Modern Embroidery

A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:


(“Glee” carousel sweater, JC Penney)

So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:

It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .

. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.

Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.


(“Summer Souvenir”)

This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:

” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”

But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”

The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .

. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .

. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.

Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .

And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.

But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.

Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:

“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”

Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.

I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:

Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1

In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!

35 responses

  1. Your love of the book jumped off the page this morning, and made me remember all the times I had such an experience getting gloriously lost in a new book. I graduated from high school in 1970, and through the next few years was planning and dreaming of going off on my own after college, setting up a new apartment, etc…….and yes, we were very “matchy-matchy” in those days. Thanks for the memories!

  2. This post took me back! I used to get an arts and craft magazine way back in the 60s and 70s that I used all the time for inspiration when teaching. I wonder where the old copies went to!! It had many designs like this but not just for embroidery – which I taught to both girls and boys – but also batik, collage, art, string design etc… Thanks for my memories!!

  3. This brings back memories of my first home in 1973 – I thought I had managed to blot out memories of the brown curtains in the lounge, and the highly patterned patterned purple wallpaper in the bathroom!!

  4. While some of the color combinations of the early 70s bring back nightmares, the projects you featured also brought back the charm of embroidery from that era. I have always loved pink and orange together, BTW.
    I still have an embroidery book with small motifs that I used on a chambray work shirt, which was popular when I was in high school. JC Penney’s had inexpensive chambray work shirts in the men’s department and they were the perfect canvas for freestyle embroidery. The shirt is long gone, but the memory of working on it are still very clear. Thanks for reminding me!!
    The sheep carousel is in my list of future projects!

  5. Hello,

    I just went on a search on the innerwebs trying to find more information about this mysterious Ike Rosen… I even searched in German (I speak the language), but didn’t come up with anything. I did find a few photographers/artists with that name, but I doubt they’re the same person.

    Cheers

  6. I did a quick search in the internetz as well, but did not find much. I have ordered the german version, look at the lovely title here:http://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B0029KSWZ4/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00
    and it seems she used to work together with Hannes Rosen, and there are a couple of other titles there as well if you click the author’s name. I particularly like the one about how to select a hobby….
    If there is some interesting author info in the book, I’ll let you know.
    Greetings from Munich!

  7. As a child of the 70’s, I grew up around those images, and loved them. Not so much the garish wallpapering/curtain thing, but little details like you point out in that book were so exciting and inspiring to the imagination! I’d spend hours examining patterns like that in my surroundings while the adults had boring chats…

  8. Born in the late 50’s, I remember the 70’s well. Orange, brown and green were the predominant colors in the US in apartments and houses. Shag carpets of any of those colors, and dishes the same. To this day I can’t see anything from that era without the accompanying memories. I have to say, I abhor the high pile shag carpeting of the 70’s. But the colors you present don’t bring back the same memories, I wonder if the purple is just enough zing to keep it out of the memory of 70’s for me? Though the patterns do befit the 70’s, I think they could be done in a colorful way. I do like the mushrooms you picked out, but they also remind me of the home made, long yarn wall hangings or throw carpets of the 70’s. Maybe too much of a good thing back then? And it colors my vision today. I want to see mushrooms as not mired in the 70’s, but its hard to shake memories and associations. I would love to look through the book, though, and read the text as well as look at the myriad of patterns.

    I have to say, I like your tea cosy best of all.

  9. I have inherited my mother’s collection of “Golden Hands Book of Crafts” and am in love with 70’s craft aesthetic. Think I’ll end up wearing smocks with a page boy hair cut! These colours, the rustic stitches and choice of motif is just gorgeous – the folky scandinavian vibe. Love the ceramics that matched too! What inspiration! I have bought a big collection of vintage anchor tapestry wool and the colours are so precious! Will there be a Kate Davies 70’s inspired pattern?? Wall hanging??

  10. Beautiful!! Check out this book–Pop Knitting by a Ms. Christoffersson. I have one on order and it looks great. Will have to check on this one too. Thanks for all your inspiration!!

  11. Gorgeous! DO you know of Tara Badcock? She is a Tasmanian artist/craftswoman whose work is becoming quite collectible – she specialises in hand and machine embroidery and has designed many tea cosies! Her blog is, in fact, called Tales from the Travelling Tea Cosy….

    http://teacosyrevolutiontara.blogspot.com.au/

    think you might like this! xxx

  12. I have this book – bought a couple of years ago at a community market, very cheaply. I love it – 70’s yes! Bold, colourful, bright and simple designs which have inspired me to work others.

  13. Thanks for this totally engaging post! Being a great lover of embroidery and a HUGE lover of the 70s, this book really hit the spot for me. I loved the idea of the ‘cigarettes nestling among the pretzels’ !!!! Such a hoot! Thanks again. xxx

  14. Thank you so much for this amazing post. Between these amazing images and links to other designers and things I didn’t know about, I feel like I just ate the perfect meal – satiated but ready to come back later and spend and revisit the leftovers! I love your blog because of informative, inspirational posts like this. Thank you.

  15. Has anyone heard of Constance Howard? She was the Doyenne of embroidery many years ago. I used to have her book about Embroidery in Nature. All her books were published (I believe) by Batsford in London. The pictures were amazing!! She also taught on this side of the pond too.

  16. Love the pink and orange flower design table runner, with the matching eggs. Times/designs have changed, many designers lean towards the ethereal in their runners/placemats, and wall embroideries etc. Kate you search out the most lovely things to share.
    I made a largish mouse in brightly striped fabric in the 60’s at school, I used French knots and chain stitch and a braided tail with bow, and called it a Mexican mouse, it was in hot pinks, aqua, and orange, red, and lime, definately matched that era. Lol

  17. I did get the german edition of the book, and while it is all that you have promised :) unfortuanetly it does not contain any information about the author. Sorry about htat.

  18. I have this book and of the many vintage needlecraft books in my collection this is my favourite on Embroidery. I also appreciate her detailed styling throughout and the bold designs to me are reminiscent of vintage Marimekko. Definitely worth finding.

  19. I remember getting this book out of the library when I was in my early teens in the 1980s and a very keen stitcher. I made the “sleepy Easter bunny” mat for my bedside mat. I never forgot it and also tracked it down on Abebooks a few years ago – I was just thinking about something to embroider onto a tote bag. I always fancied one of the guitar straps too. And the lovely Christmas table linens. Like you I am more of a knitter now but it’s enough to tempt me back into embroidery.

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