Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  

Developing Your Creative "Side"
by Lois Caron

"Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the entire world."

Albert Einstein

Are you envious of creative people? Do you wish you could come up with clever ways of making your needlework unique and exciting? There's good news -- no one has an exclusive on creativity. Everyone -- yes, that includes you -- is creative.

Perhaps inventive ideas are buried more deeply in some people than in others, but there are ways to coax them from even the deepest recesses. I grew to adulthood believing that I had no imagination and no artistic ability, in large part due to a grammar school art teacher who laughed at me when I said I wanted to grow up to be a fashion designer. It was another twenty years before I would even consider trying anything to do with art. Even then I was still immensely shy and terrified of asking questions, so my early attempts at needlework and needlepoint design were made on my own by trial and error. Gradually, I learned to observe, to trust my intuition and, finally, to accept the suggestions and criticisms of others. As a result, I have gained a self confidence which has stood me in good stead in all areas of my life and I have built a successful business based on creativity.

PRACTICE, PLANNING and ATTITUDE are three elements that can help you develop your innovative abilities. Attitude is by far the most important. The need for approval is a part of all of us, but fear of failure, the desire to be right most of the time and a reluctance to take risks are the greatest roadblocks to learning and development. I think this is why so many of us feel that we must follow a purchased pattern to the letter, doing things exactly the way the designer has instructed. Have you ever considered that the designer had to make a number of choices? For the sake of clarity and space, most patterns do not give alternatives, even though lots of equally good color combinations or stitching possibilities exist for a particular design. Once we learn to give a fair chance to all our thoughts, new avenues open up almost magically.

You, as a stitcher, have the freedom to make choices and a solid grounding in good technique will help you, but a willingness to stretch beyond what you know is just as important.


We'll discuss three ways of adding interest to needlework: pattern, texture and color. You've heard of all of these things before. Hopefully, we'll be approaching them from a slightly different angle.

PATTERN. We will deal here with just one small segment of pattern -- diaper patterns, small all-over repeat patterns.

1) Rather than accept what someone else tells you you should see, look for yourself. How many patterns, for instance, do you see in the motif below? Experiment a bit on your own, then click on the picture for some possibilities we've come up with.

You can practice this exercise almost everywhere you go and sometimes turn frustration and boredom into fun, as well. I was once kept waiting interminably for an appointment, but at last I noticed the interesting tile work on the floor and started sketching ideas. Suddenly, time flew.

2) Build your own patterns. Start with a simple cross (+ or x) and let your imagination run wild. Scale, spacing, additions, deletions -- all these factors will change your patterns in innumerable ways. For example:


For more ideas and exercises, refer back to our Archives for a review of the article, "Are You Caught in Design Gridlock?"

TEXTURE is created by stitches and fibers.

Stitches. It is sometimes tempting to use an array of stitches. This is fine for a sampler or a piece of crazy patchwork and you may impress people with your knowledge and skill, but indiscriminate use of stitches may actually detract from your design. Stitches can, and often do, create the entire interest in a piece of needlework, but to be effective they should relate to the design and to one another. If in doubt, remember less is more. Just like weight, it's easier to add than to take away.

Don't always feel that you must rely on books for stitch instructions. If you have a space to fill, fashion your stitches to suit what you are doing. In the following example each half of the design is a mirror image of the other but the spaces have been interpreted in different stitch configurations.





Threads. Today, there is an overwhelming array of threads, including ours, to choose from in executing your embroideries. No pun intended, but that's exactly what can happen with overkill! Be judicious in selecting threads. A hand-dyed variegated thread can add extra punch, but if it overtakes the design, it's not the right choice for that particular project. Likewise with metallics. It's quite possible to stitch an entire design in metallics for a smashing or elegant effect, but it's just as easy to end up with a glitzy mess.

Be careful in your selection of varieties of threads. Too many different textures vie for attention and confuse the viewer.

Don't be afraid to use unorthodox materials. Be sure whatever materials you use won't harm your embroidery, however. Certain seeds, for instance, might stain the fabric and the other threads and deteriorate over time, but beads might achieve much the same effect or you can find a fiber to simulate the look of beads (or seeds), and so on. The materials you use don't need to be exotic to capture attention. Have you ever considered using twine or crochet cotton instead of more traditional threads?

Do be sure to consider the ultimate use of your project and how long you expect it to last. For instance, nubby knitting yarns worked in big, textured stitches on a chair seat or rug probably won't hold up for long. If you expect your work to end up in a museum for posterity, choose materials which are likely to be colorfast and stand up to the vagaries of time.

Look for more than one way to create the same effect and select the most exciting, the most effective or the most practical. Take into consideration durability and suitability of materials, but don't cheat yourself by restricting your use of fibers simply because "It's always been done that way."

The following examples are from a series of related designs, all with the same color theme. Each has been stitched with different materials and stitches.


COLOR. We plan to add to the volumes which have been written on this subject by devoting an entire month of our website to the delights of color. Until then, here are a few observations.

1) If you're developing a color theme for a piece of needlework, or changing the one offered by the designer, follow your initial intuition even if it looks like it won't work while in progress. This is scary, and sometimes the end result is awful. More often, though, it's even better than you originally thought it would be.

I am frequently told that my sense of color is one of my strongest assets. This hasn't always been so and I owe much of my development to countless customers who have asked me to change the colors in my designs to ones of their own choosing. I can't tell you how often I resisted, only to find out that the new combination was better than my original.

Here are two ways to play with color and gain confidence:

a) from your bag of scrap yarns select two colors at random and make them work in a pleasing pattern. Doodling with whatever threads happen to be handy to try out a stitch or a technique or a pattern can lead to many startling and pleasant color experiences.

b) select the two colors you hate the most together and do something smashing with them. This may seem nearly impossible, but I've seen dozens of students despite their initial groans do exactly that.

2) Even though you may end up with 25-30 different shades of yarns in a complicated piece, try to limit the actual number of color families to three to five which will predominate. For instance, you may want mostly blues, corals and creamy colors in your design. Put these colors in the major areas of interest.

3) Balance the distribution of color. After the major color areas have been determined, add touches of other colors or shades throughout. Color distribution doesn't need to be symmetrical, but should be pleasing to the eye.

4) When you want two colors together and they don't seem to work because they clash or are too close in value, add another color to separate them and see the immediate difference. For example the addition of an ivory colored outline will make a distinct difference between red and burgundy or teal and navy.

5) You can change the intensity of color by adding pattern or texture. A tone on tone might give your design just the subtlety it needs. If a solid patch of color stands out glaringly, try using a variegated thread such as Watercolours or Waterlilies, or add a small all over pattern in white or a pastel to soften the effect.

In the example below, each of the strategies we've discussed has been put into practice.


Pattern has been used tin the background to create interest.


Both stitches and choice of threads enhance the pattern. The flowers are stitched entirely in needlepoint with Watercolours. The pattern in the background and borders are interpreted in stitchery. Only two threads are used in the entire design ­ Watercolours cotton and Waterlilies silk. The light reflective qualities of the silk add dimension without overpowering the design.


The background colors are kept subtle, so as not to detract from the focal point of the design, the flowers.

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