The Postmistress by Sarah Blake is a heart-rending and profoundly moving story of love and loss in World War II. As part of the new Penguin By Hand series, the cover has been recreated in hand embroidery by Jenny Hart. Read more on her creative process, and the challenges of using embroidery for a book jacket design, in this exclusive interview.
Which aspects of The Postmistress did you want to convey on the cover of the book?
I wanted her face to convey a sense of urgency, seriousness and uncertainty – with war going on in the background. Not very easy to do in embroidery, which manages to make its own decisions apart from your drawing. But I’m really happy with the result. I think I got two out of three for her facial expression!
What were the challenges of creating a book cover using embroidery?
The small format and the number of visual elements needed was daunting at first – the actual piece was worked about 10% larger than the published cover size. The spine was also tricky. Getting the right colours against the right background so that it would be clear and legible took a few tries. Oddly enough, one of the biggest challenges was the small swatch of fabric affixed to the back cover. I don’t sew and don’t own a sewing machine, so I had to hire a seamstress just to make that square for me!
Can you explain your creative process – from working on the concept of an idea, to creating the finished product?
It depends. If its my own personal work, I have multiple approaches, but I almost never begin with a completed template. I’ll usually build up and grow the embroidery as the piece progresses along the image I have in my mind or by seeing where it goes on its own. For a comissioned piece like this I had to have a fully detailed, completed template approved by the editors before any of the embroidery work began. That means once I begin embroidering, there is no room for going off into unexpected directions, or playing around as I might when working for myself. I don’t necessarily prefer one to the other. It’s simply two different ways of creating a piece. Sometimes it’s satisfying to take on the challenge of working as an assignment as the end result is a piece I never would have done on my own. The other side is that I don’t wish to work only commercially, because commissions primarily draw from what they’ve seen you do before (or ask for something not representative of your work). Only when I work without any direction will I explore truly new areas of my own work, and that’s the most important aspect of my creative process: working alone.
Who taught you the art of embroidery and what’s your background in design?
I’m self-taught in embroidery. Unlike in the UK and Europe, there aren’t really formal means to learn embroidery in the US. My background is in fine art, but I have always loved commercial design and love working in both arenas. When I began working in embroidery and showing it as fine art, art directors began contacting me for illustration work for newspaper and magazine articles. It wasn’t work I was looking for, but I have had some really fun projects come about as a result of being asked, including the cover of Washington Post Magazine, an ESPN commercial, and DVD and album artworks. This is my first commissioned book cover and I’m thrilled to get to work in so many different areas. I took two years of design when I was in college, but my design sense and appreciation for art is more informed by my father’s advice and the books he kept around the house as I was growing up. He was an industrial and educational film maker and was constantly teaching me about how to visually convey a message. He taught me more about art and design than anything else I’ve studied.
What is it about this medium that you love?
Embroidering is an essential activity for me. I became so attached to it because of its meditative and relaxing effects during a very difficult time in my life. I find it endlessly fascinating in its techniques and possibilities.
What other projects are is in the pipeline for you at the moment?
My design company, Sublime Stitching always keeps me very busy. We recently introduced a line of Fine Tip Transfer Pens for embroiderers, and in fact: I tested the production sample by making my template for this book cover. I needed to produce and extremely clear and detailed iron-on template and used my own pen. That’s how it was quality checked!
I recently held one of my “Embroidering in Architecture” classes at the historic Gamble House in Pasadena, California. This is a series of workshops I began in 2013 where students are taught embroidery in a space of historic, architectural beauty and significance. It’s a rare opportunity to actually inhabit the space for 2-3 hours instead of just a few moments on tour. I find architectural spaces so moving and inspiring. Like many architecture enthusiasts, whenever I’m on a tour, or looking at photos in a book I crave to know what it would be like to live in the space. I hope to capture a little bit of that feeling in these workshops. The first of these was held in the living room of the famous Neutra VDL house in Silverlake, and I look forward to doing more!
What about the project did you enjoy the most?
I really enjoyed working with the art director of the Penguin by Hand series, Gill Heeley. She was wonderful in letting me “do my thing” and running free with initial concepts but clear in what her own expectations and needs for the project were. In this type of creative endeavour, that’s not always an easy balance but she was really great. I also really enjoyed wondering what the author would think of this cover (and I hope she likes it)!
Finally, what’s your favourite book?
So unfair to pick just one! The Red Truck by Rudy Wilson
Fun fact: The shortest deadline I ever met required two back-to-back days of 10-hour stitching sessions.
See more of Jenny Hart’s work on her website.
The artwork for the Penguin by Hand series was commissioned by Gill Heeley and Alison O’Toole.