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, some 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.

Alien fibres

Preparing for my second RSN Certificate class tomorrow I had another look through the Assessment form. It states the various criteria by which your work will be judged, and makes for interesting reading.

Especially the very first item on the list.

Assessment criterion #1

This could be tricky…

Lexi loves helping me with all sorts of embroidery; curled up on my lap she encourages me with loud purrs (fortunately she fits under pretty much all my stands – the Lowery, the Aristo lap stand, the Sonata seat stand, the table clamp, and even the lap tray I sometimes use when designing or winding threads), and she closely scrutinises materials, doodle cloths, progress and finished projects.

Lexi helps with goldwork... ...and with crewelwork... ...assesses the progress of projects
Lexi fits well underneath the Lowery... ...and the lap tray... ...and the Aristo lap stand
Lexi judges colour choices... ...works hard to encourage her mistress... ...and scrutinises doodles

Still, I was confident this would all be manageable with a good pair of tweezers and some strong glasses.

And then this happened.

Like her mistress, Lexi finds embroidery very relaxing

I’m doomed.

All around the houses

Some time ago one of our nieces and her husband moved house, and as she is the sort of person who appreciates handmade things (she used to make cute cuddly elephants under the name Nelly Button) I decided to stitch a card rather than buy one. Going through my stash I picked a blue chambray fabric (chambray is woven with white in the warp and a colour in the weft – or possibly the other way round) and my collection of Madeira Lana threads; the fabric because it didn’t work for the design I originally bought it for and now I had quite a quantity of fabric-without-a-purpose, and the threads because I only recently got into them and I love them smiley. A quick sketch, use whatever stitch comes to mind, et voilà, a little house with two people, their hair and clothing based on a picture of niece and husband in the garden of their new home.

The original New Home design

Mount it in an aperture card with a bit of wadding behind it, send it off, and that’s that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Several people commented on pictures I posted of the little house, so I put it in my Freebie section with a materials list and stitch suggestions. And that was that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Round about that time I was putting together my workshop proposals for the Kintting & Stitching Show at Ally Pally in October. One of the most popular of my workshops has long been the Little Wildflower Garden, a freestyle design. This is also a freestyle design, but with some different stitches and using a slightly unusual thread. Why not turn it into a workshop/kit? For there is another thing about this design which makes it really good workshop material: it has potential for personalisation. My original design has two people, and they look like my niece and her husband (well, roughly; after all they are only about a centimetre high). But there’s nothing to stop you from having one person, or three, or one with two little people, or a dog or a cat; and if I supply a selection of colours, every person can stitch the clothing of their choice, and change the flowers, or add some where they aren’t charted. This is a great project for teaching people how to play with a design!

Well, K&S picked No Place Like Home (plus the Wildflower Garden and two others), so I needed some stitched models. I try to have three per class, so that with a maximum of twelve people there’s one to every four. It can be really helpful to be able to see and touch a stitched version of what you are trying to create! And in order to encourage variation and play, I decided to make each of them slightly different. As I was starting from scratch (I didn’t think it would be good manners to ask our niece for their card back…) the first one was pretty much like the original. I only changed the clothing a bit, used a variegated thread for the thatched roof instead of the original solid, and two greens instead of one for the grass. I also remembered to make a note of how much of each colour was needed.

The first No Place Like Home version - much like the original

The second one used a lighter blue for the window frames, and added a dog. Well, a four-legged creature. The grass was back to variegated light green only.

The second No Place Like Home version - a dog, and lighter window frames

In the third version one of the people is a child, and there is wisteria growing up the side of the house. The grass is variegated dark green, and the flowers dotting the turf are different colours from the other two versions.

The third No Place Like Home version - a child and wisteria

Finally I mounted them in three differently coloured cards.

No Place Like Home cards

So now all that remains is to print the instructions and put together twelve kits; after the Knitting & Stitching Show I will make the kits available on the website, but don’t worry, the design will still be available as a freebie if you prefer to stitch from stash.

PS One slight snag with this design emerged today: Barnyarns cancelled my back order for a spool of variegated Madeira Lana and on enquiry told me that Madeira has discontinued that particular shade. I’m now trying to find a shop that’s got a spool left so I can stock up – but not much luck so far! (There is a seller on eBay who appears to have plenty left, but he sells it in sets of five spools, and I honestly don’t think I’ll need a kilometre and a half of variegated red Lana…)

A question of copyright (I)

Do you know those sturdy, reusable bags supermarkets sell, the ones that will stand up, with a wide gusset and canvas handles? I have one from a Dutch shop which I picked up on one of our visits a few years ago. For reasons which will become clear further on I won’t show a picture of it, but it’s covered in stylised birds and butterflies. The peacocks are recognisably peacocks, but all the other creatures are just generic birds and butterflies, done in a style reminiscent of a child’s drawing made with one of those hard plastic stencil sheets: simple outlines filled with blocks of solid colour.

Plastic stencils

As I was getting my collection of reusable bags out in preparation for the weekly shop, for some reason I looked at this particular bag more closely and it dawned on me that a few of those birds would make rather nice embroidery designs. Having considered and discarded several as not being quite what I wanted, I picked one and sketched it, adding details to the wing and tail feathers and the feet and changing the twig it sat on. Because of where the shop is located, in a busy shopping centre but right by a public garden, I was going to call it “City Song”. I was making notes on possible stitches and sketching in stitch directions when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and thought, “Hold on – most of my designs become chart packs or kits or workshops. Someone has the copyright to the design of this bag; I need to contact the shop to ask if I can use it!”

Now often when you approach a person or company about using a logo or other publicity image to turn it into an embroidery they’ll be happy for you to do so (assuming we’re not talking Disney or top fashion brands or the like). Sometimes they’ll put some conditions on it (Paco Ciao, the little pop-up café in Leiden I wrote about last month, gave me permission to use their logo as long as the embroidery “didn’t look identical”) but generally they’ll say go ahead and have fun, especially if (like the illustrations on the carrier bag) it is not an image that is immediately identifiable as theirs, or from which they are directly making money themselves.

Unfortunately my original message to the company was sent via their online contact form, and like so many companies they failed to include that message in any of their subsequent replies (I hate it when they do that), and as I forgot to copy and paste the message into a document somewhere for my own files I can’t be sure of the exact wording of my request. But their reply was that they would allow me the use of the bird for one workshop only, as long as neither I nor the students put it to commercial use.

As workshops are generally taught to make money for the teacher (however enjoyable the teaching itself is, doing it for the love of it doesn’t pay the rent) I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by “no commercial use”. Also, as I pointed out in my reply, what with charting the design, stitching one or more models (and the cost of the materials), writing the instructions and drawing the stitch diagrams, it would not be economically viable for me to then use it for one workshop only. Would they consider licensing the particular bird I had in mind so I could turn it into a chart pack or teach it more than once? No they would not. The single workshop use was already a concession they didn’t normally make. End of story.

In a final reply I wrote that it was disappointing as I felt it would have made a good embroidery design, but that in view of their decision I would not use the bird. I may feel it’s a rotten decision; I may even wonder why on earth they would mind my using this bird as a) it’s not their logo or part of their logo, b) it’s one small element within a large, busy design, c) though undeniably charming (which is why it caught my eye in the first place) at no point did it strike me as a groundbreaking piece of graphic design, and d) I’d offered to negotiate a licence – but what it comes down to is this: their copyright, their decision.

So that is that. I can stitch the bird for my own enjoyment – you can always do that – but nothing more. Part of me wished I hadn’t thought of contacting them; how would they ever find out I had used their bird, and would they even recognise it in stitch if they did see it? But either you play by the copyright rules or you don’t; it’s no good saying you will respect copyright until it’s inconvenient to do so.

And yet… it may not be quite the end of the road for this project, or at least some form of it. A bird on a flowering twig is a general enough concept for it to be uncopyrightable in its own right – it can be interpreted in far too many ways. I had already changed the twig on which it sat quite a bit (below on the left is the original shape, on the right what I turned it into) so I may play around with the bird to see if I can keep the idea but turn it into a bird of my own. I will sing my own City Song smiley.

The twig with its flower and leaves The redesigned twig with larger flower and single leaf

Owlish inspiration

A church friend of mine paints owl pebbles. Pebble owls. Well, whatever you call them, they’re adorable, whether on their own or attached to bits of tree.

Some of Trina's owls

She showed me one which was her favourite, painted in brown and turquoise with an orange beak. Does that remind you of anything…?

Yes, me too smiley. Using my RSN project wools, surely I could do a quick little embroidery based on this owl to surprise her?

When I got home I did a quick sketch from memory, then managed to get her to send me a few pictures (the ones above) without letting on what I wanted them for (I can be devious when I have to!) so I could do a more accurate line drawing.

A line drawing based on my sketch and her photos

Now Trina’s owls, being pebbles, do not have toes. But the memory of Yin’s lovely crewel owl which I saw at the RSN class a week ago proved irresistible – bullion toes he had to have.

Yin's owl's toes Trina's owl gets some toes, too

Unfortunately he looked a bit silly with toes that don’t hold on to anything. So a branch was called for.

...and a branch to sit on

Then I realised that although the little pebble owl was painted in brown, turquoise and orange, he wasn’t painted in brown, turquoise and orange only. There is white and yellow around the eyes, and in some of the owls there is some yellow in the chest feathers as well. My stash of Appletons isn’t very large, but a rummage in the depths of the storage tin unearthed white, off-white, a couple of yellows and a dark chestnutty orange from the same range.

Extra Appletons colours

My quick little project was beginning to take rather longer than I thought it would! I’m afraid I do have a tendency to overthink and complicate things. Still, I got everything together and could start plying my needle.

Ready to begin

There were a few unpickings and restitchings, one bit where I couldn’t quite face unpicking and restitching (the eyes – I left gaps for the pupils, and should just have worked solid yellow satin stitch with the pupils worked over the top), an element where I chose to leave something out which I’d originally planned (short lines of whipping or detached buttonhole accents on the wings), a part that took some research (how many toes do owls have? Yin’s had two showing per foot but I’d drawn three without thinking about it), some stitches and parts which have room for improvement (the buttonhole scallops; the rather differently shaped yellow ovals of the eyes) and one bit that I am particularly pleased with: the circles of feathers around his eyes, and especially the ridge that is formed between his eyes by the abutting buttonhole stitches, rather like a barn owl’s.

The finished owl

This owl will, I’m sure, acquire several friends over time. I want to try some in different colours, using different threads (a smaller one in Madeira Lana perhaps?), and also different stitches here and there; the wings in encroaching satin stitch with dark markings in coral or palestrina stitch, for example. And with a bit of luck they’ll be quicker, most of the decisions and choices having been made. But even though this little owl took a lot longer than I expected, it’s been a really good exercise. What with creating a colour plan (albeit tiny), deciding on stitches, working out the best order in which to stitch the various elements and working with crewel wool, it’s great practice for the Big One – as well as making a smile-inducing card!

Stitch plans, colour plans, notes... A smile-inducing owl card

Colourful post

Well, not as colourful as some of the post I receive (like my Silk Mill silks), but quite exciting nonetheless – yes, the Appletons crewel wools for my Certificate piece have arrived!

The Appleton crewel wools needed for my Certificate piece

Although Angela, the tutor, had said that one skein of each colour would probably be enough, after some consideration I decided to go for the half-hank option offered by Cleopatra’s Needle; after all, I intend to do a lot of trial stitching, not only to determine which stitches work best where but also to see what different colour combinations look like in the various elements of the design, so being able to use the same wools I’ll be using for the final piece is obviously a good idea.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there are three shades of orange in the collection, rather than the two that I’m allowed as my accent colours. This is because Angela was concerned that the two shades I chose initially might be too similar – but the alternative shade is rather darker and also a bit brighter than what I had in mind. On the other hand, I will need some contrast between the two; otherwise they may not create distinctive stripes on the ginger cat.

Talking of which… I’m not sure Lexi likes the idea of being turned into a ginger cat. Having studied the threads she was giving me a look that definitely translated into something like “you’d better use some of those darker browns to represent me, it’s not ideal but at least it’s closer than orange!

Lexi inspects the colours and gives her opinion

I had originally intended to order skeins rather than half hanks of the three oranges; after all, they are my accent colours only, so I’m unlikely to need as much of them as of the others, even with trial stitching. Also, once I’ve decided which of the two darker shades I’ll use, the other one is automatically superfluous. Unfortunately, however, they don’t sell single skeins, and buying those three somewhere else would mean paying a second lot of postage. Anyway, whichever two I choose and however much I have left even of those two, I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with all the surplus orange. I’m Dutch, after all smiley.

So now it’s time to hoop up the doodle cloth, and get trialling!

Doodle cloth at the ready!

Is this a bad time to start thinking about a purple-and-green colour scheme…?

Working with a late frame

No, that’s not a typo – it’ll become clear in a bit smiley.

Yesterday was my unexpectedly soon first day of the RSN Certificate’s Jacobean module. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but went armed with colour schemes, scribbles, sketches and a head full of ideas, as well as a pencil case with the recommended tape measure, ruler, pencil and notebook plus a thin paintbrush added on my own initiative and a mellor and tweezers (I was using the goldwork pencil case which they live in and thought they might come in handy; as it happens, it would have been better if I’d left in the screwdriver I use to tighten hoops – I’d taken it out as it’s quite heavy and I wasn’t expecting to be using a hoop. I was mistaken.)

There were six of us in total, three in the final stages of the Jacobean module, one in the middle of silk shading, one coming towards the end of her stumpwork, and me. Tutor for the day was Angela Bishop. As everyone was setting up I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the work in progress. I was particularly taken with Yin’s nearly completed crewel piece, especially her owl, which used bullion knots for the toes gripping the branch on which he sat – a clever idea which she was happy for me to file away for future reference.

Yin's owl's toes

As Angela prepared to get me started we hit a snag. The 18″ slate frame which I’d ordered had not arrived. Time for Plan B, which involved getting on with the design process instead. We talked through the colour schemes I was considering and the elements I wanted to include, and she answered a few questions I’d noted down about the twill fabric and some stitches; then I was provided with several books about crewelwork, a photo album of previous Certificate projects, tracing paper and a box with samples of the complete range of Appleton’s crewel wool. Angela told me to collect the various elements of my design together, trace and/or draw them and then play with size and placement. I set about doing this, but couldn’t resist having a go at the wool first. There was only one suitable turquoise series (helpfully called Turquoise), but several possible browns and pinks.

Finding Appleton's colours to match my DMC choices

Eventually I settled for Turquoise, a muted brown series called Chocolate, and accent colours from the Coral series. Then some serious drawing began, and also a conversation about copyright. As you know I try to be extremely careful about copyright, and so I was a little surprised when, having shown Angela a tulip motif from a design in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery, I was told I needn’t actually change or adapt it, I could use the flower as it stood; in the final embroidery it would look different from the original because I’d be using different colours and stitches, and – the most important point – it would be used in a personal piece, stitched for educational purposes. I’m so used to looking at designs from the point of view of turning them into chart packs or workshops (i.e. using them commercially) that I hadn’t considered the different situation I am in as a Certificate student! So I traced the tulip to incorporate into the design, although one of my aims before my second class is to do an alternative version with an adapted “carpet flower” (from a carpet used in the church where we worship) just to see which I like best.

Sketch with wool colours

I put all the elements together, plus a few small additions, and then Angela came to have a look and commented on elements that were perhaps too small, or superfluous, or would be better placed slightly higher or lower. After taking in her comments and advice and making some alterations, it was time to produce a clean line drawing, done in drawing pen on tracing paper and reducing the detail in some of the elements to those lines that need to be transferred. This (apart from the possible change in flower) is the design I’ll be starting with – though not necessarily, as Angela warned me, what I will end up with!

The line drawing of my Jacobean design

What else did I do? Actually, it’s remarkable how long all this took, so there wasn’t a lot of time for other things. But we did look at a small crewel piece I started some time ago (the rabbit with carnations) so I could ask Angela’s opinion about some of the stitches; I was surprised to hear that not pre-outlining my fishbone leaf in split stitch was actually correct, and gratified that she thought most of the outline was very good (apart from one bumpy bit). We agreed that the shading was a bit too blocky and discussed ways of making the colour transitions gentler, as well as talking about the stitch direction in the leaf – she suggested using small “extra” stitches to smooth out the curve where necessary. I also learnt more about where to use a split stitch outline on long & short stitch and buttonhole shading, and equally importantly, where not to.

Crewel rabbit with carnations A fishbone leaf

We also went through the content of the bag that is part of the introductory kit – all the paperwork about the course, including the design brief and instructions on setting up the slate frame and mounting the finished work, and materials and tools needed for transferring and eventually mounting the design and preparing the frame (the bracing needle, that chunky curved piece of metal stuck in a cork, is stuck in a cork for a reason, as my husband found out when he took it out before I could say “be careful with that, it’s very sharp!” – it is used for taking the thick string with which the fabric is tensed through the webbing; I have as yet no idea what the extremely large piece of plastic is for, as I forgot to ask).

An intriguing purple bag Paperwork, some boring but important, some very interesting Materials for transferring the design, setting up the slate frame and mounting the work

My homework for next time (22nd May) is to produce two colour plans, a tonal plan (black & white, showing light and dark) and a stitch plan, and to try out trellis stitch and laid work on a doodle cloth. I’m also going to play with that large flower, possibly producing and alternative design (with its own colour plan etc.) and make changes to the rock the snail is sitting on (I’ll explain why in a future post). Angela assured me that I’m still on track – I’m just more or less reversing the first two classes, getting the design work done before learning how to set up the slate frame. So I’ve had fun playing with colours and ideas, and I’ve got a little longer to get used to the idea of using something that large to hold my fabric; I’m happy with that smiley.

Colours and scribbles

Thinking of my quickly approaching first day of the RSN Certificate I began to wonder what exactly I would be doing from 10am till 4pm. There is no set project to work on, everything you stitch for the various modules has to be your own design. So besides learning how to dress a slate frame, which I sincerely hoped wouldn’t take from 10 till 4, whatever else I’d be doing it seemed unlikely it would be stitching. Discussing design ideas with the tutor, perhaps?

I decided to ask on the Mary Corbet FB group what my first day of the Jacobean crewelwork module was going to be like, as I knew the group boasts quite an impressive number of people with RSN Certificate experience. Although a lot of the reactions were enlightening, they did at times seem a little contradictory, with one person saying she hadn’t stitched at all until after her first class, while another had her frame set up, her design prick-and-pounce transferred, and her first stitches worked, all during that first meeting. Hari the Helpful Education Manager had told me that the programme was very much tailored to each individual, so that presumably accounts for some of the differences.

One piece of advice that came from almost all those who replied was, “Go well-prepared”. This was slightly unnerving, as I had by then not received any information about what to bring to the class and what, if anything, to do beforehand. Partly my own fault for jumping at the chance to start a month early, and consequently leaving the Education Team about two days until my first tutorial day, but even so distinctly unsettling.

Fortunately an email entitled “Joining Instructions” arrived this morning, so I am now a little better-informed; I have added a tape measure, small ruler, notebook and several other useful items to my project box as suggested, and printed and studied the design brief. I soon realised that the main challenge was going to be the restriction on colours: five shades each of two colours, plus two shades of an accent colour. Studying other people’s Certificate pieces online made it all to clear that there is virtually no colour combination that hasn’t been tried yet, but my own instinctive preference (influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jacobean designs are generally plant/tree-based, albeit in quite a stylised way) clearly veered towards either green or brown as one of the main colours.

Unfortunately I do not have an Appleton shade card – well, only a digital one, and we all know how accurately colours are represented on a computer screen. So I decided to work by proxy, and choose a few colour combinations from my collection of DMC. I’d be unlikely to find exact equivalents in the Appleton range, but at least it would give my tutor (Angela Bishop, with whom I have taken several classes before) some idea of what I was aiming for. Having discarded green as too dominant (yes, I know there are subdued shades of green as well, but I felt it would still be in danger of taking over) I chose some muted browns, which I hope to combine either with not-too-bright turquoises or subdued pinks, with gingery/orangy shades for my accent colour.

Brown and turquoise colour scheme Brown and pink colour scheme

What many helpful group members mentioned as well, was to go furnished with plenty of ideas and sketches. Well, that wasn’t likely to be a problem – if anything I probably have too many ideas for a design that has to be less than A4 size. I’ve even been sketching ideas for canvaswork, a module I’m not planning on doing! So I’ve gathered all my sketches and photos and scribbles and will bring them all along. We’ll see which bits survive the weeding-out process.

Sketches and photographs

By the way, one of my sketches is of Lexi in her stretching-with-backside-and-tail-in-the-air pose, and I really want to include her. But the limitation on colours made me wonder whether that would be possible. Then my husband suggested I could use our previous cat, the lovely ginger Alfie, instead; it was partly this that led me to choose ginger/orange as my accent colour. I just hope it won’t put Lexi’s little pink nose out of joint!

Of slate frames and trestles

I have been known to say that embroidery is one of the most affordable hobbies known to woman. At the most basic level of supplies, all you need is an old pillowcase, some thread and a needle and you’re good to go. But, as we all know, you can spend a lot more…

When I wrote about signing up for parts of the Royal School of Needlework’s Certificate course, did I by any chance mention that they use slate frames? Now if you’ve never seen one you may wonder why that was even a consideration when coming to a decision about whether or not to sign up. Well, for one thing (as you may have gathered from the first paragraph), there is the price. Even the smallest frame costs more than a third as much again as my Millennium frame – quite an expense for something you may not use again when the course has finished. But although I didn’t actually ask, I sensed that the slate frame is non-negotiable. And I suppose that seen as a proportion of the cost of the whole Certificate (or even half a certificate) it’s not too frightening. So that cleared the price hurdle.

Then there is the size. I know I said “smallest frame” just now, but in spite of the innocuous-looking picture in the RSN’s web shop, all the slate frames I had ever seen (in pictures, documentaries etc.) were huge. I do not do huge.

A slate frame as sold by the RSN

Fortunately I was informed by Hari, the RSN’s extremely helpful Education Manager, that there were two sizes of frame to choose from, and I could go for the small frame, which measures a mere 18″ square. Oh well, my Millennium frame is 20″ wide (although it is only about a foot high when extended) so I dare say I’ll be able to handle that. That cleared the size hurdle. But have you ever seen what goes into dressing a slate frame?

Dressing a slate frame is putting your embroidery fabric on it and getting it ready to start stitching. As some of it seems rather reminiscent of lacing somebody into a corset, “dressing” is quite a good term, although I suspect linguistically/etymologically it is more closely related to dressing a chicken or a cooked crab. But unlike this culinary dressing, a slate frame can take many hours to set up properly. Here is Mary Corbet’s very informative if slightly off-putting picture tutorial. Off-putting because to anyone whose preparation, like mine, is to whack a piece of fabric in a hoop, give it a few good tugs and tighten the hoop’s screw, it looks like far too much of an undertaking, however good the result.

Sarah Homfray uses a scroll frame, not a slate frame, in her video demonstration, but the procedure is apparently identical apart from the fact that a slate frame is tightened vertically with pins in holes instead of wing nuts on roller bars. Her frame is smaller than Mary’s, and the video takes only 15 minutes, but that does include some time leaps following instructions like “now pin the other side in the same way”. This means that even for a small slate frame, setting-up time is going to be substantially longer than anything I’ve done before. On the other hand, I’m likely to be working on each project for quite some time, and once it’s set up that’s it, apart from occasional tightening of the side strings. Another hurdle that is not insurmountable.

In fact I’m clearing hurdles like an Olympic athlete! But never mind hurdles, what about trestles?

“Where do trestles come in?” I hear you ask. Well, they are what the slate frame rests on. Yes, I have a Lowery floor stand and an Aristo lap stand but I don’t think either of those is really going to cut the mustard with a frame of this size and weight. The RSN sells custom-made beechwood ones which are beautiful, but at £550 a pair they really make sense only if embroidery is going to be your full-time career and you’ll be using them all the time. Jo, my Certificate-encourager, sent me a link to instructions for a DIY version, but as unlike her I do not happen to have a clever wood-working father I don’t think that’s going to happen. And then there is Ikea.

Ikea? Yes, Ikea, as suggested by Hari in our extensive correspondence. Some of their trestles are even height-adjustable!

Trestles from Ikea Trestles from Ikea

These were very tempting – a tenth of the price, sturdy-looking and adjustable. Looking at the measurements, my husband and I could detect just one possible problem: as I said I’m going for the smallest available slate frame, which is 18″ wide. The base of the Ikea trestles is also about 18″ wide, which means that in order for the supporting tops to be no more than 18″ apart, the bases will have to meet; and that in turn means I won’t be able to get my legs between the trestles. There is obviously a good reason why both the RSN trestles and the DIY ones have straight legs!

There is, however, another option to explore before either emptying the bank account or finding a good handyman.

I can take up my husband’s suggestion and appropriate two of the trestles we use for our annual car trade show.

They are a little bit rough and ready, but as you can see in the pictures the width of their base is adjustable, so there is enough of a gap for me to wiggle my legs through and sit stitching quite confortably. Surprisingly comfortably, in fact – I hadn’t expected to like the flat position of the frame, as I like mine tilted towards me, but this didn’t feel bad at all. Obviously this was just a 30-second trial, and we’ll have to see how I like it after a few hours of serious stitching, but this may well be our budget-saving solution to the trestle problem. Clever husband!

Placing the Millennium frame on our trade show trestles Working with the Millennium frame resting on our trade show trestles

Incidentally, Rugby RSN had some earlier places available, so my slate frame adventure will start rather sooner than expected – this coming Saturday, in fact! If my first taste of the Certificate course is as good as previous Certificaters generally report, expect an exuberant post and lots of pictures. If, on the other hand, I come back as a tearful wreck, deciding that this is far too much of a challenge for me – erm, would anyone be interested in a second-hand slate frame…?

Half a C and no D

I really enjoy the Royal School of Needlework’s classes. Years ago I started out with some of their one-hour workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show (blackwork, silk shading, goldwork [twice] and crewelwork). I then did some day classes (goldwork [twice] and Shisha). Then a one-on-one goldwork tutorial. The Opus Anglicanum retreat sort of counts as well, as the tutors were both RSN-trained. And I’m signed up for a three-day goldwork class this summer (the only one of the pictures below that’s not my stitching, as I haven’t actually done it yet). Did I mention I enjoy their classes?

RSN workshop kits Finished workshop projects RSN day classes
RSN one-on-one tutorial Opus Anglicanum retreat RSN 3-day goldwork class - the tutor's stitched model, not mine!

It’s not surprising, therefore, that over the years I’ve considered (in a rather vague, unfocused sort of way) the RSN’s more formal teaching programmes. There have been some changes in the range they offer (the apprenticeship, for example, doesn’t exist any more) but there is still a fairly bewildering variety of options. The ones I looked at are the Certificate & Diploma, the Future Tutor Programme, and the Degree course, and I found it quite difficult to work out which was best for what. I decided to ask them.

They replied: The easiest way to explain the difference between our three distinct programmes is to look at where graduates can go when they’re finished. The Degree is a springboard to a creative career in fashion, interiors or textile art. The Certificate/Diploma enables you to develop solid skills and become part of a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards in hand embroidery. The Future Tutor Programme is your route into teaching for the RSN (on Day Classes, Degree and Certificate/Diploma Programmes) and into the commercial Studio, specialising in bespoke commissions, conservation and restoration of historic embroideries. Freelance business skills are also taught on this course, as we anticipate graduates will branch out in their own professional practice as well as becoming part of the RSN team.

Well, that made things a lot clearer as to what each course was for. But what exactly did I want? I worked out that I definitely did not want a career in fashion, interiors or textile art, so the Degree was out. And although I enjoy teaching, the Future Tutor programme is probably a little over the top for what I am likely to want to do; unless you’re going to make a career out of teaching and possibly studio work, three years of full-time study at a cost of a little under £35,000 is rather too much of an investment in both time and money. When my husband retires I would like to develop Mabel’s Fancies a bit more, but not to that extent. That left the C & D, which would give me a more solid grounding for any teaching I would like to do in the future – and also undoubtedly benefit my designing – without taking over three years of my life and requiring a second mortgage.

The Certificate consists of four modules, the Diploma of six; and in those modules you learn all about the various embroidery techniques. Surely that sounds ideal? Add to that the fact that my one-on-one goldwork tutor had suggested that the C & D might be just the thing for me and you may wonder why I didn’t immediately sign up. Well, two things kept me back. One was cost. When I first looked into this programme, it gave the overall cost as a little over £10,000 in tuition fees. Modest compared to the Future Tutor programme, perhaps, but still far beyond what funds I am willing to allocate to this. The other factor was the techniques taught in the various modules. I greatly admire blackwork and the stunning pieces of embroidery people produce with it – but I have no desire whatsoever to learn it in great detail myself. Likewise canvas work or appliqué. I’d be spending a lot of time on things I was greatly interested in, like goldwork, and things I was quite interested in, like Jacobean embroidery, but I’d also spend a lot of time, and money, on things that don’t really do it for me. And so I relegated the programme to the back of my mind and booked another day class.

Enter Jo.

I’ve known Jo for years through the Cross Stitch Forum, and she came to a few of my workshops (Hardanger and goldwork, I think). And one day she announced on the Forum that she had signed up for the Certificate, at the RSN satellite location in Rugby. Rugby. Three miles from where I live. And she mentioned that you could do the modules on a pay-as-you-go basis, per tuition day. It was the nudge I needed.

I contacted the RSN and asked whether it would be possible to do certain modules only, preferably the Certificate and Diploma in goldwork and possibly the Certificate in Jacobean embroidery. Hari Sparkes, the Education Manager, explained to me that I was quite at liberty to do only the modules I wanted, with a few provisos. Everyone starts with Jacobean crewelwork. And learns to work on a slate frame (something I would happily have omitted if possible). And although I could then go on to goldwork (which is usually the fourth module), I would not be able to do the Diploma goldwork module unless I completed the entire Certificate first. Also, if I decided to do the two modules only, I would not get a physical certificate to show I had successfully completed them, although I could still have my assignments officially assessed. Well, one module of goldwork is better than none; and a piece of paper is nice but not essential for my future activities – I’m happy to do without that.

So. I’ve done it. I’ve signed up for the Royal School of Needlework Certificate in Technical Hand Embroidery, which is as daunting as it sounds. My first tuition day will be on 22nd May.

I will enjoy it!

*gulp*

A willowy tale

Have you ever taken a close look at cotton shopping bags? I must say I haven’t much – there’s a Christmas At Kew Gardens one my mother-in-law gave me which is very pretty, and I do like the ones I make myself by attaching bits of Hardanger to plain bags smiley, but otherwise they don’t generally attract my attention.

Christmas At Kew shopping bag Mabel's Stitching Bug shopping bag

Except once. It was last December on a train in The Netherlands, where I was visiting family. I’d been to see a friend in The Hague and was on my way back to my aunt, when I noticed a young woman sitting across the gangway with a cotton shopping bag hanging from her shoulder and lying, slightly crumpled, in her lap. There was a logo on it of a roughly drawn willow tree above a sun, all surrounded by an irregular rounded rectangle and looking a bit like an Egyptian cartouche.

I really liked the shape of the tree, which was rather bent; as it was a line drawing without a lot of detail I thought I’d be able to capture it relatively easily, so I made some surreptitious sketches in a small notebook. Then, as she got up to get off the train, I noticed a name on the bag: Paco Ciao. I didn’t have a computer with me and I haven’t got a smart phone, so I had to wait until I was back in England to look up that name. It turned out to be a pop-up café in Leiden.

It wasn’t difficult to find their website; I wrote to them to ask permission, and unlike another shop I contacted recently (watch this space), the person replying on behalf of the company that had designed the café’s logo was extremely relaxed about the whole thing – slightly amused, even. He said that as long as the design was not identical to the logo, it was fine for me to do whatever I wanted with it. This made me think he was not an embroiderer or particularly familiar with embroidery, because unless I did the whole thing in black outlines it would automatically look quite different from their drawing!

Pretty much from the start I knew I wanted to do the tree only, not the border and the sun; and that I would like the water to be fairly prominent. I decided on not-too-bright colours, three shades each of blue, green and brown.

The start of Ciao Willow - choosing colours

Then came choosing stitches. Stem stitch for the trunk and long and short shading for the grass were quickly decided on. The hanging branches I wanted to do in double seed stitch, so I started (at the bottom left) with a single thread, and two little stitches for each leaf. But to get the effect I wanted, I found I was working the two halves of the double seed stitch in the same holes, so that I really might as well use two strands and get on a whole lot quicker!

Working out how to stitch the hanging branches

But in that case, hmm, I could use blending so instead of three shades of green I had five to play with. I did the first branch in light/light-medium/medium and then realised that if I had thought it out beforehand I would have stitched the lower branches darker and the upper branches lighter. But actually it worked out well to have the darker branch in the middle! Just as well, as I wasn’t going to unpick a whole branch worth of tiny straight stitches…

Colour distribution within the hanging branches

I was particularly pleased with how the water turned out. I felt a little bit nervous about using chain stitch because I thought it might be too chunky compared to the rest, but it worked. The three shades worked in randomly wavy lines gave a nice impression of flowing water.

Water flows at the foot of the tree

So the project was finished; but I wasn’t completely happy with the bottom right-hand branch – it had too much light brown in it. So a day or two later I put the fabric back in the hoop, added a few little medium brown lines, and liked the result much better!

The original branch A few extra stitches

As you know I am not much of a finisher, so the completed embroidery was just going to be stored in my folder of stitched models. But it seemed a shame not to have this little tree on show, so I decided to mount it in a woodgrain flexi-hoop with a card backing, as I had done with Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird. First up: choose a hoop size. 5″ to give the tree a bit of breathing space, or 4″ for a cosier, more bijoux finish? I decided on the latter.

Materials for finishing the tree

I didn’t take pictures of the back of this particular finish, but the idea is that rather than gathering the surplus fabric and backing it with felt, painstakingly attached with tiny stitches (like the one below left), you tuck in the trimmed fabric and hold it in place with a disc of stiff card (middle and right).

A felt-backed finish A card-backed finish - materials A card-backed finish

And that is how Ciao Willow was finished, so it can now sit in my craft room for me to look at and enjoy!

Ciao Willow finished in its hoop