I was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to interpret a needlepoint cushion design from their production of "Don Carlo." To my amazement, when I went to see the opera on opening night there was the pattern, stretched out as an immense curtain covering the whole stage. The design looks like burnished leather, straight from the walls of a Spanish castle, with eagles, heraldic shields, cherubs and scrolling leaves glowing in antique gold against a black background.
Slowly and dramatically the curtain becomes transparent, and as you watch each scene unfolding behind the golden tracery, you realize that the huge panel is actually made of fabric stitched down on filmy gauze. After this auspicious beginning the whole opera becomes a feast of inspiration for the needleworker.
The language of color, as spoken in Spain, was never more clearly translated than by David Reppa, set designer for this fabulous production. Black and gold, gold and white, gold and silver, black and emerald green. The colors and texture can inspire needlework ideas that are varied and exciting.
My design from the great panel is done in needlepoint on 18-mesh canvas with the design worked in fine wools. But using the inpiration from the "show scrim," as it is called, you could work this or any other design with an openwork ground and make it a real conversation piece.
If you are working on a printed canvas, simply leave the dark background unworked, and highlight the design with real gold metal thread in tent stitch or vertical satin stitches. "Fil d'or" or the silver metal thread "Fil d'argent," made by DMC, is very fine and can be used, several strands in the needle at one time, to give a smooth, real-gold effect. Columbia-minerva's Camelot is a heavier thread, but with the look of antique gold, which could be lovely in vertical satin stitches on a 12-mesh canvas.
In contrast to this close stitching, the open ground is most effective. If you're designing your own pattern, paint the canvas with oil paint before you begin, then simply leave it unworked. Or work over the dark background in tent stitch with one single strand of black cotton floss that will not cover the ground but will give a lacy texture, a little more finished than leaving it completely bare.
Now comes the innovative part -- the mounting. Stretch your finished needlepoint on artist's stretcher strips to surround the canvas beyond the design. (Before mounting you cold cover this area by working regular needlepoint in one color to form a mat, or you could cover it afterward with a linen-covered cardboard mat to surround the whole design.)
Mount the whole thing in a shadow-boxframe. Then, with electrician's tape, attach those tiny white Christmas lights all around the back, fixing them to the stretcher strips. When you switch on the lights, the panel will be lit from the front by the natural light of the room and will also have a glow from the back, exactly like the dramatic show scrim from "Don Carlo -- a real show-stopper.
Q: I need some advice on a project. I'm going to make a quilt of blocks, with state flowers and birds embroidered on them. I can't seem to find the right material to do this. They're either too thin or too heavy. I'm hoping you'll have some ideas to share with me.
A: You need thin fabric for quilting -- a light-weight cotton that will puff up nicely when batting and stitching combine. Therefore, rethink your embroidery ideas. Use three strands of cotton floss to embroider the state flowers and birds (which sounds like a lovely project, by the way). Do all the embroidery, then join the blocks, sandwich the batting between top and lining, and quilt with decorative borders and contour lines if you like, or background quilting with cross-hatching, shell or feather patterns. Or leave the quilt light and puffy, like a comforter, with all your embroidery standing out in the center of each padded square, and a broad, squashy border of the brilliant state flowers.
Q: I have two white sheets with permanent ink stains on them. I dyed them and the ink still shows. I also thought of drawing flowers over the ink and embroidering them, but I can't draw. Can you help?
A: There's one stitch that doesn't require any drawing, and it forms fields of flowers as yo go: lazy daisy. Working with three or four strands of cotton floss in the needle, come up, then go down in the same hole, leaving a loop. Holding the loop flat with your thumb, come up inside the loop and go down outside it to tie it down with a small stitch.
Repeat, making a daisy effect by radiating the stitches from one central point. If you fill straight stitches inside the lazy-daisy stitches in a contrasting color, you will get an effective daisy with solid petals that will nicely cover your ink marks. (Work French knot centers, if you like.)
Mass the flower heads close together, spacing them farther apart as you work away from the stains, just like drifts of daises in a meadow.