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

Vintage goldwork materials and a blingy sheep

An apology is due: I have been sadly remiss in providing FoFs recently. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about (there are several half-written posts lurking on my computer), it’s getting round to editing pictures and putting together a coherent tale and so on – what with workshops and some health hiccups it’s been so much easier to just bung a few lines on Facebook (do have a look when you haven’t got any other pressing matters needing your attenttion). However, before we close for our family holiday, a FoF (or at least a mini FoF-let) there must be!

You may remember that a few months ago I was given a collection of vintage goldwork materials. They were lovely, and some, like the gold and silver kid, could be used as they were. Most of the threads and wires, however, were rather tarnished. Is there any way of getting the tarnish off goldwork materials? If they are already part of an embroidery the answer appears to be a resounding No. Tarnish is part of the nature of goldwork, and we might as well embrace it. But what about pre-embroidery? I couldn’t find any suggestions on the internet, either because I looked for the wrong thing or because there simply aren’t any, so I had to come up with something myself. My answer? Silver dip.

My husband swears by the stuff for any silver that needs cleaning, and it is very effective. It just smells awful. As my husband doesn’t mind the smell, he got the task of dipping the vintage wires (I didn’t think it would do the wrapped threads any good, because of their cotton or silk core).

Silver dipping vintage goldwork wires

They were rinsed, and as they lay drying they looked pretty spiffing!

The vintage wires after dipping

But after a short while, they seemed to re-tarnish, especially the silver pearl purl, which I’d been hoping to use for my goldwork snowman.

Pearl purl re-tarnished

Meanwhile, however, we’d picked up a metal plate which cleans silver (and other metals) electrolytically with the help of hot water and soda crystals. (No, I don’t understand how it works, but it does.) I decided to try it on the silver pearl purl.

And it did come out cleaner! This may not last either, but it is definitely less yellow. Unfortunately comparison with newly-purchased pearl purl shows that there is still a considerable colour difference. Nevertheless, its rather mellowed silver glow is very attractive in its own right. It won’t do for stitched models which need to be photographed for kits or chart packs, but I will keep it for “private” projects, in which it will look just fine.

A comparison between vintage and new pearl purl after cleaning

And changing the subject somewhat but sticking with goldwork, I’d like to show you the serendipitous frame I found for my little silverwork sheep! A friend sent me a parcel for my birthday which included a Pakistani bangle. It was far too large for me (someone has since told me that it is probably an ankle bracelet) and I couldn’t think what to do with it. Then I noticed there were rims on both sides of the inner surface and thought it might do as a frame for something small, possible Shisha work. And then I noticed the little sheep lying on my desk, waiting to be Finished Properly. There was a fair amount of sparkle and bling on the bracelet – would it be too much when combined with a sparkly sheep? I tried. It wasn’t. They suited each other perfectly!

Silverwork sheep mounted in a bracelet

A friend who saw the framed sheep suggested I find more bangles to use as frames, but I don’t think I will. This was a felicitous combination, but part of its charm to me is that I was able to use a friend’s gift in an unexpected way. The sheep bangle will be a one-off.

Making velvet boards

Remember this little chap? He’s the one I’d dearly like a dozen of for the goldwork embroidery workshops. However, as that is not a feasible option I set out to make something simple but usable myself.

A mini velvet board

It is perfectly possible to make a velvet board just like that one, but it is a lot of work, and they are quite chunky; if I’m going to carry twelve of them around I’d like them to be as light and compact as possible! And as long as the velvet holds the bits of cut gold wire, the board doesn’t need to be fancy. So here is my distinctly non-fancy approach to velvet board making.

On a piece of stiff cardboard (I used the back of an old writing pad) draw the rectangles you need. Mine eventually ended up 9cm x 5cm because I had some double-sided sticky sheets that were 9cm wide.

Mark out the boards on stiff cardboard

Cut the boards out. This would have been easier if I’d drawn them along the straight edges, but I didn’t find out about the width of the sticky tape until I’d already drawn them wider.

Cut the boards

Stick the double-sided sheets to the cardboard, trim, peel off the backing and place them sticky side down onto the back of the velvet.

Place the sticky boards on the back of the velvet

Roughly cut around the boards, then trim the velvet close to the cardboard.

Roughly cut around the boards

And there you have them, a pile of light-weight, compact little velvet boards!

A stack of mini velvet boards

The woes of a multiple starter

Originally I was going to call this post “The woes of a serial starter”, but then I realised that if only my starts were serial, there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s because they are concurrent that I get into trouble, and that trouble is summed up in the question “which one do I work on this evening?”

From fairly early on in my embroidery life I found that one project at a time didn’t do it for me. All right, I get bored easily. I am not the work-on-the-same-enormous-project-for-three-years-running type. Quite a steady and patient sort of person in everyday life, I somehow seem to crave variation and instant gratification in my needlework. Oh well, one has to get one’s excitement somewhere smiley.

And on the whole, it works just fine. If I have two or three things on the go, and they are not too similar, I can pick up whichever I feel like at any given moment. I may work on the same project for several days (even weeks) on end, or I may change from one stitching session to the next. But don’t you find sometimes that too much choice can be paralysing? As with flavours of ice cream (so much easier to decide when vanilla, chocolate or strawberry were the only options), so with too wide a selection of available embroidery projects – if there are so many things I could do, I sometimes end up doing none of them and watching Countryfile or a murder mystery instead!

At the moment I find myself with two projects actually being stitched (a Kelly Fletcher design re-imagined in silk and gold and a silk sunflower), two hooped up with the materials chosen (a goldwork workshop model and another sunflower), two transferred with the details still to be decided on (a tiny sheep to be done in silverwork and a project pouch – really a tablet pouch – to be worked in plain DMC), one charted but not yet transferred (a six-petalled flower to be done in silk and gold), and one tantalising me with its possibilities but with no definite stitching plan as yet (a really useful canvas moon bag).

A Kelly Fletcher flower re-imagined in silk and gold The start of a sunflower A goldwork workshop model Two sunflowers
A tiny sheep to be worked in silverwork A project pouch with Mabel on it A six-petalled flower to be stitched in silk and gold A moon bag waiting to be stitched

So will I get any stitching done tonight? As Tommy Cooper said, “I used to think I was indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.” Is there a Midsomer Murders on anywhere?

Trying prick and pounce

So far I’ve managed to transfer whatever I wanted to stitch without having to resort to the pounce powder in my goldwork materials box. I’ve got all the bits and bobs needed for prick & pounce; I’ve seen video tutorials and asked RSN tutors about it; but besides being quite a laborious process, it also scares me. What if I get it wrong and ruin the fabric?

But then I got the little doeskin samples, and there was no way I could get a design on there using the lightbox, and I didn’t want to risk spoiling the fabric by using an iron-on transfer pen, so out came the pricking pad, the pricking pen, the felt pad stuck on a wooden handle, the pounce powder, the gouache and the 5/0 paint brush. Oh, and a teeny-weeny paint dish I once got as part of a Chinese calligraphy set. (Did I mention it is a laborious process?)

First step: transfer the design to tracing paper and place it on a pricking mat. As Sarah Homfray points out, a rolled-up towel works as well, but I managed to find this mat-and-pricking-pen combination in a children’s book shop; they are nice and compact and I can keep them in the craft room ready to hand.

Transfer the design to tracing paper and put on a pricking mat

Prick along all the lines. This is where, in the days of my youth, you’d proceed to tear out the image along the perforated lines. I can’t quite remember what we did with the pricked-out images afterwards; I think we may have used them to make dioramas out of shoe boxes (although judging by what Google shows me when I do a search for that term, English dioramas are a bit different from the Dutch ones, which literally translated are known as “looking boxes” and are viewed through a hole cut in the front).

Pricking all round the design

But I digress – back to prick & pounce. Well, having done the pricking, we predictably come to the pouncing. And no, I don’t mean the sort of pouncing our cat does (occasionally on her own tail, if it twitches unconsciously). Pounce is a fine powder made from things like ground cuttlefish bone or chalk (white) and charcoal (black). To apply the pounce you can use a tightly rolled up piece of felt, or a piece of felt or other fabric tied around a wodge of cotton wool, or, as I am doing here, an adhesive felt pad for protecting floors from chair legs stuck to a wooden tool handle.

A felt pad on a wooden handle and some pounce powder

Carefully rub a little pounce (and I do mean a little – I used rather too much which just makes a mess) into the holes of the design, making sure the whole design is covered. This one was so small I didn’t bother pinning it, but for larger designs it’s a good idea to pin it in place so it doesn’t move while rubbing the pounce in. Here the holes are still easily visible; after the rubbing they are all filled with white powder.

Rubbing in the pounce powder

Lift the tracing paper and ta-da! You have a dotted outline on your fabric.

The pounce has rubbed through the holes onto the fabric

The next step is connecting the dots. Traditionally this is done with a very fine brush and some thinned paint, so that’s what I did. When I explained the process to my husband he suggested that instead of making things difficult for myself I could be untraditional and use a gel pen. And I may well try that some time, but I like to learn things the traditional way, even if I choose not to use that method later. Even so, doeskin was possibly not the best material to try this out for the first time… It’s a wool fabric with a slightly “felted” surface, and it wasn’t easy to get the paint on evenly; fortunately all the lines will be covered, so if they are a bit thicker it doesn’t really matter.

The dots have been connected with thinned gouache

Here is the little sheep, ready to be hooped up and covered in silver chips! I may turn him into a mascot when he is completed – after all, he helped me conquer my nervousness about prick & pounce smiley

ready to hoop up

Alternative uses for flannel?

Some time ago I bought a piece of light blue flannel (well, what I grew up knowing as “flanel” – only one “n” in Dutch – here in the UK it sometimes seems to be referred to as brushed cotton), thinking its slightly fluffy texture might make a nice background for the Little Wildflower Garden. But transferring designs on to it turned out to be a pain, and so the stack of flannel squares was put aside in a drawer somewhere.

Blue flannel or brushed cotton

There they cluttered the place up until I decided that I wasn’t ever going to use them for anything, and threw them away. My husband was about to go out to work on a car at a friend’s garage and asked if he could use them for oily rags, mopping up spills and wiping bits of car. Sure, I said. Have fun!

That afternoon I was doing some work on the goldwork embroidery workshop, and contemplating a mini velvet board that is part of my larger velvet board. Its size, about 10cm x 5cm, would be ideal for the workshops. There were two problems: they aren’t available separately, only as part of the larger boards; and even if they were, they’d be far too expensive to buy 12 of just for the workshops. Could I make them myself, just simple ones of cardboard with some slightly fluffy fabric on it…?

A mini velvet board

The blue flannel!

On my husband’s return he assured me that only a few of the squares had been turned into oily rags as yet, and he’d bring some back for me next time he went down there. And he did. Only by that time I’d found a large remnant of luxurious dark green velvet for a couple of pounds at our local fabric shop, which is obviously a more suitable fabric for making velvet boards than flannel. The blue squares have since made their third journey, to join the other oily rags.

A remnant of green velvet

While doing some research into fabrics that might work for making goldwork boards I had a look at Ultrasuede (not convinced it would work, and I couldn’t get small quantities) and – following the Stitch in Time programme – doeskin. Hainsworth very kindly sent me some small samples in a variety of colours. It is beautiful! Could it perhaps be used as a background for goldwork? Then the lady I’d spoken to on the phone sent me their catalogue-with-prices. Oof. That would have to be for very, very special projects only! But first I’ll do some experimenting with the samples.

Doeskin samples

Practicalities in designing

I am not always as organised as I would like to be. For example, it’s my favourite aunt’s birthday next Wednesday, but until yesterday I hadn’t really put any thought into her birthday card; and bearing in mind that she lives abroad, this made for a certain urgency in the matter. I definitely wanted to send her a stitched card, but it would have to be relatively simple. Not too simple, though – it must be festive! Because her birthday is on 21st March she used to be known as the Spring Baby or the Spring Child at home, so I decided on a daffodil, to be worked in silks and with some gold outlining.

There was a practical reason for this as well as the fact that it seemed very appropriate: I could nick it from the Spring Flowers design I did for my mother-in-law last year! I cropped the daffodil to an approximate square, printed it to the right size for one of my small aperture cards, transferred the design, got the silks and the right thickness of gold together, and I was set to go.

A birthday daffodil

And then I noticed the stem. In the original, the placement of the stem in front of one of the rear petals means the stitching is a bit fiddly, but that’s all. Here, however, I meant to outline the petals in smooth passing, and having to interrupt the outline for the stem would mean a lot of extra plunging and a lot of ends to secure at the back of the work. A slight adjustment was called for.

Two designs with different stems

There was now just one challenge left (well, besides the challenge of actually stitching the whole thing in time for her birthday) – re-drawing the outline on the fabric. It’s not a particularly expensive or special fabric, but even so I don’t like wasting it. Fortunately one of those plastic erasers turned out to do the trick, so all that remains is a very slight roughness where the original stem was; and I probably only notice that because I know it’s there. So on to the stitching!

The redrawn transfer

A glowing surprise

Yesterday the friend who helps out in our main business one day a week arrived with a bag from his wife Gill, who is a fellow stitcher. “For you,” he announced, and went on to explain that a lady who had helped embroider their church’s altar cloth “three vicars ago” now couldn’t embroider anymore because of illness, and had asked Gill to find a good home for some of her stitching materials. “It all looks like scraps to me,” he said, “but Gill said you’d like it.” I cast a curious glance into the bag’s interior.

“Scraps” indeed!

Off two cardboard rolls came two good-sized pieces of kid, one a sturdy silver, the other a beautifully soft textured gold.

Gold and silver kid leather

A variety of plastic and paper bags yielded two sizes of silver pearl purl and one of gold; silver bright check; silver smooth purl; gold smooth passing, quite fine; and a chunky gold rococco.

Gold and silver threads and wires

Over the years (I presume these threads date back to the altar cloth three vicars ago) some of the silver has become a little dull, and the gold has tarnished into a warm coppery colour – but they are still perfectly usable, and how lovely to work with metals and threads that have such a history!

Incidentally my husband, who is an engineer and therefore approaches all problems from the “how can I fix it” angle, suggested trying silver dip. Just on a little bit at first, he hastened to reassure me (I think I looked rather aghast at the thought). Well, I suppose we could sacrifice a chip or two to see if it works – after all, if it does it would be marvellous to use them in their original splendour, and if it doesn’t there’s plenty left. Watch this space!

Materials for a goldwork workshop (I)

When a new workshop or kit is developed, there inevitably comes a time when I need to buy any materials I haven’t yet got in my stash. Oh the hardship! Especially when it’s for goldwork…

Now you’ll be expecting pictures of lots of blingy threads, but actually there’s more to it than that, and it was the other supplies that I happened to buy first. Like needles, lots of needles, both for sewing and for plunging, and Gütermann sewing thread in golden yellow and light grey. I didn’t photograph those as they are fairly generic, but here is something generic that I did take pictures of – not so much for the item itself as for the very decorative box it came in. Rather a suprise to find useful but rather dull acid-free glassine envelopes (for putting the various goldwork threads in) inside what looks like a portable stamp collection!

A decorative box Glassine envelopes

And then there were cards. When I spoke to Craft Creations’ customer service about an order I’d just placed, the lady alerted me to their Value Range. I’d never seen it! It doesn’t come in such a wide range of colours as their more expensive range, but they are perfectly usable. And they give me a way of keeping the goldwork kit costs reasonable without having to compromise too much on the threads.

Craft Creations' value range

Oh all right, a bit of bling then smiley. These came from Sew & So rather than a specialised goldwork supplier: pearl sadi (the Indian embroidery alternative to pearl purl), and Jap (also known as Japan or Japanese thread).

Pearl sadi and Jap

And finally another non-thread necessity for goldwork: beeswax. Sarah Homfray very kindly agreed to sell me 50 of the little hearts she uses in her own workshops – much more affordable than the larger pieces which are generally available. When they arrived the first thing that struck me was that they looked remarkably like vanilla fudge! I resisted the temptation to try one, but I think I’d better not put out that little pot of goodies when there are guests around or something unfortunate might happen.

Beeswax hearts Beeswax hearts in a little pot

Playing with alternatives: bees

Last year, after my annual embroidery workshops for the church building fund, I idly remarked that I was beginning to run out of techniques to teach, and I’d have to resort to goldwork. It’s dangerous to make remarks like that, even idly. Less than one year on and I’m getting the materials together for a goldwork workshop!

More about getting the materials later – the first priority is to get the design right. One of the things I wasn’t quite sure about in my initial version was the bee and so I decided to work three bees close together on the same piece of fabric so that it would be easy to compare the effect of the various metals. Another thing I wanted to work out was whether it would be better to stitch the wings before the body, or the other way around.

Well, the latter was the easiest question to answer – definitely wings first! Having sorted that out, it was on to the bodies themselves. My original idea was to use no.4 bright check, which is quite chunky, but as it is also quite expensive I used a sadi thread on my first model. Sadi threads (or wires, rather) are used in Indian embroidery and are similar to goldwork threads but as far as I know they have no precious metal content, and they come in only two sizes for each type. The fine check sadi (which is quite as chunky as the bright check no.4 – I wouldn’t like to work with the broad check!) is a lot more open in texture than the “proper” goldwork threads, and very shiny. As it doesn’t come in copper (or at least I haven’t been able to find it in copper) my first bee had to be gold and silver.

In this bee experiment the sadi version is on the bottom left – you can see how sparkly it is. The top bee is worked in bright check no.4. I really like the effect of the gold/copper combination, but the chunkiness of the thread made for a very fat bee! It was also quite difficult to get the wires to curve nicely over the felt on such a small area. The third version, which is definitely my preferred one, is worked in wire check no.6 – the higher the number on these, the thinner the thread, so this is narrower than the bright check. It is also less sparkly: wire check is the matt version of bright check. But the texture is interesting and almost fuzzy, and once I get some copper wire check, the stripes will be better defined.

Three goldwork bees in a hoop

Some of the ladies in my stitching group, whose opinions I asked, actually preferred the sadi version as it was the shiniest, so I may offer that as an alternative; but as it is billed as a goldwork class, I would like to use traditional goldwork materials as much as possible. The only sadi wire I will use is the pearl one, which is really very similar to the traditional pearl purl.

One slightly odd thing I noticed in the wire check is that the gold is an S-twist and the silver is a Z-twist (and not as closely twisted). Trying to remember where I got them from I think that the silver may have been in the kit of a day class I attended, whereas I bought the gold separately later. You’d expect them to be quite uniform, wouldn’t you? It’ll be interesting to see what the ones I’ve got on order are like, and whether there is a difference between the gold, silver and copper.

Opposite twists in wire check

And finally something that has absolutely nothing to do with goldwork. Last week we were at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen to see an exhibition with my in-laws, and in the gallery shop had these lovely wooden door wedges, very smooth and a joy to handle (not that you handle door wedges a lot, but you know how tactile and strokeable wood can be). Until now the door of my craft room has been wedged open (when it is safe to do so, i.e. our inquisitive pussycat is outdoors) with a bright green frog wedge that used to be in one of the children’s bedrooms – it works, yes, but this one was something altogether different. As I was debating with myself whether I could really justify another extravagance, my mother-in-law took it out of my hands and gave it to me as a present! It now sits looking beautiful in the craft room. Trouble is, it rather shows up the scruffy door…

A lovely wooden door wedge