stab down leaving the loose tag end hanging, stab up, then down again in the first hole, up again in the second hole; knot and cut.
Q: Several months ago I started a crewel picture of my house that I had an artist friend put on linen. This is the first time I have ever done a design that wasn't in a kit and now I'm stuck for stitches. It seems every sold area is satin stitch or long and short and every line is stem or chain stitch. Any suggestions?
A: Any house can easily be built with stitches. How about simulating bricks with burden stitch, or a shingle roof in rows of buttonhole stitch. Shutters could be in raised chain stitch, and turkey work would make effective shrubbery. Let your imagination take over and you'll find that you'll have great fun building your house.