Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Child of Pure Unclouded Brow

Its a sunny day here in Auburn, California.  And, Sunday mornings are always my favorite time to write.  The peaceful quiet of the day resonates within.  January, for me, is usually a month of not only new beginnings, but quiet contemplation.  This month has been anything but that this year.  The winds were high, rain storms flooded and damaged property, snow fell in epic proportions in the Sierras, and I learned my dearest companion, Dover, had lymphoma cancer (for which he is now on chemo therapy).  Through all of this I have managed to stay in my Zen, but still my heart if heavy. 

As an artist, I am ever analyzing not only all around me, but the changes in myself and how my creativity meets challenges.  What I've discovered recently, is at this time in my life, color, the pure joy of bright color and pattern makes me happy. 

While planning the first costume of the year, I knew I wanted to make Alice Illustrated something new.  I was on Pinterest looking at paper dolls when I discovered the work of Peck Aubry.  In truth, I'd seen his work before and overlooked it as too busy, too bright, too graphic.  Then for some reason it stuck.  I began studying the costumes he drew, how enchanting they truly were, and observed in myself, how joyful they made me feel.  It was then I knew that I'd have to bring one of his Alice costumes to life. 

I tried to do some research on Peck Aubry and found nothing biographical.  This was so disappointing for the fabulous body of work he's acoomplished.  Countless paper dolls in beautiful packaging have been created.  There was his line and also one called Peck-Gandre.  Some sets came with just colored clothing, and others, like his Alice, came with colored outfits, a story page, and a couple of pages of outfits to color in yourself.  What a wonderful way to play with paper dolls!  And, so I began a small Peck Aubry collection for the joy of it and inspiration for further projects.

When choosing one for Alice Illustrated, I chose his School Dress.  Alongside the illustration was written:  School Dress: Alice was a child of pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder.  I was smitten.  I had to do this one.  What fun to envision what Alice would wear on her daily rounds.  The costumes are whimsical and lovely.  Bringing this one to life kept my mood as bright as the illustration.

The coat is of emerald green velveteen.  I began with it because it looked the most difficult to do.  I assumed I would embroider these graphic (Mary Englebreit style) roses, but the thought of so many needle holes in the velvet didn't feel right.  So I considered needle felting the roses as appliques.  I tried one, then another, and liked them.  Each is about 1/2" wide.  It took quite some effort to make them, and keep them flat, as appliques will be.  The vines were also made with needle felting wool by working it into a thin strand of yarn.  There would be no hurry in making them as needle felting simply takes time, and twelve rose appliques were made.  Three for each sleeve, and three on each side of the front of the coat.  Sewing the vines and roses on was no easy task either, but the effect was pure Aubry.   The coat was lined in emerald green silk.

Next, I worked on the hat.  My friend Lesley, in Canada, is an accomplished needle felt artist, and encouraged me to try wet felting.  I'd watched two Youtubes on wet felting hats, yet my impatience (I can be impatient), provoked me to try the blocking method on a hat mold instead.  I tried this first with a sheet of wool felt in red to save the green for the real one.  A mock up, a trial hat.  I took the sheet and agitated by hand in hot soapy water until it was thick and heavy.  Then I squeezed most of the moisture out in paper towels and stretched it over a hat mold.  It took four days to completely dry.  One trick I learned was to fill a toe of pantyhose with sand and nestle this on top of the felt covered mold.  It helps contour the shape while it dries.  I liked the blocking method best for ease of creating a hat such as this one, but for the green, I soaked the wool in starch before forming it on the block.  With the starch, the hat retains its shape better.

While the hat dried, I began the flowers.  Again, the marvelous Youtubes were most helpful.  Flowers can be made from crafting felt, so I simply followed their instructions, in miniature,  with pure wool felt sheets.  The yellow center of the light pink flower was needle felted, but the rest were done with scissors and thread.  The only time I used a glue gun was to affix the flowers to the hat.  I bought a new "mini" glue gun for this purpose and it worked beautifully.  To try and sew them on would have tampered with the shape of the hat.

There are three styles of flowers on the hat.  One I will call a chrysanthemum, there are two roses, and I have no idea what to call the light pink flower.  I'm neither a botanist or gardener, so I apologize.  The light pink was created with three separate rounds of varying sizes and each petal cut with a pair of sharp embroidery scissors.  I like using Kai scissors.  The leaves where simply hand cut as well, on both the coat and the hat.  I hope to find myself making flowers like this again as I enjoyed it immensely.  True crafting.

Upon completion of the hat, I began the dress.  I'd found the red, green and white striped fabric on Ebay as Christmas fabric.  It reminds me of peppermint, or candy sticks.  The kind we used to buy in old fashioned candy stores in a jar.  Creating the sleeves on the bias for the diagonal stripe was enjoyable and something I seem to recall doing for the pink and silver Twiggy dress last summer.  It was a simple dress, the base pattern and color for the highly decorative coat and hat.  It has an attached under slip in Swiss batiste that is edged in a tiny lace.  Details, details.

There surely were a lot of components to this outfit, and the next I tackled was the dickey.  I made a triangular scarf shape out of the velveteen and lined it with the same silk as the coat.  I will forever struggle with lining velvet since  pinning alone does not prevent slipping under the sewing machine foot.  I've yet to find a better way to do this other than hand baste it first, but even that is annoying since the silk piece of lining persists in pulling away from the velvet.  A snap in back at the neck, and a little scrunching in front give the dickey its shape.

The last piece to conquer was the cummerbund.  Looking at an illustration and translating it as you think it should be doesn't always work.  My first attempt was with making a true pleated cummerbund.  I knew this would be difficult in such a small size using the velveteen, but I'm a real stick in the mud when it comes to continuity.  The coat and dickey were of the velveteen, and so should the cummerbund have been.  Its following the dictates of an illustration rather than common sense, that made me try the pleats.  Diagonal pleats.  One going one way, one going the other.  Oh, I made one, but was completely disillusioned by the result.  It was far too heavy for her waist and ruined the look of the outfit.  While working on this outfit, my mind was solidly on Dover and his condition and care.  (Into the third week of diagnosis, I've come to terms and am simply appreciating, to the greatest degree, the time I have left with him.)  I felt I needed to change direction and give the cummerbund some time, or myself some time, before I called it DONE.

So I picked up where I left off with the Cheshire Cat.  Of course Alice needed her Cheshire Cat!  This kind of accessory is the very reason I'm teaching myself needle felting.  I began him while we were on a snow trip in a Sierras, and I got about as far as the basic body shape then had to stop since I didn't have the right felting needle to attach his front leg. 

I had a friend recently ask me what the Cheshire Cat had to do with the outfit.  My jaw dropped a little, but as this was telephone communication, it wasn't visible.  "Its Peck Aubry's Cheshire Cat for his Alice!", I wanted to say, but stumbled along with some excuse.  Do I need an excuse for Alice to have her Cheshire Cat?  No.  The Cheshire Cat was part of this paper doll set, and I always wanted to display one with her.  Also, Aubry's was graphically rendered so he would be easier to felt.  A Tenniel Cheshire would have been so much more difficult due to the details. 

I wasn't sure how large he would turn out to be, and this made me a little nervous.  I wanted him to be bold enough to display well, but he should also be a cat that could be believable with Alice's size.  He turned out to be 3 1/2" long and 2 1/2" high.

Lesley was highly instrumental with her encouragement, from afar, as I grumped and complained and almost gave up on him.  Sculpting is very new to me and trying to make 2D into 3D takes more than just studying a picture.  I began to look at my own cat, who happens to be named Alice, in a different light.  She will attest to my cupping her head and staring into her eyes, studying the contours of her body from all angles as she lay in cat poses, and generally being a nuisance around her.

What makes the Cheshire Cat who he is, is primarily his human teeth baring grin.  So making teeth was the first thing I worked intently on.  I won't go into how to needle felt and all the techniques you need to learn and employ, or simply make up as you go along, which is half of what I do, but its an art all by itself. 

The eyes were giving me trouble.  I was advised that the white, the cornea, should first be made, but cat's don't show their cornea.  Again, Alice had to put up with me gently pulling at the corners of her eyes to see more of their structure.  Poor kitty.  The shape of the cat's eyes are formed by the outer skin at the edges.  They do indeed have corneas, you just can't see them.  You see solid, luminescent color side to side.  But, after failing the first attempt at them, I did as I was told and put them in the dark wool lined sockets I made, then covered them with the blue of his eyes.  While you cannot see it, there is pink in the corners near the nose.  The highlighting was the hardest and I worked at those white highlights for over an hour.  You're using the tiniest bit of fuzzy wool and trying to make it a solid shape.

As much as I was nervous about adding the stripes, this was probably the easiest part of him.  You do have to be careful because if you poke the wool the wrong way, it will sink into the shape and not lay on it.  I had purchased a reverse needle and thought I'd try working with it.  Reverse needles pull wool out of the blob of felted wool.  What I did was just pick a the edges of the stripes here and there along their line to produce some "fluff" I could smooth over.  This allowed the stripes to not look like "lines".  Curving them to the contours of his body also made for a more natural look. 

Lastly, Alice needed her skipping rope for after school play.  Michaels now carries a heavier cord in their beading department, and I trimmed the "handles" with red duct tape.  Seriously.  They sell colored duct tape now.  I do not feel the slightest bit bad about not hand carving handles for the skipping rope.  I put enough effort into this costume to call it DONE.  But, I guess the cummerbund issue was not resolved yet.  So yesterday I made a new one and this time machine stitched the lines in an apple green color.  I can confidently call it a quilted cummerbund.  And, why not?  Who's to say what the artist had intended.  This is what we call "artistic license", and I'm happy with the finished product.  Its not bulky, its far more slimming, and looks like the illustration.  The cummerbund is lined in apple green silk.

I'm very excited about Peck Aubry's work with paper dolls, and my next big project will be a year long one, as I bring his Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden to life.  My intention is to create all her colored dresses from the paper doll set, and she'll even get a tiny needle felted robin.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this children's classic, Mary Lennox was led by the robin to the gate in the stone wall that opened to the secret garden.

Wishing you all a perfect end to January and a bright and colorful February.

Miss E. Mouse 


  1. You are an inspiration to all artists Melissa! and I am honored to be mentioned in your blog. A stunning outfit and incredibly well made Cheshire Cat ❤

  2. Brava!! Much enthusiastic clapping here, Melissa. You have made dear, dear friends with wool and all its springy behavior. Thanks for sharing your creativity with the world. I think The cat, the CAT! His eyes are mesmerizing! Just wonderful. Costume, accessories, color. Everything.

  3. Melissa, I came across your blog about August, quite by accident. Now I look forward to the end of each month to see what next beautiful, amazing thing you will craft with such exquisite detail and care. I would never have that dedication. It is a great pleasure to read about your endeavors and see the lovely photos. Thanks muchly!