Getting centered.

Literally and figuratively. Centering my cross stitch pieces and finding emotional and mental calm.

Let’s start with that second one.

(Click here to jump directly to the cross stitch centering tutorial.)

•••

You may be familiar with Julia Cameron and her iconic book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. If you’re not, it’s just as hippy-dippy as it sounds, which is probably why I enjoyed it.

When I was at my first MFA creative writing residency in 2012, both my mentor and a classmate recommended Cameron’s book to me as a way to let myself write more freely, without thinking so much. See, the book takes the reader through a series of activities to help unlock creative energies, and one of the main components of the process is Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are simply three handwritten pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling meant to clear the mind—or unearth ideas that were previously hidden under the rubble of uptight thought—ideally written early in the day before worries and obligations take over. The pages aren’t supposed to be shared or published. Instead, they have a throw-away quality that lowers the stakes so the writer can babble on without worrying what anyone else will think.

(The Artist’s Way isn’t just for writers. It’s for anyone wishing to live a more creative life. It just so happens that part of that discovery process, according to Cameron, relies on writing through one’s thoughts.)

In short, the purpose of Morning Pages is to get past perfection.

To get past self-consciousness and inhibition in order to make messes, out of which personal revelations and innovative ideas are born.

fullsizeoutput_fd9For me, the practice of Morning Pages was a way to meet with myself daily.

Before I left residency, I’d ordered Cameron’s book, and when I returned home and got it in the mail, I began working through it. I found a spiral-bound notebook and began my MPs as soon as possible. (The less fancy the notebook, the better. The last thing I wanted to do was intimidate myself by trying to write in a notebook that seemed “too good” for my sloppy and incoherent ramblings.) And I found some of those happy little dot stickers that teachers use to reward students. Every time I filled three pages, I put a sticker on the front of the notebook.

fullsizeoutput_1402Eventually, I abandoned many of Cameron’s other suggested practices, but I stuck with the MPs. They became second nature. Over the course of a year, I filled several notebooks and dotted their covers with stickers, my tiny badges of honor.

fullsizeoutput_1404Writing Morning Pages was both a rewarding and grueling experience. I came up with wild ideas and uncovered inner anguishes, none of which I had expected. I think it’s safe to say that the seed of Fencerow Fibers was planted in Morning Pages, a fertile ground from which to grow.

I have written in a personal notebook on a near daily basis since I was in high school, so journaling wasn’t a new concept to me. But something about the practice of Morning Pages was more like therapy than any of those other pages.

And then, I stopped.

Somewhat inexplicably. I didn’t have time or the desire to keep writing them. I forgot about them.

Until recently.

As I’ve dug deeper and deeper into the contents of my office, I’ve found many things I’d forgotten about. One of those was a stack of notebooks in my desk drawer, along with a few pages of those little stickers, but I dismissed them because, hey, I’ve done fine without MPs for a few years now.

Then on the last day of June, I found myself in a swirl of thought. I had so many ideas and so many directions I wanted to go, and I couldn’t figure out where to start. I was frazzled and anxious and eager to do something, but my mind just couldn’t settle on what.

Morning Pages.

I remembered them. Sometimes writing helps me come up with ideas when there are none in sight, and other times, like this one, writing helps me sort through an onslaught of ideas and narrow my focus.

I returned to my desk drawer and pulled out the top notebook, which was mostly empty. The black cover only had seven little stickers on it. I flipped to the last written-on page: Monday, 29 July 2013. That was right before I returned to teaching in the classroom.

I grabbed a pen and went out to the carport. As I scrawled on the pages, I kept having impulses to get up and start different projects. Instead, I wrote them down. I kept wanting to grab my phone and look up different concepts. Instead, I wrote them down.

As I wrote, I made for myself a list. It wasn’t a to-do list. Just a list of impulses. I decided I would set no expectations that I would have to do the things on the list. I could do them—or leave them on the page to do later, or never. Whatever.

It was so freeing.

Instead of acting on every little impulse of creativity and curiosity and thereby losing myself in a network of rabbit holes littered with unfinished projects, I slowed down, breathed, and put the pen to paper.

When I finished my three pages, including the list I had amassed, I was calm and could select the things I really wanted to do, which I did.

Let me be clear: During most of my life, creative ideas are few and far between. Often, I feel passionless and directionless. This recent inundation of creative thought is unfamiliar to me, but thankfully, I was able to remember the familiar practice of Morning Pages, which has helped me—at least a little—to stem the hectic flow and find a peaceful center.

On that first day back in the MPs, I wrote, I find myself in the stream of consciousness.

Today was the tenth day—and tenth sticker—back in that stream.

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The top row is from the summer of  2013. The second, even longer row is from this summer so far.

•••

This week, I have been pretty easily focused because I’ve had a big run on custom embroidery hoops in the Etsy shop. Everybody must be into The Handmaid’s Tale right now because I sold five Nolite te bastardes carborundorum hoops in the matter of a few days. (And some fiber!)fullsizeoutput_13ebWhen I sat down to work on the first four hoops, I decided to do them all at once. Hoop ’em all, letter ’em all, embellish ’em all. As I started the preparations, it occurred to me that I could take some pictures to show how I center my pieces.

•••

I stitch this particular design on 14-count Aida cloth and a five-inch hoop. Because I tend to jump into creative endeavors head-first without too much research, I have no idea if this is a standard practice, but I have discovered this: It is best when I cut my fabric to be two inches bigger than the hoop. In this case, since my hoops have a five-inch diameter, I cut 7″x7″ squares of Aida cloth. It leaves enough of an edge to adjust and mount the work, but it doesn’t leave a wasteful amount of excess.

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Before I put the cloth in the hoop, I stitch a temporary pair of perpendicular lines so that I know exactly where center is. This helps me center the fabric in the hoop and begin stitching so that my text and embellishments are centered. I usually do this with a single strand of dark floss when stitching on a light fabric (and of course, a light-colored floss on dark fabric).

You will notice that I have a light source behind my work. It is a LightWedge, which is a night light for reading, but it is perfect for illuminating fabric from underneath in order to trace or to see needle-and-thread placement.

fullsizeoutput_12afI almost always embroider with the floss held double, but for this, I only use a single strand because I don’t want its thickness to interfere with the appearance of the stitches in my design. I will be stitch over these gridlines, which I pull out at the end, so I don’t want a bulky thread in the way.

I make sure to cut a length of thread long enough to cross my fabric twice, plus some. I didn’t measure this, but I would say my thread was about twenty inches long. (7″ fabric x 2 = 14″…and then some extra inches to play with.)

fullsizeoutput_12acTo find the halfway point along the fabric, I fold it in half. It’s not super important that I find the exact center. It’s usually okay if I’m off by a row or two. I poke the needle through from behind about half an inch from the edge to start my first line.

fullsizeoutput_12a3I pull the thread through until I have a tail of about an inch or so left on the back. (This tail will be used to tighten the thread later.)

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Back side of fabric

Then, I insert the needle into the hole directly under the one my needle just came out of. This is to anchor the thread. I pass through the holes once more, so that my thread has looped through the fabric twice. This secures the thread enough so that it won’t slip too easily out of the fabric, but it is loose enough to tighten the thread when needed.

Then I pull the needle through to the front of the fabric through the next hole down.

fullsizeoutput_12aa

Front side of fabric

Now I am read to “draw” the center line across the fabric using my thread. This is super easy to do on Aida cloth, which has an even weave. I can simply line up the thread with the row of holes through which I’ve already looped the thread.

fullsizeoutput_12b0To anchor on this side, I re-enter the fabric from the front, about half an inch from the opposite edge. I come up through the next hole, make two loops, and pull the needle to the back of the fabric.

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Haha, this reminds me of the mouth and eyes of a beluga whale. See for yourself. 🙂

I clip my thread with at least an inch tail, so now each end has a tail on the back side of the fabric.fullsizeoutput_12adI then rotate my square of fabric one quarter and do the process all over again, crossing the fabric so the second line is perpendicular to the first.

fullsizeoutput_12a8Then I lightly tug on the ends to make sure my lines aren’t floppy. They need to be pretty taut to show center accurately, but not so tight that they bow the fabric.

I’ve created something of an X-Y axis with the center point clearly marked at the intersection of the two lines.

fullsizeoutput_12a5These lines and the LightWedge make it really easy to center the fabric over the inner hoop.

fullsizeoutput_12b1And when it is time to start the embroidery, I know exactly where to place my stitches.

(Most patterns will show you the center point, and in my own designs, I figure it out by counting the stitches and dividing by two. In the design below, I discovered that my horizontal line should have been one block lower than shown here, which you will see corrected in a later photo. Whoopsie.)

fullsizeoutput_12a4I had so many different orders and custom color schemes for them, that I decided to label my hoops for each customer and sort the colors of floss into little zippered snack bags to stay organized. It worked!

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IMG_2605

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I didn’t photograph this step (regretfully), but when it’s time to stitch the wreath of leaves and flowers, I use a ruler and a pen with disappearing ink to mark out my path. For this design, I measure half an inch from the hoop, making sure the edge of my ruler passes through the intersection of the crosshairs, and draw a little tick mark. I adjust my ruler and make marks until I’ve created a connect-the-dots circle for myself to stitch along. This ensures that the main vine of the wreath is always the same distance from the hoop and it’s centered with the text.

(I realize that’s hard to visualize. I need to post pictures of that process sometime…)

IMG_2637As of today, I’ve mailed off all four of those hoops, and I have one more to do before I’m caught up on my orders.

Now, I’m designing a different Nolite hoop, one with red fabric and white, traditional cross stitch lettering. It won’t have a wreath, but rather an ornate flourish underneath. Also, it will be my first try at stitching an eight-inch hoop! And I’m trying out the technique of doing only half of stitch at first and then going back and criss-crossing it later.

fullsizeoutput_1403Don’t let the pattern fool you: It will be centered in the hoop, thanks to the temporary gridlines.

There may be better ways of finding and marking the center of a cross-stitch project, but this system works for me.

•••

How do you find the center—in your projects and in yourself?

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