Three Gumnut silks in search of a design

Remember "Old & New", the fireworks design that didn’t happen? I had another try, using backstitch, but somehow that didn’t work either. Then I tried something in cross stitch, but not solid cross stitch – more like a mosaic, with a thin open space between the stitches. And then I thought it might look rather nice with Rhodes stitches instead of cross stitches; it did, but they were too big, as I wanted the final design to be card-sized. So I changed them to double cross stitches (that is to say, an ordinary cross stitch over two, and then an upright cross on top of it). It should look quite attractive either in blue and purple on white opalescent fabric, or in red, green and gold on black.

Old & New

So what does this have to do with the three Gumnut silks of the title? Well, uhm, nothing really. I was just tying up loose ends, to use a stitching term (of sorts).

On to the silks, then. Gumnut Yarns are yet another Australian company producing scrumptious hand-dyed embroidery threads. (What is it with Australians and hand-dyed threads? I can think of at least three companies without even trying! I hope any Australian stitchers reading this are suitably grateful for so much lovely stash produced in their very own country.) I bought some of their silks at the wonderful London Bead Company some time ago; mostly Stars, which are stranded silks, but also one shade of Buds, which are like a soft version of perle #8, and one of their silk/wool threads. Recently I was looking through my silks for some reason (probably just because I enjoy looking at them so much) and realised that the three shades of stranded silk which I chose rather randomly at the time actually looked quite good together. So much so, in fact, that they were simply crying out for a design. The Gumnut colours come in sets of five, and these are the fourth shades of Hyacinth, Daffodil and Apple Green:

Gumnut silks

I thought of getting the perles to go with them, but they are, unfortunately, rather expensive. Moreover, they come only in the equivalent of #8, which would mean that for Hardanger I would either have to use the Gumnut threads for bars and filling stitches, and use a neutral shade of ordinary #5 to go with them; or I’d have to use a much finer fabric, and use the Gumnut perle for the Kloster blocks and the stranded silk for the bars and fillings. I might just do that, if I ever feel flush enough to get the three required perles. But for now, I thought I’d go for one of those nice geometric designs in cross stitch. Well, a set of small designs, anyway. As for naming them, well, I suppose the combination of purple, gold and green rather suggests Mardi Gras, but Mardi Gras isn’t really me. But the colours also reminded me of one of Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, Nightshade, whose other name is Bittersweet, and as some of the shapes in the designs are vaguely floral, that seemed quite appropriate. So here is one of the three designs that make up Bittersweet:


From colour to name

First things first – Happy Christmas to you all (I know it’s not quite Christmas yet, but I’m unlikely to write anything tomorrow.) May it be a joyful time for you and those you love, and if you give and receive presents at Christmas, may there be lots of stitchy goodies to enjoy.

Back to the subject of names now. There’s actually quite a lot about names in the Christmas story (John the Baptist and Jesus being given meaningful names, and Jesus being "Emmanuel" or "God with us") so perhaps the shift from Christmas to design names isn’t so odd after all!

Sometimes, the colours I use suggest a name – either the colours themselves, or the names that the manufacturers have given to the colours. To begin with the latter, that’s how Heather and Douglas got their names. They are two designs that more or less form a pair, echoing each other’s stitches and shapes, but more to the point here, sharing the same hand-dyed thread – Dinky Dyes perle in a shade called Airlie.

Heather Douglas

Now I know, of course, that Dinky Dyes are an Australian company. But my knowledge of Australian geography, apart from the better known cities and whatever names I picked up from Terry Pratchett’s Last Continent, is practically non-existent, so to me Airlie sounded Scottish. (There is in fact a place called the Airlie Estates in Scotland, near Kirriemuir – another name just waiting for a design – but what DD had in mind when naming their thread was probably Airlie Beach.)

So I had two designs that needed Scottish sounding names. When I was very young and dreamed of owning two Scottish terriers, I came up with Sporran and McTavish, and I did briefly toy with the idea of applying those names to the designs, but fortunately I resisted. Scotland reminds me of heather, and there were some light purple shades in there, so Heather it was. Douglas also sounded like a suitably Scottish name (the Black Douglas and all that), but it took me a while to realise why that name had popped into my head: the central bit of the design reminded me of the three legs in the flag of the Isle of Man, whose capital is Douglas!

Well, I never said my mind worked logically when thinking up names …

Two new stitches

Last weekend we were away at an extended family pre-Christmas, and while exploring the town where we were staying we found (besides a needlework shop which, alas, catered mostly for knitters and quilters, and a wonderful but way-beyond-budget deli) several second-hand bookshops. And in one of those I found a book called, with elegant simplicity, Embroidery. Its subtitle promised traditional stitches, patterns and techniques from around the world.

I haven’t had much time to read it yet, but I’ve dipped into it, and it does seem to live up to its title, with offerings from South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe (and that’s only the bits I’ve had a look at).

Although the patterns and complete designs are interesting, it’s the stitch diagrams which are inspiring me at the moment – so many that are new to me and that I want to try out! (It was also fun to see some that I have recently used myself, such as the Ukrainian eyelets in Lviv.)

Two stitches particularly caught my eye, and as I always have a scrap of fabric lying around with some threads and needles to try things out on, I gave them a go. I used perle #5 and #8 on Hardanger fabric, and unfortunately the two threads are not really different enough in colour to show up the stitches in detail; I’ll have to do them again in more contrasting threads. But I do like the effect of the two different thicknesses in both.

The first one is called Maltese interlacing. The underlying "mesh" is stitched using perle #8 – and had to be unpicked because the first time I concentrated so much on counting that I forgot to weave the threads over and under. The interlacing is then done in perle #5. The surprising thing was that it doesn’t look the least bit like its stitch diagram, but forms a highly textured cross shape!

Maltese Interlacing

The second one they called Turkmen satin stitch braid. Incidentally, I’m not sure how typically Maltese and Turkmen these stitches are, or how accurate the naming is – what the book calls Rhodes stitch is nothing like what I know by that name. Anyway, satin stitch braid. This I think would work well both using the same colour thread for both parts, or using contrasting ones. Again my two greens are really neither one thing nor the other, but the close-up should show you the texture of the stitch. I think it would make an attractive border.

Satin Stitch Braid

I may combine these two with another stitch I’ve been meaning to use, buttonhole eyelashes. When I have a moment I’ll start doodling some ideas, and who knows, this may become the first of my 2012 designs!

An ornament saga

Remember the Hardanger fireworks idea? Well, it didn’t work. It all looked terribly clunky and not nearly fine and spidery and elegant enough for fireworks. So I now have a name hanging around with nothing to do … Watch this space, I may think of something yet!

On to what is occupying my mind at the moment, which is ornaments. I have once or twice hand-sewn ornaments. The Autumn Wreath tuck cushion is an example. But it is far from ideal, and so I felt I really ought to get, and learn how to use, a sewing machine.

Autumn Wreath Tuck Cushion

The first bit turned out to be easier than expected. Looking into simple sewing machines that would do straight stitch, zigzag, and reverse, and not much more, I found that in spite of their simplicity they would make a sizeable dent in the budget. But then the sewing machine which had resided for years in the attic (given to my husband years ago by, he thinks, a sister) and which I vaguely remembered as fiercely complex turned out to be a very nice Singer with exactly the stitch options I wanted and no more.

From then on it should have been simple. Set up the machine, do a bit of practising on scraps of fabric, sew a practice ornament using a finished piece that won’t be too difficult to stitch again should things go terribly wrong (I chose the red Frills) and then get on with creating an attractive door hanger as a Christmas present for our niece, using an initial I, a bit of ribbon and some lovely turquoise patchwork fabric. And I had well over a month to do it in. What could possibly go wrong?


What went wrong was the sewing machine. We set it up on the kitchen table, I read the manual for a bit, then tried a few stitches on some fabric scraps, and all was tickety-boo. I turned aside to look up a particular stitch in the manual (keeping my foot well away from the pedal), and all of a sudden the machine started sewing like a thing possessed, and would not stop! In the end I had to use the on/off switch it to make it stop, and whenever we tried turning it on again, with no-one so much as breathing on the pedal, off it went again.

A manic sewing machine is a frightening thing for an absolute sewing novice, and might have been enough to put me off for life if it hadn’t been for this ornament that needed finishing. My husband managed to find a replacement pedal, so I resolved to have another go as soon as it arrived. Unfortunately it took rather longer than expected, and by the time it arrived I was in the throes of Christmas preparations and a rather nasty cold, and in no fit state to tackle learning a new skill.

So niece got a solemn promise for Christmas, and I will make use of the fact that my mother-in-law is with us for a week as she is a whizz with a sewing machine and will be able to show me the ins and outs of this one. We may even finish the door hanger before the year is out! However well I get on though, Frosty Pine will probably not be gracing our Christmas tree until next year.

Frosty Pine

From name to design

I know I promised to explain some of the names I have given to designs, and I will, but I’m going to digress a bit first – this is about a design that has a name but doesn’t exist yet. Odd though it may sound, very occasionally I come up with a name that won’t suit any of my exisiting designs, but seems too good to waste. Or not exactly too good, just "rather nice and wouldn’t it be a shame not to use it".

Last week I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of "Musing" over the next few weeks, what with Christmas and a big family pre-Christmas party and the in-laws coming to stay and then visiting my family in The Netherlands for the New Year’s celebrations. That in turn made me think of the Dutch term for New Year’s Eve: "Oud en Nieuw", which means Old & New. One of the things the Dutch do for Oud en Nieuw is let off fireworks. And they do it in a BIG way. We watch it from my mother’s apartment on the 6th floor, and all around there are bangs and whistles and stars and gold and silver and red and green and blue sparkles, until after 20 or 30 minutes the whole town is cloaked in a black cloud of smoke.

The brain started whirring. Would it be possible to design fireworks in Hardanger? Nothing very photo-realistic, obviously – you’d be better off with coloured blackwork for that (which led to another idea, of using those Silk Mill shiny threads on black for a blackwork fireworks design; all right, I get distracted very easily). But something round with spiky bits bursting out, using various colours, on a black or navy ground …. And I would call it "Old and New", which to a non-Dutch speaker would be a little puzzling (and hopefully intriguing), and even to a Dutch native speaker might not be immediately clear because we’re not used to seeing the term in English. So there we are: a name with as yet no design. Just a few vague ideas. Which I am now off to work out a bit, before the Christmas rush starts in earnest!

What’s in a name

You may wonder why some of my designs have names that aren’t immediately obvious (to say the least). Why not give a design a nice, clear, unambiguous name and be done with it?

Well, sometimes I do. The Faith Hope & Love bookmark has Faith, Hope and Love on it; St Francis quotes St Francis of Assisi. Autumn Wreath is a wreath made up of autumn leaves and nuts, Tudor looks like a Tudor rose.

Faith, Hope & Love Bookmark St Francis

Autumn Wreath Tudor

Others are not quite so literal, but still fairly obvious. Very Berry has three berries, and Eek! echoes what would no doubt be many people’s reaction to a spider that size.

Very Berry Eek

So far so good. But what to do when a design – as is often the case with Hardanger – is more abstract than pictorial? You could of course do as some modern artists do and just call them Composition 1, Composition 2 or similarly meaningless words. But where’s the fun in that? And even when a design is clearly pictorial (like the dragonfly in Resurrection), simply calling it what it is can be just a little bit dull, especially when there is a story behind it. So I think up names based on a variety of sources – the colours I use, the shapes, something that the design reminds me of, or whatever it was that sparked the idea for the design in the first place. Some of the names, like Sprinkles and Resurrection, are explained on the design’s detail page. The ones that aren’t I’ll be telling you about on Flights of Fancy.

Sprinkles Resurrection

Stranded silks in Hardanger

Having come to the conclusion that yes, you can use silks in Hardanger (hurray!) because there are such lovely silk perles and other silk threads of the right thickness out there, I rather glossed over the question whether any of those other lovely silks could be used as well – not for surface stitching (almost any thread can be used for that, with your imagination being practically the only limit) but for Kloster blocks, bars and fillings.

There was a good reason why I didn’t go into that side of things. I’d never tried it.

But recently I was looking into my collection of silks because someone asked about them on the Cross Stitch Forum I am a member of, and as I was petting all the pretty threads (silks are just so tactile!) I took out a bobbin of Silk Mill stranded silk. It has quite a strong twist, an amazing sheen, and the strands (a little thicker than strands of DMC) looked as though they might do very well as a substitute for #12 perle. Probably OK for bars and fillings, then. But might they also work, 3 or 4 strands together, for the Kloster blocks?

I was trying to finish Patches, I had 9 blackwork Christmas cards to stitch by Tuesday for the ladies in my stitching group, and have been trying to get to grips with our ancient sewing machine to finish a project as a tuck cushion ornament before the big family pre-Christmas get-together next weekend. I did not need Another Project. But be honest, once an idea like that had entered your mind, would you be able to resist?

I’ve got a small chart that I use for any Hardanger thread experiment, the same that I used for the Gloriana threads. So here is the result of using Silk Mill stranded silk on 25ct Lugana, one strand for backstitch, woven bars and dove’s eye and four strands for Kloster blocks.

Silk Mill Hardanger

So did it work? Well, yes and no. It obviously worked to some extent in that you can see a finished piece of Hardanger stitched with Silk Mill silks, and it certainly has a lovely shine in real life. But click on it for a larger version and you will notice a few problems (especially when I point them out to you – something that a stitcher should never, under normal circumstances, do!)

I had expected the problem of keeping four strands of fairly springy and boingy silk together so that they would behave as one thick thread. This was not easy (I hadn’t expected it to be) but on the whole it was reasonably successful, although I did occasionally have to stroke the threads into place with my needle. The bigger problem came when cutting. Because each stitch consists of four separate strands, it is extremely easy to nick one of them. Now I occasionally nick my threads even when using perle cotton or Caron Watercolours, but because that is one thread it is much more forgiving, and any small fraying bits can be "swept under the carpet" as it were, by pushing them gently into the Kloster block. Not so here – when you nick the thread it is likely to sever one of the strands completely, and that is much more difficult to hide!

You can also see that although the woven bars look fine from a distance, in close up they show gaps. This could be remedied by more weaves, of course, but it’s not ideal. So on the whole I’d say that although Silk Mill stranded silk can be used for Hardanger, I wouldn’t advise it; it’s a lot of hassle for a slightly shinier result.

The silk backstitch looks great though, so I may well get it in black and golden yellow for some luxurious blackwork! (Surely you didn’t think I’d end on a negative note about silk?)

Silk perle in Hardanger

If I’ve managed to convince you that silks are A Good Thing and should be used as often as is possible in today’s economic crisis, what’s the next step for a stitcher who wants to use silks in Hardanger? The easy option is to go for silk perles. They work pretty much the same way as perle cottons, generally come in much the same thicknesses, and so if you can stitch a design with perle cottons you can stitch it with silk perles. My absolute favourites are Gloriana’s Princess Perle (similar to a #5) and Princess Perle Petite (between #8 and #12). Their shine is unbelievable, they are a joy to work with, and the fact that the Petite thread is just that little bit thinner than a #8 makes it great for very delicate filling stitches. They also come in the most glorious colours. Did I mention I love these threads?

I used the Petite thread in the model for Harlequin, but first tried them out in a little experiment. In spite of the fact that photographs never show a piece of needlework as it looks in real life, the picture does show some of the shininess of the thread.

Gloriana perles

Others to consider are Pearsall’s silk perle (although it only comes in neutral shades, white and off-white, and the thickest available is #6), Dinky Dyes silk perles (in thicknesses pretty much equivalent to #5, #8 and #12) and Thread Gatherer Silken Pearl (which I have not tried myself but looks good). Other silks come in thicker versions which are not exactly perles, but are the right thickness – treat yourself to a browse of Treenway’s website, or Colour Streams.

Silks in Hardanger

Can you use silk threads for Hardanger embroidery? It is certainly possible to use "unoriginal" threads – after all, hardly anyone still uses linen threads, as far as I know. Most Hardanger nowadays is stitched using perle cottons, and jolly useful they are, too, with their twisted texture and lovely shine. So why not silks?

I realise that some people will turn the question around. Seeing that perle cottons do the job so well, they ask "Why silks?" To a thorough-going silk nut like myself this hardly qualifies as a valid question. Silks don’t need a reason. Like Mount Everest, you use silks Because They Are There. Not, perhaps, for each and every project, but when you feel like a bit of luxury.

There are a few things to consider before deciding on silks. First of all, they can be quite expensive, and although some aren’t too bad, others can easily go up to £6.50 a skein. It all adds up, as they say! Still, as an occasional treat that can probably be got over, especially when you choose a design that won’t use more than a skein of only a few colours.

But there are other factors that will influence your decision, mainly the question which bits of the design you want to use the silks for. Several Mabel’s Fancies designs use stranded silk for adding a little touch of luxury (the Floral Tiles, for example), but that is usually confined to surface stitching – Rhodes stitches, satin stitches and so on. Very pretty, of course, and very satisfying to do, but would it be possible to use silk for the actual Hardanger bits, the Kloster blocks and bars and fillings?

The trouble with Kloster blocks especially is that they work best when stitched with single-strand, relatively thick threads. When stitched with multiple strands of stranded cotton, for example, they tend to look a bit messy and a lot flatter than those nice plump perle Kloster blocks we’ve come to know and love. Bars (be they woven or wrapped) are difficult to get even and smooth using stranded threads. Unfortunately, most silks on the market are stranded silks, or if they are indivisible, they tend to be too thin to be of any practical use in Hardanger (unless you opt for a 40ct linen or finer to work on – not for the faint-hearted, that).

So all is lost, then? Don’t you believe it. Having whetted your appetite, next time I will be telling you about … *drumroll* … Silk Perles!

…and more yellow

Well, I’ve got most of the new shade of yellow done in Patches, and it looks much more like the effect I had in mind when choosing the original colours – sometimes you just need to see them stitched up to see whether they’ll work as you intended. Time for a sneak preview then; there’s one more (lighter) shade of yellow to come, for the woven bars and filling stitches, and the beads are also a lighter yellow, but here is a glimpse of what it looks like so far (click on the image for a bigger version). By the way, one of the things I’m really enjoying while stitching this is to see the different textures emerge – the Rhodes stitches especially are very tactile and positively demand to be stroked!

Patches texture