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.

An entangled cat and a ruffled tummy

I’ve been rather quickly and haphazardly adding to doodle-Lexi’s fur because I wanted to sample the couched thread of wool which winds around her tum. This worked well, and will be connected up with the satin stitch ball of wool when it gets to stitching her on the Big Project.

Cat with couched wool around her

When I showed the sample to my husband, he remarked that there was a very clear line between the light stitching on her tummy and the dark stitching on the rest of her. Drawing my attention to real-life Lexi, who was at that moment lying on her back on my lap, looking adorable and showing off her real-life tummy, he pointed out that on her the line was much more blurred. I pointed out that Jacobean embroidery is not exactly renowned for its accurate and naturalistic way of depicting the animals and vegetation in its realm. Even so, his words remained in the back of my mind. What if I added some angled medium and dark brown stitches to the edge of the dark fur so that they overlapped with and blended into the beige?

I tried quite spiky stitches first, sticking out noticeably from the dark top half and overlapping onto the light belly, but that just looked wrong – the angles were simply too different from the generally horizontal direction of the fur and they were too short. Some long stitches, only slightly more angled than the main ones were called for. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the spiky version, but here is the “milder” one (getting these stitches in was a bit challenging where I had to sneak them underneath the couching – obviously on the real thing they would be done before adding the turquoise – which is why they are not quite as neat as I’d like, but they’ll do as an illustration/sample).

Cat with slightly ruffled fur

And here are the stark-lined original and the slightly blurred new version side by side. It’s a subtle difference, but on the whole I do like the second version a little better. So when I get round to stitching her on the real project, wool Lexi will have her fur ruffled!

Two feline tummies

The Tree of Life SAL sign-up is open!

If you’re on Facebook at all you may have seen a quick message I posted about a last-minute changes to a one of the leaves on the SAL Tree of Life. It’s a shame I can’t show you how it turned out (that would rather spoil the Mystery bit of the SAL…) but I’m really excited about it!

Oh well, all right then, a teeny weeny sneak peek – can you guess which version it is smiley?

Sneak peek

If that has whetted your appetite you’ll be pleased to hear that sign up for the SAL is now open. And it looks like it’s going to be quite an international gathering – already there are subscribers from seven different countries!

Mabel's 2020 Freestyle SAL

PS For various reasons (most of them to do with the fact that I am a one-woman band, albeit with a very supportive husband) the SAL-joining process is not automated – I send out every welcome email individually as and when I get a notification that someone has signed up. So if I happen to be out doing the weekly grocery shop when you sign up (or asleep, if we’re in different time zones), it may be a few hours before you get a reply; but I’ll do my best to send out all welcome emails as soon as possible.

More sampling, a block shading lament and a finished tulip

Two months between my fourth and fifth RSN Certificate classes – surely I must have finished at least three-quarters of the tree by now? Well, not quite. But I have done a lot of sampling, and some “proper” work too, with a few more parts to follow this week with a bit of luck (and application). One of the things I sampled is the ball of wool which entangles the cat. Having decided to work my brick in straight satin stitch, this will be where I show off satin stitch that is both slanted and padded.

First I made a few sketches of the various options, and eventually I decided on a split stitch outline and padding top left to bottom right (surface satin stitch so it doesn’t create too much bulk at the back), then a complete layer of satin stitch in the darkest shade of turquoise bottom left to top right, and finally an incomplete layer like a band in the middle using the second darkest shade, again from top left to bottom right. And when I stitched it, it actually looked as I had envisaged it! Very encouraging – usually it takes at least a few goes. This may of course mean that the one on the actual Certificate piece is going to be disappointing, but let’s remain optimistic.

Sketches for the ball of wool Split stitch outline and padding First layer of satin stitch Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch Showing the lift that the padding gives

I like having that ball of wool in the design. The Anglo-Saxon word for it is “cleow” (very close to the present-day Dutch “kluwen”) which is said to be the origin of the term “crewel”. How cool to have a crewel cleow smiley.

Next was a couple of sketches for the gap in the tree trunk; Angela had expressed concern that Cretan stitch over the full width of the gap, especially towards the bottom, would be too wide. How to divide it? My idea was to sample one version in three parts, from shaded from medium to lightest turquoise, and another in two parts, with dark shades on the light side of the tree and light shades on the dark side, to create the illusion of a deep hollow in the tree which is just picked out by the light coming from the right.

Sketch for the gap in the tree trunk The gap divided into three parts The gap divided into two, to show depth

The three-part version turned out to be too fussy at the top; I like the look of the dark/light version better, although even there the Cretan stitch looks remarkably like feather stitch at the top where it can’t spread out. But then lots of stitches are really the same thing with only minor variations, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. One question remains: does it need the extra outline I had originally put in my plan? Perhaps I could just whip the chain stitches that border it already. I’ll bounce that off the tutor on Saturday.

On to block shading; I obviously need practice on that (see my previous report) plus I had to try out colours. I like the bold version on the left, but on consideration decided that a lighter version would show up the ball of wool better. The sample on the right uses two browns because the lighter one looked too light on the skein, but it turned out to look better when stitched – so the colour combination on the far right is the one I’ll go with. As for the block shading itself, it’s definitely getting better but I just can’t seem to keep the bands the width I set out with. It’s exasperating! I will have to draw really clear guidelines and stick to them like glue.

More block shading

Finally I managed to do some proper stitching on the actual embroidery: the two large leaves at the bottom of the tulip flower, to be worked in long & short stitch. You may remember from my report about the September class that Jessica Aldred gave her official blessing to what I’d been doing in long & short stitch all along, which was encouraging, so without any further sampling I got on with the Real Thing – split stitch outline in medium (except where they meet the tulip, as there will be later stitching along those lines), and then fill in from the tip in lightest to the base in darkest turquoise.

Split stitch outline and first shade of long and short filling One leaf And another one

Incidentally, all these photographs are upside down because I’m working with the top end of the frame towards me at the moment – I simply can’t reach the top of the design when the frame is the right way round!

Having finished the leaves I decided last Saturday to forgo my usual Ladies’ Walk (it looked like rain anyway…) and spent three solid hours on my Certificate homework, in spite of someone in the neighbourhood using some sort of machinery which emitted a continuous droning noise for the first 90 minutes or so. My tulip bulbs may be languishing in the garden shed instead of being planted, but this tulip was going to be completed!

Having seen effect of the dense turquoise stitching on the leaves, the colour of the frills on the petals decided itself: brown. As with the leaves I decided against sampling, plunged for medium brown for the buttonhole/blanket stitch and dark (not darkest) brown for the detached buttonhole fringe, and got stitching.

Blanket stitch along the tulip's fringe Adding the detached buttonhole frill A 3D frill

The last part of the tulip was the dark orange outline, which according to my stitch plan was to be done in knotted stem stitch (also known as Portuguese stem stitch). I had second thoughts; the lines surrounding the brown battlement couching should, I felt, be like the lines surrounding the turquoise lattice work – plain stem stitch. Fortunately it is a doddle to change from plain to knotted stem stitch and back again within a single line, without any need for fastening off and on again, so I decided to work the bits around the brown central petal in plain, and then switch to knotted once I was clear of that part.

Knotted stem stitch doesn't work

No. Absolutely no. It just looks fussy, and with so much going on in that flower already, the outlines need to be clean and simple and not distract the eye. So unpick the knotted bit, discard the unpicked thread because it did not stand up well to this, fasten on a new one and complete the outline in plain stem stitch all around.

A plain stem stitch outline

And here is the whole thing, right way up – I hope to complete at least the left-hand hillock (and possibly the brick) before Saturday’s class.

The tree so far

PS Don’t forget you can sign up for that other Tree of Life from this coming Friday!

How absent-minded ordering leads to another project

As you may know I’ve got seven or eight projects on hold, patiently waiting in my craft room in various stages of WIP-ness, and have only allowed myself the Ottoman Tulip because I need something that I can just use as a sort of paint-by-numbers exercise in between the Certificate and the SAL – and then my lovely Heathway Milano wools arrived.

Heathway Milano wool for the SAL

I ordered them as back-up for the SAL threads, with a few spares thrown in for good measure. But as I sorted through them I realised that for two of the greens I’d ordered as spares, I already had a spare. And because Steve at Catkin Crown had very kindly pointed out to me that if I ordered one more skein I’d qualify for free postage I had also ordered another “neutral”; always useful, but I now have perhaps slightly more than I strictly speaking need. And then there was a brown for which I ordered a spare and of which I had a bit left from a previous skein. And they went so beautifully together, and I happened to have a spare bit of twill…

To cut a long story short, this is another Oh Sew Bootiful design; it is meant to be done in purple and yellow stranded cotton and contains French knots as well as stem stitch and satin stitch, but I’m ditching the knots – I want some really relaxing embroidery to do when I’m tired and just want to enjoy the rhythm of the needle, and the soothing colours and the soft feel of the threads.

The transfer on this is quite wobbly (all right, I admit, I rushed it) and the two circles I’ve stitched so far are, to say the least, rustic. But oh my goodness I enjoyed stitching them! It was the most relaxing bit of embroidery I’ve done in a long time, and I don’t care what it looks like when I’ve finished – this is just the perfect bit of therapy smiley.

Oh Sew Bootiful kaleidoscopic design

Can you tell I’ve waxed?

Commenting on a previous FoF about the Tree of Life SAL, Louise asked about Thread Heaven as a conditioner and we got onto the subject of using beeswax. I use it in goldwork to wax the threads used for couching or otherwise attaching the gold threads and wires, but I have never used it to smooth or tame wayward embroidery threads – I’ve always been slightly nervous of making the thread lose its sheen or look, well, waxy. However, I know of stitchers who have used it and they tell me it makes the thread more manageable without affecting the look.

Then a fellow-member of the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked about Silk Mill silks and when I mentioned how springy they are (I may have used the technical term “boingy”…) she expressed concern that they would not lie flat. Now I’ve only used the silk for split stitch and a bit of underside couching, where this is not a great issue. But in satin stitch, for example, it would be. I could feel an experiment coming up.

Earlier that day I had been re-arranging boxes and folders of designs, and in one of them there was a 3″ flexihoop and a piece of Normandy fabric which I’m sure had a purpose at one time, but as I couldn’t remember what it was I decided it would do very well for this experiment (which I wanted to be fairly quick). In one of the folders I also found a Mary Corbet freebie, the inner part of which was just right for trying out both line and filling stitches. I would work the lines in stem stitch and the shapes in satin stitch, half of the project with waxed threads and half with unwaxed (and unsteamed) threads.

Notes for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I transferred the design standing at an awkward angle over my lightbox wearing the wrong glasses, which is why the lines are not the cleanest, but it’ll do. The experiment could have been done in one colour, but I chose two for a bit of interest, and also to see whether different colours would stitch up differently when waxed. I will readily admit that the combination is not very subtle, but the green is a colour of which I was sent a duplicate in error so I’ve got plenty of it, and the pink (which I chose based on the Silk Mill website rather than on their real-life samples) turned out to be much more shockingly pink then I had expected, so I’m unlikely to use it in any “proper” project.

Materials for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I started with the outermost circle in unwaxed pink stem stitch. And I’d got about half-way round the circle when something I knew in the back of my mind suddenly came rushing to the fore: Silk Mill silk is Z-twisted! What does this mean? Well, almost all cotton and wool embroidery threads and most silks are plied in an S-twist, that is to say the direction of the thread’s twist is like the slanting middle part of an S, top left to bottom right. But rayons and some silks, including Silk Mill, are plied in a Z-twist, with the slant of the thread going bottom left to top right like the diagonal line of a Z.

At this point a polite non-stitching friend might say “ah”, displaying a mild interest and wondering whether the knowledge could come in handy in a pub quiz some time; a less polite one might opt for “so what?” And it is true that the difference is not always important. As I said, so far I’ve only used this particular silk for split stitch and underside couching, neither of which involves a great amount of twist (in fact underside couching involves no twist at all, as most of the thread lies flat of the surface with bits of it pulled through to the back at regular intervals by the couching thread). This means that the twist of the working thread doesn’t make much difference to the look of these stitches. But when working stitches that do incorporate a certain amount of twist, such as stem stitch or French knots, S-twisted threads and Z-twisted threads behave differently.

Take stem stitch. When working from left to right, the loop of working thread is always kept underneath the line of stitching. This results in that lovely rope-like texture which makes such nice crisp outlines. Were you to keep the loop of working thread above the line of stitching, you would technically be producing outline stitch – and the effect is quite distinct, especially when worked in a thread with a noticeable twist like perle cotton. This is because stem stitch twists the working thread in the direction of its natural twist, causing it to tighten up, whereas outline stitch twists it in the opposite direction, making the twist looser and the line of stitches much less textured.

Stem stitch (top) versus outline stitch (bottom) Outline stitch (left) versus stem stitch (right)

At least it does when the thread is S-twisted; but if you have a Z-twisted thread, the effect is the opposite! So when the stitch instructions for a design say “stem stitch” but you’re using a Z-twisted thread, you need to work outline stitch, and vice versa. You’ll also have to twist the thread around the needle in the opposite direction when doing French knots or bullions, and it will make a difference to whipped stitches as well. You can see this effect in the picture below; you’d expect the green to be stem stitch and the pink to be outline stitch, but in fact it’s the other way round as they are worked in Z-twisted Silk Mill silk.

Outline stitch (green) and stem stitch (pink) in a Z-twisted thread

I’m rather pleased to think that my choice of silk is going to add another learning experience to the SAL: I’ll be able to point out in the blog which stitches need to be worked in mirror image to the usual instructions to get the same effect!

But back to waxing. The finished experiment shows stem stitch, unwaxed (pink circle), outline stitch, unwaxed (green circle), stem stitch, waxed (pink quatrefoil), outline stitch, waxed (green quatrefoil), satin stitch, unwaxed (outer pink) and satin stitch, waxed (green and central pink).

The experiment complete

And the first thing that struck me was how much darker the waxed quatrefoil lines look than the unwaxed circle ones. Whether the coating of wax does actually make them darker or whether it’s because they reflect less light (or reflect it differently; there definitely seems to be less of a sheen), the effect is quite noticeable and would have to be borne in mind when choosing whether to wax. A second difference between the unwaxed and waxed threads shows up more clearly in the satin stitch sections: when waxed the threads look much more cord-like and separate – they don’t blend into one smooth surface nearly so well as the unwaxed threads.

The experiment complete

That’s how wax influences the thread’s look; but does it make a difference to how it handles? Well, waxed it was a little more manageable with less bounce to it, although I was actually surprised how well the unwaxed thread behaved when I was doing satin stitch, especially considering that I hadn’t steamed them. On the whole I don’t think the slight improvement in handling is worth the loss of sheen and the loss of “spread” in the satin stitch areas. Yes, I can tell where I’ve waxed – and I won’t be doing it again.

All framed up

All right, I can’t resist. I’m so ridiculously pleased with the lacing I’ve done on the Millennium frame and the good tension I managed to get on my 14″ hoop that I just want to show them off! A bit of work in my photo editing programme to blur the transferred designs, and now I can share my framed and hooped SAL fabrics without spoiling the mystery smiley.

I photographed them both with the threads and other bits and bobs around them to give some sense of the size (the cat in the hoop picture is not there for scale, just for her decorative value). For a stitcher who until relatively recently thought of a 7″ hoop as quite large, this 14″ whopper comes as a bit of a shock whenever I see it. The bigger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get good tension on the fabric, but as I mentioned before the bound inner hoop helps, as does the fact that it is a 20mm deep quilting hoop; a few more judicious tugs at the fabric yesterday and some persuasive wingnut action and the tension is now equal to what I would expect from a much smaller hoop.

Hooped fabric and materials for the plain Tree of Life

The Millennium frame has superb tension when used as it comes, even side to side – in fact surprisingly so for a frame which (like pretty much all scroll frames) holds the fabric top and bottom only. The top-to-bottom tension is incredible, and must, I assume, be so much better than on any scroll frame I’ve tried because it is achieved by lengthening the side bars (they each have a thick wooden screw inside them which screws up and down), in effect pushing the roller bars apart, rather than by trying to roll the fabric tightly onto the bars. You can apply so much more force that way. The Millennium frame’s side-to-side tension is derived purely from the scroll bars – because the fabric is held firmly along its entire width by an ingenious groove-and-rod combination, it is almost as taut at the edges as it is in the centre, something that is practically unheard of with other scroll frames.

Orpheus mounted on the Millennium frame

So why lace the fabric? Two reasons. Firstly, I said “almost as taut”. You can bounce a penny off the centre of the fabric, but there is a little bit of give right at the edges. Secondly, because of the very strong top-to-bottom tension the fabric will stretch vertically, albeit only slightly; this will be more noticeable the longer the fabric is on the frame, and this project will likely be there some time. You can slacken off the tension between sessions, but I prefer to keep the fabric taut so the tension remains more or less the same throughout my work on the piece.

Neither of these is an insurmountable problem, and I have happily used the frame without any further fabric preparation, as you can see from the picture above. But because this time I’m working with two layers of fabric, and there are goldwork elements in the piece, I thought I’d apply some of my newly-gained knowledge of dressing a slate frame to this smaller frame for even better tension. Attaching the fabric to the top and bottom bar is done as usual – there is no canvas to sew it on it to, and I’m very pleased there isn’t as the rod-and-groove system is a lot quicker – and after that I extended the side bars enough to make the fabric sit flat, without sagging, but not so much that it was stretched.

Next, sew herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and use that lethal bracing needle I showed last time to lace them to the side bars. Slightly more fiddly than with a slate frame because the Millennium side bars are not uniformly shaped from top to bottom, and part of what I’m lacing around is the exposed wooden screw. But with a bit of string manipulation it works perfectly well, so on to the final stage of gradually increasing the tension in both directions by extending the side bars and tightening the lacing. At the end of all that I’ve got a piece of fabric you could play an impressive drum solo on, and it’s much more portable and manoeuvrable than the slate frame, sitting quite happily on my Aristo lapstand rather than needing trestles. Win!

Framed fabric and materials for the bling Tree of Life

I might sneak in a few SAL stitches later this week during my RSN Certificate Homework Time…

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

Choosing SAL materials

Last Friday the SAL materials list was published – high time for me to stop stitching samples and start stitching complete trees! But before I can do that, like every other stitcher who will be doing the SAL, I need to choose my materials.

As I need to stitch both the Plain and the Bling version, it seemed a sensible idea to make sure they differed as much as possible, not just in the addition of goldwork materials. In previous SALs I generally made sure I did at least one version with the most basic materials possible, which in this case would be stranded cotton (DMC for me, but Anchor works equally well) on a cotton ground. This budget version, even if you had to buy everything from scratch (20 skeins of stranded cotton, a fat quarter of medium-weight cotton fabric plus calico backing, one size of sequins and 2 colours of beads) would come in at around £25, and you’d have plenty of leftovers. Work from stash and you can get away with a minimal outlay.

But… but… Even though I know that an “economy” version with standard threads and fabric can look just as good as a more expensive one, I already had two combinations in mind, and I really don’t want to do three trees! So I’m hoping some of you will show us just how beautiful a stranded cotton tree can be, and I’ll show the effect of wool on twill and silk on linen.

First the fabrics. I was about to post pictures of my actual fabrics in action, with the design transferred onto them, and then realised this rather defeats the purpose of a Mystery SAL. So just pictures of the fabrics used in other projects, I’m afraid: traditional twill as in the Rabbit & Carnations, and a densely-woven German linen as in Llandrindod.

Crewel project on twill Llandrindod on German linen

Once you’ve chosen your fabric, there is another decision to be made: To Back or Not To Back, that is the question. Easy enough with the twill – twill is a sturdy fabric that can stand on its own and doesn’t need backing (I’m sure there are exceptional circumstances when it would be a good idea, but let’s stick with unexceptional for now). But what about the linen? Because it’s a good weight and a close weave, I don’t back it when I use it for small projects like the Ottoman Tulip; I did back it with a very light Egyptian muslin for Llandrindod, but with hindsight that wasn’t necessary. The SAL design, however, is not only a much larger piece than either of these, it will also have goldwork elements in it, and I do find a backing invaluable when doing goldwork because it makes all the oversewing of plunged ends so much easier. So a lightweight calico backing it is.

As for hoops and frames, the twill (which will have the design in the larger of the two sizes) is now securely fitted in my humongous 14″ hoop (it’s a monster!) – the binding definitely helps to get good tension, and although it is very difficult to get perfectly drum-taut tension with a hoop that size, there is a distinct drum-like noise when I gently tap the fabric. The linen and its backing will be mounted on the Millennium frame, and I will then lace the sides for extra side-to-side tension.

On to more colourful decisions: threads! The twill pretty much chose its own threads – traditionally it is used with crewel wool, and although it is of course perfectly possible to use it with other threads it is such a tried and tested combination that I am happy to go with it. Added to which I absolutely adore working with my Heathway Milano crewel wools, so any opportunity is gratefully seized on. When I first started designing this tree I envisaged it with leaves in blue, green and purple. As blue and green are also two of the non-leaf colours, this means you can save on your materials by having those two shades double up. With two shades of beads (leaving out the optional leaf-coloured ones) and one size of sequin instead of three, this gives you the bare minimum needed for the SAL. I went for fairly muted shades, especially the purple.

Minimal materials, including Heathway Milano crewel wool

However, I have lots more shades of wool and it seems a shame not to use them, especially as some of them are rather lovely and bright. So I also put together a set with separate leaf colours – muted Aubergine made way for Lilac and was joined by Lagoon and Dusky Rose, as well as an extra shade of beads.

Extra crewel colours

For the silk version I originally picked Rainbow Gallery Splendor stranded silks, which are lovely to work with (and some of which I’m using in Llandrindod), but although there were enough shades for the blue-and-green-doubling-up version, I just didn’t have the range of colours needed for a version with separate leaf colours. I reluctantly abandoned Splendor and had a rummage in my Silk Mill boxes. Their threads are filament silks so they have a lovely sheen; unfortunately they are also rather more difficult to work with because of their springiness (steaming them beforehand helps). Still, I managed to stitch a medieval King with them quite successfully, so I’ll have a go! Some of the goldwork materials in the picture won’t be in the final project, as I put in both options where I hadn’t quite decided yet which one to use (like the two black metals, one rough purl and one wire check). Silk being rather less bulky then crewel wool, I could fit all the threads and goldwork materials in one little project box – doesn’t it look neat?

Silk Mill silks and goldwork materials All that is needed in one small box

So there I am, all set to start stitching! (In between sorting out some issues with my Certificate piece…)

Is it all right if I…?

Have you ever wondered/had a stitching friend ask you/asked a designer or tutor: “Is it all right if I…” (stitch this in green instead of yellow; use only part of the design; turn the dog into a rabbit; work it in wool on canvas, not in silk on linen; turn the design 90 degrees)? If so, you are not alone. It’s a question that often crops up on forums, and it’s a question that I, undoubtedly like many designers and tutors, have been asked more than once. The answer?

Yes.

Yes, it’s fine. This is your project, and you decide what it’s going to look like. I feel quite strongly about this, and yet when I do it myself, I feel a little diffident. That doesn’t stop me from changing things, though smiley.

As an example let’s look at Oh Sew Bootiful’s “Splashing in the Waves”. I wrote a bit about this in an earlier FoF, but as the project is now finished I can show the effect of all the changes together. First, the original: two Japanese-looking waves with light blue foam and green fish.

The original design, with blue wave tips and green fish

Now not all of the changes I made were the same type of changes, and I’m fairly sure this holds for most stitchers who change designs – there is a variety of reasons. One reason is that a particular part of the design doesn’t appeal to you, or is not appropriate for the project’s purpose – substituting a stylised cat for a stylised dog in an old-style sampler because you prefer cats, for example, or changing the length of the bride’s dress in a piece to commemorate a wedding so that it matches that of the bride for whom it was stitched. Another reason might be that you only want to use one motif or section from a larger design, either because you don’t like the rest of the design, or because it needs to fit a pre-chosen framing option (card, box lid, footstool).

I’ve done both of these, but not in this Waves design, although I did shrink the design so that it would fit a satin-covered box I had in my stash.

Then there is the material. In a counted design, that could affect the size as well; in a freestyle design such as this, it affects mainly the look of the background and the stitching experience. Instead of a relatively thin cotton, which I would have had to back, I chose a sturdy cotton duck (a light canvas) that I could use on its own. I also like the rather solid look of it. My favourite fabric at the moment is a lovely densely-woven German linen, but I have a limited quantity of that so it gets used only for special projects, like the Llandrindod jewelled cross and one of the SAL versions. Some changes, in other words, may be motivated at least to some extent by what you happen to have in your stash (and what you are willing to use).

Stem stitch on cotton duck

The picture above also shows another change: the outlines of the waves were charted in backstitch, but I chose to do them in stem stitch, for no better reason than that I prefer stem stitch and find it relaxing. So there you have a fourth reason for change: personal stitching preference.

Two further changes which can occur separately but sometimes influence each other are colour and thread. For this particular project I wanted to use a hand-dyed, mildly variegated stranded cotton, because it was just the sort of project in which they work well – very few colours, and no need for three or four matching shades of any of them. The perfect opportunity to give them an airing, in fact. But my choice of thread then affected my choice of colour, as none of my chosen hand-dyed cottons exactly matched the colours of the original (nor would I expect them to). A separate colour decision was made because from the start I envisaged the green fish in orange, startling goldfish unexpectedly tumbling in the waves – a matter of personal taste (the green fish were a bit too “camouflaged” for my liking), and of personal observation (the incongruous goldfish I enjoy watching in a nearby wood pond).

Colour and thread changes

The shading of the foamy wave tips was given a whole FoF all to itself so I will just post the picture here side by side with the original to show the change.

The original wave A shaded wave

What else? Oh, a digression. I stitched the circle outline in split stitch as per the instructions (makes a nice change smiley) in three strands of cotton. Now I like split stitch; Ethelnute the Medieval King was practically nothing but split stitch, and so is Hengest the as yet unfinished woollen Medieval Unicorn. But until now I have always worked split stitch using a single thread, whether crewel wool or one strand of silk. This means that you know exactly what to split, because there is only one thread available. But what do you do with multiple strands? Split one of them? Go in between the strands, especially when working with an even number? I found the whole process rather confusing, and partly because I was working with an odd number of strands I ended up with something closer to the former method than the latter. But I don’t find it ideal, and another time I would probably choose a thicker single thread (for example a perle cotton) rather than using multiple strands, although that has unintended side effects as well – the look of the circle outline would be quite different from the rest of the project. Note to self: try split stitch with four strands, splitting them two and two, and see whether that looks better.

Messy split stitch

And finally, the fish. I kept them right till the end, as my reward for stitching three million colonial knots. The instructions in the chart pack did not mention outlining the fish before satin stitching, so I tried one that way, but I found it almost impossible to keep the outline neat – not for the fins and tail, they were fine, but for the body. I wanted my fish to be just right, so the body was soon unpicked (I’m afraid I forgot to take a picture of the first version), outlined in split stitch and re-satin-stitched. And I am so pleased with them! They pop just like I’d hoped they would, and the split stitch outline gives the satin stitch a bit more lift as well, making the fish more 3D.

Goldfish that pop

There was just one more thing to do, mount it in the box I’d set aside for it. And here it is, ready to be filled with stitching bits and bobs.

A wave on a box The box, open

PS I don’t know whether the designer minded my changes; I emailed her a picture of the finished project but didn’t get a reply. Nevertheless I hope she enjoyed seeing a different take on her design, and hearing how much enjoyment it gave me.

A fruitful class and more sampling

Although there has been the occasional burst of activity on Mabel’s Fancies’ Facebook page it’s been two weeks since the last FoF – high time for an update! The long silence can at least in part be blamed on the SAL, as I’ve been spending rather longer than I thought I would on drawing, editing and writing up the remaining stitch diagrams. However, they are all done now; and although there are still chart packs to write and stitch photographs to take, I’m pretty much on schedule.

And so, finally, a report about my latest RSN Certificate class – more than a month ago now, but still fresh in my memory (helped by some photographs I took on the day). We had the luxury of not one, but two tutors: Angela was being shadowed by Jessica Aldred, who is in the process of becoming a Certificate and Diploma tutor. This meant twice the encouragement and advice – I was very pleased I decided not to cancel after all!

This doesn’t mean that I got a lot of stitching done. You may remember that I started the class with the trunk and the vine completed; well, at the end of a 10am-4pm day I had added a petal, and part of a petal…

The Tree of Life before the September class The Tree of Life after the September class

What I had done, was discuss a lot of my samples with both tutors and bounce ideas off them; I was scribbling notes the whole time, and it was very encouraging to hear, in some cases, that what I’d been doing different from the diagrams in most books was actually right smiley! More about that later; let’s go through the design elements we talked about that day.

First there was the bullion knot square-with-rounded-corners. This was give the thumbs-up. Jessica at first said perhaps to couch the longer ones (making sure that the tension of the couching thread doesn’t dent them) but on feeling how solid the square was said it didn’t seem necessary.

A bullion knot square

Then there was James the Snail. You may remember I sampled his shell in two different stitches: padded buttonhole stitch and raised backstitch. The former is by far the easier to do, and to do neatly. Unfortunately the raised backstitch version is preferred by most people who have seen them together, including Angela and Jessica, and me, for that matter. My homework is to do another sample, with the “spokes” for the raised backstitch sticking out further on the outside so the outer design line is covered, and possibly meshing the spokes on the inside of the coil to get sufficient coverage (at the moment there is a bare channel between the coils which simply will not do). I’ve also decided to try and use four shades of turquoise for the shell instead of the three in the sample.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

Next up was the satin stitch brick. I’ve pretty much decided to use satin stitch rather than burden stitch, and I really like the look of this version. But at my third class Helen Jones said all satin stitch had to be slanted, and I couldn’t see how that would work. Nor could Angela and Jessica. We all agreed the vertical version looked much better than a slanted one would; slanted would also make some of the stitches far too long. The RSN Guide mentioned only slanted satin stitch, but by actually calling it “slanted” it suggested that there was a legitimate straight version as well. In the end Angela promised to enquire into the RSN’s official position on satin stitch, and if they inisisted on slanted I might stick with vertical but write up the decision in my log, and perhaps show I could do slanted satin stitch in sampling. They also pointed out that there will be slanted satin stitch in the ball of wool anyway, so the straight version could just be seen as an extra stitch.

A satin stitch brick

As it happens I later heard back from Angela, who passed on the verdict that “satin stitch is often stitched in a slanted direction mainly for ease and a better finish, but in circumstances such as your particular shape, the vertical direction chosen is preferable because a slanted direction would not enhance your design”. So a vertically satin-stitched brick it is!

Then there were a few quick questions which I bounced off the tutors and which for a change needed only short answers (most of my questions seem to take rather longer to address…) – first, should I “void” the body of the cat where the wool is wound around her? Answer: no, work it over the top. That was a relief, as voiding such a thin line would be quite tricky! Angela also suggested that I couch the thread that comes off the ball of wool and entangles the cat, which would look more natural than the split stitch I had originally intended. Secondly, should I make one of the leaves underneath the big tulip darker than the other (leaving out the very lightest shade in one, and the very darkest shade in the other), to indicate where the light comes from, or have them identical (colour-wise, that is; the shading will be mirrored) as I first drew them? Answer: the latter. No need to be too naturalistic in Jacobean designs!

Where the wool winds around the cat Two leaves of equal darkness

While we were on the question of the petals, I took the opportunity to ask Jessica about long & short stitch. The diagrams in most if not all books (and my own diagrams as well) show a split stitch outline, a first row of stitches which are of two lengths and alternate (some disagreement about whether you come up inside the shape for the first row), and consecutive rows of stitches of equal length. Unfortunately following that to the letter does not give very nice results. It looks a bit regimented. So whenever I’ve used long & short I’ve made my stitches rather more random. And then there is the question of what to do when the stitches are almost parallel to the outline – in that case how do you cover the split stitch line without changing the angles too much? Most diagrams only show scenarios where the filling stitches are at a considerable angle to the outline. So far, I’ve solved this by making the final stitch in a row fairly long and working it practically on top of and in the same direction as the outline, going down only just the other side of the split stitch. I felt a bit guilty about all this; I was obviously bodging my long & short to get the look I wanted.

Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project

Imagine my delight when Jessica told me that I was doing exactly what I should be doing! She dislikes the name “long & short stitch” as it gives the wrong impression, and prefers “painting with the needle”, which allows for some more interpretative stitching. As for stitches that are parallel to the sides, go over the split stitch edge when you can, into it when you have to, and if necessary have a stitch completely outside it. So I can carry on as before smiley.

Jessica's notes on long & short stitch

On to the right-hand leaf, which I’d sampled in a sort of brick stitch. Both tutors liked the look, but we agreed that the way I was working it (in long lines rather than short rows) it wasn’t really brick stitch. After considering and rejecting “bricked backstitch” we decided I’d put it down as “backstitch filling”.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally the gap at the bottom of the tree. I charted that in Cretan stitch, but it’s a little wide – the stitches may get rather too long. I was told to sample it to see if it worked, but when I got home I had a different idea. How about working three very pointy “triangles” of Cretan within the main triangle? Keep the shading vertical (i.e. top to botton, in horizontal stripes) to contrast with the trunk. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The gap in the bottom of the trunk

Recently I had another idea for the ball of wool as well; originally I intended to do one layer of satin stitch, with a partial layer at right angles on top, to show how the wool was wound up. But why not turn this into properly padded satin stitch? First outline the ball in split stitch, then put padding in, then the full layer of satin stitch, and then the partial layer; that should make the ball look quite 3D. Sample to follow!

Scribbles about the ball of wool

Oh, one other thing came up, and it’s one that demonstrates Angela’s comment right at the start of my Certificate course, that the design will probably look quite different from the first drafts when it’s finished. As you may remember, for the Jacobean design the stitcher is allowed two main colours (five shades each) and an accent colour (two shades). My accent or contrast colour is Coral. Unfortunately I realised when having another look at my colour plan that there is rather a lot of it throughout the design, whereas the accent colour and the main colours should not have equal weight. A certain degree of de-oranging was called for. Painful for one Dutch-born and bred, but there it is. So far this is the result:

The previous colour scheme, with too much orange The de-oranged scheme

By the way, the frills on the tulip will actually be the same colour – either both brown or both turquoise.

I have, you will be pleased to hear, done some work on the Tree since the class, but I have hit two snags which are keeping me from getting on with things. I will report on these in a future FoF. So far sampling has been a little more productive, with some work done on my block shading. I’m trying to get the stitch right, but am also using the samples to try out different colour combinations; to this end I’ve divided the hillock into sections. (It’s not actually the right hillock, but I had this one drawn on the fabric and for sampling purposes it doesn’t matter much). This is not the first block shading I’ve done (there was some in the Rabbit & Carnations project where I pretty much winged it without a very clear idea of how the stitch was meant to be worked) but it’s definitely not a stitch I am very familiar with; one rather surprising problem was how difficult it proved to be to keep the line the same height along its entire length!

Dividing the hillock into sections and arcs Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project Trouble keeping the line thesame height Trying out a colour combination

And that wraps up my fourth class – number five follows at the end of November. By which time I hope to have completed the big tulip, the left-hand hillock and the brick, and possibly the right-hand leaf. Plus those samples, of course. We’ll see!