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.

What next for a neck?

Ethelnute the medieval king had a full head of hair (with a crown on it) framing a fully stitched face. He also had a collar with some serious bling on it. What he didn’t have yet, was a neck to connect the two parts; this was because their was a bit of a challenge about that part of his anatomy, and it took me some time to decide which of the various options to go with.

When doing split stitch in one shade, indicating a dividing line can really only be done with a change of stitch direction. Instinctively I would have stitched the neck in curved horizontals, as it is done in most medieval embroidery, but because of the way his chin was stitched (lack of foresight there) that wouldn’t show up. The tutors at the Coombe Abbey retreat solved a similar problem in one of their stitched models by adding a line of a darker pink, which you can also see in some genuine medieval examples of this type of work. Even so, it wasn’t my preferred solution.

Stitching the neck in curved horizontals

Another option was to stitch the neck in verticals; although this doesn’t show the roundness and curve of the neck, I thought it would actually make for a rather regal look, giving the neck a proud, erect attitude. However, as far as I can tell necks are hardly ever (if at all) stitched this way in the genuine article, so it wouldn’t have the authentic look. I hadn’t convinced myself that it would work in the tout-ensemble, so that one was stored away as a possible-if-nothing-better-turns-up.

Stitching the neck in verticals

My third idea was to go horizontal, but straighter, so there would be some contrast in direction. The very tip of the chin would still be in the same direction as the neck (indicated by the blue arrow), but the rest should show a clear line.

Stitching the neck in straight horizontals

All in all I was leaning towards the third option, but then I shared the neck pictures on an embroidery Facebook group and several people said they preferred the vertical version! One voiced concerns that horizontal lines (whether curved or straight) would give poor Ethelnute a turkey neck, and another pointed out that verticals, if they are slightly curved outward at the bottom, actually follow the lines of the large muscles in the neck and might look rather more naturalistic.

I was still hesitating when one member suggested manipulating the vertical lines to give him an Adam’s apple. For some reason that really appealed to me, and I also saw how curving the lines outward to follow the neck outlines would almost automatically create that little hollow at the base of the neck, between the collar bones. That was it, I was sold. It was a while before I could schedule a good chunk of uninterrupted stitching time, but when that came round, I was on to Ethelnute like a shot.

The first thing was to put in some guide lines; nothing too precise, just a little indication where the Adam’s apple was to go, and the stitch direction.

Pencil guide lines

I decided to start on the right, which was going to be the largest block of uninterrupted curved vertical lines as Ethelnute is facing away from us to the left (his right). The first few lines were slightly too widely spaced (not very easy to see with the light-coloured silk and the bad lighting, but it’s where the blue arrows point to) so I filled the gaps in later. When I’d got to the point where the curve would have to change direction, I started from the other end, putting in a line with the outline of the Adam’s apple as a guide.

The right side of the neck The left side of the neck with Adam's apple

So did it work the way I intended? Yes, mostly. The division between chin and neck is clear without the need for an additional stitched line in a darker shade. The hollow at the bottom of the neck is not as noticeable as I thought it would be, but there is some change in texture there. And the Adam’s apple definitely shows up, albeit that it is extremely difficult to show the full effect in photographs; this is undoubtedly at least partly because I’m not a very good photographer, but also because the play of light on silk (and therefore the effect of the stitch direction) is best seen when either the embroidery or the viewer moves. Perhaps I need to do a video…

Shading of the neck The effect of the stitch direction

Now the king needed only a finishing touch: a bit more gold underside couching along his jewelled collar. I added a line of green silk as well, to balance the red, but that turned out to be far too prominent, so I took it out again – the gold will have to do on its own. It would have been brilliant to have been able to use my very own hand-rolled gold thread, but alas, that was not to be. Never mind, the gold twist from the kit creates a very satisfactory blingy border, too – and so Ethelnute’s portrait is complete. And if he lasts even one-tenth as long as some of those medieval vestments and wall hangings, I’ll be well pleased!

A far too prominent line of green silk Some last-minute unpicking Ethelnute finished

P.S. The class kit came with an oval flexi-hoop to frame the embroidery in; but I thought King Ethelnute might look rather regal mounted on the lid of one of my satin boxes, and I had a vague feeling there was a burgundy red one among them. There was – but it was tiny! I took some measurements and found that he would just fit. Snugly, but definitely a fit. I went for it and do you know what, I really think his tight-fitting frame makes him pop smiley.

A frame and a box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box

An unsuccessful attempt at alchemy

Earlier this month I wrote about historian Ruth Goodman making gold thread in Secrets of the Castle, and how it inspired me to have a go, using gold leaf (which I have in stock) instead of gold foil (which I haven’t), even though it is much thinner and can’t ordinarily be picked up to be cut into strips. Well, the time has come to reveal whether Ethelnute, my medieval king, will have his gold collar enhanced with home-made gold passing thread!

No.

Oh all right then, I’ll give you the longer version. The first thing was to choose my materials. I have both gold and silver leaf at my disposal, but the original project made gold thread and moreover only my gold leaf comes on a tissue paper backing – the silver leaf is just that: very very thin silver that flutters at the slightest breath. No need to make things unnecessarily complicated for myself, so the choice for gold leaf was quickly made. Because of the tissue backing, you can cut this with scissors, and the pictures shows a thin strip cut ready for applying to a silk core.

Gold leaf on backing paper, with one strip cut

For that silk core I chose Kreinik’s yellow silk couching thread. It is a good idea to have a core that is similar in colour to the metal surrounding it for the same reason that it is a good idea to use padding felt of a similar colour when doing chipwork: if there are any inadvertent gaps, they won’t show up so badly!

Golden yellow silk couching thread

Now to detach the gold from its tissue paper and attach it to the silk thread. The first part turned out to be much easier than the second… I tried rolling it as shown in the documentary; it clung only to my fingers. I tried wrapping it around the core; this produced the same result as for Ruth and Eve Goodman – untidy tinsel.

Silk thread and gold leaf, detaching itself from the paper

I had one trick left: heavy breathing. When applying gold leaf in calligraphy, on illuminated initials etc. you first apply a ground, both to provide something for the gold to stick to and to give it lift – like felt padding for gold leaf. Traditionally this is done with gesso but very good results can be obtained with common white PVC glue. The point is that the ground is allowed to dry completely, going non-sticky (this bit is rather counter-intuitive). You then huff on it to make it slightly sticky again with the condensing moisture from your breath. Now I wasn’t going to coat my silk in PVC glue (although by this time I was sorely tempted) but I had a vague hope that even without a coating my breath might produce just that little bit of moisture that would coax the gold leaf off its backing and onto the silk, and that once it was on the silk it would stay there. So I huffed and I puffed and it didn’t.

By the end of the experiment the gold leaf had attached itself to my fingers, to the dining table, and (in a much smaller proportion and rather untidily) to the silk thread. It soon became clear that the attachment was much more successful in the first two cases than in the last one – whereas the fingers took quite some scrubbing, and the table needed a judicially applied fingernail to dislodge every last bit of 23-and-a-half carat glitter (there is still some left several days after the event), the gold precariously clinging to the silk thread needed a mere puff of breath to fall off (and attach itself much more firmly to the table).

Gold leaf on table, finger and thread

So was it a wasted afternoon? A needless squandering of time and precious metal? No, I don’t think so. For one thing, I tried, and so now I know for a fact that gold leaf is too thin for making gold thread. For another, it was rather fun to try! It used about 1/16 of one sheet of gold leaf from a 25-sheet pack which I bought well over two decades ago for 80 guilders (less than £30); a considerable expense back then, but given that I still have about half of it left after all that time, using some of it for an enjoyable learning experience seems a sound plan. And finally, think of the strain on my self-control if, having seen the documentary and having these materials in the house, I hadn’t tried – I’m sure it was much better for my health and happiness to allow myself this indulgence smiley.

Floral fun (with silk and gold)

On a FB group someone posted a video with “embroidery tricks”. Most of them weren’t really tricks at all, just types of stitch, although there was an interesting example of disguising a tear with embroidery. But a little flower caught my imagination – a very simple, small, four-petalled outline filled in quite quickly (yes, I did allow for the speeded-up filming smiley) with satin stitch, some straight stitches and french knots. This is what it ended up looking like in the video:

A small embroidered flower

Because at no point the needle or the hand of the stitcher was shown, it was difficult to gauge the size, so I drew a similar flower, printed it off in sizes ranging from 2 to 3.5cm and decided on the 3cm one. After completing the first stage it was clear that that was too big (or rather, not small enough), and the one in the video seemed more likely to be the 2.5cm version. (As it happens, it wasn’t – more about that later. What I should have done, of course, was stitch a cluster of one fat French knot with six French knots around it, measure it, and take the size from that.)

As per instructions I started with the white satin stitch, using four strands of Rainbow Gallery Splendor silk (their strands are about the same thickness as DMC). A few points for improvement: according to the video the white stitches should actually have stopped short of the central circle (I went right up to the edge of the circle) and I didn’t get those edges curved enough, especially on the first petal, which is practically straight (blue line). Never mind, learning “curve” smiley.

Room for improvement

The purple streaks didn’t present any problems, but when I came to the central circle it soon became clear that there was no way of filling it with only seven French knots. Even with four-strand, three-wrap knots it took eight for the outer circle and three in the middle. OK, so it didn’t look quite like the original – but I was rather pleased with the result anyway!

Not quite like the original, but nice!

I did feel it could be improved upon, however. But first I decided to try the 2.5cm version – surely that would be small enough for seven French knots to be sufficient? Well, no. And for some reason the flower also ended up rather elongated horizontally. All in all nice enough, but not as nice as the bigger version, which I felt looked a bit less cramped.

The smaller flower didn't work quite as well

As the smaller flower was the less satisfactory of the two, I wasn’t going to bother with an even smaller version just to see if I could get one whose centre would be completely filled by seven French knots. I returned to the 3cm version, which (although without trying the 3.5cm one I can present no actual evidence of this) seems to be the Goldilocks size. What about giving it some leaves? It looked a bit bare as it was.

An idea for some leaves The leaves completed

I liked the way this framed the flower. But it lacked just that little something… What about the tangle of Jap I was given by my mother-in-law, and which was sitting on the little table by my stitching chair now neatly wound onto a reel? Its gold wrapping suffered slightly in the untangling process, and I will probably never use it for projects which take several weeks to complete or which will be framed, but that makes it just perfect for jazzing up inconsequential little projects like this flower without feeling decadent or wasteful! Incidentally, I’d started calling it The Mini Quatrefoil, and don’t you think that has a sort of gold-rimmed sound to it? It also made for a good opportunity to try out the translucent couching thread I bought at the Knitting & Stitching Show. The Quatrefoil was too small to take the usual double line of Jap, so I worked a single line, around the petals only (it would look too fussy to have the leaves gold-rimmed as well).

Adding a little bling

When looking at it close up you can see the imperfections in the Jap, but bear in mind that the actual flower is only 3cm high – in real life it really isn’t noticeable. The translucent couching thread was very easy to work with, and is practically invisible – I’ll definitely be using that more often! As for the overall look, I like the way the project has developed away from its video inspiration; and it turns out to be just the right size for some aperture cards I’ve got in stock (left over from an abandoned Christmas card idea several years ago).

The mini quatrefoil made into a card

As the whole thing takes only a few colours, a small scrap of fabric, and about an evening, that makes it a great last-minute card design, and it would also work well as a travel project. Add to that the fact that you can play around with the colours to create several different-looking flowers to go with all those different shades of card I’ve got, and the Quatrefoil turns out to be a very lucky find. The Serendipitous Quatrefoil – now there’s a grand name for a small flower!

Glowing inspiration

A few days ago a fellow member of Mary Corbet’s Facebook group posted a link to the documentary Secrets of the Castle, in which historian Ruth Goodman attempts to make goldwork thread (having dyed her own silk threads earlier in the programme) for a small Opus Anglicanum project.

Ruth Goodman and her daughter Eve doing medieval embroidery The gold thread used in underside couching

And this was proper gold thread! None of your .5% or even 2%, this is the stuff of Exodus 39: “They hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut strands to be worked into the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen – the work of skilled hands”. True, Ruth and her daughter Eve did not do the actual hammering; they wisely started with gold foil that someone else had prepared earlier. But in the clip (the link above will take you to the start of the embroidery segment) you can see them do the cutting and “working into”. What I found fascinating was that what seemed the most obvious method (wrapping the gold around a silk core) actually produced an expensive and unusable bit of untidy tinsel; what was needed was to gently roll the thread across the gold strips, a bit, I suppose, like rolling a cigar.

An untidy bit of tinsel Rolling the gold thread

That made me think. Ruth Goodman pointed out that the foil they were working with (which was apparently originally made by flattening gold coins between sheets of leather) was thicker than your usual gold leaf – but apart from that it’s the same thing. And I have some gold (and silver) leaf left over from the days when I did calligraphy and illuminated initials. And plenty of silk threads to use for the core.

Gold leaf used in illumination Gold leaf used in illumination Gold and silver leaf

Now gold leaf is incredibly fragile and very difficult to handle; at the slightest provocation (or none at all) it will stick to your fingers and disintegrate into a fine gold dust covering your finger tips and anything else it touches. Cutting it with a knife as shown in the clip would normally be out of the question, but fortunately I had the foresight to buy my gold leaf attached to backing paper, which means that you can actually cut it with scissors. Unfortunately it is taken off its backing by pressing it, together with its backing, on to the slightly sticky ground that you first apply to your paper (or vellum or parchment if your budget runs to it) – and there is no stickiness applied to the silk core. Even so, wouldn’t you agree that it’s impossible not to try, now that I’ve seen this documentary smiley? Watch this space!

Unexpected goldwork and unexpected gold

As I mentioned last time, we’ve been sorting through things at my parents-in-law’s house. And as anyone who has done this will know, you invariably come across surprising things when sorting out a house – a packet of stock cubes for saffron rice with a best before date of November 1997 being one of the more unexpected.

But even more unexpected, and a lot more interesting, were two pieces of fabric carefully wrapped in tissue paper: a dark pink rectangle and a yellow square, backed with silk (some of it rather worn), and on the front…

A goldwork table centre A goldwork table centre

I can’t quite work out whether this is heavily tarnished goldwork, or whether it started out as silverwork; in real life the metal is a bit yellower than in the pictures. The metalwork on the pink piece is mostly made up of wire chips – wire or bright check, and smooth or rough purl (after all this time it is difficult to tell whether it’s the shiny or the matt version) – and very fine passing applied over what is probably cardboard, as well as some spangles. The wire chips are sometimes attached straight (possibly over padding) and sometimes arched over other chips; the spangles are attached with small chips of wire check.

wire chips and padded passing

The yellow piece likewise has a great amount of wire chips (some of it used to create outlines), but also passing couched in bundles in a sort of weaving pattern, and a very fine metal thread (also passing?) used for chain stitch filling. The chain stitch filling forms the background for free-standing wire loops; there are no spangles.

chain stitch, couched weaving and wire loops

My mother-in-law unfortunately couldn’t remember where they came from – at first she thought they might have come from her grandparents’ house, but then she wasn’t sure. She did remember, however, that they used to be the centre pieces on the dining table at Christmas. They must have looked gorgeous in candlelight when they were in their prime; even when we found them after all those years they showed a good bit of sparkle in the sunlight.

And that wasn’t the only gold: while looking through my mother-in-law’s thread chest (one of the pieces of furniture she’s taken with her, and a veritable treasure trove of threads, beads, ribbons and embellishments) I came across a reel of Jap, a hank of very fine passing, and some more Jap in what very likely started life as a hank, but was now a tangle. Yes, she said, she’d bought those once, probably for a workshop or class, but (sounding slightly deprecating) they weren’t real gold; actually it would have been surprising if they were, as even the “purest” goldwork threads that are readily available contain only 2% gold, most don’t get beyond .5% and Jap often contains no gold at all. But they are lovely and shiny, and these were definitely “proper” goldwork threads. I gratefully accepted them, bundled together in a plastic sandwich bag.

Goldwork materials from my mother-in-law

Incidentally, did you notice the difference in colour between the various golds? Although the two Japs turned out to look more similar once I’d wound the tangle onto an empty reel. Which, by the way, was quite a job!

A tangle being reeled The full reel

It’s a good thing Jap is one of the more resilient goldwork threads; even so, it got slightly damaged here and there in the untangling process. Fortunately, however, there is plenty left that is perfectly usable. Perhaps I’ll try some of it on a small silk flower I’m stitching at the moment – it’s a bit of an experiment anyway, and few projects aren’t enhanced by a bit of extra bling smiley. A good opportunity to try out the translucent couching thread I got at the Knitting & Stitching Show as well; I’ll let you know how I get on with both.

Disappointing developments and wonky fun

Some time ago I started a project pouch, on which I was going to embroider “Mabel” in line-sampler letters. These letters to be outlined in stem stitch using Anchor Multicolor perle #5, with each letter being a different colour combination. Nice and bright, as random and freehand as I am ever likely to achieve, in fact the perfect pick-up-and-stitch project. If it weren’t for one or two things.

Clever Baggers tablet case

First, because of the way the pouch is constructed all stitching has to be done using the sewing method, and I am by nature a stabbing girl (only with an embroidery needle, and only on fabric, I hasten to add!) – and all fastening on and off has to be done from the front, and be kept invisible. This makes it rather less relaxing than I intended. In theory the padded lining can be flipped up so you can get at the back of the fabric, but unfortunately some of my sewing motions managed to pick up a bit of the lining, which is now attached to the outer fabric and therefore unflippable.

Tablet case padding Inside of the tablet case

Secondly, I do not like the look of the stem stitch outline. I thought that would be my favourite part, because normally I really like chunky stem stitch in perle #5, and I love the Anchor Multicolors. But not only was it difficult to stitch, I could not manage to get the rope texture nice and tight, especially around corners. Oh, I know, smaller stitches help. But the fabric is relatively thin, and even with fairly long stitches it get a bit pulled and distorted; too many chunky stitches close together would be a nightmare to stitch, and look even worse.

Stem stitch outline of the first letter

This will need a bit of thinking. I will probably unpick the outline, and restitch it in Multicolor stranded cotton; it won’t stand out quite so much, but should be easier to do, and end up less floppy-looking around the corners. For the moment, I’m going to put this one aside; it was meant as an easy in-between project, but as it will now take rather more thought and work it no longer qualifies as such. I’ll definitely finish it – for one thing I don’t want to waste that pouch – but not now.

OK, so sometimes a project goes wrong, and that makes it less attractive. But sometimes a project can go wrong, yet be tremendous fun! I needed something easy to stitch while we were down at my mother-in-law’s, doing some sorting and clearing in the house she’s just moved out of. There wouldn’t be that much stitching time, so it had to be something simple, preferably with small parts within the design that could be finished quickly. Something like one of Kelly Fletcher’s monograms, in fact, particularly the one with the leafy border. And I happened to have a ready-to-embroider napkin bought as an experiment at the same time as the project pouch! Perfect.

Or it would have been, if I’d had time to transfer the design before we went. Unfortunately I didn’t, so one evening when there was just about enough light left I tried to do the transfer against a west-facing window. My usual pencil had somehow disappeared from my bag, so I tried one of the many pencils in the house. It was a very hard pencil, and after painstakingly tracing most of the design I thought to check, only to find that it had left no imprint whatsoever. The other pencils I found were either equally hard, or far too blunt, and there wasn’t a sharpener around. A blue pencil seemed the most likely to produce a usable line, so I gave that a try. It did leave a ghostly outline, but to be usable it had to be more visible; I decided that by now I might as well use a pen and be done with it. Tracing over the faint blue lines I realised that when holding a fairly large napkin up against a window for tracing, it is almost impossible to keep it square. It sags. It drags. And so the circular border was anything but circular. To make matters worse, I then put the initial in at the wrong angle – it should have pointed towards the corner. It doesn’t. And let’s not even mention the leaves, which are meant to be uniform in size and spacing. Quite.

A wonky transfer Lots of fishbone leaves

But you know what? I’m enjoying stitching this enormously. It will produce a perfectly usable and reasonably decorative napkin, I’m getting lots of practice doing fishbone stitch, and if anything doesn’t go quite as planned it doesn’t matter as it can’t possibly get any worse than it already is smiley. The perfect pick-up-and-stitch project! Unlike the pouch…

The show is over

The Knitting & Stitching Show, that is. There was a lot to see, but in between workshops I managed to get round most of it (and quite a bit of London as well – I can recommend Golders Hill Park and the London Wetland Centre!)

There was a wide variety of exhibitions this year, and it was interesting to see the different things people create; some of it I really liked, some of it was not my cup of tea, and some of it I liked in spite of not expecting to, but all of it served to show that there is no “typical embroiderer/knitter/crocheter/quilter”. The pictures below show Toft Alpacas’ crochet display, a beautiful pictorial quilt, a box with a goldwork lid and pompom sushi made by a RSN (Royal School of Needlework) Future Tutor, one from a series of embroideries recording the artist’s mother’s life, including her last years with dementia, and a circular piece of knitting.

Toft's crochet display A pictorial quilt An embroidered sushi box Circular knitting

This year I taught three workshops: Hardanger, Shisha and freestyle. I got some good and helpful feedback, and pictures of finished projects from several participants. Two ladies actually completed their Shisha flower duing the class, including mounting it into a card, and a Dutch lady doing the RSN certificate (or diploma, I’m not sure which) and taking in the K&S Show as an extra stitch-related activity soon posted pictures of her Hardanger needle book.

A Shisha card finished at the workshop A Shisha card finished at the workshop Marlous C's Hardanger needle book

Another lady who came to the Shisha workshop bought the companion kit (the Shisha Tile), finished both at home and then used the techniques she’d learnt to embellish a Christmas quilt, creating a diamond-shaped variation of the stitch used in the Tile kit.

Barbara E's Shisha flower card Barbara E's Shisha tile Barbara E's Shisha tile variation Barbara E's Shisha tile variation on a quilt

And finally, did I buy any new and interesting fabrics, threads, designs? With so many stands selling all manner of goodies, could I possibly resist? Well, not entirely. After enjoying a walk-in demonstration by Sarah from Golden Hinde I bought some of the translucent couching thread she recommended, at a grand total of £2.20 smiley

Translucent couching thread

Could you use…?

When you are known to be a needleworker, sooner or later you will be asked the question “Could you use…?” The item in question may be a great aunt’s collection of half-finished canvases, threads once bought but never used, inherited patterns, or fabrics, needles, hoops or beads which the owner can’t use anymore because of deteriorating eyesight or increasing arthritis. It often includes a great many things which frankly you will never be able to (or want to) use, but there are gems, too. And knowing other needleworkers means that it is rare for these donations not to find a good home eventually.

Recently a gentleman who came to our house to purchase parts for his pre-war Austin Seven (Mr Figworthy’s main line of business, when he is not assisting Ms Figworthy in attaining world domination in embroidery) noticed the various bits of stitching dotted around the house, and asked The Question. In this case it was what he described as “a bag of designs” that once belonged to his grandmother. Last week he dropped them off, and it turned out to be parts 1 to 34 of a series called Embroidery Magic, complete with all the iron-on patterns and two ring binders. Judging by the style they date back to the 1980s, and I’m going to have fun looking through them and picking things which I may want to stitch before taking them to my various embroidery groups for the ladies there to fight over smiley.

Embroidery Magic

Rather longer ago my mother-in-law gave me a box of unidentified silks on cardboard tubes. So far I haven’t done anything with them, but from the start the colours suggested peacocks to me. I’m now thinking of using them for a split stitch version of the miniature cross stitch peacock I designed for a pendant (the picture shows the anonymous silks at the top, followed by discontinued Eterna silks, Piper silks with a couple of discontinued Filofloss, and Threadworx hand-dyed Vineyard silks).

A box of unknown silks A peacock in silk

Or perhaps it could become a miniature-stitching-on-silk-gauze workshop? I have acquired a few inexpensive pendants which I hope will be perfect for that. Now to convince the Knitting & Stitching show that silk gauze embroidery is just what they need on next year’s workshop programme!

The mini peacock in my own silver locket The original pendant and the possible workshop ones The miniature peacock fits the new pendant

Needles

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out different needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends) and although some of them are definitely a lot more expensive than ordinary needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends smiley), because they are small items the actual cost is still affordable as a treat (unlike being a racing car fanatic and deciding to try out different engines, for example). But are these fancy needles really necessary, and do they live up to expectations?

We all know the needle book belonging to grandma or great-aunt which contains the needles with which she sewed her entire life, apparently with no detrimental effect on either herself or her sewing. On the other hand, it is possible to be too thrifty and to practice the false economy of trying to do fine embroidery with needles that have long lost their plating and are tarnished and rough and doing unmentionable things to your threads (especially silks). Don’t wait until the needle gets so weakened with use that the eye breaks and becomes a health hazard (yes, voice of experience).

But when you change your needle, does it matter what you change it to? If the size and the point (blunt or sharp) are correct for your work, does it make a difference whether it’s from a bargain basement box-of-25-for-50p or whether it is a Tulip branded one costing a frankly eye-watering £1 per needle?

I decided to find out. Normally I use John James needles bought in envelopes of 25 for all forms of freestyle embroidery, and gold-plated tapestry needles bought in bulk from Busy Lizzie (who no longer sells them) for Hardanger. These are probably a little more expensive than an unbranded assorted pack from the local haberdasher’s, but because I buy them in fairly large numbers they are still a relatively economical choice. And they have served me well over many years, doing the job they were designed to do. But various people (experienced stitchers all) singing the praises of Tulip needles from Japan made me decide to give them a try.

The first thing you notice when they arrive is the packaging; you have to do a lot of unwrapping to get at the needles! A well-presented (and colour-coded) cardboard box closed with a decorative tassle holds a glass tube with a cork stopper, which in turn contains the needles. It’s beautifully done, and unfortunately immediately made me wonder how much less expensive the needles could have been with less fancy packaging… Still, you’d expect a Cartier jewel to come in a velvet-lined, gold-stamped box, not an anonymous cloth bag, so perhaps it’s just all a sign of the quality and attention to detail.

Tulip embroidery needles come in a nice cardboard box Tulip embroidery needles in a tube with cork stopper Tulip embroidery needles

And how do they work? Very well. They are nice and smooth, and very sharp so they pierce the fabric accurately. But I’m afraid I didn’t notice the enormous difference in stitching comfort that some stitchers report (saying they can now stitch for much longer because the smooth needles put less strain on the hand), or that much of a difference in accuracy. Do I enjoy using them? Yes. Will I continue to use them? Yes, until I run out. But I won’t buy them again. The difference between the Tulip needles and my ordinary ones is simply not great enough to justify the difference in price.

Next up were Clover needles (incidentally also from Japan). I picked up some gold-eye between needles in the Netherlands some years ago, and have found them very useful; this was partly because they were the first between/quilting needles I’d ever used. I’m a bit hazy as to the exact difference between betweens and quilting needles, but they are both shorter than ordinary embroidery needles and therefore easier to use when you’re trying to manoeuvre in a small space (for example at the back of the work near the edge of the hoop). For smoothness the Clover ones compare favourably with the Tulip betweens, and at less than 15p each there is really no contest there.

Clover embroidery needles in their packages A Clover #12 needle on my fingertip

The black & gold ones are rather more expensive; they come in at about 23 of the Tulip needles. The black polish, which according to the description is grooved along the length of the needle, is meant to make it glide through the fabric more smoothly.

I tried some of them out on King Ethelnute (my nickname for the split stitch & gold project started at the medieval embroidery retreat) using two of the black & gold needles, a #9 quilting needle and a #10 between, both with a single strand of Silk Mill silk, doing split stitch. Oddly enough the #10 was more difficult to pull through even though it is significantly thinner than the #9. The #9 was very smooth to use, and pierced the fabric very accurately. I’ve got a whole pack of the #10 betweens so will try one of the others to see whether it was just this one needle being difficult! On the whole, however, I’m not sure the black & gold needles are significantly more pleasant to use than the standard gold-eye Clover needles, so unless further use changes my mind I will stick with the standard ones, which are very good indeed.

And what’s next? Well, I would like to try Bohin needles, made in France, which have also been praised for their smoothness, and possibly Piecemakers (from America). But for now I’m happy with the John James needles for everyday use, and the gold-eye Clover betweens/quilting needles for fine and accurate work.

PS On one of the online embroidery groups I’m a member of, someone asked (having seen the picture of the #12 needle on my fingertip) how you thread a needle that thin. Well, there are needle threaders (although for a needle that size you’d have to use a micro-threader) but so far I’ve managed with the method I was taught at one of the RSN day classes I attended: “bring the needle to the thread” instead of the other way round. Hold the very end of the thread between thumb and index finger, open up so that the end of the thread is just visible, then bring the needle’s eye towards the thread between your fingers, so that the eye of the needle is the only place that the thread can go when you open up your fingers further. It’s not easy to describe in words only but I hope it gives you the general idea. If you decide to give it a try do let me know how you get on with it!

An old adversary

Something has been niggling me over the past week. It came about as I was stitching Carousel. And it needs Seeing To.

Are there stitches that you love on paper but which don’t live up to expectations? There is one which has been my bugbear ever since I first heard about it. I even devoted an entire FoF post to it three years ago! That post started “Once upon a time there was a stitch. It looked lovely on paper. It had an attractive name. It got itself included in the Round in Circles SAL. It was stitched up in a model, and given a diagram and a description. So far so good.” Substitute “Carousel” for “Round in Circles SAL” and it still infuriatingly holds.

The stitch in question is the Maltese Cross, also known as Maltese Interlacing, and whereas the SAL had it and lost it, Carousel started without it but gained it. It got designed and revamped long before the SAL but I never got round to stitching it until now, when I was forcefully reminded of the problem of this particular stitch. It is that it Never Looks As Good As It Should. In my mind I know exactly what it should look like, a bit like the braided ornamental fasteners on coats which I have always known as “mattekloppers” (“carpet beaters”) but which I am told are officially known as Brandenburg fasteners in Dutch and frog fasteners in English.

Carpet beaters, Brandenburg or frog fasteners

Intricate, swirly, braided, beautiful. That’s what Maltese crosses should look like. But they hardly ever do. In order to make them work (for me – tastes differ) they either have to be done in very thin thread in two colours, when they look attractive but not the least bit like the thickly braided effect I had in mind, or in thick thread in one colour (yes, I changed my mind on that since 2015) so that the braided effect shows up without the distraction of the foundation colours.

High-contrast, lightweight Maltese cross A single unit of Maltese interlacing

In Carousel, it was charted with a thin dark foundation thread and a thick light interlacing thread – in my stitched model, Caron Wildflowers (Tanzanite) and Watercolours (Celestial Blue). And it looks Plain Wrong.

Malteser cross in dark and light

I was tempted to just chuck the whole idea and put in a different stitch, but I thought I’d persevere and try the thing with two changes: one, to use only one colour, the light one. And two, to pull the thread more tightly as I had seen it done on some Indian embroidery. And then it did work.

Malteser cross in light only, pulled more tightly

So now I need only to unpick the first Maltese cross and re-do it, and then I can get started on the cutting. And before you know it Carousel will be available in all its Maltese glory smiley.