Meet the designer - Brenda Ryan – stitching as drawing

The gardener who planted the seed of Cottage Garden Threads.  

Brenda is a lifelong stitcher, who learned to embroider at the feet of her elderly aunties. Women she describes as “old school tapestry stitchers”. As a young mum in Warrnambool in southwest Victoria in the 1970s, Brenda went to work for the first women’s refuge to be established there. She joined a local branch of The Embroiderers Guild and not so long after, a friend asked her to “write down your recipes for embroidery.” Embroidery recipes? Brenda was intrigued and ‘Brenda Ryan Embroidery Designs’ was the one-woman business that emerged.

Later she moved across Victoria with her family to live in the small town of Leongatha, South Gippsland and started a branch of the Embroiderers Guild in her lounge room. She changed the name of her business to ‘Thimblestitch’ and, persistent innovator that she is, dived into the strange new world of computerised pattern making. 

Around 30 years ago Brenda met Pam when both women were working at an aged care home in Leongatha. They discovered each other as kindred spirits of the stitching world and between them, an unbreakable thread was connected.

“Pam is an expert quilt maker and had been dyeing fabrics. Meanwhile my embroidery design business was going gangbusters but the stranded threads that I was writing into patterns were becoming harder and harder to find in Australia” says Brenda. 

So, Brenda threw Pam a challenge: “Dye me some threads!”  And Pam did.  Among the first 35 colours was a palette created for a quilt design ‘Jane Austen’s Bonnet, one of Brenda’s most popular designs that some say is begging for a revival. The innovative quilt design features quotes and imagery from Jane Austen novels set into 70 degree diamond blocks. The timeless design was a “happy accident” recalls Pam who was tasked with designing the quilt using Brenda’s oddly ‘chomped’ out background pieces, “I’m an embroider, not a patchworker!” Brenda defends herself with a wry smile. 

23 years later, the collaboration between Pam and Brenda has come full circle with the CGT’s Edit Range: Traditionelle by Brenda Ryan – a lush set of 28 threads honouring the French tradition of stitching and Brenda’s feel for soft hues of pink and pale green mixed with emphatic burgundy and tones of green and grey. You don’t have to look far to see how the colours of the Traditionelle range play together. Brenda designed 6 whimsical pieces to accompany the range, 4 little liberty girls and 2 fairies. The patterns are small, achievable designs created with Brenda’s trademark illustrative style.  

Liberating stitches

Brenda's urge to design and stitch her own patterns was driven by an innate creativity but also, in those early days, by the sheer lack of options. “When I started stitching, you’d have to go into the city to Myer’s Department Store to buy your materials at the haberdashery counter. It was all cross-stitching or embroidering set pieces onto tablecloths – forms of stitching that didn’t speak to me.”  Instead, Brenda found herself drawn to 19th century book illustrators – the great graphic artists of children’s literature – John Tenniel (the original illustrator of the first published edition of C.S. Lewis’ Alice in Wonderland. And Arthur Rackham, who illustrated later editions of this beloved story. The dark humour that appears in some of Brenda’s designs is particularly reflective of the Victorian era illustrators – The covid souvenir ‘Plague Doctor’ Brooch or ‘Journey to nowhere much’ map of adventures to dream of wildly whilst locked down in your own house.    

  Brenda’s love of these illustrations evolved into a style of pattern making and stitchery that is wholly unique. “I’ve always seen embroidery as an extension of drawing” says Brenda. “You can’t embroider exactly what an illustrator illustrates – there’s a process to be gone through to adapt the illustrative style to something that can be stitched.” And so, Brenda’s stitching has become deliberately crafted to emphasize the beauty of the line. There’s a looseness - a kind of dot/dash drawing with the thread. This intuitive kind of stitching is no mean feat when the norm for centuries has been the opposite - formality and perfectionism. Knowing that this skill must be adopted gradually and gently, Brenda has created a series of projects called ‘Rambling Stitcher’ which sits somewhere between slow stitching and fine embroidery. Many of the projects include card stencils for drawing design elements on fabric and inspiring photographic stitch guides to follow. Before you know it, your needle will be guided by your own intuition and illustrating with thread. . . . .                        

Special offer - Purchase Hares Nest Stencil Pack and receive all 5 stencils for the price of 4. . Stitching in hand (Now 72 years old) and having stitched since childhood, Brenda reflects on how much the world of stitching has changed through time. “Back in the day, nobody used embroidery hoops in Australia. It was a different time. Surface stitchery is a technique I grew up with in the sixties and seventies where the embroidery was always in the hand and not reliant on any type of hoop” Brenda continues on her self confessed rant, (I prefer passionate wisdom) “I never use a hoop because without one, the stitching process becomes freer. I make it up as I go along, It’s a kind of embellishment of the line.  I can flip from back stitch to stem stich to back stitch intuitively and you learn to find the natural tension in the fabric and work with it as illustrative surface” she says. “Somehow, for me, an embroidery hoop restricts the way I stitch”.

“Whilst agreeing that embroidery hoops have a place, I feel that sometimes a hoop can be more restrictive than is useful. I encourage beginner stitchers to experience the simple pleasure of just ‘Stitching in the Hand’…no Hoops… just the needle and thread over the index finger and gently pulling the thread parallel with the fabric to settle.” Says Brenda as I begin to understand why she is such an admired and respected teacher.  

“My advice is to start a line with Stem stitch, then turn it around and finish with Backstitch and spaced apart Backstitch or even Blanket stitch. Depending on the drawing you should feel free to add extras to your stitching as you go, a Blanket stitch bar, a smattering of cross stitches at random. You are adding to the textural feel of the piece”, advises Brenda. “The most important thing you will learn through stitching in the hand will be that tension is simple…no tugging through a hoop...a row of Backstitch or French Knots can be worked softly without any pulling.”

  Hare’s Nest Patterns grounded in her love of 19th century European book illustration have poured out of Brenda over a lifetime of pattern making. She has taught stitching and done stitching and thought about stitching for a lifetime with no sign she’s letting up anytime soon. The unique way that she stitches found a counterpart 10 years ago in Jo Maxwell – a trained dressmaker. “We both stitch the same way,” says Brenda and that connection led to Hare’s Nest, “It grew out of a shared passion for embroidery that related directly to drawing and design.” From Tiny ‘Stitchery Villages’ to epic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ wholecloths and everything in between, Hare’s nest is a place where Brenda and Jo’s ideas run wild.

Stitch your own adventure…

Brenda and Jo have released a Hare’s Nest subscription box. A 6 part monthly box of rambling stitcher treasures curated to illustrate your own cloth book. Click here for further information and purchase the subscription. There are very limited numbers so don’t delay.  


This year Brenda and Jo will complete the Hare’s Nest book of Stitch techniques ‘The Book of Doodle Stitches’, A little collection of different stitches not described before. Keep an eye out on our socials for new Hare's Nest releases.   


Special offer - Purchase any 4 Rambling Stitcher stencils and the 5th is free. Offer automatically applied at checkout. Ongoing special.