What are these flights of fancy that Mabel has? Well, they are short snippets about anything that I've been doing, stitching, designing, thinking about, experimenting with, and so on, which I think you may be interested in. They'll tell you about new designs, how I come up with names, changes I'm making in designs I'm working on and so on. I can't promise posts will be regular or terribly frequent, but I'll do my best not to neglect this page for long periods of time! By the way, most of the pictures are thumbnails, so you can click on them for a larger version; if you hover over one and a little magnifying glass with a + appears, it's clickable.

Rainbow choices and a mystery

My rainbow is growing apace! Apart from a couple of evenings this week when we have other things on, I’ve been stitching a band a night, and I like how it’s developing. There have been a few decisions to take along the way, though – not quite the relaxed just-get-on-and-stitch project I first had in mind – but that is part of any project that will eventually become a chart pack or kit. And in a way it makes me concentrate more on the design and how I want it to look.

I wrote earlier about backstitch versus cable stitch in the red band; and for the orange band I had to choose between plain and reverse chain stitch (I went for the latter – easier to start a new thread mid-line). The yellow band threw up another decision; in my provisional notes I’d put it down as diagonal satin stitch, which would mean gradually changing the stitch direction to compensate for the curve. Not impossible of course, but not very relaxed either, and I did want to try and keep it relatively simple. Straight satin stitch then? You’d still need to adjust the stitch direction, but it’s definitely easier than in the diagonal version. Unfortunately that wasn’t the effect I wanted, and anyway I suspected that both diagonal and straight satin stitch throughout would look too solid, with too little texture. In the end I went for blocks of diagonal satin stitch alternating in direction. But would it need a split stitch outline? I started one just in case.

A provisional split stitch edge

The split stitch looked rather messy – I don’t really like doing split stitch in more than a single strand – so I started from the other end of the band without split stitch, tucking the ends under the previous band on one side, and knowing they’d be covered on the other side by the next band. And it looked just fine. Good, I’m all for simplifying things! The incipient line of split stitch was unpicked and the whole band worked without it; split stitch may make an appearance as a proper filling stitch in the smaller version worked in an indivisible thread, but here it isn’t needed.

Alternating satin stitch without a split stitch edge The yellow band finished

The green band, in stem stitch, posed no problem. The blue band, to compensate for this, threw up two.

First dilemma: fly stitch or Cretan? To begin with I was almost certain I’d go for fly stitch, then I doodled both and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. They both looked rather fun!

Fly stitch versus Cretan stitch

After discussing both options with my husband I decided to stick with fly stitch after all; much though I like Cretan stitch, I felt that (in contrast to the original satin stitch band idea) it has too much texture – a bit too fussy for this project. OK, fly stitch. But…

… in which blue? From a practical point of view it makes sense to stick with one brand of silk throughout, but the Splendor blue was a bit lighter than I’d like and the only darker blue of the right sort came from my collection of Caron Soie Cristale.

Which blue to choose

Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk is a 12-stranded silk in a slightly unusual distribution: it consists of three “bundles” of four strands. There are other silks on the market which use the same distribution (Crescent Colours Belle Soie, Gloriana Silk Floss and Thread Gatherer Silk ‘n Colors) and their weight too is pretty much identical, so I’ve long suspected they are really exactly the same silk marketed by four different companies. Ideally, then, I’d find a darker blue in my stash of these brands, but I have a fairly limited selection and moreover they are all overdyed or variegated threads rather than the solid blue I was looking for.

Caron Soie Cristale seemed a good alternative as it is also a 12-stranded thread, although not of the 3×4 type, and the individual strands are of a similar weight to Splendor and its doppelgangers. I cut a length of the darker blue, stripped four strands from it, got ready to thread them, and realised that the four strands together were noticeably thinner then the four strands of Splendor I’d been using. On closer inspection, the thread turned out to consist of 16 thinner strands. Had I misremembered the strand count and weight of Soie Cristale? I checked four or five other bobbins and this is the only Soie Cristale I have which has 16 thinner strands. I am puzzled.

The rogue thread, standard Soie Cristale and Splendor

Oh well, we work with what we have. Six strands of this rogue blue looked to have about the same bulk as four strands of the Splendor, so I got to work with that. Having struggled with six rather wayward strands for several hours I am happy with the look of the stitch, but the colour seems rather dark. Perhaps with hindsight my original Splendor blue would have been better. Unpick it all? That’s a bit drastic. I’ll see if it’s grown on me by the time my next stitching session comes around…

The blue band finished

By the way, exciting news – I’ve got a Certificate class booked at Rugby! Next Wednesday I hope to make a start on mounting the Jacobean tree, and going over my paperwork with Angela.

InspiRussian

Some weeks ago on the Antiques Roadshow someone brought in a Russian tea set and a rather exquisite enamel napkin ring which the expert pointed out was not actually part of it. It was Russian, though, and in fact turned out to be by Fabergé. I really liked the floral pattern on the napkin ring so I paused the programme, took a picture, and used it to make some sketches later. It just cried out to be stitched; silks would be ideal to show the sheen of the enamel but for some reason I saw it in my mind in crewel wools, and as the napkin ring was done in cloisonné enamel the main colour blocks of the embroidery would have to be outlined in some form of metal thread (copper or muted gold) to mimic the fine metal strips in the original.

As I scribbled down all these observations plus some colour ideas I was a little worried about copyright, but after some thought came to the conclusion that anything that age is unlikely to be covered anymore. If anyone knows differently, do please let me know before I start stitching! I’ve already got the design transferred to my favourite linen…

The Russian design transferred to a piece of linen

Having produced my first coloured version of the design, I set about choosing wools. I love choosing threads from my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool; quite apart from the joy of opening drawer after drawer of glorious colour, they are a delight to handle, beautifully soft and fondleable (yes, that is now a word). I picked five colour families, Old Gold, Madder Pink, Lagoon, Goblin Green and Cornflower Blue. For now I wasn’t too concerned with how light or dark the design was going to be, just with getting the right shades.

First attempts at picking colours

And I wasn’t. Getting the right shades, I mean. The combination of blues and greens I’d gone for in my digital version was always going to be tricky to replicate, and it might have been easier to go with something closer to the original napkin ring, but I’d grown rather fond of my version by now so I was jolly well going to see it through! The problem was the blue – it needed to be just a tiny bit closer to the green end of blue without merging into the turquoise shade. It was obviously time to hit the shops, or rather one shop in particular: Catkin Crown Textile Studio.

Steve and Hazel not only stock the entire range of Heathway Milano crewel wool at a very reasonable price, they are also invariably helpful – I can thoroughly recommend them. This time what I needed from their store of goodies was the Bluebell colour family which is just that bit less pure blue than the Cornflower family. And as I was getting those I might as well get the missing shades in the Madder Pink family, so that I had a wider range to choose from for the flowers. And as I was getting those I was only a few skeins off qualifying for free postage. And so, uhm, well…

The shades I needed The shades I added

Moving on, it was time to compare the Bluebell and the Cornflower combinations to see which one was going to make the final cut. Colour preferences are very personal, but for me the Bluebell version immediately appealed in a way that the Cornflower one hadn’t. Bluebell it is!

The Cornflower combination The Bluebell combination

Since then I have made a few changes to the colours, but only in the way they are distributed, particularly in the flowers, so no need for another purchase smiley. I also turned the black design lines golden yellow to better show the effect of the cloisonné outlining. And that’s as far as I go for the time being – first I have a rainbow to finish (among one or two other things…). But it’s nice to know I won’t run out of things to stitch any time soon.

The revised colour version, dark The revised colour version, light

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking what to call this design. At the moment I’m considering either Exquisite Enamel or Fabergé Floral; but perhaps I should just stick with the title of this post!

Light and hope

I may have mentioned once or twice that I have more than enough projects to keep me going for a long, long time. Works actually in progress (like Llandrindod and Hengest), works ready to go with the design transferred and the materials chosen (like Soli Deo Gloria and Come Rain), and several still in the exciting design stage (like Mechthild, Pickled Garden and the nameless Russian piece). And that’s without the kits and designs by other people that I have on the go or on my shelves!

But sometimes something needs to be stitched.

I’ve been having trouble with my eyes for some time now. Partly the usual thing of getting older and needing longer arms to read things, partly the fact that because of lockdown I haven’t seen an optician for some time and probably need new glasses, and partly because of a progressive condition which causes cloudiness in my left eye. For now that last part is an annoyance rather than seriously getting in the way – it’s a bit like having smudged glasses all the time (and in fact I do keep trying to polish them when I’m not thinking about it). But I have no idea how bad it will get, or how quickly. And that worries me. But (as our minister reminded us in last Sunday’s sermon) worrying is a very ineffective thing to do. And a couple of weeks ago, as I was worrying about the light going out of my eyes I suddenly thought of the Light of the World. And it comforted me. So I grabbed a bit of fabric and a 3-inch hoop and stitched the words in a style which is not really usual for me at all, with gel pen additions. If it speaks to you, feel free to copy it (I’ll keep the pop-up picture a bit larger than usual).

Light of the World

The other design that has elbowed its way to the front of the queue I’ve called Hope. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, a Dutch organisation called Agapè ran a campaign to encourage people to think and talk about faith. Its logo was a rainbow (and I’ve only just now realised it has a reddish purple on the outside instead of pure red) with the words “er is hoop” (“there is hope”).

The 'Er is hoop' logo

I’ve always loved rainbows and they’ve been rather prominent lately; even so, until a week or so ago I hadn’t felt any urge to stitch one. But when I did, and after a few sketches that weren’t what I wanted, I decided that I wanted the rainbow to be based on a circle. Some years ago, when flying to the Netherlands, I saw the shadow of the aeroplane inside what looked like a completely circular rainbow. It is apparently known as a “glory”; to me it looked like a sign of protection and security, and it always stayed with me. The photograph I took isn’t particularly clear but I hope it gives you an idea. With that starting point I sketched what became pretty much the final version of the design, a circular rainbow partly covered by a cloud containing the words “there is Hope”.

Glory around the shadow of a plane The design sketch for Hope Hope transferred onto blue cotton

Now I had to decide on stitches and colours. I wanted each of the colours to be in a different stitch, some line stitches following the arc of the rainbow, some with a different stitch direction or texture. And for the threads, silk. Chunky silk, in bold colours. I went for Rainbow Gallery Splendor, which is 12-stranded arranged in 3 clusters of 4 strands; each cluster should provide good coverage in a design that I chose to stitch a little larger than I would normally go for. Most of the colours were easy to pick, but I had a bit of a dilemma over the green. The one that seemed to fit in best was a very vibrant green, rather brighter than I ideally wanted (I’m not quite sure why I bought that shade in the first place!) But the only other green that would fit was on the dull side. After some comparisons I decided to go with the bright option – hope, after all, is a bright thing!

Splendor silk colours for the rainbow, with two greens

As I was about to start stitching the order of the various stitches from red to purple needed a bit of work, but eventually I was reasonably sure that I’d got them arranged the way I wanted them and it was safe to put the first stitch in.

The stitch plan for Hope

Now this project struck me as something nice and relaxing to do – pretty colourful bands that just need filling in, a whole band in stitch A, then a whole band in stitch B, hardly needs any thought at all. Hmm. This is what I got done the first evening:

First stitches

There were several reasons for my lack of productivity. The red band was planned in backstitch as a bricked filling, so with the backstitch in one line offset compared to the next line, like a brick wall. I started a line of backstitch, with stitches that were far too small. I’m simply not used to producing stitches this large and chunky! So that line was unpicked, and I started again, trying to remember to make the stitches larger while keeping them even.

But then there was the fact that backstitch is quite a wasteful stitch, producing a slightly messy stem stitch on the back of the fabric (blue arrow). How about using cable stitch? This produces the same effect but with less thread waste on the back of the fabric (orange arrow).

Backstitch and cable stitch seen from the back

I unpicked my backstitch and started again in cable stitch. Bad move, as I found it impossible to produce an even arch this way. Unpick again, work the very first line in backstitch (that’s where I got to on that first evening), then cable stitch from there on with the backstitch line as a guide. This worked much better.

First line of backstitch Starting a double line of cable stitch Cable stitch continued

Another option I considered (and tried out on a doodle cloth) was cable stem stitch (yellow arrow), which is quicker to work than cable stitch because you don’t have to gauge the width of your thread every time you place a stitch – like ordinary stem stitch, cable stem stitch is worked along a single line. But the effect lacks the straight lines I wanted in this first band, so I stuck with the combination of backstitch and cable stitch.

Doodling for Hope

And this is where I’ve got to so far. I like the texture of this band, and I look forward to seeing the contrast with the next bands, both in texture and colour.

Hope so far

Later this month we are hoping to visit my mother-in-law and I need a travel project; she is a very talented embroiderer and we like to stitch together, but as we also chat while doing this I need something straightforward. I could, of course, take the Ottoman Tulip, but I think I’ll set up a smaller version of this design, to be worked in only a few different stitches, none of which need a lot of attention (perhaps alternating bands of stem and chain stitch), and using an indivisible thread – either coton à broder (right) or perhaps floche (left), which comes in fewer colours but is lovely to work with. I’ll keep you posted!

Coton à broder and floche

Holiday finds and shades of black

Last week we had the opportunity to stay at the seaside flat of friends of ours in Norfolk and despite some changeable weather – including the tail end of storm Francis – we had a very relaxing and enjoyable time. Flat countryside, windmills and the North Sea, what more could a Dutch girl wish for smiley.

I even managed to pick up a few stitch-related goodies! The local charity shop provided me with a book about blackwork for a mere 50p, and at a nearby art & craft centre I found a very pretty ceramic magnet and a little jewellery dish made by Wilton Road Ceramics. Sue, the lady who is Wilton Road Ceramics, was working on some story stones while we were there, which was interesting to watch. The magnet is now serving as a needle minder on my Lowery stand; the little tray could be used for odds and ends while stitching, I suppose, but has instead been designated my tea bag dish – an almost equally important task.

A blackwork book for 50p A needle minder and a tea bag dish

While on holiday I did some work on the Ottoman Tulip. I had hoped to bring a different travel project, one which I’d done some sketches for, but unfortunately I ran out of time to finish drawing the design properly, let alone choose the threads, iron the fabric, transfer the design and hoop up. The Ottoman Tulip sits undisturbed in one of my document boxes most of the time, but there is no denying it comes into its own when the need for a travel project arises: it’s small, uses only a few colours, and is made up of areas to be filled in using mainly split stitch and stem stitch, so I hardly need to look at my notes.

In the course of stitching this design (which I started in October last year) there have been a few dilemmas about colour. I’m using Carrie’s Creation overdyed stranded cotton, which with hindsight was not ideal as I’ve since found out they have been discontinued. Still, the slight variegation in them does work very well in capturing the not-quite-solid shades of the original medieval tile, and unless I decide to turn this design into a chart pack it doesn’t matter that my stitched model can’t be replicated exactly.

The tulip design based on a medieval ceramic tile

The original tile uses only two blues, but I realised a bit too late that the darker of my blues was going to make the whole piece look very dark indeed if I used it for the two outer areas as well as for the main tulip. I decided to bring in a third blue, which does not go with the other two quite as well as I’d hoped, but at least will contrast better with the surrounding black lines. Which brings me to the other change.

For the black lines I’d picked Raven, which lives up to its name being a very deep black. But the black in the original tile is not actually a pure black – it is slightly washed out. I looked through my box of Carrie’s Creation to see if there was anything else that might work. There were two: Double Shot and Soot. Double Shot, as the name suggests, is a very very dark coffee colour; practically black, but a warm black. Soot is a purer grey but looking at it on the bobbin I felt it might be too light.

Raven and Double Shot Raven and Soot

In the end I decided I’d try them both, working each of the two thin black leaves on either side of the flower in a different shade. For some reason I’d brought only Double Shot with me to Norfolk, so I started with that. And I liked it so much that I won’t bother with Soot! (It’s difficult to get it to show up in the photograph, but it is a rich, dark colour that is not quite black.)

And that’s where I leave the Ottoman Tulip until I next need a travel project – which under the current circumstances may well be a while… Meanwhile I have plenty of other projects to occupy myself with; not just the existing bunch (which is quite large enough) but a few new ones as well. Watch out for Hope, and a Russian inspired design which has yet to find a name.

Horsey decisions

One of the exciting things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. One of the scary things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. Both statements can be equally true, but they tend to apply to either your own design or at least a chart rather than a kit. When purchasing a kit (or attending a workshop, which tends to come with a kit) most of the choices are made for you: what to stitch, which stitch to use, and what materials in which colours – it’s all been mapped out in advance.

Even the order in which you work the elements is only free to some extent; very often it is determined by either the order of teaching, the design, or what is considered the usual progression of techniques and materials. Left to my own devices with the metalwork racehorse I started at the RSN 3-day class last summer, for example, I would probably have left the padded cutwork in the tail till last, purely because it minimises the risk of damage to that very prominent domed golden curve while working on the rest of the design; but it was taught on the second day of the class and so at least half a padded gold tail has been courting danger for the past year.

Pretty much the only decision I expected to be fully my own in this particular project was whether to plunge as I go or leave it all until the end. (Plunge as I go, definitely. I dislike plunging and there is a lot of it in this design which I don’t want to be left with when all the stitching at the front of the work is done and I should be celebrating.) And that is not a decision which affects the way the finished piece looks.

The jockey's jacket with ends waiting to be plunged

Even so, the end result will never be quite like the model, for a variety of reasons. Here is Helen McCook’s original stitched model, of which we were given an enlarged photograph for reference. You will notice that the background colour is different from mine – when she first started teaching this class she offered both the olive green of the model and the darker green I’m working on, but when absolutely no-one chose the olive green she abandoned that colour. Other tutor-made changes are the change from purple to blue for the body of the jockey’s jacket, and a different metal thread used for the red sleeve. Originally this was intended to be worked in a red version of the blue of the jacket and the black of the boot, a couching thread known as 371 thread (no, I have no idea why) which is similar to a smooth passing thread but coloured and without any precious metal content. I can’t quite remember why the change was made to a six-stranded metallic thread but I’m sure there was a good reason for it.

Helen McCook's stitched model The jockey's arm in red 6-stranded metallic thread

Sometimes differences are unintentional – the one shown below occurred because, on a roll couching silver pearl purl, I failed to pay attention to the stitched model and couched the jockey’s hand with the same sort of angle as his face. That line abutting the sleeve should not have been there. I am definitely not unpicking it, though! Unless I show people the picture of the stitched model side by side with my version, no-one will know. (Yes, I realise that you know now, but I’m sure you won’t tell.)

A different hand

Other differences are, in a sense, originated by the tutor but the stitcher has some choice in interpreting them. In the instances shown below, I couldn’t work the line as shown in the stitched model because the design lines pre-drawn on the kit fabric would have been visible if I had. The horse’s jaw is a single curve in the model, followed by a gap and then the curve of the muzzle. The design line showed a shorter jaw curve, a gap closer to the front of the muzzle, and a line between them. I chose to couch that element separately in pearl purl. The jockey’s elbow is quite rounded in the stitched model (which would be a lot easier to stitch) but the design lines give him a very pointy elbow. I have tried to adjust the couching to these pointy lines, but you may just be able to see that a little of them is still visible; I had to decide whether it was worth the effort unpicking the whole sleeve and working it afresh starting from the pointy elbow (with no guarantee that it would look any neater). I decided it wasn’t – I know the lines are there, but they are fairly faint and won’t be very noticeable when viewing the finished piece from a normal distance.

A different jaw A different elbow

And finally even with a workshop kit there are some things the stitcher can decide all by herself – especially if she happens to have a reasonably abundant stash of goldwork materials… Some of these you know about already, like the horse’s eye (originally a gem in a squarish mount, now a silver cup sequin with a black bead) and some of the gold pearl purl in his head and neck. You may remember I didn’t like the bright yellow gold of the pearl purl that came with the kit and used a slightly finer one from my stash which was a rather mellower colour. This brought with it another dilemma, however. There is quite a bit of gold pearl purl in the design; did I really want to use up my nice, fine, mellow pearl purl and be left with a goodly amount of bright yellow pearl purl that I would be unlikely to want to use in future projects? No. So I used up the remains of the length I’d snipped off my stash purl in the jaw and in a small V-shape inside the rear leg, and I’ll use the kit purl for the other lines. In fact I rather like the effect of the two colours and thicknesses combined in the leg – an unintended bonus smiley.

A mixture of gold pearl purls

And that’s where the racehorse is now. There are several projects clamouring for attention at the moment but I may just get him finished first; I’ve just received an email to say RSN classes in Rugby will be starting again in the not too distant future, and after mounting my Jacobean piece the next module will be goldwork, so any practice I can get in before then is a good thing!

The racehorse at the moment

An eventful flower and a mounted rabbit

Half of August has gone and Flights of Fancy have been thin on the ground. So has stitching. And if you ask me why I’m not altogether sure, except that the days seem to fly past rather more quickly than I would like. Still, some embroidery-related things have been happening in the Figworthy household, so I thought I’d fill you in.

One thing you already know about is the Nurge semi-deep hoops; they are now all bound and I’ve been using the 13cm one a couple of times. So is the “grip” better than on a bound shallow hoop? For this size there probably isn’t that much in it – the shallow hoop keeps the fabric about as taut as you can get it without tearing it, so it’s hard to improve on that. But the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get and above all to keep the tension, so it will be interesting to see whether I notice the difference on, say, the 19cm hoop. On this smaller one I do find it’s easier to hold in my non-stitching hand if I’m not using a clamp or stand; the fact that it’s got just that bit more body to it makes it more comfortable on the fingers.

My semi-deep Nurge hoops bound

I used my smallest semi-deep hoop for yet another last-minute card, this time for a niece who, besides being a whizz with accounts, is a linocut artist (you can see her designs in her Etsy shop Woah There Pickle). Some time ago she gave me permission to use one of her lino designs to turn into an embroidery. So far it hasn’t made it onto fabric, but I decided to use one flower from it to stitch for her as a birthday card. I chose a blue and white chambray linen for the background, which has a slightly mottled effect (not really visible in the picture) caused by being woven with a white weft and a coloured warp; I thought this would make a nice contrast with the deliberately flat colours of the flower. From a stitching point of view this turned out to be a bad idea as the not-solid colour made my eyes go funny after a while! Still, it does look good so on the whole it was worth it (but it did slow me down).

Starting on Vicky's daisy

The picture above shows my progress at the end of day one, a Thursday. The card had to be sent on Saturday morning at the latest, and normally I’d have expected to complete the thing in a fairly leisurely fashion on Friday evening, but that evening we were going to Meet Friends In A Pub Garden, a red-letter event that hadn’t happened since lockdown started way back in March. “I’ll finish the stitching off when we get back”, I said to Mr Mabel, “and then I can put it in a card tomorrow morning before going on my Ladies’ Walk and you can take it to the Post Office” (he goes every day to send off the business parcels, and on Saturday the cut-off point is quarter to eleven, just when our walking group’s walk tends to end).

Do you know that saying about “best laid plans”? The meeting at the pub garden was very pleasant, but on the way back a road closure signposted at the very last moment got us swept off onto the motorway. Not a problem normally, but we were in a 90-year-old Austin Seven, and the motorway at that point is on a slight incline. Modern cars don’t even notice it, but the Austin gets slowed down to about 30 mph, with lighting that isn’t nearly so bright as in modern cars, and lorries thundering past at 60mph. Mr Mabel decided it was not safe, so we pulled into a lay-by and contacted the Highway Authorities, who eventually sent a well-lit vehicle that escorted us to the nearest exit. We got home safe and sound. At a quarter to midnight. No, I wasn’t going to finish the card then smiley. But with some intense stitching early the next morning I fortunately did manage to get it sent off in time. Phew.

The finished flower The flower mounted in a card

Another bit of stitched nature was a lot less eventful, but it was instructive. Remember the crewelwork Rabbit With Carnations I did some time ago?

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Well, I decided to use it for a bit of an experiment. My two SAL Trees of Life are still in a hoop (the wool version) and on a frame (the silk/gold version), waiting to be laced and then framed. Now I usually lace over foam core board, but as the RSN Certificate pieces have to be laced over mount board I thought this might be a good opportunity to practice. I contacted Fosse House Gallery, our local framer who did such a great (and quick!) job on my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present, and they very kindly gave me some offcuts to have a go with. The lady mentioned that she used T-pins when lacing over mount board so I looked those up online and lo and behold, they were available from Toft Alpacas, who like the framer are within walking distance from where I live!

Mount board and T-pins, both local!

One of the things I like about foam core board is that at 5mm thick it gives you plenty of edge to stick your pins into! Standard mount board or mat board tends to be about 2mm thick, so it’s all a bit more cramped and your aim has to be rather more precise. It’s also a lot easier on the fingers to push pins into foam core board because, well, it’s foam instead of solid cardboard smiley. There is one drawback of foam core board which is very visible in the second picture: its corners and edges get squashed much more easily that mount board, so you have to be careful when storing it or be prepared to trim edges before cutting the board to size.

Mount or mat board and foam core board Mount or mat board and foam core board

There’s definitely no such problem with the mount board which in spite of being an offcut was in perfect condition. The sample of board was cut to the right size for the rabbit embroidery and I set to work. As I expected, it was quite fiddly getting the pins to go centrally into the edge of the board, and several times I was definitely just underneath the outer layer so you could see the contours of the pin. It is interesting that for the RSN mounting process you are instructed to glue together two layers of standard mount board to end up with a thicker piece of board which is then covered in calico – I haven’t got to that part of the module yet, but I can’t help thinking the pins will all end up in the glue layer. I’ll find out when classes start again in Rugby!

The mount board being more solid in texture than the foam core board I predictably found it difficult to push the pins right in, but that may have been at least in part because the T-pins I got were quite long. I’ll see if I can find some shorter, thinner ones. As I was lacing, the board seemed to bend and flex a little more than the foam core I tend to use, and this was on a relatively small piece of about 5½” square – I wonder how much it would flex if I was lacing something the size of the Trees.

The end result looks respectable enough, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the two Trees will be laced over foam core. I contacted Fosse House Gallery and they say they may have some in stock, so time to walk over there and support the local economy. Once they’re laced I’m hoping to get the two Trees framed together in a single tall frame with two circular apertures in the mount. Now for a colour that will work with both…

The Rabbit laced onto mount board

Another book and some deepish hoops

My embroidery library is growing apace (there’s another book in the post as we speak) and this week a very exciting addition arrived: Alison Cole’s Goldwork Masterclass. I’ve not had a chance to read it in great detail, but even a quick leaf-through is enough to show me this was a Good Buy!

Alison Cole's Goldwork Masterclass Alison Cole's Goldwork Masterclass Alison Cole's Goldwork Masterclass

Mind you, I was pretty sure it would be. I was seduced into buying it by the very thorough and richly-illustrated review on Mary Corbet’s blog. She has the book in her shop, so if you’re in North America that’s you sorted; stitchers in Australia and New Zealand can buy it straight from the author. However, if like me you’re in the UK I highly recommend getting it from Sarah at Golden Hinde, who is Alison Cole’s official UK distributor – it saves on postage, and it supports a local business that always gives great customer service.

Another exciting parcel contained not one but four additions to my collection of hoops. Yes, I managed to find a UK source of deep Nurge/Prym hoops! Well, sort of.

I was really hoping to try Nurge’s 24mm deep hoops, and so I emailed the company in Turkey, asking whether they sold direct to customers or preferably whether they had a UK distributor. They very promptly replied with the name and email address of their UK wholesaler. I’d found them on the internet before, but didn’t think I’d qualify for a wholesale account; still, I wrote to them and asked whether they knew of anyone selling the deep hoops retail. They did, and referred me to Katie Symonds at Crafty Imaginations. I had a very informative email conversation with her, in which she explained that she didn’t stock the 24mm hoops because postage was so expensive that no-one would buy them, but that she did have the whole range of 16mm hoops. I’m sure you’re not surprised that I bought several to try them out smiley.

16mm deep Nurge hoops A 16mm hoop and an 8mm hoop side by side

Like the shallow hoops they feel smooth and sturdy, and for these relatively small sizes (I got the four from 13cm to 22cm) 16mm is actually quite deep enough. The larger quilting hoops I have are 20mm deep, so 24mm may well be too much of a good thing; also, although the Lowery’s clamp could accommodate them, I’m not sure either of my other clamps (table and seat) could take something that deep.

Anyway, for now I have the medium-deep ones to try, and of course they will need binding. Unfortunately I only had about two-and-a-half metres of my usual 20mm herringbone tape left, so I ordered some more, and in the meantime decided to bind at least one of them. I picked up the 16cm one first, then for no reason whatsoever switched to the 19cm one. Bad move. I didn’t take a photograph, but suffice it to say that I came to the end of the tape with about 2cm of bare hoop still showing. Sigh. Still, that meant it would amply cover the 16cm hoop, which indeed it did.

16mm hoops ready for binding One hoop down, three to go

And now that it’s bound I want to use it! So I’ve hooped up a card project I need for tomorrow (yes, it’s a bit last-minute…) for the 50th anniversary of a lovely couple of friends. Excuse me if I rush off, won’t you – I need to get stitching!

Card for a golden wedding anniversary

Next day PS: Got the stitching done in time – three cheers for embroidery which allows us to create something simple yet festive in an evening!

The finished stitching Made up into a card

A horse of a different colour

My embroidery has been distinctly equine recently, and I’d like to show you some of my progress (and regress; that is to say, unpicking…) on two horsey creatures.

The first is the goldwork racehorse I started at Helen McCook’s three-day class last year. I’d been doing some couching and plunging but a week or so ago I decided that before I did anything more, something needed seeing to first – his eye. The centre of the eye is a gem, and in the stitched model it is round and makes a good iris. But the gem that was in the kit, although a round cut as well, was set in such a way that it looked quite square. It was also rather larger than in the model (at least partly because of the setting), and quite apart from the fact that it just didn’t look right, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to work the surrounding couching properly with the setting extending beyond the design line in places.

Two different eyes

Time to rummage through my stash and see if I could find an alternative. I remembered some tiny oval flat-backed gems I bought last year – might they work? But alas, even the tiniest was too large. How about a sequin? The 3mm flat ones I have would be too small, but what about a facetted cup sequin held on with a black bead? Would that look like an iris with a pupil? And it would still have some of the facetted look of the original gem.

A slightly too large oval gem A cup sequin-and-bead combination that looks promising

I unpicked the original eye, attached the sequin and bead, and gave a sigh of relief. The eye operation was a success!

A much better-looking eye

Next was a decision about the pearl purl curving around the eye and down the horse’s neck. This was a very fine pearl purl which had also been used in the tail, and I’d noticed there that the gold was very yellow. I didn’t think this would work very well against the copper that outlines the eye, and another rummage produced a much mellower-coloured pearl purl of roughly the same thickness. None of the photographs I took quite picked up on how different the colours were, but it should give you an idea.

Very yellow pearl purl

Since last time I also completed both the colour-graded couching and the plunging on the horse’s backside, and here it is as it looks at the moment (you can see the very yellow purl outlining the chipped section at the top of the tail).

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

On to a horse of a different colour, or rather of many different colours – although the bits I’ve been working on have been mostly grey smiley. For some time now I’d been itching to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn; I hadn’t worked on him since June last year! To ease myself back into it I started with his nose band. Once I’d stitched it I realised that if I stitched the rest of the bridle (if that’s the correct term) in the same light golden yellow (Old Gold #4) as I had planned, it wouldn’t look quite right next to the light yellow spot high up his neck. But I didn’t want to use the darker #6 because that was going to be used in his horn (together with darkest #8) and I needed the contrast. Fortunately I remembered that I also had shade #7 in my stash, so the rest of the bridle will be done in #6, and the horn in #7 and #8. One problem sorted, although putting the solution into practice would have to wait as I wanted to get on with his mane first.

And as I stitched the first two locks, another problem emerged. They were far too dark.

Hengest's mane is too dark

I’d worked it out so carefully, too. Because Hengest is quite cartoonish in look, I didn’t want the shading in the mane to be too subtle. All the rest of him is areas of flat colour, with the only “shading” coming from the direction of the split stitch. The mane would have dark locks and light locks, and each would be done in two shades which I wanted to be visibly different, with the light and dark locks also having to be different enough from each other. The design drawing has black outlines, but the stitched version doesn’t, so the locks had to be delineated by colour difference.

I had therefore decided to have no colour overlap between light and dark locks: for the light locks I chose Silver Grey #1 and #3, and for the dark locks #5 and #6 (the difference between two consecutive shades is not always equally large). But #6 was very obviously too dark compared to the pastel tints of the rest of Hengest. And so I ended up doing something I had strenuously resisted for this project so far – I started a doodle cloth. Five combinations of two greys would be tried out, and I started with the darker one in each of the combinations, then added the lighter shade. #5 plus #3, #4 plus #3 and #4 plus #2 were all options for the darker locks, while #3 plus #1 and #2 plus #1 were possible pairs for the lighter ones. Having studied all the combinations I opted for an overlap after all: #5 with #3 and #3 with #1.

Different shades of grey A doodle cloth with five combinations Starting with the darker shades The lighter shades have been added

Hurray! As tress after tress was added the new shades turned out to work very well together, the individual locks perfectly distinct in spite of the fact that they share shade #3. I’d completely forgotten that the direction of the split stitch would set them apart even if the colour didn’t.

The old mane is unpicked Starting the first locks The new mane is growing The locks are perfectly distinct

And that’s the state of the Figworthy stable to date. I love both its occupants, but I will admit to a soft spot for Hengest. He will never be a racing champion (his inspiration on the Steeple Aston cope is decidedly duck-footed) and he will never be decked out in the Queen’s colours, but I think he holds his own against any racehorse in his polka-dotted eccentricity smiley.

Prym and proper

Do you have any favourite brands? I love Dutch apple butter (we call it “appelstroop”, literally apple syrup), which comes in quite a few brands, but Timson is the one for me. Is it really better than the others? Perhaps, although it would be difficult to prove – but it’s the brand I grew up with, and to me the others are just not quite the right thing.

In the same way I have favourite brands in stitching equipment, and more particularly a favourite brand of needles and hoops. As with apple butter, it’s terribly difficult to prove that they are better than other brands – so much is a matter of personal taste and preference. But as you will know if you are a regular FoF reader, I could actually tell the difference between my favourite needles and other brands in what was in effect a blind test (long story, but it revolved around discarded packaging, and thinking I was using one brand while actually using another – and not liking it). My favourites, in case you didn’t read about that particular comparison, are Prym’s between needles (or “halblang”, “half long”, as they call them).

Prym betweens in two sizes

My only gripe (and it is a minor one) with Prym’s between needles is that the no. 5 and no. 3 sizes, which I find just right for crewel embroidery and which I’ve been using on my RSN Jacobean piece instead of the John James chenille and embroidery needles they put in the starter pack, are not available separately – you can only get them in a mixed pack with no. 7s, of which I have a lot already. Still, the surplus no. 7s can be used up in kits, so not a major problem.

Sometimes you might like to try a brand, only to run into unexpected difficulties. One of these difficulties is what I would like to call the American conundrum. There are certain things which are for sale in America, such as a particular brand of lovely dense linens and extra deep Hardwicke Manor hoops, recommended as the ultimate in hoops by many a respected source. These linens and hoops are imported from Europe. “Oh goody,” you think as a European embroiderer, “I’ll get them from Europe and save on the postage”. And then you find that they are actually extremely difficult if not impossible to find in any European shop. The only Hardwicke Manor hoops I managed to find in the UK were standard depth square ones (rounded squares, really), which I didn’t want.

I did have some larger deep hoops from the RSN’s shop, and they are perfectly good – I’d just heard so much about the Hardwicke Manor hoops I really wanted to try one. Oh well. However, what I did discover while trying to find these particular hoops was that Prym, my favourite needle brand, did hoops too!

A Prym hoop

Interestingly, their sizes don’t go up in inches. As Prym is a German brand it wasn’t too surprising to find that they are metric rather than imperial, increasing by 3cm at a time – at Jaycott’s, where I got mine, they come in 13cm, 16cm, 19cm, 22cm and 25cm. I tried out two of the smaller ones first, and I was impressed: the hoops come with reassuringly solid brass fittings, the beech wood is beautifully smooth and they are quite sturdy compared to other hoops I had in my stash. In the picture below the orange arrows point to the Prym hoops, the blue arrow to an unbranded hoop from my stash (outer hoops only). I soon got all the other sizes Jaycott’s offered as well.

Reassuringly solid metal fittings Two Prym hoops and an unbranded one

When I got the hoops, I noticed that the metal fittings all carried a number, from no. 2 on the smallest hoop to no. 6 on the largest. This suggested there was at least one other size, a no. 1, probably 10cm in diameter. Then, although the tags on the hoops carried the name Prym and had a lot of German on them, a different name was branded into the wood: Nurge. More research was obviously called for.

The no. 1 hypothesis was soon confirmed when I found the 10cm hoop on Sarah Homfray’s website. Some further Googling revealed Nurge to be a Turkish brand, and excitingly their hoops come in three different depths (8mm, 16mm and 24mm) as well as eight different diameters (up to 31cm). They only problem is that so far I haven’t been able to find the deeper ones for sale anywhere. But the search continues!

For now I enjoy using the hoops I’ve got, whether Prym or Nurge or both. As Shakespeare would have said if he’d been a stitcher, what’s in a name? That which we call a Prym hoop by any other name would work as well. They may not strictly speaking be Prym, but they are certainly proper smiley

Prym (or Nurge) hoops, and definitely Prym needles

Goodbye, Ally Pally

Do you remember early March? When the news from abroad was worrying but the UK seemed to be carrying on much as usual for the time being? On 10th March, four months ago today, I got the usual email from the organisers of the Knitting & Stitching Show to submit workshop proposals for the October show at Alexandra Palace (they have to start planning in good time). I sent them a selection of seven or eight workshops four days later, and on 8th April I was sent the workshop schedule with the request to proofread my four entries.

I can’t tell you how odd it felt. Only the week before I had celebrated my 50th birthday in strict lockdown with my husband and the cat instead of looking forward to a big family party in the Netherlands, and proofreading workshops seemed strangely incongruous. Still, the show was six months away and it’s good to be optimistic, so I looked through the text and corrected or amended a few things. I was quite pleased with the workshops they’d chosen: it was a nice combination of the familiar (the Hardanger needle book has been a stalwart in the programme ever since my first workshop in 2013) and the new (this would be the first time the Christmas Wreath was included), and of counted (all of the Hardanger, and the foundation of the Christmas Wreath) and freestyle (No Place Like Home and the Butterfly Wreath).

The four workshops that are not to be

And then I rather forgot about the whole thing as lockdown really took hold, and it didn’t seem likely anything like the Knitting & Stitching Show would be allowed to go on. But a week or so ago I got an email from Wendy, who organises the workshop programme, to say they were planning a show with a difference. Booked tickets only, fewer stands, fewer but longer workshops to minimise traffic from one to the next, sanitising everything that doesn’t move and asking everything that does move (like tutors) to sanitise themselves… I don’t envy them the task because it will be a Herculean effort. And as she pointed out when I wrote back with some questions, they don’t even know yet whether come October they will be allowed to go ahead, but if they don’t start planning now they won’t have a show even if they were allowed to!

Unfortunately that meant that tutors like myself had to decide this week whether we would teach or not. It took a lot of thought and talking it over with my husband and close friends, but in the end I came to the conclusion that I would opt not to teach this year.

For those of you who love the workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show, especially those of you who have attended one or more of my workshops in the past and perhaps were planning to come to another one this year, I’d like to explain why I made that choice. There is the obvious fact that none of us knows what the situation will be like in October, and making a decision now which involves a fair amount of travel on public transport to attend a show with people coming from all over the country in three months’ time was, I felt, too much of a risk. Although neither myself nor my husband is in a vulnerable or extremely vulnerable (shielding) group, several people I come into contact with are, and I want to be careful.

The other major consideration is the way I teach. As most of my workshops are aimed at beginners, if not of needlework in general then at least of whatever technique I’m teaching there, a lot of my time is spent showing students (either individually or in little clusters) how to work a particular stitch, what the next stage of the design is, or where to bring the needle up to make the next stitch easier; and of course helping them if something has gone wrong. All this would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, while maintaining social distancing, even if the distance has been reduced somewhat by then. I would in effect be offering them a kit with some extra verbal explanation, and that is not the workshop experience I want to give students.

It was a difficult decision, because I will miss teaching and meeting the stitchers there very much. But in the end I think it was the right thing to do this year, and I will just have to look forward to being back next year. And who knows, perhaps we can think of an alternative! If you would normally have come to a workshop but for whatever reason decide not to visit the show in person this year, would a one-on-one kit-and-Zoom-workshop be something you’d consider as an option? Let me know whether the idea appeals to you, and if enough people like it I’ll get my thinking cap on…