I’ve been having a bit of a splurge on hoops this week. Not that I didn’t have plenty already – mostly flexi-hoops, but also standard wooden hoops, a couple of spring hoops and a solitary hard plastic hoop. So how are these new ones different?

One of the hoops came from the Royal School of Needlework’s shop, and I bought it because it’s the type of hoop they use in their workshops and tutorials, and I enjoyed using those. The website offers them in several sizes, but all attached to a bewildering selection of table frames, floor stands, sit-on frames, stalks and table clamps. Could I just have a hoop, please? Well, when I rang the shop it turned out that I could, and a very helpful lady called Shirley checked whether they had one in stock, pulled out a table stand to answer some questions I had about that, and then sent the hoop the very next day, apologising that she hadn’t sent it the day I rang (even though that was late in the afternoon). Great service!

The main difference between the RSN hoops and standard woorden hoops is that they are much deeper: the wooden rim measures about 2cm, pretty much double the depth of an ordinary hoop. This means they have a very good grip on the fabric, which is especially helpful when doing goldwork, where the fabric is at times quite mercilessly pulled at (when plunging, for instance). This hoop is an 8″ one and should accommodate most of the goldwork projects I intend to do.

A deep 8-inch hoop Comparing the deep hoop with a standard hoop

The other two hoops are square hoops. I say “square” but of course truly square hoops wouldn’t work as they’d damage the fabric on the corners, and these are in fact more like circles with the sides pushed in. Even so, they do offer more room compared with a round hoop of the same size, and will prove very useful particularly in the case of square designs (which many of mine, especially the Hardanger ones, are). The hoops feel nice and sturdy and are beautifully polished – the customer service gentleman at Barnyarns told me they are made in Germany from sustainable hardwood and are very good quality, which does unfortunately make them rather pricey. They also have a slightly odd indentation on one side which is meant to make life easier for machine embroiderers when placing the hoop under the machine’s stitching foot, or whatever you call it. As long as you keep it to the side that you’re not holding, it doesn’t get in the way of hand embroidery, although it did make me wonder whether it will prove to be a weak point in the hoop.

Two square hoops A helpful dent - for machine embroiderers

One interesting thing I noticed when comparing my new hoops was that the indicated sizes seem to be just a little haphazard. I’ve often wondered which width of a hoop is actually measured when determining its size as a case can be made for the outer diameter, the inner diameter, and the point where the outer and inner rings meet. The most useful one to my mind is the inner diameter (of the inner ring), as that determines how much working space you actually have, but that rarely seems to be used. The RSN hoop follows the middle method, but the square hoops seem to measure the inner diameter, and then give you a bit extra. This is partly because the hoops are not actually square – they are rectangular (though only by a little). The 8-inch square hoop measure a full 8 inches from the top inside to the bottom inside, and well over 8½ inches from left to right. The 6-inch hoop is likewise at least half an inch wider than it is high. Not a problem, but definitely something to bear in mind when cutting the fabric!

An 8-inch deep hoop and an 8-inch square hoop A 6-inch flexihoop and a 6-inch square hoop

A gold leaf and a gold boot

Finishing the goldwork leaf I’d started at my RSN tutorial took a little longer than I had intended, but fortunately there was no deadline and I could just enjoy the process! The first step was to work an inner line along the Jap that was couched around the edge of the leaf. Heather had intended that to be another line of double Jap, with the couching “bricked”, that is to say with the couching stitches positioned in between the ones on the first line. However, having done quite a bit of bricking on earlier projects I wanted to try something different – something wavy, in fact. My first thought was milliary wire, but back home I realised there is actually quite a choice in wavy threads and wires, so I put three of them with the Jap outline to see which I preferred. They were check thread (tight wave), rococco (longer wave) and milliary (pointy wave attached to a straight wire).

Possible wavy threads for the leaf Check thread Rococco thread Milliary wire

And after all that I decided on … milliary wire. At least in part because, as a wire, it doesn’t need the dreaded plunging!

The leaf with its milliary wire inner edge

Then I got on with finishing the cutwork, and I am relatively pleased with what I produced. There are definite issues (I’ll come to those in a bit), but bearing in mind that this is the first cutwork I’ve done over soft string padding (much more raised than the few bits I’ve done over felt) it’s not too bad. In fact, some of the things I’m about to point out are not nearly so noticeable in real life as they are in a close-up photograph – fortunately!

The finished padded cutwork

Right, here we go. The blue arrow points to where the the tapering is not as even as I would have liked; the green arrow shows up a length of purl cut just too short; the purple arrow points to a length that is just too long and has therefore cracked; and the red and orange arrows highlight some of the places where I failed to line up the adjoining lengths correctly – some are pushed up by neighbouring lengths (red) while some get lost underneath others (orange).

Some issues

Having said all that, I am honestly pleased with what I learnt, and even with the slightly wonky finished article. It just shows there is room for improvement, and let’s face it, I would have been a miracle embroiderer if there hadn’t been. And now for a bit of advice (which I should start taking myself): unless there is a very good reason for it, Do Not Point Out Your Mistakes. When people are sincerely admiring your stitching, don’t tell them of that one stitch which should have been a millimeter to the left, or that other stitch which you accidentally worked in the wrong colour. For one thing, it may well embarrass them because it suggests they have been uncritical or ignorant in their comments. It also practically obliges them to repeat the compliment. So you see, it’s actually much more modest and humble NOT to point out your mistakes! smiley

So here, without any apologies for any of it, is the finished leaf, with some added spangles:

The finished leaf with extra spangles

Having had such fun with the leaf I decided to dig out the boot I started at the rather ill-fated RSN day class last April. During the class I managed to finish couching all the Jap, but not plunging all the ends, so that my boot looked rather like a helping of gold spaghetti. I took the boot and my lap frame to my Monday afternoon embroidery group and set about plunging. And for two hours, that’s all I did. Well, I had tea as well. And I may have chatted a bit. But embroidery-wise I plunged and secured and plunged and secured some more. My theory being that if I took the boot home with all the plunging done, I’d be much more likely to pick it up and continue with it; also, plunging doesn’t take as much concentration as some of the other aspects of goldwork, which is a definite plus as the embroidery group is not the most distraction-free environment. Well, the theory was correct, and that evening I added a double line of rococco, and immediately plunged those ends as well!

Work done on the goldwork boot during the class Plunging done, and rococco added

None of the remaining techniques – couched pearl purl, chipwork and spangles – require plunging, so I was expecting to finish quite quickly; I had a whole Saturday afternoon to myself, which would surely be enough. Well, it was, but only just – I keep forgetting how time-consuming chipwork is! What looks like a small enough area of felt to be covered begins to look huge when you put the first tiny chip on. So my optimistic hopes that I might even start a new project were dashed, but the boot was finished. It’s not easy to capture the sheer sumptuous sparkle, shine and glow of goldwork in a photograph (unless, presumably, you are a professional photographer) but I hope these give you some idea.

The finished boot The finished boot in bright sunlight

And here are a few close-ups, of the bricked Jap boot cuff (where I took one Jap thread around the front before plunging because the edge looked rather ragged and this seemed the easiest way of tidying it up) and the chipwork toe.

Close-up of the bricked Jap boot cuff Close-up of the chipwork toe

What next, goldwork-wise? Well, there is a certain balloon which has been languishing for far too long now, so I mounted it on the Millennium frame and I will try to make that my next finish. Unfortunately there is a rival on the horizon, or rather a pair of rivals. A lady on the Cross Stitch Forum, on seeing the boot, said wouldn’t it be lovely to work the rest of the outfit in goldwork as well – dress, gloves, hat etc. I can confidently tell you that that is not going to happen, but reading her comment I suddenly saw a goldwork parasol; well, the germ of one (if parasols germinate). And now I have a parasol/umbrella pair of possible projects. Never mind jewellery or scent or even stitchy presents, could someone give me a couple of extra months for Christmas? They don’t even have to be gift-wrapped!

Cats go freestyle

When we went down to Devon to visit the in-laws recently, I wanted to take something fairly simple as a project to work on in the evenings – preferably outlines in stem stitch or something like that. No counting, no complicated stitches. But apart from some Kelly Fletcher freebies I didn’t really have anything suitable. Or did I?

What about my Elegant Cats? Originally they were designed in cross stitch, for an exchange of ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) on the Cross Stitch Form (and stitched on 36ct evenweave to make them fit; as usual I’d tried to cram in far too much detail). But the cross stitch design was based on my original line drawing, and a couple of years ago I cleaned up the line drawing and digitised it for some future occasion. Perhaps that future occasion was now! Line drawings, after all, are almost by definition suitable for freestyle embroidery, especially for line stitches like stem stitch.

Elegant Cats in cross stitch

I transferred the drawing to a piece of linen twill, hooped up, picked the colours I wanted to use (mostly the ones used in the original cross stitch plus a few others in case I needed more shading), and packed it all into my stitching bag.

The Elegant Cats project set up

Before any stitch was put in, however, a lot of thinking was needed. In the cross stitch version the cats were both solidly stitched; something I definitely didn’t want in the freestyle version. But the “outlines only” approach threw up a number of obstacles, first and foremost among them the black cat’s white patch. This stands out very noticeably when the cat is otherwise solid black, but might get lost if it was white stitched on off-white inside an empty black outline. Another challenge was the ginger cat’s stripes. Stitched simply as the stripes on the line drawing they might look a bit sparse, but how to bulk them out? Could I work them in some sort of spiky stitch like Mountmellick or long-armed Palestrina?

In order to give myself a bit more time to think about these things I started with the bits I had already decided on: the main outlines, which would be stitched in stem stitch using three strands – nice and chunky. trying to visualise whether the black cat would look better in stark black or very dark grey I made a last-minute decision to blend, something which I hoped would give depth to the outlines, and which I subsequently also used on the ginger cat.

A stem stitched outline Blending

For the ginger cat’s stripes I decided against any of the more exotic stitches – I wanted to keep this design simple in both its outlines and its execution, and so sticking to the basic repertoire of stitches (as very scientifically defined by my mother-in-law, who after decades of very intricate stitching says that she will now use only “stem stitch, chain stitch, French knots and fly stitch”) seemed a good idea (although I retained the option of adding one or two basic stitches not on her list, such as ray stitch; it may sound exotic but is basically a group of straight stitches radiating from one point).

Chain stitch seemed to fit the bill as it is a line stitch with some width to it, unlike stem stitch. But one line of chain stitch, even with the added shading of blended threads, still looked too thin. How about building up the stripes to the sort of shape they had in the cross stitch version by adding lines of chain stitch on top of each other?

Stacking chain stitch for the ginger stripes

That worked. Next challenge, the black cat’s white patch. As I expected an outline-only version just looked insignificant and negligible, even using three strands. Well, how about filling it in with chain stitch, subtly echoing the chain stitch in the other cat’s stripes? In one strand, to keep an airy look – it wouldn’t do to have it too solid or I’d have to beef up the black as well! And yes, a round-and-round filling of light chain stitch gave me the effect I wanted.

A white patch in outline only A white patch filled in

Fairly last-minute, and for no particular reason other than that it suddenly struck me as a good idea, I gave both cats a white tail tip. This may have been partly a displacement strategy so I wouldn’t have to think about what was the final, and rather daunting, challenge in the design process, that of the black cat’s body colour. I delayed this decision even more by first finishing the paw print border, which was always going to be padded satin stitch with French knots and therefore didn’t present a problem.

But eventually everything had been stitched that could be stitched without coming to the black cat’s potential body filling or shading, and so it had to be faced. Because I definitely wanted to steer clear of solid filling, the best option seemed to be a sort of hatched shading, worked in one strand like the patch to keep it light. I picked the grey from the blend, feeling that the full black would probably make the hatching look too stark, and simply started stitching, hoping that I’d have the good sense to stop when enough was enough. I think I did smiley – and now the Elegant Cats exist in freestyle as well as in cross stitch. Which must be a good thing, as you can never have too many cats! (Well, not in stitch anyway.)

An unshaded black cat A shaded black cat

Shopping and workshopping

Some three weeks ago (where does the time go!) I was at the Knitting & Stitching Show in Alexandra Palace, having a jolly good time both as a tutor and as a stitcher going round the stands. I’m really enjoying the combination – my stash of fabrics, threads and other bits and bobs is so well-stocked after years of stitching that I’m not sure two days of solid shopping would on its own be a reason for going, but mixed with teaching workshops it’s great.

And I didn’t just shop, either: in between looking for silks and buttons I wandered onto a stand where you could learn to knit or crochet. I’m OK with crochet, but knitting, in spite of several attempts and in spite of having a knitting grandmother, mother, aunts and mother-in-law, has so far eluded me. I only had about 20 minutes before the next workshop, but the kind volunteer teaching me to cast on, knit and purl was so clear and helpful that I managed to produce something which, though not in any way aspiring to being useful (it will never become a jersey or even a dishcloth), did at least look like acceptable knitting. A very proud moment!

A tiny bit of knitting

I did do some shopping as well, of course, and bought a few supplies (spending all of £7). Having learnt the basics of soft string padding at my RSN goldwork class the day before, I got a card of soft string to practice with at home (well, I couldn’t possibly go to Golden Hinde’s stand and not buy at least one thing), and from John James’ stand I got some good value petite tapestry needles for the Christmas Wreath kits and the Butterfly Wreath workshop.

Purchases at the 2017 Knitting & Stitching Show

There is a third item in the picture above: ten little wooden floral buttons. They are the culmination of a two-year search, which sounds much more serious than it is smiley. You may remember I stitched an elephant for our niece’s wedding, and that after things going rather badly wrong during the finishing process it did eventually turn into quite a nice card, embellished with four small wooden floral buttons. As I’d originally bought five, at a previous Knitting & Stitching Show, I had one left. And I really liked them. So I tried to find some more, both at the K & S and in shops – unsuccessfully, until this October. Yes, this time I finally found the exact match to my remaining button – yay!

A Wedding Elephant Matched buttons

What I forgot to do, however, is make a note of who sold them, so if I want any more the whole search will have to be repeated … My task for next year: find the stand that sells the buttons and write down the name!

One thing I did notice – and it may not be as bad or as widespread as it looks to me; I hope it isn’t – is that fewer small independent shops have stands. Kate at Sparklies pulled out several years ago, and this year The Calico Cat, from whom I had hoped to purchase some 3-yard skeins of Gloriana silk, was absent. Both mentioned spiralling costs as one of the reasons that they didn’t come to the Knitting & Stitching Show any more. It seems to me that the K & S are shooting themselves in the foot here, as it is surely these small shops, often one-woman or husband-and-wife outfits, that make the show so interesting. Yes, being able to buy needles at a discount from John James, to name but one of the “big” names, is useful, but it’s the relatively unknown designers, the makers of unique hand-dyed threads and fabrics, the purveyors of kits you could only get from them, who make us come back year after year. Or am I projecting my own ideas onto everyone else? When you go to a Show like this (or if you had the opportunity to go), why do you/would you go? What makes it interesting to you? I’d love to hear.

And then there were the workshops. I do enjoy those! Especially when the people coming to them tell me that they have enjoyed them too smiley. Here is a small impression of what was produced at the Shisha, freestyle and embellished embroidery workshops, including my own very artistic doodle cloth. (Incidentally, K & S, slightly more inspiring surroundings to teach the workshops in would be really nice…)

The Shisha workshop The freestyle workshop The workshop doodle cloth  
 Some of the Shisha projects Some of the embellished projects Some of the freestyle projects Some more embellished projects