Meet the Designer: Modern Folk Embroidery!

By AlisonManey, Mon, 2018-07-02 18:51

This story first appeared in Crazy issue 231, our August 2017 magazine.

Craft connoisseur Jacob de Graaf lives and breathes cross stitch, and loves nothing more than delving deep into the history of embroidery design. As the founder of popular website Modern Folk Embroidery, his creative days are filled with researching stitchy history, dyeing his own wool, creating samplers and, of course, stitching – sounds like heaven to us! When he’s not busy finding inspiration in the antique shops of his home in York (he’s originally from the Netherlands), you’ll find him pouring over old books or travelling the world to learn about traditional needlework.

Jacob incorporates what he learns into his own charts and kits – Quaker-style samplers with intricate patterns and meandering alphabets, red Nordic-inspired Christmas designs and rustic biscornus, all accompanied by poetic notes on what inspired him to create each project. We spoke to Jacob to find out more about his work, his inspiration, and what’s next for Modern Folk Embroidery.

How did you get into designing your own cross stitch charts and kits?

When I was a kid, I did some cross stitch on pieces of linen that I got from my mum. I decided that I wanted to design my own patterns, as I didn’t like the patterns that I’d seen out there. I made my own ‘embroidery book’ by sticking together several pages of graph paper into a little booklet. Back then, I already had an interest in primitive embroidery – without me realising at the time what that really was. After that initial brief period of stitching, I lost interest, mainly due to going to college, and later, being occupied solely with drawing and painting. When I ran my own gallery a few years later, I did some stitching and decided I wanted to create my own original patterns. I decided to open an Etsy shop in 2011 – and that’s when Modern Folk Embroidery was born!

What inspires the work you do at Modern Folk Embroidery?

My customers don’t just buy a pattern, they also buy an accompanying story and background history. I’ve always had such a fascination with history, whether it’s facts, arts or architecture, or the imprints people have left on their surroundings. This fascination moves me to design, and I want to bring that across to my customers so they’re inspired to explore new things.

Why is looking at old needlework so important to your design process?

I love seeing old works. There’s an emotional connection you get from seeing an original piece of needlework. It’s a fellow embroiderer saying, “I was here” – whenever and wherever ‘here’ was. It’s particularly moving for me to see the work of some young girl who’s written meaningful messages on her work. When I travel, I make it a point to look up collections in museums, not only of needlework, but of any form of art. It influences me in many different ways. Sometimes I use the shape of a sampler as a creative springboard; sometimes it’s a sentiment or saying found on a sampler that’ll set a new design in motion. And sometimes it’s just a feeling you get from someone’s work. That’s hard to pinpoint, though, as usually you wouldn’t recognise the work that inspired my design.

Do you have a favourite piece you’ve designed so far?

I have quite a few favourites. The reason for that is, I only design what I would want to stitch myself! But one that stands out for me is the Valknut Pillow Pattern. It was inspired by a traditional knot pattern found in many Nordic cultures. I combined it with two borders, taking inspiration from the Sámi, the native people of northern Scandinavia. I learned about their rich cultural heritage, their persecution in the past, and their continuing struggle for recognition at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. For me, the fusion of these different cultural elements works really well, and hopefully also ignites a curiosity in my customers to find out more about the Sámi people themselves!

You also dye your own wool – how did you get into that?

Because of high import costs, I could no longer offer the US threads that I was selling at a decent price to my customers. I started looking into alternatives, as I love the natural, slightly uneven look of hand-dyed yarns. As I started looking into it, I became more aware of the environmental impact of chemical dyes, and at the same time learned more about the historical background of natural dyes. After a lot of research and testing, I found a wonderfully soft and fine merino wool, which I personally think is one of the most suitable wool threads for stitching. It’s strong, doesn’t fluff like many other wool threads, and it takes colour beautifully!

What would you say is the best thing about what you do?

Everything! The whole process, from doing research, to designing the pattern, to stitching the design is equally interesting to me. And when the customer purchases a kit or materials, it’s great to physically put a parcel together and get it out into the mail. I’ll be attending my first major fair this September in Italy, which will be yet another experience, this time in dealing with embroidery enthusiasts face to face!

What are your plans for Modern Folk Embroidery in the future?

I’m currently working on a winter-themed book project. It’s very hard to find the time to both run my own business and write and compile a book, but I’m enjoying the process, and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can share some more details about this exciting project!


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