By Sue Fenwick
A few years ago, Jacob de Graaf was just looking into some crafts and wanted to do some stitching and some embroidery.
“I was at my mom’s place and saw this antique embroidery and was quite fascinated by that and thought I’d like to do something like that,” he said. “So I started making a chart and started embroidering, and from there on, I started making my own designs that looked old but were modern.”
Jacob de Graaf
Jacob, who was born in a small town in the northernmost province of the Netherlands, has a really creative mom. She is always doing embroidery, making dolls or sewing.
“So when the possibilities are there when you grow up, and since I had a talent for drawing, it was quite a logical step to go from fine arts to cross stitch,” he said.
In 2001, Jacob graduated from the Constantijn Huygens School of Fine Arts in Kampen, Overijssel, the Netherlands.
After graduation, he ran a gallery in the town of Sloten, Friesland, the Netherlands, where he exhibited and sold his drawings and paintings.
Jacob now lives in York, England, with his partner and two cats, in a home overlooking a Norman castle.
Jacob sells his designs through Modern Folk Embroidery, his online cross-stitch store. He has downloadable designs that can be purchased and used immediately. He is starting to make and sell kits, and plans to write a book.
His work, meticulous in design and execution, is heavily influenced by his Dutch heritage. His monochrome palette is a distinctive feature of his designs. Jacob is mainly inspired by folk art and nature.
“I love using something from a different art field and using it in cross stitch,” he said. “I see patterns in other mediums I can use in samplers. You use little bits and bobs from here and there and use them in a design.
“I think you feel affinity with certain areas as well. It’s funny because my ancestry is proper Friesian. I am rooted in the Northern Netherlands. Friesia is a very old provence found along the coast of what is now known as the Netherlands, the south of Denmark, the north of Germany, even up to the top bits of France. That whole coastal area used to be Friesia.”
Jacob still speaks Friesian.
“It’s a beautiful language, and it has its own culture, too. It has a lot of folk art, and there is a lot of cross stitch from the area. When you move away, there is a big pull toward your own roots. You say, ‘What’s my culture?’
“For me and my cross stitch, it’s the Friesian stitching, which is quite simple. It survived because it was so isolated. And the folk art was inspired by local arts, like costumes and things that went out of fashion in big cities and kept surviving in the countryside. People wear these costumes that had been fashionable in 17th century Holland. They were considered quite old-fashioned, but they still wore them.
“So it’s really Friesia and the northern areas that really inspired me to look more into the Scandinavian folk art, which I have always been attracted to, as well. It’s pretty much a couple of hours away, and you’re in Denmark, and from Denmark, it’s a small skip to Sweden. They all link together, but each area has its own distinct style. I do feel really attached to that.”
There is a regional embroidery in Marken in the northern Netherlands, a centuries-old settlement with a unique craft of monochrome embroidery. In the 17th century, a lot of people from that area were brought to Amager in Denmark to teach farming techniques. The farmers brought their families with them. The artwork they made became unique to that part of Denmark. The art from the Netherlands was sort of transferred to Denmark and joined into this Amager art form, Jacob said.
This marriage of art forms parallels the way Jacob designs. He likes to look at things and be inspired and redesign them, or rework them.
“I saw a beautiful sampler from that area combining several elements from Marken and Amager,” he said. “You don’t know which piece is from which area, but the beauty is the handing down of things from generation to generation.”
Jacob loves the simplicity of cross stitch.
“It is such an easy stitch, and everybody can do it,” he said. “If you can hold a needle and thread, you can do it. I love that it is such an easy thing to do.
“Whether you can do it properly or not, that comes with experience. Finesse comes with years of practice, but initially it’s something that people can learn really quickly that can be really satisfying, and I think that’s why it’s becoming popular again. You can sit down and relax after a day’s work, or take it with you when you travel.”
He does not use a hoop.
“I just crunch it in a big pile, and I stitch in-hand,” he said. “I love sewing onto the fabric. It’s very satisfying to see this pattern coming alive. There is something quite calming about counting your stitches. I think it’s a visual math. It is such a simple technique. You have a thread and a needle, and you make little crosses.”
Jacob uses a monochrome palette in his designs, and many are stitched in red.
“My paintings have always been quite minimalist, as well,” he said. “My work has never been very colorful. Shades of gray or blue, but big fields of color, or very subdued. It’s very monochrome. When I started designing, it was the monochrome that really spoke to me. I think it’s amazing when someone uses a hundred different colors and stitches a huge bouquet of flowers. But it would be very frustrating to me to do two stitches here and cut off your thread. It would drive me mad. You can do a lot more with monochrome than you think.
“I think the main thing is that what you do needs to be enjoyable while you do it. If the joy is not there, people should stop doing what they are doing. Pick something that you actually enjoy doing. Everything I do, I enjoy 100 percent. There is nothing that I don’t like doing. I love finishing a piece and showing it to people and getting feedback. I hope that shines through in my patterns. It is all actually made with love.”
Sue Fenwick is a freelance writer who lives in Springfield, Missouri. She writes every Tuesday.