An embroidery workshop with Susan O’Connor: A Pad Stitched Strawberry

A half-finished pad-stitched embroidery piece showing a strawberry and strawberry flower.

Well – I had quite a weekend. At Jenny’s Biggest Morning Tea I was given a flier for an embroidery workshop sponsored by the local quilting guild. Country Bumpkin, an an Adelaide sewing store, was sending up a teacher for this past Saturday and Sunday – in fact, they were offering an embroidery workshop with Susan O’Connor!

Saturday was an introductory day for beginners, but Sunday looked exciting – silk on silk embroidery, in an Elizabethan style of not-quite-stumpwork, that I’d always liked but never been quite willing to try, so – why not?

Yesterday morning I knocked on the door of the Quilting Guild Hall – and walked into rather… more than I was expecting.

There is an Australian-published embroidery magazine called Inspirations that’s full of extremely elaborate and intimidating projects. What I hadn’t realized was that Country Bumpkin, far from being a cute and cozy craft store – is actually the company that produces Inspirations magazine. And that Sunday’s workshop was a seminar taught by Susan O’Connor – teacher, designer and an astonishing embroiderer. And she was mine, all mine – well, me and nine other ladies from the quilting guild – for a whole day, at a fraction of the price she customarily charges for her classes.

Seriously – this woman is amazing. She’s stunningly talented, and is in high demand all over the world for her seminars and master classes. She had brought with her from Adelaide a table’s worth of exquisite embroidery pieces for us to sigh over and fondle (here are a few of them– these particular ones were actually in the classroom with us, but the pictures don’t come close to showing the exquisite detail and texture of the dense embroidery.)

The demand for her time is understandable. She’s a wonderful teacher. Monique Johnston, who had run Saturday’s class, sat at the back of the room doing things with needles and thread that looked as though she was painting on silk, while Susan led us through our paces with silk thread and number 10 sharp needles and handed out the project du jour – a tiny embroidered bag silk. We looked at the design – a stylized Elizabethan strawberry plant, no more than two 2 inches across – and all “Oh, yeah! We’ll get this little baby done today – wheee!”

Susan smiled serenely and began to explain how to pad our strawberries and strawberry flowers with layers of satin stitch – and eight hours later, I had several stem-stitched stems, 3/4 of a split stitch and satin stitch leaf, one of two strawberries, and the padding of a strawberry flower. You see – this is textured silk embroidery – you work with a single strand of silk, and you pad out the shapes by doing layer on layer of satin stitch – a strawberry the size of my fingernail has nine layers under the final layer – and then you have to criss-cross it in gold and couch it in green, and -well, there is a fair list of things that go into a silk strawberry.

On a completely unrelated note, I now have a divot the size of Crater Lake in the top of my middle finger. I need to invest in a thimble.

And my word, did I eat well! I’d packed a sensible lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks (I was feeling virtuous that morning. So sue me.) but I’d forgotten something important – the ladies of the quilting guild are elderly country women: there was a morning tea provided with madeira cake and home made biscuits, a lunch of hearty country soups (plural) and long loaves of fresh-made bread, and an afternoon tea of more madeira cake and chocolate cake and more biscuits and home-made cheese straws – I may not have eaten healthy, but I ate solid.

I also learned just how sharp really high quality European needles can be. They’re so narrow and fine that they just slide straight into your fingers and you don’t even notice until they’re a quarter of an inch deep. The afternoon was punctuated by howls of anguish and yells of “SHIT SHI- sugar. sugar. darn. drat.” as delicately spoken country women leaped to their feet and ran for the first aid box before they bled all over the silk.

Today I’ve been all over amazon and found a set of books by Di van Niekerk, a South African woman who combines these techniques with ribbon embroidery, which clears up my last lingering dubiosities of “well, this is fun, but I really love the freedom and spontaneity and creativity of designing as you go, as you can do with ribbons so, should I…?”

Well, I should. And I’m sold on silk thread. It’s only a dollar more per skein than DMC cotton, and it doesn’t fray and it’s a billion times as strong and it keeps its luster – and I don’t think I can go back!

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