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