A stitch (back) in time

Remember I wrote about having lots of projects on the go last time? Even as I posted it it seemed to me that surely five projects couldn’t be the whole lot – and I was right. I’d forgotten a tiny flower started as a travel project (of which I have no picture as there is not much to see yet) and a Kelly Fletcher butterfly.

Progress on the Kelly Fletcher butterfly

And now there is one more as a medieval king joins the throng! This is the project Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray used at the Coombe Abbey retreat to introduce a group of nine stitchers to the joys of Opus Anglicanum, or English medieval embroidery. It includes lots of split stitch in silk, gold couched using both the usual and the underside method, and some Serious Bling.

But before I say more about the stitching, a little about the venue. Coombe Abbey is an impressive building with lovely gardens, and makes a rather appropriate setting for embroidery of the type we were doing. Atmosphere in spades! Its only downside is unfortunately rather inherent in a medieval building, and that is gloom. Even though the room we were in had relatively large windows, we definitely needed the collection of daylight lamps that had been brought along. As for the hotel reception, anyone with less than perfect night vision would be advised to bring a torch. But it would be churlish to complain about such characterful surroundings – and I won’t. I thoroughly enjoyed my two days’ stitching there.

Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey

Can something be both intense and relaxing? This retreat certainly did a good job at being both. There is nothing quite like a long period of stitching time when you don’t have to worry about the ironing or the groceries because they are Somewhere Else and you can’t do anything about them anyway. Very relaxing. But trying to learn a technique that originally involved a seven-year apprenticeship in two days? Very intense.

Of course the seven-year apprenticeship involved rather more than just learning the stitches, and Sarah and Angela warned us not to expect perfection quite yet, so we had to settle for getting a taste of this lovely embroidery. We did so by means of brief talks about the background of Opus Anglicanum and other types of medieval embroidery, live demonstrations (using a nifty camera-and-big-screen combination), and of course trying the techniques for ourselves using the kit provided.

Workshop set-up Talks Demonstrations The class kit

Day one had a lot of split stitch; it was interesting to look at pictures of medieval embroideries using this simple stitch so effectively, using changes in direction to create shading even when using only a single shade of silk. In our royal head this is especially noticeable in the way the spiralled cheeks, chin and forehead stand out against the rest of the face (or will do, when I get the rest of the face stitched…)

Day two had us tackling underside couching, a technique apparently almost unique to Opus Anglicanum; taking the couching thread down through the fabric creates lots of little “hinges” which keep the fabric flexible even when covered in large swathes of gold, as on ecclesiastical vestments. We were told to work a little of it in both silk and gold twist, and then to decide whether we wanted to fill in the entire collar and/or crown in this technique, or to go back to ordinary couching instead. This option was not unwelcome, as it is quite a time-consuming technique (the needle has to go up and down through the two fabric layers in exactly the same place, and must be pulled through just enough but not too much) which requires a lot of concentration, not to mention strong fingers. As I was still nursing an injured hand, I decided to stick to the mimimum – but I’m glad I gave it a go, as it’s an interesting technique.

Finally we got to add all manner of bling; beads, glass gems and tiny freshwater pearls fit for a king! In all it was an occasion which I’d be very happy to repeat – stitching with a group of like-minded people, in beautiful surroundings, with leisurely chats over lunch, and learning more about this wonderful hobby of ours. So here are the two things that made the retreat so special: the tutors and fellow-stitchers, and the project. The second picture shows what I managed in the two days, plus a little work on the crown at my library craft group yesterday. I hope to show you a finished king in the not too distant future!

Tutors and stitchers Progress on the Opus Anglicanum king

By the way, Sarah and Angela were kind enough to give me some feedback on Forever Frosty, and one suggestion which I may well follow up…

Variety is the spice of stitching

First let me play the sympathy card: I hurt my stitching hand in a fall, so for the past week I’ve done no stitching whatsoever. The last thing I did (and probably shouldn’t have) was finish Forever Frosty last Sunday; after that, nothing. How did I manage to restrain myself, I can hear you think. With difficulty, is the answer, and mostly because of the knowledge that this week I will be attending the 2-day Medieval Embroidery retreat at Coombe Abbey (thank you, oh husband-who-understands-the-desires-of-a-stitcher’s-heart) for which I want to be in good shape. Angela Bishop, one of the tutors, assured me that the retreat is “a combination of demos, talk, stitching (and eating!) so not all stitching”, so there should be plenty to enjoy even if I can’t quite keep up with the other embroiderers in the practical parts.

Of course this enforced stitch-less period comes just when I’ve got about five different projects either in progress or hooped up and ready to go! Some people like to stick to one project at a time, and they have the perseverance, concentration and self-control to stick with that one project until it’s finished (all the more astonishing when it’s one of those fully covered pictures consisting of half a million or so stitches). I, on the other hand, am fickle. I start a project, and half-way through I want to do something different. And that’s with designs which hardly ever exceed 10 inches, and generally aren’t solidly stitched. But in embroidery I will allow myself this fickleness – it is, after all, my hobby, which I’m meant to enjoy! And so I gather around me many different projects, preferably in different styles or techniques, and stitch whichever of them appeals to me at any given time. So what projects am I surrounded by at the moment? Here they are, in no particular order.

Line sampler project pouch. This was inspired by pictures posted on the Mary Corbet Facebook group by a lady who stitched line samplers in the shape of hearts and letters. I had just bought a couple of stitchable pouches meant for large tablets, which I think will work very well as travel cases for small-to-medium embroidery projects. Because I find it very difficult to be completely random in my stitching, and because I sometimes need a quick reminder of stitches that I don’t use very frequently, I’ve printed out a list of my stitch diagrams suitable for stitching lines. The letters will be worked in five different colour combinations, each based on and outlined in a shade of Anchor Multicolor.

Line sampler in letter shape on a project pouch

Carousel, a Hardanger design. After lots of freestyle and other embroidery I decided it was time to get back into Hardanger, and to ease myself into it I started with the non-cut designs of Veiled Delights. This was both a good idea (simple motifs) and a bad one (stitching through organza is predictably less easy and relaxed than stitching straight onto the evenweave), but on the whole I think it did re-ignite my enthusiasm for Hardanger, so I have hooped up a proper Hardanger design with cutting and filling stitches and everything. It’s called Carousel because many stitches in it have a “whirly” quality to them. I had various colour combinations in mind, and may well stitch it in other colours besides this one in the future, but for now it’s bright blues on bright white.

Carousel, a Hardanger project

Come Rain, a goldwork umbrella. And yes, there is a Come Shine as well – a parasol. Strictly speaking the umbrella is silverwork, on a teal ground, while the parasol will be done in gold on an orange fabric. Both will have some appliqué as well as a variety of metal threads. I’ve worked out which threads and wires and techniques I want to use where, but only while I’m stitching will I be able to decide which sizes will work best (it wasn’t until I was actually stitching Forever Frosty that I realised the pearl purl I’d chosen for outlining his body was far too thin). This is the one that’s really calling to me at the moment – perhaps I can make a start next weekend.

An umbrella in silverwork

Soli Deo Gloria, a silk & gold flower. I was so taken with the combination of colours and materials I used for my interpretation of a Kelly Fletcher freebie that I designed a flower of my own to work in those colours and techniques. As I was putting this together I decided on different silks, and possibly some of the gold threads will be slightly different too, but the look and feel of it will, I hope, be the same. I called it Soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”) because the colours of the petals and the use of goldwork threads were originally suggested by a Bible verse about furnishings made for the Tabernacle: “They hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut strands to be worked into the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen – the work of skilled hands” (Exodus 39:3).

Soli Deo Gloria in silk and gold

And finally, a Kelly Fletcher design on a tea towel. You may remember the Classic Creations kit I got a while ago; it comes with fabric for two of the twelve designs, and as I was looking for a suitable fabric for the others I came across some tea towels and napkins I bought as “postage filler” when ordering shopping bags from the Clever Baggers. A tea cup seemed a suitable design for a tea towel, so I’ve ironed on the transfer, making sure it’s far enough from the corner for me to get a hoop around it (I cannot stitch comfortably without a hoop). I will have to remember to finish everything off very securely (not usually a priority when most of my projects end up in cards, coasters or boxes), and keep the back neat (likewise)!

A Kelly Fletcher design on a tea towel

And what about you? Are you strictly faithful to one project from start to finish? Or do you lavish your affections on many different designs? If so, do you work on them according to a strict rotation or do you stitch whatever takes your fancy? Whatever your ways and methods, enjoy your stitching. I hope to be enjoying mine again in a few days’ time!

Any hoop will do?

Some people stitch anything from card-sized designs to enormous tablecloths or sheets without any hoop or frame. I have long since learnt that unless a project is less than 2 inches or so across, I simply can’t do it, and even then I prefer to have it hooped up. This might be seen as rather wasteful of fabric, since a small project requires relatively more spare fabric in order to fit into a hoop, but it does make my stitching so much more comfortable that this is one extravagance I am willing to indulge in. (Incidentally, my preference for using hoops combined with my dislike of placing a hoop over areas already stitched may well explain why very few of my designs are larger than will fit comfortably inside a 12″ hoop. For any that are I use my Millennium frame.)

So a hoop I must have, whatever the project. But what sort of hoop? There is a bewildering variety out there! Quite apart from the size, which in my case is more or less dictated by the size of the design, there is a choice of materials, shapes and thicknesses. Hoops come in wood, stiff plastic, flexible rubber, bamboo, and several other materials; they are usually round, but can also be oval or square; and they can be narrow or deep.

All sorts of hoops

I’m not aiming for completeness here, so there will be types of hoop I don’t mention in detail, or indeed at all. For example, I have occasionally used spring tension hoops, which consist of a very springy metal inner ring that squeezes into a plastic grooved outer ring and are often used for machine embroidery; I may even have one lurking in a drawer somewhere. But I would never choose them now, because I found the tension so high that it sometimes distorted the fabric, and the background almost always puckered when I took the project out of the hoop after completing the stitching. Then there are Q-snaps, which some people swear by; more of a frame really, but generally held in hand like a hoop, and made from chunky plastic tubes to which the fabric is attached with plastic clips that look like tubes with a bit missing. As I say, some people love them, but I found them too heavy, and too chunky to hold comfortably. I will leave detailed descriptions of these types of hoop to people who enjoy using them and have therefore used them a lot more than I have.

The most usual hoop, the one which many embroiderers start their first needlework with, and which many of us remember from the workboxes of grandmothers and great aunts, is the wooden hoop. They have a tightening screw on the outer ring (the one with the gap at the top), which can be done up by hand, or with a screwdriver for serious tightness. I have found most wooden hoops to be prone to “sagging” after a while, so you have to keep pulling the fabric, but this may of course be because I didn’t tighten the outer ring enough; I’m still experimenting with that. Binding the inner hoop apparently helps with tension; I have not yet tried this (but see below). And some people prefer their fabric slightly slack, so they can use the sewing method of stitching, where the needle goes in and out of the fabric in a single motion, and isn’t taken right through to the back. Wooden hoops work well for this.

Wooden hoop

Two variations on the wooden hoop are the square and the deep hoop. The former is square-ish rather than square, for perfectly understandable practical reasons. I find them useful mainly for square designs (and many of my designs are square) as you can get away with a smaller hoop (and therefore less fabric) compared to fitting a square design in a round hoop.

Two square hoops

Standard hoops tend to be about 1cm deep, give or take a millimetre. You can get deeper ones, ranging from 5/8″ (a little over 1½cm) to 7/8″ (about 2¼cm). The two I bought from the RSN shop are exactly 2cm. The advantage of the deeper rings is that they grip more of the fabric, so that once you’ve got the tension you want, it’s more likely to stay like that.

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

My collection of hoops tends to have several sizes of each type, but I have only one of the type shown below, and I think it came in a collection of embroidery materials donated to me by a lady whose elderly relative could no longer stitch because of arthritis. It is a stiff plastic hoop with a lip on the inner ring, intended to grip the fabric more firmly and prevent slipping. It works just fine, but because of the lip any adjustment to the fabric by a quick and gentle tug is impossible, which means it languishes in my hoop drawer unloved and unused. I really should pass it on to someone who does like it!

Plastic hoop

The type of hoop I use most of all is the flexi-hoop. These consist of a stiff inner ring and a flexible rubber continuous outer ring – no gap at the top. They usually come provided with a decorative metal hanging loop (which sometimes tricks people into trying to use it for tightening); flexi-hoops are meant as much for display as for use in the stitching process. Because the outer ring is continuous, it cannot be tightened; but because it is made of flexible but fairly tight rubber, it generally doesn’t need tightening. To me they are invaluable for small to medium projects where I want the fabric good and taut. As with all hoops, the bigger the hoop the more easily the fabric loses tension, and when you get to the 8″ hoops the fabric is slightly looser, but I find it still compares favourably with the tension on wooden hoops. Although they seem to be made to be used once as a stitching hoop and then as a display frame for that particular project, you can actually use them again and again as a working hoop without the tension becoming noticeably less over time. Some of mine have been in use for at least five or six years and are still going strong.

Flexi-hoop Flexi-hoop with hanging loop

One type of hoop which I first met only recently is the bamboo hoop; it came with a Kelly Fletcher kit, and I like it very much. It holds the tension well (even when pulling a needle with four strands through top and backing fabric, which can take a bit of tugging) and it is incredibly light, which is nice and easy on the hand that holds it. I liked it so much that I got a set of 12 small ones to use in workshops besides my usual flexi-hoops.

Bamboo hoop Bamboo hoops for workshops

Like a lot of things in needlework, the choice of hoop comes down to personal preference. If weight (or rather, lack of weight) is important, bamboo is a good choice. Flexi-hoops keep fabric nice and taut, but can’t really be slackened off if you temporarily want less tension on the fabric, for example when doing bullion knots or any other stitch where the stabbing method of stitching is impossible or less suitable. Deep hoops grab more of the fabric and are therefore less prone to sagging, but I find them a bit less comfortable to hold, and so use them only when tension is really important, for example in goldwork. Even then I prefer to use them with a stand or clamp rather than in hand. Standard (narrow) wooden hoops are easy to find and good value, and allow for both tautness and slackening off. My advice would be to buy or borrow several types of hoop (preferably all the same size) and work on a single project for a bit using each one of them in turn. That will tell you more about the right hoop for you than any number of reviews can (useful and informative though they may be).

And finally a slight digression; it’s still hoop-related, though, so I’ll allow it smiley. Recently I received an email about the Medieval Embroidery retreat I’ll be attending at Coombe Abbey. It gave details about when to be there, lunches and tea breaks (very important!) and a list of things to bring. Among them was a hoop, which they recommended should be bound. Until now I have never bound a hoop in my life, but many very experienced embroiderers say it is A Good Thing and worth the effort, so this was the perfect time to give it a try. I got some cotton twill tape and set to. And after a long time and some (moderately) bad language, all I can say is: unless the effect is really really noticeable, never again! I know that once a hoop is bound it stays bound for years, if done well, but my goodness what a fiddly job. I may of course have been doing it wrong (despite watching Sarah Homfray’s instruction video and reading Mary Corbet’s blog post on the subject) but I found it impossible to get the tape to lie completely flat. Still, here it is – I’ll let you know after the retreat whether I will ever bind another hoop…

Preparing to bind a hoop Bound inner hoop Bound inner hoop, fitted inside the outer hoop

Win a ticket to the London Knitting & Stitching Show

If you’re thinking of going to the London Knitting & Stitching Show in October, how would you like to have a little bit of extra money to spend by getting your entry ticket for free? We have two tickets to give away which are valid on Thursday 11th, Friday 12th or Sunday 14th October (so not on the Saturday). To be in with a chance, tell us (in a comment here or on Mabel’s Facebook page) what you would most like to find at the Show. The two winners will be announced here and on FB on Monday 13th August. Good luck!

Knitting and Stitching Show

Any tool will do?

While at my mother-in-law’s last Sunday I was in need of A Thing That Makes Holes. As a travel project I’d brought some kit preparations instead of embroidery, and I was cutting threads for the tassels used in the Felt Bookmark kits (which, incidentally, will need re-thinking as the shop from which I get the felt shapes have annoyingly discontinued them. Grrr).

The felt bookmarks with their tassels

To attach the tassels I thread a bundle of white and variegated perle threads through the felt, then knot it. But even with a size 18 chenille needle this was proving very difficult, and the strong pull needed to get them through caused a rather unsightly kink in the threads. The obvious answer was to pre-pierce the felt with something rather thicker than the needle I was using. I couldn’t remember the word for the tool I wanted so asked my mother-in-law if she had an awl. She asked if I meant a stiletto. Of course that was exactly what I meant; she produced one, and I produced the necessary holes, and all was well.

Back at home I started thinking of getting my own Thing That Makes Holes; I’d heard that some people use the pointy end of their mellor (a curiously shaped object used in goldwork to push metal wires into shape) but I wasn’t at all sure whether the pointy end was really pointy enough for my purpose. It is apparently very good for gently pushing fabric threads apart rather than piercing and possibly damaging the threads, so the hole will close again, but on trying it out I found that pushing it through the fabric (especially a non-woven fabric such as felt) took a lot of force because the point is in fact relatively blunt.

A goldwork mellor

I then drooled for a while over a rosewood stiletto available from the London Embroidery School. It was beautiful, but unfortunately also rather expensive, especially with the postage, and quite apart from that I was a bit concerned about the sharpness and strength of the point. Although wooden stilettos have been used for yonks I felt a metal version would be more reliable.

A rosewood stiletto

eBay offered me a great variety of pointy hole-making things under various names, most of them impossibly cheap and coming from China or Hong Kong. Eliminating any items from outside the EU I found a UK-based basic awl. I seriously considered this one – cheap, nicely tapered and sharp but, well, not very inspiring.

A basic awl

A bit more searching and my workbox is now enhanced with this rather pretty compromise: an inexpensive antique stiletto (advertised as a bodkin) with a mother-of-pearl handle. Not as cheap as the basic awl, but a lot less than the rosewood stiletto. The metal is a little stained, but the tip is sharp and a little rubbing with nothing harsher than paper left it feeling nice and smooth.

An antique bodkin

And does it make proper holes? Yes it does, and you can control the size of the hole by how far you push the tool in. The four holes along the top of the fabric were all made with the stiletto, and range from sizeable to practically non-existent; the one on the right was made with the mellor, and I think all holes made with it would be about this size. The second picture shows that even when making the biggest hole the fabric isn’t damaged very much, and can be stroked or rubbed back into shape should that be necessary. The fabric around the mellor-made hole by contrast still looks rather dented. So hurray for my new tool!

Holes made with the stiletto The holes closed up after rubbing the fabric

On a different topic, I promised to let you know if Kelly Fletcher got back to me. She did, saying, “sorry to hear you had trouble with the threads. You assumed correctly that I have no control over the packaging of the kits. But I will pass on your experience and the links to your two posts to my publisher.” In fact she did more than that – she looked at the colour numbers I mentioned in FoF, and with her publisher worked out that the Amazon seller had sent me a replacement set of threads for a different kit, her Boho Chic one. The publisher offered to send me the proper threads, but considering the amount of thread I’ve got that seemed rather silly; I asked her, however, to pass on my thanks for their customer service as it would no doubt be greatly appreciated by any beginner who had the same thing happen.

Trying out a kit

After several evenings of putting kits together and tidying away new goldwork materials I finally got round to setting up some of the projects from Kelly Fletcher’s Classic Creations kit. Even when I don’t get any stitching done, I like setting up projects smiley; there is something very soothing about hooping up and looking at pretty colours.

This was made slightly less soothing by the fact that I was looking at fewer pretty colours than I should have done. As I went to pick the colours needed for my first project (that cheeky fox, of course!) I found that the yellow skein was missing. Had it been there when I opened the plastic envelope containing the threads, needles and fabric? Had it somehow got mislaid? Had the cat gone off with it? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and looking at a close-up of the picture I took of the kit with the materials still in their wrapping, I don’t think it was ever there.

Nine skeins instead of ten

For now I’ve grabbed a skein of yellow from my stash; it seems a little warmer than the yellow that was meant to be with the kit, but it’ll work just fine. Even so, although it’s not a problem for someone like me who’s got threads practically coming out of her ears, if you got this as a beginner’s project (which is what it is really aimed at) you’d have to go out and buy the skein. I’ve contacted the seller (not the one in the link above – I got mine off Amazon, which may prove a bad choice) to say that one skein is missing, and we’ll have to wait and see what they say.

Mind you, assuming that this was a one-off oversight and that all the other kits do come with their full complement of threads this is an impressive kit. One thing I really like is the size of the two pieces of fabric that are included: absolutely no problem fitting them in the provided hoop. They are very generously cut, with enough room for framing should you want to.

A good-sized piece of fabric

The pieces of fabric were quite creased from being folded up inside that plastic envelope, but fortunately some serious ironing got all but a ghost of a crease out.

Creased pieces of fabric The ghost of a crease

Then it was time to transfer my two chosen designs (the cheeky fox and a butterfly) to the fabric. As you can see I didn’t do too well ironing on the butterfly – it says not to make ironing movements but to press the iron down, carefully lift it off, then put it down on a different part of the design, until the whole thing is transferred; well, when I carefully lifted the iron the second time, the paper stuck to it and lifted off before I’d quite finished – and of course it is impossible to put it back in exactly the same spot, so I left it as it was. There should be enough to work from.

Transferred butterfly, a bit patchy

And here is the fox, with a little work done on him. As usual *sigh* I haven’t followed the instructions exactly; I should have done both sides of his body in a double line of stem stitch first, but I found I could minimise fastening off and on by going round the legs and part of the tail before doing the second line of stem stitch.

A start on the cheeky fox

So, first impressions. On the plus side, the designs are attractive and colourful, the instructions are generally very good (although with one or two of the stitches the instructions seem to assume some prior knowledge), and the iron-on transfers are clear when transferred correctly. The bamboo hoop works well, the fabrics are a generous size, and having a milliner’s needle included for the French knots is definitely a bonus. The threads have DMC labels on them (though they come with only one wrapper instead of two per skein) and I’m sure that’s what they are, but they feel softer than my standard skeins; whether this is because they’ve been rubbing together in the packaging, or whether DMC produce a separate stranded cotton for use in kits I don’t know, but whatever the reason I rather like it!

Are there any downsides? One or two, but in the grand scheme of things they amount to no more than niggles. Although the size of the fabric is generous, the size of some of the designs makes them only just small enough to fit inside the hoop (as you can see from the fox, which is not even the largest of the designs). The instructions say that you can move the hoop around, even on top of your stitching, and this may be a good lesson to learn (that stitching will stand up to quite a bit of squashing and handling), but I would have preferred them to be stitchable without moving the hoop. Actually you probably can just about do it without moving the hoop, but personally I’d have gone for slightly smaller designs.

The lines of the iron-on transfers are beautifully clear, but that does mean that you have to be reasonably accurate in your stitching to make sure that they are fully covered. The instructions are often for 3 or 4 strands, which helps especially in the stem stitch, but I definitely had to unpick and re-place a few of the backstitches in the legs. And although the booklet mentions that you might like to use a backing fabric, this is not included, so you can’t find out whether you would like using a backing fabric without buying some.

All in all, however, I’m really pleased with this kit and would definitely recommend it. With its bright, jolly designs it would make a great kit for teaching children to stitch (especially as it is so affordable), but it’s equally good for an experienced stitcher who wants some simple travel projects or something to stitch in between larger, more challenging designs.

PS As I was about to post this, a padded envelope came through the letterbox. It contained a packing slip from the Amazon Marketplace seller with “replacement skeins” scribbled on it, and a complete plastic-wrapped set of skeins like the one in the original box, including needles (but not fabric). I’d just suggested sending the yellow – not because I need it, but because other people might have the same problem and no stash to fall back on, and I thought it might concentrate the sellers’ minds.

A replacement set of skeins

Now the booklet mentions ten colours, not specifying the DMC numbers. They are: black, white, yellow, orange, salmon, light salmon, dark blue, light blue, dark green and light green. The original package had only nine skeins, and the colours were 310, B5200, [missing yellow – I supplied 743], 970, 350, 352, 517, 519, 704 and 905. The replacement set does have ten skeins, but there is NO BLACK. The colours are Blanc, 744, 741, [3777, 3831, 3833 – burgundy/pink rather than salmon], 825, 827, 704, 701.

The colours in the original box, plus the yellow I supplied myself The colours in the replacement package

Good try at customer service, but not very successful… I can understand not specifying DMC numbers in the booklet so that you can vary which dark and light green you send out, for example, but surely it is not beyond the wit of man to make sure that it includes one of every colour mentioned in the booklet, and none that aren’t. Kelly Fletcher isn’t well served by this as it’s her name on the box but she is, I assume, not responsible for these mix-ups. I’ll contact her and let you know what she says.

…and relax

What do you think of this cheeky chappie? He arrived at our house today, as an emergency stitching aid. Let me tell you why he is about to join my already impressive pile of WIPs.

A cheeky fox

Sometimes I simply don’t get round to stitching. At the moment I have about five different projects in various stages of completion (or rather incompletion), from just hooped up to fairly far advanced, and am I stitching? No I’m not. It’s not that I don’t like the projects I’ve got set up – my goldwork snowman especially is definitely calling to me – but somehow nothing’s happening. Looking at it objectively I can identify several reasons: the heat, family circumstances, workshop preparations. But even so, I want to stitch, yet I’m not stitching.

Perhaps it’s this: most of what I stitch will eventually become a chart pack, kit or workshop. And that means that I have to make notes, take pictures, consider the practicalities of using this stitch or that, wonder if it’s worth drawing a very complicated stitch diagram for a stitch I may never use in any other design, and so on and so forth. Usually this is a nice challenge, and an interesting addition to the stitching process. But at the moment I just want to do some mindless, uncomplicated stitching with absolutely no purpose other than to enjoy the act of embroidering.

For this sort of stitching I love using Kelly Fletcher’s designs. Now I realise that I may just have implied that Ms Fletcher’s designs are mindless, or appeal to the mindless, but I’m sure you will understand I mean no such thing. Her designs are clean-lined, modern, bright, and you can follow her instructions to the letter or play with them using pretty much any stitch you like. I have a folder full of them, and have used a fair few as travel projects.

But even that seemed like too much trouble at the moment. Having to pick fabric, and threads, and using the lightbox to transfer the outlines… And then I got her newsletter, and it mentioned a new kit that could be pre-ordered. It also mentioned previous, similar kits, all containing about a dozen designs, and one of them decorated with that Fox Full Of Character. I fell for his charms and bought the kit, and today it arrived!

Kelly Fletcher kit, outside

It’s a sturdy cardboard box shaped like a very fat book, with a lid that is held shut magnetically. When you open it there is a detachable booklet on one side, and all the materials in a secure compartment on the other side.

Kelly Fletcher kit, inside

The booklet contains coloured pictures of each of the twelve designs, instructions for stitching them, and photographs of all the stitches used. It also has information about the various materials, instructions on how to use the transfers, and a bit about Kelly Fletcher herself.

Design booklet

The compartment on the right contains two pieces of cotton fabric, twelve iron-on transfers (hurray! no lightbox! though having to use an iron in a heatwave may not be that much better…), ten full skeins of DMC stranded cotton, needles, and a 6″ hoop.

Hoop, threads, fabric and transfers

From the website that Kelly Fletcher links to in her newsletter you can get these kits for about £13, but shop around and you can find them for under a tenner. That’s twelve designs with instructions, ten skeins of floss, a hoop and two pieces of fabric – it really is excellent (not to say incomprehensible) value for money!

I’ll report back when I’ve done some stitching; at first glance I would say this is an excellent buy for anyone who wants a collection of attractive small projects with practically all the preparatory work done for you.

Modes of transport

Do you have the ideal stitching spot at home? Comfy chair, the right stand if needed, little table by the side to hold your beverage of choice, lots of natural light – the perfect spot for some relaxed and relaxing embroidery. If your house is anything like mine, the stitching spot in question could do with a little work to become ideal, and perhaps the ideal spot doesn’t actually exist. But whether yours is close to perfection or still has a long way to go, there are likely to be times when you do your stitching away from home.

On holiday, for example, or at your stitching group, if you are lucky enough to have one, or even in a waiting room or on the train. And one of the questions is always “how do I transport my project safely and conveniently?” (Other questions tend to be of the “is there any way of taking my Lowery floor stand” variety. The answer to most of those questions is “no”.)

It partly depends, of course, on the amount of room you’ve got. I have transported teeny-weeny projects in grip seal bags in my handbag (it helps that I use scissors with a protective cover smiley), and that worked just fine, as longs as I remembered to secure the needles as closely to the hoop as possible. But if you have a little more room to play with, it’s nice to go for something a bit sturdier.

Now I didn’t set out to do a comparison of project transport methods, but for various reasons I happen to have acquired over the past month or so three different storage/transport solutions (are all manner of products still called “solutions”? I don’t like the term, but it actually seemed to fit here), alike in some respects – all three are a similar size, roughly A4 – and unlike in others, e.g. what they are made of. A good opportunity see whether there is an overall winner or whether, as with the embroidery stands, each one does something else well.

So who are the candidates? There is the Clever Baggers’ cotton tablet case, Tiger’s flexible plastic Slim Box File and the Slim Tuff Box, also by Tiger.

Clever Baggers tablet case Tiger Slim Box File Tiger Tuff Box

The first one I got was the Clever Baggers’ tablet case, which from the start I’ve thought of as a “project pouch”. It has one very noticeable advantage over the other two: you can stitch on it! And although it isn’t as stiff as the two boxes, being made of fabric, it does have added protective padding inside which stiffens it – it was, after all, made to protect a tablet, so just fabric wouldn’t have worked. This padding is attached only at the zip end so that you can fold it back and get at the back of the fabric should you need to. Actually I’ve not found it necessary so far; stitching using a sewing motion and fastening on and off at the front of the fabric means everything can be done from the outside of the pouch.

Tablet case padding Inside of the tablet case

The outside measurements are slightly larger than A4, but because of the padding the largest hoop it will accommodate is 7″. Although it was clearly made to contain something flat, the fact that is is made of fabric means that you could put thicker items in it (like balls of perle cotton) and it will simply bulge around it. In spite of the padding you can fairly easily bend it double (paper charts may end up a bit crumpled if kept in there for a long time), and if you put something on top of it it will squash the contents, so it isn’t suitable for anything fragile (I don’t think I’d put any squashable goldwork materials in it, for example), but it’s fine for threads, hoop, scissors and so on. The friction with the fabric lining means things don’t slide about too much, which is a bonus.

The Slim Box is a box file made from thin, flexible plastic, and is 1cm deep. It’s made to take A4 paper, and will hold an 8″ hoop. If you put things in it that are thicker than 1cm the plastic is flexible enough to take it, although a ball of perle cotton would probably stop the flap from closing properly. It’s slightly stiffer than the tablet case, especially at the edges; in the middle of the case, however, the contents would still get squashed if you put anything heavy on it. It keeps any charts nice and flat, though. You can also store them upright, as you would books, which you can’t do with the tablet case (too floppy in spite of the padding).

Side view of the Slim Box File

And finally there is the Tuff Box. Don’t blame me for the spelling, please. This too was made to take A4 paper, and it will easily accommodate an 8″ hoop. It is unsquashable – no, that was not meant as a challenge; I meant in normal circumstances – so will keep more fragile materials safe from outside pressure. It is true that they may still get damaged by other objects in the case sliding about, but unless you keep heavy-duty fabric shears in there that seems a smaller risk than people accidentally putting something on top of your project storage. In spite of its toughness it’s light enough to carry around, and even better: you can stack them flat! If like me you often have several projects on the go, being able to store them in a pile without having to worry about the contents getting flattened is a great plus.

Tuff Box, opened

The Slim Tuff Box is 2cm deep; a bit more space than the other two in their normal state, although unlike them this one has no give whatsoever. That is its strength in that it protects your project better, but it also means that it simply will not close if you put anything too bulky in. It will not, for example, take my deep hoop. I have therefore ordered its sibling the Deep Tuff Box (4cm deep) as well, and will probably take that to the Medieval Embroidery workshop, for which I will use my 8″ deep hoop. Unfortunately even the Deep Tuff Box won’t take the Sonata seat stand – that will just have to travel separately!

Side view of the Tuff Box, with deep hoop

So there they are, three modes of transport for travel projects. I’ll very likely use each one of them at some time or another, but they definitely do each have their individual strengths. And none of them will take even the smallest of my usual thread boxes, so threads will either have to be put in loose, or in grip seal bags; or I’ll have to take the thread box in addition to the project pouch or box, but that seems to defeat the purpose rather. So sturdy threads like perles or stranded cottons I’ll very likely just chuck in loose, while silks and hand-dyeds will get bagged up before being put in.

Boxes holding the threads for various projects

Taking a stand

How many stands does a stitcher need? If we define need in the strictest sense, the answer is of course “none”. Unlikely as it may seem when browsing manufacturers’ websites, a rich and fulfilling life is possible without any embroidery stands at all. But if we take the term fairly loosely and rephrase the question as “how many stands could a stitcher use?” then the answer is probably more like my husband’s on the subject of pre-war Austin Seven cars: “one for every purpose”. In the case of the cars that means one for pottering around the lanes and going to the pub in, one for long-distance touring, one for competitions… In the case of embroidery stands it likewise depends on the use you intend to make of it.

Until last week, I owned two embroidery stands: a Lowery floor stand, and an Aristo lap stand. The Lowery is a dependable workhorse that will deal with any hoop or frame you care to throw at it (or rather, clamp in it); true, with the heavy-ish Millennium frame it needs a bit of Meccano support, but that is a minor quibble.

Lowery stand The Meccano prop in place

“So why”, I hear you say, “do you need any other stand? If this Lowery will do it all, what else do you need?” Well, the Lowery will hold anything, but it will do so in one spot. Not that it is nailed into place or set into a concrete base, but it isn’t exactly portable.

Now most of my travel projects are smallish ones in hoops that are easily held in the hand. But if I want to take a project mounted on the Millennium frame (or any other scroll frame, for that matter) to my weekly stitching group I’m stuck. Enter the Aristo lap stand, which is portable, comfortable, surprisingly stable for something that’s perched on your lap, and roomy enough to accommodate a cat.

The Aristo lap stand, with cat

Right, so I’ve got one stand that will hold anything, in its own semi-permanent place, and one stand that will travel. Unfortunately, although it’s perfect for scroll frames, the Aristo isn’t particularly easy to use with a hoop. True, you can just about perch a hoop on the arms if you put them quite wide apart, but the hoop is then so low and so close to the stitcher that you have to put the stand on a table to have the embroidery in a workable position.

And it so happens that I will be taking an 8″ hoop to the Medieval Embroidery retreat at Coombe Abbey later this summer, and simply holding it (a bit of a challenge anyway with hoops that size) is not really an option as there will be rather a lot of two-handed stitching. Taking the Lowery is not practical either. Cue the seat stand.

I’ve come across these at RSN workshops and day classes, where you can usually borrow one for the duration of the class. They have a wooden paddle that you sit on, and from it a post sticks up to which the hoop is attached. There is only one problem with them. In order for the hoop to tilt towards you, you have to sit astride the paddle. Inelegant and a bit undignified at the best of times, I feel, but completely out of the question when you tend to wear longish skirts. Theoretically it is possible to insert the paddle underneath both legs from the side (as demonstrated in this Sew & So video), but the trouble is that the hoop then tilts away to the right rather than towards you. The only other option is to have the hoop completely level with the floor, not tilting in any direction at all, but I find that an uncomfortable way of working.

Some time ago I did find the Stitchmaster Seatstand (demonstrated in the video as well and looking quite good there), which has arms like the Aristo on which to rest your work, and yes, it does tilt towards you. So far so good. But when I tried it out, I found it to be unusably flimsy for anything with a bit of weight to it, and with an unadjustable tilt that was far too steep. It definitely didn’t work for me; more research was needed.

Cue the Sonata Seat Stand, which I found on Barnyarns’ website, and which looked as though it might tilt the way I wanted. I rang their customer service department and spoke to a very helpful gentleman who got one out of its box and tried to visualise the various directions of tilt I was describing over the phone, to see if their seat stand would fit the bill. He came to the conclusion that it almost certainly would, but said I was very welcome to order one and try it out, and they would pay the return postage if it didn’t do what I’d described. Now that’s what I call customer service!

Well, here it is in what I’d describe as its Ikea stage (lots of separate bits, nuts, bolts and an Allen key); and even unassembled, the various pieces looked promising – there were definitely several tilting bits there!

The Sonata Seat Frame, unassembled

It took a bit of doing (and my husband to get the last bit of Allen key bolt into the base of the frame; I simply could not get it to budge any further) but I got it together, and although the bolts still needed knocking into the wood (which sounded rather brutal and possibly damaging but which my husband assured me is perfectly normal procedure) I managed to clamp a hoop in it to Test For Tilt. Success!

The Sonata Seat Frame; bolts still sticking out, but the tilt test is successful

And now it is fully assembled, heads of bolts flush with the wood to prevent joints from drooping when tightened, and ready for use with whatever type of skirt I care to wear smiley.

The Sonata Seat Frame, fully assembled The Sonata Seat Frame with hoop The Sonata Seat Frame in action The Sonata Seat Frame in action

Roll on the Medieval Embroidery retreat – I’m all set!

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.