Interview with Denise Harrington Pratt: Exploring Three-Dimensional Embroidery

Denise Harrington Pratt’s counted thread pieces and three-dimensional projects have delighted EGA members for years. Denise takes an interesting and innovative approach to design, going so far as to invent stitches when the need arises! We sat down with Denise to learn more about her design process, including what initially attracted her to creating three-dimensional pieces like her Snowflake Ball and Star Spangled Ball, the importance of good finishing techniques, and taking a design from a sketch on paper to a finished piece!

In the course description for Love and Laughter, it says your motto is: “If you don’t have the stitch you need, invent one!” What are some stitches you’ve invented?

Oh, lots! One of my early ones was Celestial Eyelet which came to me when I was designing the Angel Sampler, hence the name.

Angel Sampler
The above Periwinkle flower is an example of the Large Celestial Eyelet stitch invented for Angel Sampler

I have one I named Wrapped Triangular Eyelet. I needed a stitch to fill a certain area of a geometric design I was doing at the time. The design was called Tranquil Sky. Eyelets lend themselves quite well to my desire to play with stitches.

The four triangular stitches above are examples of Wrapped Triangular Eyelets

Some of the others I’ve done are Fly Eyelet, Button Eyelet, and Complex Eyelet, which is a central eyelet surrounded by partial eyelets. A couple of my non-eyelet stitches are Nova stitch, and Ohio Star stitch. Many begin with a stitch we know and love like Diamond Leviathan. I put two together, and created Twin Diamond Leviathan. One of my favorites is Triple Backstitch. I have always loved double backstitch and all its variations, like alternating double backstitch which is great fun to do. Then one day I wondered if I could create a stitch based on double backstitch, only with three lines of backstitch on the wrong side, instead of two. And that is how Triple Backstitch came into being. I used it on the Lily sampler in 1995.

Four Yellow Kite Eyelets

I think Triple Backstitch was actually my first one. It’s fun to do and I use it quite often. Students have enjoyed it too. And in case you are wondering I did tinker with Quadruple Backstitch but it seemed like a bit much.

A design from Denise Harrington Pratt’s Shell We Stitch? series
Why are you drawn to counted thread embroidery?

That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? I think mostly it is just how my brain works. There is something very satisfying about putting all those stitches in the right place and ending up with something beautiful and interesting.

You’ve also designed 2 three-dimensional balls courses for EGA: the Snowflake Ball and the Star-Spangled Puzzle Ball, and you continue to return to this format (like the Halloween Ball shown above). Why do you like working with three-dimensional pieces? What advice would you give students who feel intimidated by these projects?

Oh my, I have created more balls than that! They are so much fun! Star-Spangled Puzzle Ball was actually my first one. My second one was The Quaker Ball. The third one was The Quaker Button Ball. I would like to mention that Quakers did not make balls from Platonic and Archimedean solids as far as I could determine. I looked for balls made in the mists of time and I found only pin balls, but none based on geometric shapes. Though the clutch ball has been around for awhile. People have made them for years for babies. The Quaker Ball went all over the world, and lots of people are creating their own renditions now and calling them Quaker balls. But I only called mine that because I used what I will call Quaker style designs on it. Someone well versed in historic Quaker samplers would recognize immediately that mine “Quaker” designs are not historic.

Quaker Balls by Denise Harrington Pratt

My fascination with creating balls was inspired by Jinny Beyer, who is a well known quilter. I bought her book Patchwork Puzzle Balls years ago. The balls in the book are made with quilting cotton. Every time I thought about making one I imagined it in linen. The idea percolated for several years before I actually attempted it. Figuring out how to create a Platonic or Archimedean solid on linen was a bit of a challenge. But, it turned out that making balls out of linen is very doable and actually not that difficult.

Why do I like working with three-dimensional pieces? Hmm? The short answer is, it’s fun! I enjoy figuring out how to make a 3D needlework piece. It’s the challenge, too. Also, it’s a change from doing flat pieces like table runners and framed pieces. And I just keep getting new ideas. So what’s a designer to do? When the muse speaks….

I enjoy sharing my 3D pieces with stitchers and students. It is very gratifying to hear that a stitcher enjoyed creating one of my pieces or that a student enjoyed a class I taught or wrote. Most of us stitch because it brings us joy, and satisfaction, and contentment and maybe some well deserved pride also. Stitchers create amazing work with needle and thread! I think it is good for our mental health as well. I hear so many people say that the act of stitching is a stress reliever for them.

Quaker Button Ball by Denise Harrington Pratt

For those that feel intimidated by 3D projects, but want to try, I recommend starting small. Find a simple piece like an ornament or a fob and learn from that. I didn’t start out making puzzle balls or needlework accouterments. Then work your way up to more challenging pieces as you develop some skills.

Also, take some finishing classes. Getting tips from an experienced finisher can move your finishing forward by leaps and bounds. And don’t think for a minute that those of us who teach don’t continue learning and developing skills. It is an ongoing process for all of us. I will let you in on a secret though, and some may disagree with me, but putting these puzzle balls together is not that complicated. There are much more complicated 3D needlework items out there. I will warn you though, making one ball might lead to another and another…

What inspires your designs?

My designs are inspired by all kinds of things. I don’t like to do the same type of thing over and over. Some things are inspired by nature like my Shell We Stitch? pieces. Those were so much fun to create!

A design from Denise Harrington Pratt’s Shell We Stitch? series

The Halloween Ball was inspired simply by Halloween. The Star-Spangled Puzzle Ball sprang from a desire to create a ball with lots of specialty stitches on it. And the icosadodechedron creates star shapes, so I looked for stitches that echoed star shapes. I usually have a steady stream of ideas pouring through my head. I have to keep a notebook so I don’t forget them. I won’t get to them all and some I lose interest in.

Puzzle Temari Ball
Star-Spangled Puzzle Ball
How do you approach your design process?

My design process sometimes varies. The first step is an idea that percolates in my head. It may percolate for a long time or a short time. Once I have something that I actually want to create, I usually start sketching on graph paper. At some point, I start graphing the design on the computer. It is easy to duplicate a motif and move things around on the computer. The process progresses to materials and colors I might use. I might play with stitches. Finally I will stitch the piece. If it is a 3D piece I have to figure out what that looks like early on. Sometimes a prototype is needed. It’s a process.

A design from Denise Harrington Pratt’s Shell We Stitch? series
What are you currently working on?

A box called The Quaker Box. It is a continuation of my Quaker series. It is a teaching piece that I will be teaching at our Spring Getaway Seminar up here in Maine. Southern Maine Chapter does a seminar every other year.

The Quaker Box
What are your favorite, must-have tools?

My computer, good scissors, graph paper, Olfa knives, metal rulers, color printer, work table, good lights. The usual.

Do you have any advice for needleworkers approaching counted thread embroidery for the first time?

Start with something not too complicated. Many of us who prefer stitching on linen now, started on Aida cloth. Take some classes. Get a couple of good books on counted thread embroidery. I love Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Needlework. It has more than just counted thread in it. It has a ton of information in it, and also some very nice projects.

A design from Denise Harrington Pratt’s Shell We Stitch? series
What embroidery or color trends (if any) are you currently drawn to?

I don’t know that I really follow any particular trends. I just do what I like. As for color, I absolutely LOVE color. And whatever color works with the design I am doing is my approach. Playing with color is one of my favorite things about designing.

Button Etui by Denise Harrington Pratt
What do you hope embroiderers take from your courses?

I hope that embroiderers enjoy my courses and learn techniques and information that help them grow as embroiderers. And I hope they find joy in creating my pieces and continue to find pleasure in the completed pieces, whether a framed piece, or a 3D piece. After all, I think we stitch because we love it.

Thanks again to Denise Harrington Pratt for giving us an insider’s view of her design process. Browse all of Denise’s available classes with EGA now!

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