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.

Making velvet boards

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

A mini velvet board

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

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

Mark out the boards on stiff cardboard

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

Cut the boards

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

Place the sticky boards on the back of the velvet

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

Roughly cut around the boards

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

A stack of mini velvet boards

The woes of a multiple starter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying prick and pounce

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

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

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

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

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

Pricking all round the design

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

A felt pad on a wooden handle and some pounce powder

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

Rubbing in the pounce powder

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

The pounce has rubbed through the holes onto the fabric

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

The dots have been connected with thinned gouache

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

ready to hoop up

Alternative uses for flannel?

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

Blue flannel or brushed cotton

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

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

A mini velvet board

The blue flannel!

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

A remnant of green velvet

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

Doeskin samples

Practicalities in designing

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

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

A birthday daffodil

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

Two designs with different stems

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

The redrawn transfer

A glowing surprise

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

“Scraps” indeed!

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

Gold and silver kid leather

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

Gold and silver threads and wires

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

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