Tuesday, September 5, 2017

An Interview with Ruth Schmuff

"Steampunk Witch with Wolf," from Brenda Stofft and Ruth Schmuff

My friend Sheena just went to Bedecked and Beadazzled in Maryland for a three day class led by Ruth Schmuff.  Sheena took lots of photographs of the project (Brenda Stofft’s “Steampunk Witch with Wolf,” seen above) to help her finish it later and shared those with me. That gave me the idea of interviewing Ruth herself about her approach to painted canvases using the class piece as an example. And luckily Ruth agreed! So here is the interview for your reading pleasure. But first, here’s the link to the shop website with the class information, just so you have it to browse later since we are talking about this class project.

Ruth, your shop Bedecked and Beaddazzled has been open in the Baltimore area for over ten years now, right?

Yes, we opened our first brick and mortar store in 2007.  In 2009 we moved and doubled our space, adding a large classroom.  In 2015 we reinvented ourselves, this time focusing on teaching and our on-line business.  While we no longer have the walk in traffic associated with a traditional brick and mortar store our students love learning in the comfy atmosphere we provide.  Since we have a large online presence we still have all the exciting components of a shop, models, tons of canvases, thousands of threads and beads etc.

Have you seen changes in what your customers want during that time? Has your own stitching style changed as well?

When we opened most of our customers were basketweave stitchers.  As time evolved they wanted more and more fun stitches and threads. We are not your typical needlepoint store.  Stockings are not our best sellers.  Most of our customers want items for their homes that they can enjoy year round.

I’ve always loved stitches.  I’ve never been a basketweave kind of girl.  I’ve done counted cross stitch but when counted needlepoint came on the scene I was hooked.  The more stitches the merrier.  And then beads! Oh my!  I love mixing medias.  My style continues to evolve incorporating techniques from the bead world, crazy quilting and scrapbooking.

The Steampunk Witch class is an exclusive design to the shop for now, right? Did you have a vision for this design when you asked Brenda Stofft to design it for you? How did that work? Did you tell Brenda what you wanted or did you just ask her to do something fun for a class?

I fell in love with Brenda Stofft’s original steampunk witch.  I think that entire series of hers is so fun.  It was a little too big for me.  I like finer details not quite such large spaces to fill with one stitch.  I asked Brenda if she would be willing to do another Steampunk Witch just for us.  We discussed adding the wolf and giving him a cape.  The rest as they say is history.  Brenda brought a color copy the canvas when she came to teach Artemis for us.  I was hooked.  She was perfect.  We didn’t change a thing.

[Here is the original Steampunk Witch from Brenda Stofft, folks. This design is 11x17 inches on 18 count canvas. Ruth’s version with the wolf is also on 18 count but the dimensions are only 10x15 inches.]

Once you got the canvas and started to think about stitching it, what inspired you to come up with the stitches you did? Did one particular part of the design catch your eye? Or did you just have a vision for the whole piece?

I do love stitches and embellishments and experimenting and random and and and, but my first goal with any canvas is depth and perspective.  If you put too many stitches and things on a canvas it just looks like a hot mess. It becomes more of a sampler and you have lost the beauty of the original art.

Notice the "mystical" background

I start with the background keeping it light.  This time it also needed to be mystical!  From there I build up layers of stitches trying to make each element look as much as it would in real life.  Her cape needs to be behind her but look like it is coming forward over her shoulders.  All those little details need to work in a foreground to background sort of way.

I try not to make things too fiddly.  i’m always excited to move on to the next area so I’m not big on building up layers and layers of stitches that have you working on the same section for days.  

I notice you always do the background first, which is what I do in 99% of the painted canvases I stitch. Why do you start with the background first?

I do start with the background most of the time.  I like light backgrounds because it is so much easier to build everything forward rather than lighten your stitches and threads into the background.  Once you have a section in the foreground stitched with one or two ply silk there isn’t a lot of lightening you can do to reach the background.

The other reason I stitch the background first is because it is so much easier to count a pattern over blank canvas as opposed to stitched canvas. I joke I am a lazy stitcher.  Seriously lets make this painless.

All the magic of the design really was Brenda.  I didn’t direct her at all other than the wolf to make it different than the first one and the overall size.  11 x 17 is just too big to be fun. Scaling it down is what gave me smaller areas to stitch.

I think my witch is more elegant.  The larger one borders on cartoony with the trees in the background etc.  My background is one open stitch with color changes that roughly align with the painted shading.  There are three shades of thread in the background.  The stitch pattern is worked on the diagonal so that the color changes almost make the background swirl and become more magical.

So the colors in the thread and the movement of the stitch are what gives the background its character? They build on the painted shading? It's very neat!

Yes ma’am

I'm very intrigued by your wanting to keep things in perspective and not use so many stitches that you end up with a stitch sampler, not a cohesive design. Do you have tricks you do to achieve those things besides always doing the background first?

We buy a canvas because we love the image painted on it.  Why are we covering all of that beautiful painting with stitches and threads?  If you allow the painting and shading to show through and simply enhance it with stitches and threads you have the best of all worlds.  The painting is helping do the work for you.

I knew mystery classes were your invention but I did not realize that you stitch only a few steps ahead of the class to keep your interest up and to remember what you have done.

Yes, for the longest time I didn’t want to teach a group. I had to figure out a way to make it work.  I was the first to do mystery classes.  i developed the concept to fit me.  I work best with deadlines.  That comes from my career as a graphic designer.  I have the attention span of a gnat!  If I were to stitch an entire canvas and then teach it.  A) I would probably never finish it but more importantly B) by the time I did teach it my brain would have forgotten why I loved this stitch or that.  I would have moved on in my head.

I like the wolf! Are wolves steampunk? I think of Victorian machines when I think steampunk—gears and wheels and odd machines. Not animals. It is a nice touch, though. I get tired of the traditional Halloween-y characters of the owl, pumpkin, bat and skull.

I don’t know if wolves are steampunk.  I just thought it was different and it could be white which is way more fun to stitch.

Let’s talk about the specifics of the design. In your blog entry about the class, you said you included “Leather applique, shibori ribbon, wirelace, needle painting, beads, repousse.”

One thing I really noticed is the snake-y hair of the witch, her pleated ribbon shoulders and the appliqued gold kid on her corset. What led you to try these techniques? Did you look at the witch and think about that great snake hair of Medusa in Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans?

 I love to try new things and my focus is always on the depth and perspective of the piece and making it look as realistic as possible.  I’m all about mixed media.  

Brenda showed me a photo of a real person with hair like our witch so I knew what she really looked like. From there it was an easy jump to how to recreate it.  Next was the pleated ribbon on her shoulders. What could we do to recreate the look of her cape coming forward from the back of her body?  I love ribbon so that worked. 

The Corset and Cape
One thing leads to the next to the next.  I start with what I know and build from there.  The background has to be light and mystical.  Her face has to be pretty.  I always do faces pretty early on in a project too.  You want to know that the face will turn out right. If it’s not pretty you are sunk.  The placement of the stitches and the thickness of the thread on the face is very important.

Once that was in place her bodice needed to cover all the edges from the ribbon so it couldn’t be just stitches. It also couldn’t be just stitches as that would sink back behind the shoulders.  The leather came into play.  I have an amazing amount of odds and ends of stuff that one day I will need.  I also spend a ridiculous amount of time on the internet looking for just the right thing.  Good news is most of the time its out there, bad news is a lot of the time its discontinued so it becomes a quest to find enough for a class.   I do run out of the treasures over time and have to substitute so it’s important if you love a piece and love what I did with it order early.

What’s your favorite part of this design? The one that turned out to be so much better than you ever expected?

I don’t really think I have a favorite part. Each area is its own little gem, just big enough to play with and have fun but not a lifelong commitment to an area.  I really like making her dress look like a beautiful gown.  I guess I never outgrew playing with dolls.

What’s your next large project class, Ruth? I know you have mystery classes, cyberclasses and bead technique classes planned throughout the year but I’m interested in the next project class. Have you chosen the design? Are you full of ideas and starting to stitch?

I plan the classes up to a year in advance but really only as much as picking the canvas.  The actual stitching doesn’t happen until the last moment.  For the mystery classes I’m only stitching about a week in advance.  Our next project class will be our Thanksgiving weekend class.  It has become a tradition to have a class that weekend.  There are a lot of people who don’t have a traditional family and it’s fun to spend the weekend with our needlepoint family. 

*******Spoiler Alert!*******

We are going to do something totally different - a landscape!  That will be nice and Fall ish.

Is there one tip you’d tell folks who want to embellish their own painted canvas?

Don’t be afraid to try something new.  How bad can it be?  

Thanks for doing this, Ruth. It’s been very interesting!

Written by Jane/Chilly Hollow
Blogging at http://chillyhollownp.blogspot.com
and at http://chstitchguides.blogspot.com
© Copyright September 2, 2017 Jane M. Wood. All rights reserved.