A while back I signed up for an online class at Contemporary Craft , an arts organization in Pittsburgh, PA. Some years ago our family visited there (in person) in their previous building while we were on a visit to our son, who was living in the city at the time. I’ve never forgotten the experience and when I was looking around for virtual classes to attend this winter, I took a look at their site.
I’ll let the organization describe themselves in their own words from their website:
Presenting contemporary art in craft materials by international, national, and regional artists since 1971, Contemporary Craft offers innovative exhibitions focused on multicultural diversity and contemporary art, as well as a range of hands-on workshops, community outreach programs, and a store.
I enter the situation via the workshop option. On their site I had noticed this event:
VIRTUAL: Matisse-Inspired Wall Tapestry with Kirsten Ervin
and was drawn in by the image shown ( I don’t know who to credit for the photo, but I took it from the center’s site).
Wow! I read more and I found out we’d be exploring punch needle art. I was so excited. I’ve been interested in this kind of work, similar to but not the same as rug hooking, for a long time. I’ve looked over quite a few books on the subject over the years, but I’ve never found a class or instruction.
Obviously the time had come. I signed up right away.
Wait a minute, you say. What exactly is punch needle art? Well, it’s a form of embroidery, and it uses a special tool and some kind of fiber, such as yarn, to create work on a fabric background. What we were going to do in this class was design our own image and then make it. Just as simple as that.
Time passed and then, about a week ago, I received the kit of class materials, prepared by the presenter, Kirsten Ervin. Everything I needed was included – the stretched cloth background, yarn in the four colors I had chosen, and the punch needle tool, among other items for our session. I was very impressed by the obvious care and thought that had gone into making up this kit amd I was even more anticipating the class once I saw what I’d be working with.
On February 20 I set up my materials, fired up the Zoom, and arrived virtually in Pittsburgh for the class, ready for a four hour session.
After introductions, we got to work. Kirsten had provided each of us with a couple of pieces of heavy paper. The idea was to take scissors and cut shapes, quickly and freely, and arrange them to fit the @ 9″ x 9″ square that our work would cover.
Here are some of the shapes I cut.
They look pretty good now laid out on my dining room table. In reality, I didn’t use any of them. I kept cutting shapes and revising them and trimming them and they became paper slivers mostly falling to the floor. My head did not wrap itself around this method of composition at this stage of the game, though I think it’s a really good way to go about it.
I think that since I was unsure of how the shapes would translate into the fabric work, I felt confused. And you know that I don’t plan anything in my artwork; I just start in and let things take their course. But…it all worked out. I salvaged a few shapes from the disaster, laid them on my background, and traced around them with a sharpie pen. I drew in some random things. Then we got to work.
We learned how to thread the punch needle. Here is the tool, facing up, in the way that you use it:
And here it is, threaded. You poke the yarn through the eye and then lay it along the slit. You sort of wiggle/yank/pull/push and the yarn goes right into the channel. It’s as if the tool resists for a while and then gives in and settles into being ready to work.
My four yarn colors were orange, blue, black, and white. Since I had no set design, exactly, oops, I would have to figure out things as I went along. Other people did things differently – they had a color scheme planned and marked it on the fabric. It depends on how you like to work – either way can come out fine, I learned.
Since I didn’t take photos of the fabric and frame set-up when they were empty, I will now show you what I made in its final form and explain all the parts. Here is the final image I came up with. It’s about 9″ x 9″ square.
And here is what it looked like as I was working. You can see the fabric background, which is something called monk’s cloth. Its loose weave allows the punch needle to slip between the weave pretty easily.
It’s stretched very tightly on a wood frame because the fabric must be taut for this process to work. Let me show you the back view and you will understand.
Kirsten put the cloth/frame assemblage together for each of us. This took some work, all right, even down to the stitching needed around the edges of the very prone to fraying monk’s cloth. I really appreciated this effort. It was very easy to work with this set up.
OK. Now how about some details of the work process? To do the actual task, it is really pretty easy. Stick the punch needle in up to the hilt, and then pull it out at a 45 degree angle or so. Don’t pull it up away from the fabric; keep it close to the surface, and slide it a short distance in the direction you want to go. Stick it in and pull it out. That’s it!
I started with this orange circle, shown below. I worked from the outside in. I did very many messy stitches. Just because it’s easy to do this, well, that does not mean it is easy to do it well. It took me a lot of time to grasp the beginnings of how far apart to make the stitches (I thought of them as “dives” as I dived below the surface with my needle…), and how not to pull the tool too far away from the fabric on the upstroke, and so on.
Know why there is a black dot in the center of this circle? Because when I was finished with the piece and had used up all my orange yarn, well… oh dear, I noticed that it was as if this circle was balding – I had left too much space and left a bare spot. Voila, a black hairpiece and all was well.
Here is more detail of the work. Lots of irregularity. Well, you know, there is something called “practice” and we have that concept for a reason, right? I will improve if I keep on trying.
I also learned that, if a stitch did not satisfy me, just pull it out and redo it. Because this is not an art where you can say…ooops, look at that way back there in line, and fix it. And it’s very easy to remove stitches. So go ahead and do it.
You may be wondering, how does this whole thing hold together, if it is so easy to just pull it apart? Well, it’s an interesting question. Let’s look at the back for some answers. I don’t think my photos show it too well, but the back is fluffier and there is more yarn cramming itself together. It mimics the pattern on the right side, but is different, too, isn’t it?
You might see it better when I contrast the front and back views.
What makes it work is how tightly the loops are packed in with each other. Yes, grab hold of one and start pulling and things can disintegrate. But you are not going to do that, and so the piece’s elements will work together to stay intact. Interesting, isn’t it?
Last bit of construction information. You might also be wondering how the tail ends of the yarn are managed, the ones left when you start or finish a color or area or whatever. Kirsten told us we could just clip the tail ends right to the surface of the work. I almost could not believe her, because in every other fiber art I’ve done, oh my goodness, you must do knots or weave ends or somehow hide them in the work. Not here. Just get your tiny embroidery scissors and carefully clip. Fantastic!
Let’s look at the final result again, now that you know how it is made.
There are a variety of ways to finish it. I could leave it on the frame, for instance. But I like the idea of carefully cutting it from the frame and then folding the monk’s cloth edges to the rear, then covering it with a hand-sewn backing.
And guess what – there is really no wrong or right side to this work. You can choose the one you like best. I can see how different compositions would favor one side or the other. I guess you could turn it over halfway, too, and work from the opposite side, and then get the effects of both looks? (Get me some paper, I must write that idea down…)
So that’s the story of how I learned to punch needle. I haven’t said anything about the class itself, and I will now. Kirsten was a great teacher; I’ve mentioned her good organization and I appreciated her clear plan for the class. We covered all the topics necessary for us to work on our own. She also showed us examples of her work and of various other rug and tapestry-making tools and materials, all of which were helpful in giving ideas and perspectives on the craft.
Plus, she was just a lot of fun to learn from – she has an obvious enthusiasm for the craft and caught us up in it with her. I also enjoyed seeing the WIP and the conversation with my other classmates – which included participants from Pittsburgh and a college student from her dorm room in the middle of the state, besides me.
I want to say thank you to Kirsten Ervin and to Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, PA, and to my classmates for such a good class and for a lot of fun. I also want everyone to know that I am getting ready to order some punch needle supplies…you can tell I really enjoyed myself by the fact that I finished up this piece last night, I was so full of enthusiasm! I will be doing more punch needle art, you can count on it.