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.

Goodbye, Ally Pally

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

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

The four workshops that are not to be

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

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

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

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

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

All of a flutter for stumpwork

A week or so ago I was in sudden need of a butterfly. (What? Have you never needed an urgent butterfly?) For various reasons I wanted it to be a stand-alone butterfly, if possible modelled on the painted lady. It seemed that stumpwork was going to be called for…

Now if you are a regular reader of these stitchy outpourings of mine you will know that stumpwork is one of only a few needlework techniques which do not appeal to me. Like blackwork and whitework the results can be stunning and I admire what people do with them, but I rarely feel the slightest inclination to try any of them myself. So I’m still not quite sure how I ended up with Sarah Homfray’s Holly Blue stumpwork kit last summer. But I did, and I completed the butterfly (described at the time as “what is likely to be my one and only stumpwork finish”), and I knew that somewhere in my craft room there was the box with the instructions and some left-over wire. My second stumpwork venture was about to begin.

My first-ever stumpwork project

As this is not a technique I have a great deal of experience with, I wanted to do a bit of planning first – and that involved making a sketch with colour notes for the silk shading that was to turn a piece of stiff interfacing into a recognisable butterfly. Interestingly, I had come across an article some months ago with the intriguing title “Stop drawing dead butterflies”, which pointed out that what we think of as a typical butterfly shape with the tips of the top wings perkily pointing upwards (like the holly blue above, in fact) is only ever achieved by dead butterflies pinned onto a board – a live butterfly will hold its top wings so that their top edge is much nearer to horizontal, with the tips pointing outwards not upwards. Although I felt that I was possibly taking on a bit too much in trying to change the shape to a more naturalistic one, I attempted to at least include it in my sketch.

A painted lady butterfly The initial sketch

The next step was to cut the butterfly shape from heavy-weight interfacing, and as you can see I wasn’t brave enough to diverge dramatically from Sarah’s shape, apart from elongating the top wings a little (which seemed more suitable to a painted lady) and pushing the wing tips down ever so slightly. It’s a start, but on a report card it would definitely get a Must Do Better! More fun than wrestling with the butterfly shape was choosing the threads; I went for some overdyed stranded cottons by Carrie’s Creation. The company unfortunately seems to have ceased trading, which is a shame as they had some lovely threads (silks as well). The threads are not variegated but they are very subtly shaded, and I figured every little helps when you’re trying to shade a butterfly. You can see the shading of the thread quite nicely in the brown on the wing tip.

Cutting the butterfly shape and choosing the colours Shaded brown

The picture above also shows the first, preparatory stages of the stitching: attaching the interfacing to a calico background, shaping paper-covered wire (this is a 28 gauge) very closely all around the interfacing, and attaching it with small couching stitches. At this point the stitches can be relatively widely spaced – you’re just holding the wire in place until it’s going to be completely covered in closely-stitched buttonhole stitch.

Because I am by no means an expert in needlepainting or silk shading, I decided that I wouldn’t even try to go for taxonomic accuracy; my aim was a recognisable approximation. So I limited the palette to a dark brown, a not-too-bright white, orange and beige; I also picked a mid-brown that would come into play in the body. For the top wings I wanted some white spots in the dark brown, and some dark brown markings in the orange. These were all worked in silk shading or long & short stitch, which meant working with two threaded needles at a time for those mixed areas; the only stitches worked on top of others were the long thin brown veins on the orange. The bottom wings had a swirly bit where the orange and beige intertwined, which I worked in long & short, but I also wanted to put in some very small brown dots, and doing those as part of the silk shading was a bit too much of a challenge for now (I’ll keep that sort of detail for my RSN Silk Shading module, if I ever get to that) so they were worked over the top of the orange stitching.

A simplified wing Not including needlepainted spots Spots added on top of the orange stitching

When all the wings had been stitched, and I was satisfied that they were reasonably symmetrical (“perfectly symmetrical” was never going to happen, but then nature isn’t like that, is it? If it is, please don’t tell me) it was time for the buttonhole surround. This secures the wire outline to the calico, so that the butterfly can be cut out once the stitching is complete. Now one of the things I was least happy with in the holly blue was that very noticeable white line all around it. I have since found out that holly blues do in fact have a white edge to their wings so it is actually quite naturalistic, but I didn’t want it for this butterfly. Too attention-grabbing. As you can tell from the photograph, painted ladies do have some white touches around the side edges of the top wings and even more so to the edges of the bottom wings, so I had to get white in there, but especially along the top edge of the wing it seemed more realistic to follow the wing colours.

The buttonholing follows the colours of the wing

For the sides of the top wings I decided on a sort of checkerboard effect, or perhaps zebra crossing effect would be more accurate: alternating chunks of dark brown and white. The bottom wing would ideally have something similar, but after stitching three bits of white within the brown the complexity of changing colours, buttonholing with two needles in play, and making sure there were no gaps when I changed colour – and knowing I’d have to do it all again for the top wing on the other side – made me wonder whether there might not be an alternative method. As the black/dark brown bits in the white edge along the bottom wings are quite tiny in the original butterfly, I decided to work some spaced-out brown couching stitches along the wire which would then be incorporated into the white buttonhole stitch as I came across them. This worked quite well. The top and bottom outlines of the body were done in beige and mid-brown as I intended to shade the body from one colour to the other along its length.

Zebra crossing pattern Brown couching stitches incorporated into the buttonholing The buttonhole edge complete

Although it was not an immediate concern, I started thinking about the antennae. Sarah Homfray’s stumpwork kit had some black wire for the antennae (I asked her about it later and she said it was beading wire) but unlike the paper-covered wire there was none of it left. I considered using the thin wire from a sandwich bag tie, but fearing that would be too thin and bendy in the end I went with the remnant of paper-covered wire, coloured black with a Sharpie. The next step was applying thinned PVA glue to the back of the buttonhole outline; once dried, this would help stabilise the fabric when cutting out the butterfly.

Antennae from Sharpie-blackened wire Applying glue to the back of the buttonhole outline

When I started the butterfly I’d decided not to do the body in turkey rug stitch, which is very fiddly and time-consuming. But having got to this stage I realised I wanted the butterfly to look its very best, and turkey rug stitch would look much much better than just covering the body in long & short stitch. So turkey rug stitch it was, starting with beige at the bottom and gradually shading into mid-brown. At this point the butterfly also gained some French knot eyes. The holly blue had beads for eyes but I found those a bit too prominent; the French knots were just noticeable enough. As for the body, I may have made some of the loops rather longer than they really needed to be… still, it meant I had plenty of thread to play with.

Mostly beige turkey rug stitch with a bit of mid-brown Shading the turkey rug stitch into solid mid-brown

The first cut was a very rough one, just to open up the loops and get the threads to a manageable length. Then came the more precise trimming. This is the bit I dread – as with lockdown haircuts, if you take off too much there is no way to put it back; and unlike lockdown haircuts, these stitches won’t grow back however long you wait!

The first stage of the body haircut A side view of turkey rug stitch after the initial cut The body has its final shape

Next: more cutting. It was time to release the butterfly from the fabric surrounding it. As with the body, first a very rough and ready cut with plenty of margin, after which I got closer and closer to the buttonhole-covered wire. The final cutting was done from the back, where I could get really close to the stitching. My trusty 4″ scissors once again proved invaluable in this process, reliably sharp and with pointy tips to get into the tightest corners.

Cutting roughly around the butterfly Getting closer The closest trim

Then all that was left to do was to attach the antennae, and to photograph it in some appropriate places. I had hoped to place it on one of the blue geranium flowers, but being rather heavier than a real-life butterfly it proved to be too big a burden for the poor flower, so it had to be photographed on the leaves instead.

Attaching the antennae The finished butterfly The finished butterfly on a leaf The finished butterfly by some blue geranium flowers

So am I a convert to stumpwork now? Well, I think you could definitely call me a convert to stumpwork butterflies, as long as they don’t get too complicated smiley – recently on the Needle ‘n Thread FB group there have been some extremely lifelike butterflies made up of separate wings, bodies, heads… I don’t see myself doing anything like that, nor any of the stumpwork that requires big wooden beads to cover or lots of detached stitches or too much ironmongery. But this idea of outlining a simple shape with wire, filling it in with stitching, buttonholing round it and cutting it out – yes, that may well become a more regular part of the repertoire from now on!

Another trial fabric to use with another book

Some time ago now I got Thread Painting and Silk Shading by Margaret Dier (from the same series as the Lizzy Pye and Becky Quine books). It’s got lots of interesting information and some pretty projects (must try felt padded stitching some time – I’ve used it in goldwork of course, under metallic kid, chipping and cutwork but never under other types of embroidery).

A thread painting book

One of them, a small part-padded Japanese flower (there are also some interesting Chinese ones) struck me as perfect to try out two new Empress Mills samples: their Egyptian cotton. They sent me white and natural, and I tried one without and one with backing fabric. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the samples when they arrived, so I can only show them with the stitching!

These two little projects also offered a nice opportunity to use different types of silk: a spun silk, overdyed Soie d’Alger (Chameleon Threads’ Shades of Africa), for the un-backed version on natural cotton, and a discontinued flat reeled silk called Eterna on the backed version on white. Spun silk is generally easier to work with than reeled silk, which is made from the continuous silk filament as it comes off the silk worm’s cocoon (and is therefore also known as filament silk); filament silk, especially when it’s a flat silk, will snag on thin air but it has an incredible sheen, whereas the lustre of spun silk is a little more muted.

Chameleon Threads' Shades of Africa overdyed Soie d'Alger Eterna flat filament silk

The version without any backing stood up remarkably well to some serious stitching, especially the padding which is worked with 6 strands in the needle, which means that where it doubles up around the eye I was pulling 12 strands through the fabric. In spite of this rough treatment, there were no obvious holes or distortions in the fabric. Thumbs up!

The design drawn onto the natural cotton Padding for the petals The first row of long and short stitch The finished flower

On the version with backing I decided I could try an extra layer of padding, as the petals weren’t quite as rounded as I’d hoped and expected with a single layer. Even though the unbacked fabric had taken the full six strands for the padding surprisingly well, I felt that two layers of six strands might be inflicting a bit too much of a challenge on the fabric in spite of the strengthening layer of muslin behind it; on the other hand, adding an extra layer of padding but making both layers less voluminous would rather defeat the purpose. I compromised by using three strands doubled in the needle – I’d still be stitching with six strands, but there wouldn’t be the extra bulk of the tail going through the eye.

Six strands in the needle, twelve strands by the eye Three doubles dtrands in the needle, six strands by the eye

The extra padding definitely worked to make the outside of the petals more curvaceous and the difference in height towards the centre more noticeable, and with the sheen of the flat silk that shows up even more (although unfortunately it seems to be impossible to capture the effect satisfactorily in a photograph if you’re an amateur). And the fabric behaved beautifully – not surprisingly, as apart from the colour it is exactly the same as the one used for the other flower and it had the added advantage of a backing fabric. The pure white is a bit stark for my taste, so I would probably have the natural-coloured cotton as my default choice.

A double layer of padding The first row of long and short stitch in shiny flat silk The finished flower

A successful experiment then, both because I enjoyed trying out this part-padded embroidery and seeing how it gave a more subtle lift to the petals than complete padding, and because I’ve got another fabric to add to my list of Useful Embroidery Fabrics!

Waste knot, want knot

Most stitchers I know are not enamoured of fastening on and off (and some, like me, therefore choose to use threads that are far too long and by doing so cause themselves more problems than if they’s just fastened on and off a bit more often…) Still, it has to be done, and recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about the various methods I use to fasten on and off, and what determines which one I choose.

First of all a confession. I use knots. At the back of my work. Drum me out of the Society of True Embroiderers if you like, but if I’m stitching a small project that will go into a padded card, standard knots will do me just fine (for fastening on, that is; I fasten off by weaving under previous stitches). Sometimes I use them in larger projects too, if I know the end product is going to be padded, and is not going to be handled or washed or generally fiddled with. So that’s the first method I use, and it is by far my favourite because it is quick and easy.

Knots at the back of my work

Quick and easy partly because I use a method for knotting the end of the thread which I learnt from my grandmother, and which I’ve only recently found out is known in English as a quilter’s knot or a tailor’s knot. Note about the pictures: I realised too late that the needle I’m using has a curved tip – I grabbed the first one that was about the right size and forgot that this was the one my husband bent for me as an experiment to use for ribbed spider’s web stitch. It makes no difference to the knot, but just in case it looks a bit odd in some of the pictures, that’s why smiley.

Anyway, on to the knot. Thread your needle, then place the end of your thread on the needle’s eye. Place your thumb over it to keep it secure, then wrap the thread around the needle a few times. Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger, then very gently pull the needle through, and you’ll end up with a knot at the end of the thread. In effect you’ve just made a French knot without the fabric! Incidentally, the length of the tail after the knot depends on how much the thread overhangs the needle in the first step; I tend to put the very end of the thread onto the eye and so have practically no tail at all, but too little and it may undo itself. On the whole, however, this seems to be a perfectly secure way of making a knot.

Place the end of the thread on the needle's eye Place your thumb over the thread to keep it secure Wrap the thread around the needle a few times  
Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger Gently pull the needle through Pull until a knot forms at the end of the thread The completed knot

However, most books on embroidery will tell you that it is better not to have knots at the back of your work. They may come undone, they may cause lumps and bumps, you may catch them with your needle – and so they advise a knotless way of fastening on. These often start with a knot, but it’s a knot that will get snipped off later, hence its name “waste knot”. Knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down somewhere along the line that you’ll be stitching so that the knot sits at the front of the fabric, then come up at the start of the design line and start stitching towards the knot. When you get to the knot, you can snip it off – but first check the back of your work! With stitches like stem stitch, the stitches at the back may not actually be covering the tail leading to the knot…

Take the needle down somewhere along the design line Work your stitches in the usual way towards the knot When you come to the knot, snip it off But first check that the thread is secured at the back...

This is why a waste knot works best with stitches where the thread at the back of the work are at an angle to the tail you are trying to cover, rather than going in the same direction. The pictures below show a line of Palestrina knots being worked towards the waste knot; as you can see the stitches automatically secure the tail because of the way they are positioned.

Using a waste knot with Palestrina stitch The stitching at the back crosses the thread tail After a few stitches you can snip off the waste knot The tail is secured at the back

When the waste knot method is not ideal, you can use the away knot. This is like a waste knot a long way away instead of on the design line. As before, knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down a good distance away from your starting point (the tail needs to be long enough to thread comfortably in a needle). Work your stitches in the usual way, and after four or five stitches cut the away knot. You now have a tail at the back of the work.

Take the needle down a good way away from your starting point Work your stitches in the usual way Snip off the knot You now have a tail at the back of the work

Thread the tail, then weave the needle behind a few stitches at the back as though you were fastening off. Snip off any excess thread and continue stitching.

Thread the tail Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Snip off the excess

And finally the method which uses/wastes the least thread of any no-remaining-knot ways of fastening on: anchoring stitches. This is the method they teach at the RSN, and which I’ve been using throughout my Jacobean Tree of Life. It has the advantage that you can start and finish at the front of the work so you don’t have to flip your hoop or frame – particularly useful when working with a cumbersome slate frame on trestles!

Knot your thread, then take the needle down either on the design line or in a nearby area that will be covered later. Work two or three tiny stab stitches (taking the needle straight up and down), then bring the needle up at the starting point. Work a few stitches according to the design, the snip off the knot. To fasten off (not shown in the pictures), work a few tiny stitches snuggled underneath your “proper” stitches or again on a line or in a shape that will be covered, bring the needle to the front and cut the thread.

With the knot at the front make a few tiny stitches on the design line, Come up at the starting point, and after a few stitches snip off the knot

On the whole this works really well, but I have on occasion found myself pulling the thread through if I snipped the knot too quickly, especially with a slippery thread like silk; so if at all possible work a few stitches before cutting the knot.

There are other starting methods out there, like the pin stitch, but these are ones I find myself returning to most. If your favourite fastening on/fastening off method isn’t mentioned here, do champion it in the comments!

In the pink

Nearly eight years ago I tried some embroidery scissors at a Knitting & Stitching Show workshop (before I started teaching there) and I was so impressed with them that I put them on my Christmas wish list. Small, sharp, manoeuvrable, and with very pointy blades, they were the perfect complement to the squissors I mostly used for Hardanger. I was given two pairs, in two different colours so I could keep one for goldwork and one for general embroidery. They turned out to be particularly effective for cutting around the buttonhole edging of projects like Windows on the World; that they came with a useful protective cap and in pretty colours was a bonus!

My small, sharp embroidery scissors Buttonhole edging on a pair of bookmarks

Three years later I wanted some spares and for various reasons ended up stocking them in Mabel’s Fancies’ shop. When the order came in I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new scissors came with pretty floral caps! No blue ones, though – the only ones I could get were purple and turquoise (or what the supplier called “green”).

Scissors with floral caps

Fast-forward several years and suddenly the company I always ordered these from no longer supplies them. I got the last few pairs they had, including some blue ones with plain caps, but then the search was on for a new supplier. Unfortunately I could only find retailers in America and Australia, and with the postage and import duty they were simply not an affordable option. I decided to try the manufacturer, hoping that they would be willing to stretch the definition of “wholesale” for a small outfit like mine. Their initial suggestion of a minimum order of 600 pairs nearly made me lose heart, but after a week’s email correspondence we managed to find a quantity we were both happy with.

But no turquoise. Which is a shame because it really is a very pretty colour. No blue either. Purple, yes. And pink. Any orders placed would be half purple, half pink.

Now I know Mabel’s logo is pale pink and turquoise, but oddly enough I’m not really a pink girl myself. Still, that was the only option and I did want to keep stocking these useful little scissors, so the order was placed and late last week there arrived on our doorstep a box full of purple and pink floral snippers. And the pink turned out to be quite a robust fuchsia colour which is definitely growing on me!

Which means that if you want to get yourself a pair of these pretty 4″ embroidery scissors, for the time being you’ve got a choice of no fewer than four colours. Of the floral-capped ones we have purple and pink in quantity, and a limited number of turquoise; plus a small number of blue with plain caps.

Scissors in four colours

And they all cut equally well smiley.

A little bit of progress

So did I manage to get any work done on Queen’s Silks, the goldwork racehorse started last summer at Hampton Court Palace during a heatwave? Yes, I did; not a great deal, but at least I’m getting into the goldwork routine again.

And some of my first foray back into metalwork was routine indeed – plunging! There is an awful lot of couched Jap and passing in this project, and consequently an awful lot of plunging. Not my favourite part of goldwork, and therefore best undertaken in small doses. Here I could have finished filling the complete shape first, but it looked like such a jumble that I felt I’d like to get the ends out of the way first. I also finished the chipping on a nearby shape. The first picture shows the state of play in this area of the design when I got the racehorse home last July, the second what it looks like now.

Where I left off in July last year Some chipping and plunging

Before I started the plunging there was one thing I did need to do; I noticed that part of the design line was still visible on the right-hand side of the lower end of the couched area, and this would have to be covered. Fortunately I had cut the Jap fairly generously at that end, so I could continue to couch a single thread to cover the design line and still have enough left (albeit only just) to plunge and finish off.

A visible design line A single line of couching

And that’s where we are now! It’ll clearly be a while before this horse passes the post smiley but that’s fine – I’m in no hurry. Just very pleased to be working on something shiny again!

Shiny

A sheep, a SAL, a mag, and a trio of kits

First of all apologies for the long radio silence here at Flights of Fancies. This was partly to do with the final wrap-up of the Tree of Life Stitch-Along, partly with new tasks and obligations which have sprung up during lockdown, partly with a small project I wanted to do for a friend which took longer than I expected, partly with an article I need to write by mid-June, and partly with me somehow having more trouble than usual to work up the motivation and energy for anything that requires the least mental effort. Comments from friends and family tell me I am not alone in this; perhaps it’s the effects of nine weeks of lockdown.

Fortunately our hobby is one that can be enjoyed even when we don’t get round to stitching much – surely it’s not just me who enjoys looking at, playing with and rearranging threads, fabrics, stitch books and all the other paraphernalia of embroidery!

But as I said I did actually get some stitching done, and it took longer than expected because it was a sheep whose fleece was made up of several thousand French knots. No, I didn’t actually count them, but that’s definitely what it felt like. Still, I was pleased with the resulting fluffy sheep, which you may recognise as the stranded cotton twin to Trina’s silverwork Sheep.

A sheep for Dot

Finishing all the stitching and blog writing for the Stitch-Along felt almost on a par with finishing the stitching on my RSN Jacobean module smiley. It’s been great to see people’s different trees growing leaf by leaf and creature by creature, and a few stitchers have already sent in pictures of their finished trees. Some have even stitched two trees, using different materials for each one – impressive!

Incidentally, although all ten parts of the SAL are now out (you can see my own two completed trees below), you can still sign up until midnight 31st May for immediate access to all parts and the SAL blog with its stitch pictures and extra tips & tricks – after that the Tree of Life will be on the website as a stand-alone design with optional blog access.

Tree of Life in Heathway Milano crewel wool on linen twill Tree of Life in Silk Mill stranded silk and goldwork threads on close-weave linen

Another exciting thing that happened this month (yesterday, in fact) was the publication of Stitch Magazine issue 125, which contains a little willow that may be familiar to regular readers of FoF… It’s odd to think that when I submitted the article to the editor in mid-February we were all still happily going about our business, and that even a month later the Knitting & Stitching Show organisers were sending out their usual request for workshop proposals. I’m delighted to say four of mine were accepted, but whether I’ll actually get to teach them is anybody’s guess!

Stitch Magazine issue 125 with a familiar willow

Still, it keeps me off the streets smiley. As will my lockdown resolution of supporting independent designers and embroidery suppliers – you may have seen the spoils in a previous FoF, and to that impressive pile were added these three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits. My excuse is that they will be good practice for the RSN Certificate Silk Shading module.

Three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits

The kits are well presented, each with the design printed on the fabric (which, together with a piece of backing fabric, comes wrapped in tissue paper) in crisp thin lines, and a detailed and richly illustrated instruction booklet.

The silk shading Fox ready to go (after a few other projects) The Fox booklet

The only area where there is room for improvement in these kits (and it is a fairly minor niggle) is that the blue envelope which holds the materials is very difficult to open neatly, and once it is open it is very difficult to get the tissue-wrapped fabric out without it sticking to the envelope’s extremely sticky flap. With the other two kits I decided to slit open the envelopes with a letter opener.

The kits with one of the envelopes containg the materials The envelope has a sticky flap

But as I said, a minor niggle only, and I look forward at having a go at this cheeky fox. First, however, it’s the goldwork racehorse to finish – and if I can resist the temptation to spend all my free time this weekend in the garden with a book, I’ll post an update next week!

An experimental coaster, bear and printing

Recently I’ve been stitching several little Quatrefoils as trial pieces, such as this one in Splendor silk on dark red dupion (where I transferred the outline using the Quaker Tapestry method).

A quatrefoil on silk dupion

I did another one, you may remember, to try out Empress Mills’ Mountmellick fabric, and although generally I am quite happy to keep experiments like these in a folder for future reference, occasionally the urge to Do Something With Them does grab me. In this case it did so because I was getting some coasters to send out, and putting aside one which had a few small blemishes and which therefore I can’t sell. Hmmm, I thought – could you put the Quatrefoil, with its dense stitching and couched goldwork thread, into a coaster?

Well, the answer turns out to be “yes you can, but it’s probably better not to” smiley. What makes this little flower work well in a card is the padding behind it, which hides the lumps and bumps at the back of the work and makes the embroidery stand proud. The top of the coaster, on the other hand, pushes the stitching down and makes it very difficult to even out the fabric around it, although in the end I managed a just-about-acceptable look with the judicious addition of a little light wadding.

The blemishes on the coaster The finished coaster, with uneven fabric

Back to stitching. Several of my projects, like the Ottoman Tulip, Llandrindod and Hengest, have now been going (very slowly) for quite some time, but one new project had a bit of a built-in deadline: I bought a light blue bodysuit for our grandson Teddy to be embellished with, yes, a teddy, and it obviously had to be finished while it still fits him, which considering the rate he is growing at would not be very long!

A baby  suit and a teddy

I got the teddy design from one of the small Anchor stitch guides (the same series that Percy the Parrot came from), but of course I couldn’t possibly stitch it as it came… a T-shirt was added to the denim dungarees and around the bear I charted the words “Oma’s favourite Teddy” (Oma being the Dutch word for Granny). The threads had to be easily washable so I went for coton à broder.

An added T-shirt and a message The colours of coton a broder I picked for the project

I’ve not done an awful lot of stitching on clothing or other made-up items so it wasn’t until I got the romper suit home that I realised something a bit shorter and/or more open at the bottom would have been rather easier to work on – but as it turned out the real challenge was to keep the stitch tension even while working in hand on stretchy fabric! I don’t think I’ve produced anything quite this wonky and puckered for several decades, but as it was definitely out of my comfort zone I’m pretty pleased with it nonetheless smiley.

The finished body suit

One puzzling thing about this project was the fact that lines which I stitched absolutely parallel somehow managed to be definitely not parallel when finished. Stem stitch at the front produces backstitch at the back, and the lilac and yellow backstitch lines forming the T-shirt’s neckline look just fine on the inside of the bodysuit (I’m afraid I forgot to take a picture of this before I wrapped it up). But the two stem stitch lines showing at the front of the suit get closer to each other from left to right – how does that happen? Oh well, I’m sure Teddy won’t mind; he’ll only see it upside down when looking down his chest and that distorts the perspective anyway!

Inexplicably wonky lines

The final experiment is in production as you read this, and by someone else, so I can’t show it yet. But I’m very excited about getting samples printed for workshop & kit fabrics! At the moment any transfers are done by me by hand, aided by my trusty light box and some very fine technical drawing pens. I’ve looked into screen printing but I was rather put off that by a number of kits I bought (from different sources) which had such thick lines that I had to add stitches to make sure everything was covered; if anyone knows of screen printers who will produce nice thin lines I’d be delighted to know! Anyway, I’m waiting for the arrival of one sample of plain cotton, one of calico and one of duchess satin, each with a different design; they should be here next week. Watch this space…

A kit(ty) production line

For some time now I’d been running low on kits and making them up as people ordered them, which is really not a good idea. So now that I no longer have the Certificate deadline looming over me (although there are still a few things to finish on the SAL) it was time to get a bit of a production line going once again.

If possible I like to do some of the sorting and assembling in the garden, and as the weather looked set to change after the weekend I had a good incentive to get them done quickly. On Friday all the instructions were printed, and Saturday’s task was folding them, sticking the covers on and inserting them into plastic grip seal bags – just the thing you can do outside!

The lawn was dotted with violets (soon to be decapitated by Mr Figworthy with the lawnmower), an orange tip butterfly landed on the purple lilac bush (fellow to the white lilac bush blooming its head off in the picture), a robin vociferously defended his territory on the fence behind the variegated holly, and Lexi decided that snuggled half underneath my lap tray was just the place for a cat to be.

Putting the paper part of the kits together A feline helper

Unfortunately cutting fabric would be difficult in the garden, so it was back indoors for the next part, taking over the kitchen table to produce a pile of squares of various sizes in blue cotton, Hardanger fabric, muslin backing and wadding. And as it’s impossible to store fabric in such a way that it stays perfectly flat and uncreased, the Hardanger and cotton then had to be ironed. Well, I suppose they don’t have to be, but when you buy a kit the last thing you want to have to do is iron your fabric – you want to start stitching, right? So I do the ironing for you – and as I had the iron out I thought I might as well get the “household ironing” out of the way too!

Cutting squares of fabric And then there's the ironing

On Sunday, after our online church service and the after-service Zoom fellowship chat, I got to the colourful part of the kit production process: threads, cards, beads and various kinds of bling had to be sorted and where necessary put into little bags.

Colourful kit components

First up were the Hardanger needle books. Two needles per piece of felt, match it up with a suitable piece of pre-scored patterned card, fabric, two weights of perle cotton and of course the printed instructions and hey presto, we have a kit.

Materials for a needle book Putting the needle book kits together

Next up was the Little Wildflower Garden. This is generally quite a quick one to put together, provided I have the threads pre-cut and sorted. Which I did, for two of the kits… so first I had to prep some more stranded cotton. Now I’ve devised a cunning method for this which is nice and fast, when it works. That is to say, when all twelve skeins of cotton pull without tangling and I can cut twelve colours into 65cm lengths in one go. Anyone who has worked with stranded cotton more than a few times will now emit a peal of hollow laughter and say “good luck with that!” and it’s true that by the time I’m three-quarters through the skeins there tends to be some unknotting going on as well as straightforward pulling and cutting, but on the whole it’s still a lot quicker than measuring and cutting all twelve colours separately.

Preparing the threads The components of the kit ready for assembling

And finally the two types of Shisha card, Flower and Tile. These were by far the fiddliest to put together with their mirrors, beads, sequins and bits of sewing thread as well as the embroidery threads. It’s fun to choose nice colour combinations though!

Shisha kits in bits

As well as putting together kits that have long been in our range, I also had a go at a design that until now has only been available as a workshop. Yes, it is The Mug That Cheers! Whether your tipple of choice is tea, coffee or hot chocolate, this is the perfect mug of comfort in these challenging times. I first meant to put it on the website as a chart pack only, but I couldn’t resist putting together a few boxed kits as well – don’t they look cheerful?

The Mug That Cheers comes as a chart pack... ...and as a kit... ...in different colours

Incidentally, it is not unusual when providing kits to try and buy a couple of years’ worth of supplies at a time. This has the obvious advantage of not having to go through the whole ordering process very often, but when the last time you ordered stuff was spring 2018, reordering two years later throws up a variety of problems. Shops you used to order from have closed (Sew & So), kit components you used to buy have been discontinued (Craft Creations’ coloured aperture cards), and supplies that are still available have gone up in price alarmingly (Hardanger fabric). That last problem, together with Royal Mail’s annual increase in postal rates, has unfortunately made it necessary to adjust the prices of Mabel’s range of kits. Please rest assured that I will continue to do my best to keep them as affordable as possible, keeping the threshold low for anyone who would like to have a go at a new technique, or while away a few enjoyable evenings stitching up a present or a card for a special occasion.

A significant finish – or is it?

If you follow Mabel on Facebook you will have noticed (it would have been hard to miss…) that I have finished the stitching on my crewel piece for the RSN Certificate Jacobean module. And by the original deadline, too – a very significant finish, you’ll agree.

The finished tree

So why the doubt in the title? Because although the stitching is finished, the piece is not yet ready for assessment; for that it needs to be mounted, and the requirements are very specific and very demanding. The RSN offers one-on-one online tutorials for Certificate & Diploma students during the lockdown but even one-on-one I am not going to attempt mounting for the very first time unless I have the tutor right there with me in the room. You can lose plenty of points on your mounting!

So for now my Tree of Life is in limbo, which in practice means the large quilted bag I use to transport the work to classes, where it will sit, still stretched on its slate frame, until the next proper class.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate! I didn’t quite break open the prosecco, but I have been eyeing a few silk shading kits (purely to get some practice for future modules, of course) which would make a suitable reward. And part of the celebration is to show you the final stages of the stitching – embroidery is so much more enjoyable when we can share it with like-minded people.

All that was left, you may remember, was the cat. How much work can that possibly be? As it turned out, quite a lot! I started with what I will call the background legs, that is to say the ones furthest towards the back. Originally I thought satin stitch would be best for that, to contrast with the long & short stitch in the rest of the cat, but a trial run on the doodle cat showed that to be almost impossible to keep neat, so they were done in long & short as well.

A satin-stitched leg Background legs finished

At this point the background legs looked alarmingly prominent, but I hoped that would change when the foreground legs went in.

That would come later, though – first the tummy: lines of split stitch in the lightest brown. I’d have liked it to be lighter still, and with hindsight I should probably have gone one lighter for my fifth shade of brown as there isn’t that much difference between “lightest” and “light” (noticeable in the tree trunk), but the tutors were concerned that it might blend in with the background too much. Heigh-ho, I wasn’t going to start all over again at this point smiley so wool-Lexi’s tummy is beige.

Tummy finished

On to the outline, worked in the usual single-thread split stitch for most of the cat, but using a double thread where the foreground legs touch the background legs, plus what I tend to think of as the cat’s hip but which anatomically may well be her knee.

An outlined cat

Next were the foreground legs, and the tricky bit was going to be blending the back leg into the rest of the body towards where her backside sticks up. I’d studied Lexi’s stripe pattern which turned out to be surprisingly different from what I’d always thought.

A sketch of Lexi's stripe pattern

I decided that wasn’t going to be easy to replicate in long & short stitch, and as Jacobean Lexi isn’t meant to be particularly naturalistic I decided I’d make up my own pattern to suit the stitching.

The foreground legs

The one thing I was certain of was that I would use the hip/knee outline to create a clear dividing line by stitching closely over the split stitch. But that would have to wait until I’d stitched the body right up to that line, so it was time to start on the head. I’d studied the direction of Lexi’s fur quite closely for my doodle cat so I could work without the model this time. The model turned up anyway, but because she is a cat she chose to pose the wrong way round.

Starting on the head The model, facing the wrong way

After the head came stripes and more stripes, until I reached the hip/knee line. Then it was time to take up the back leg again and join the bits, moving on to the tail. There I diverged from reality even more by giving wool-Lexi a light tip of the tail. I haven’t dared show this to real Lexi yet…

Stripes on the body The tail gets a light tip

I am quite pleased with how she’s turned out: the line between her stripes and the beige tummy isn’t too stark, and the raised line of her hip/knee stands out quite well. Her outlines are nice and smooth, which wasn’t easy to get right with all those curves. There is (did you notice?) a little fluff on her bottom (the brown shades of Appletons seemed to produce more of it than the other colours), but I got rid of that later.

Was that it then? No, there was one last element to do: the wool wrapped around her body, one couched thread of turquoise linking the cat to the ball of wool. The first challenge was to find a nice, even length of wool which was roughly the same thickness all along. Even with the best of the bunch it took a few goes but at last all the paint lines were covered and there was a pleasing sweep of the thread towards the ball. By the way, the middle picture shows how I angled the needle to make it look as though the thread appears from behind the cat.

Choosing an even thread Angling the needle The finished couching

And that was it! As I photographed the tree at various angles and in different light conditions, I also took a few close-ups which I’d like to share with you; they are parts that you’ve seen before, but even so I thought it might be nice to show them again now that you’ve seen them in the completed design.

The flower on the left The leaf on the right The big tulip James the snail

And to end the story, here’s the finished tree once more. The next time you see it it will be mounted and off to its assessment!

The finished tree