Newest Endeavor

A while back, dressmaker Colleen Murphy contacted me about collaborating on a very cool project: an ID dress reproduction of a full sized, hand embroidered velvet dress…for an American Girl doll!  I was intrigued so, of course, said yes.

The original dress is unbelievable!  Black velvet, orange crocheted collar, and some of the most interesting & beautiful Celtic/Irish hand embroidery I have ever seen.  I will admit to being intimidated on SOOO many levels, but the challenge could not be ignored.

Colleen is game for me to write about this, and I will include pics of my work, but I will not post pics of the original dress until I am sure it is ok with the owners.

Photos arrive…and I sit there and stare…and stare…and stare some more.  So many things are going through my head about  colors, stitches, faithful reproduction, artistic license… have I bit off more than I can chew?  I dreamed about this dress and how the gryphons and lions chased me while I was trying to thread a needle! 

My biggest obstacle was dealing with my “feelings,” my philosophy on faithful reproduction.  Besides the fact that neither my embroidery software nor machine can manage a chain stitch, there is the integrity of someone else’s artwork to consider.  As you may know, I am a retired dance professor/dancer/choreographer/artistic director…the issues of artistic integrity are part and parcel of who I am on so many levels.  My master’s degree encompassed directing and Labanotation/movement analysis, and it is this training in Labanotation in particular that honed my focus on/obsession with faithful reproduction. 

Labanotation is dance notation, a logical though complex system of symbols and rules used to first record dance and then to reconstruct it again on new people, sometimes decades later.  If you are interested, you can learn more here: Labanotation.

Not long after I got to grad school at Ohio State, I changed my concentration to include Labanotation.  I was fascinated by and drawn to this extremely logical approach to dance.  Now, I am sure my professors would tell you they shook their heads many, many times at my emo approach to dance in general, but I will never forget the day I let the logic take over…Vera Maletic gave me a very rare smile and nodded her head before turning away to bark at me to do it again!  Not only did my symbols need to precisely record illogical movement, but when I read notated scores and performed them, it better look the way Doris Humphrey demanded decades before!  It was a very intense LOVE/HATE relationship.

So, here I was 24 years later, looking at someone else’s beautiful art with the intention of reproducing it.  I swear I felt Vera thwack the back of my skull.

The animals were glaring at me, so I chose a knotwork braid to start with.  That I could handle easily.

vertical braids by you.

Now, I have not ever done anything as small as was going to be required here, but I knew that I could not do this the way I would if it were going to remain full size.  So, even though I did the original digitizing in a decent size, instead of outlining all of this with a satin stitch, I chose a backstitch to approximate both the look of the chain stitch outlines and to accommodate what I knew would end up being very narrow lines.  But, after doing this design, I knew I was going to have to do a test dress to get a real feel for the size and to get a sense of stitch density for something as small as the designs on an AG dress.

Colleen sent me pics of her pattern pieces & dimensions so I could digitize the outlines to use as templates.  I then used one of my designs.  Even though I have not done mini-designs, I have enough experience by now to know that if I used the same stitch density that I use for the ID designs, I was going to be tunneling to China!!  Too many stitches in such a small area was only going to pull in, and perhaps make holes in the fabric no matter the pull compensation, so I lightened the density a lot.  Here’s the result:

dolltestdress 011 by colmurph2000.

And here is it finished…I am so tempted to buy an AG doll for the youngest Diva!

AG test dress by you.

(I feel the need to say here that I so admire that Colleen likes doing these little dresses, and she does them so well!  I have this psychotic aversion to sewing things with small pieces which is why I am not a quilter…these dresses qualify as beautiful small things that make me twitch!  I know I do applique with small pieces, but like every other psycho, it is the context…it goes on a BIG dress.)

So, I learned I was right about stitch density.  The test turned out well…and everyone in my family got a big kick out of this tiny little dress.  Even the macho hubby talked to it like it was a gerbil…

The next design I tackled was what I call the Nessies:

nessies by you.

This design took me days.  Why?  Because I kept finding myself mired in choices…colors (decided Colleen can match colors since she has the dress, but still wanted to match as closely as possible so the client could have a visual); stitches (leave plain or play with texture?); overs and unders (fix them so that they make sense or keep them as they were originally stitched?); symmetry (make things perfectly symmetrical as I imagine they were intended and as I can with the computer or stay true to the actual pics keeping in mind that over the years the fabric changes and hangs differently now?); handmade look versus computerized perfection…haven’t there been more than a few artists driven insane by the demands of their art?!?  Ya know Van Gogh and that ear…???

I cannot count the number of times I would find myself just sitting in front of the computer contemplating the photos…I imagined how much of it was done in the company of other women doing exactly the same thing.  I wondered how many mistakes occurred and were then simply incorporated because the embroiderer got caught up in a conversation with her fellow stitchers.  I wondered how often the zen of the repetitive needlework sent the embroiderer on a quiet journey of her own…and then I would start.

I decided that if this were me doing the hand stitching, I would work for symmetry.  I would work for the logical progression of the overs and unders, but I would get over myself when the logic failed.  I decided I would follow the handmade lines but clean things up when unique moments took on the aura of a mistake.  I decided I would try to keep the look of its handmade beauty while using my technology to enhance it where applicable.  I decided less was more…and that was hard!!

And this is what I have so far:

vertical braids by you.birds by you.

nessies by you.

winged lion by you.

serpent braid by you.

eagle by you.

braid by you.

waist braid by you.

griffins by you.

And here are the dress pieces:

reproduction front skirt by you.

reproduction skirt back by you.

reproduction bodice by you.

This weekend, I will do another test.  I will post pics of it, succeed or fail.

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan
    Apr 17, 2009 @ 21:49:25

    WOW.
    It is hard to choose: Which is more amazing – the original or the reproduction? Both are epimonious examples of craftmanship and devotion. Although in Ann’s case, it probably has an OCD component…Shhhh. She’ll hear me.

  2. Colleen M
    Apr 17, 2009 @ 21:49:33

    I am so glad I am not the only one who dreams about these things! Feel free to post the photo of the test dress on the doll. Colleen

  3. Katie B.
    Apr 18, 2009 @ 11:51:16

    That is incredible.

    P.S. Glad to see you coming out of the woodwork!

  4. Helen D
    Apr 18, 2009 @ 12:15:51

    As a big fan of traditional celtic knotwork and animal design I simply just love it!

  5. MollyOB
    Apr 18, 2009 @ 14:14:09

    AMAZING!!!!! Ann, you’ve completely outdone yourself! I am in awe. I think it would be so cool if you could also reproduce them as larger designs to put on jean jackets or even jeans themselves. I think all the textures you included are phenomenal and the backstitch looks great as a chainstitch. Having hand-embroidered many costumes years ago,(not nearly so elaborate though), I applaud you.

  6. Sylvia Smith
    Apr 18, 2009 @ 19:56:43

    Hi Ann
    What inspiring work. Really enjoyed your story as well. Confirms what I always suspected, you have to be a bit on the mad side to get involved in digitising especially trying to make sense of someone else’s designs, Great job, my hearty congratulations.

  7. Kristine
    Apr 19, 2009 @ 07:22:57

    OMG! My jaw is hanging! Absolutely stunning! I really enjoyed reading about this journey, Ann. You rose to the challenge, as always!!! Beautiful work–Kris;)

  8. Michelle
    Apr 20, 2009 @ 07:38:46

    WOW!!! Absolutely love it! You are just incredible!

  9. Trackback: Reproduction dress test « Taoknitter
  10. Trackback: Reproduction Dress Finished! « Taoknitter
  11. Trackback: Reproduction Dress Finished! « Taoknitter Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: