Could you use…?

When you are known to be a needleworker, sooner or later you will be asked the question “Could you use…?” The item in question may be a great aunt’s collection of half-finished canvases, threads once bought but never used, inherited patterns, or fabrics, needles, hoops or beads which the owner can’t use anymore because of deteriorating eyesight or increasing arthritis. It often includes a great many things which frankly you will never be able to (or want to) use, but there are gems, too. And knowing other needleworkers means that it is rare for these donations not to find a good home eventually.

Recently a gentleman who came to our house to purchase parts for his pre-war Austin Seven (Mr Figworthy’s main line of business, when he is not assisting Ms Figworthy in attaining world domination in embroidery) noticed the various bits of stitching dotted around the house, and asked The Question. In this case it was what he described as “a bag of designs” that once belonged to his grandmother. Last week he dropped them off, and it turned out to be parts 1 to 34 of a series called Embroidery Magic, complete with all the iron-on patterns and two ring binders. Judging by the style they date back to the 1980s, and I’m going to have fun looking through them and picking things which I may want to stitch before taking them to my various embroidery groups for the ladies there to fight over smiley.

Embroidery Magic

Rather longer ago my mother-in-law gave me a box of unidentified silks on cardboard tubes. So far I haven’t done anything with them, but from the start the colours suggested peacocks to me. I’m now thinking of using them for a split stitch version of the miniature cross stitch peacock I designed for a pendant (the picture shows the anonymous silks at the top, followed by discontinued Eterna silks, Piper silks with a couple of discontinued Filofloss, and Threadworx hand-dyed Vineyard silks).

A box of unknown silks A peacock in silk

Or perhaps it could become a miniature-stitching-on-silk-gauze workshop? I have acquired a few inexpensive pendants which I hope will be perfect for that. Now to convince the Knitting & Stitching show that silk gauze embroidery is just what they need on next year’s workshop programme!

The mini peacock in my own silver locket The original pendant and the possible workshop ones The miniature peacock fits the new pendant

Needles

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out different needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends) and although some of them are definitely a lot more expensive than ordinary needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends smiley), because they are small items the actual cost is still affordable as a treat (unlike being a racing car fanatic and deciding to try out different engines, for example). But are these fancy needles really necessary, and do they live up to expectations?

We all know the needle book belonging to grandma or great-aunt which contains the needles with which she sewed her entire life, apparently with no detrimental effect on either herself or her sewing. On the other hand, it is possible to be too thrifty and to practice the false economy of trying to do fine embroidery with needles that have long lost their plating and are tarnished and rough and doing unmentionable things to your threads (especially silks). Don’t wait until the needle gets so weakened with use that the eye breaks and becomes a health hazard (yes, voice of experience).

But when you change your needle, does it matter what you change it to? If the size and the point (blunt or sharp) are correct for your work, does it make a difference whether it’s from a bargain basement box-of-25-for-50p or whether it is a Tulip branded one costing a frankly eye-watering £1 per needle?

I decided to find out. Normally I use John James needles bought in envelopes of 25 for all forms of freestyle embroidery, and gold-plated tapestry needles bought in bulk from Busy Lizzie (who no longer sells them) for Hardanger. These are probably a little more expensive than an unbranded assorted pack from the local haberdasher’s, but because I buy them in fairly large numbers they are still a relatively economical choice. And they have served me well over many years, doing the job they were designed to do. But various people (experienced stitchers all) singing the praises of Tulip needles from Japan made me decide to give them a try.

The first thing you notice when they arrive is the packaging; you have to do a lot of unwrapping to get at the needles! A well-presented (and colour-coded) cardboard box closed with a decorative tassle holds a glass tube with a cork stopper, which in turn contains the needles. It’s beautifully done, and unfortunately immediately made me wonder how much less expensive the needles could have been with less fancy packaging… Still, you’d expect a Cartier jewel to come in a velvet-lined, gold-stamped box, not an anonymous cloth bag, so perhaps it’s just all a sign of the quality and attention to detail.

Tulip embroidery needles come in a nice cardboard box Tulip embroidery needles in a tube with cork stopper Tulip embroidery needles

And how do they work? Very well. They are nice and smooth, and very sharp so they pierce the fabric accurately. But I’m afraid I didn’t notice the enormous difference in stitching comfort that some stitchers report (saying they can now stitch for much longer because the smooth needles put less strain on the hand), or that much of a difference in accuracy. Do I enjoy using them? Yes. Will I continue to use them? Yes, until I run out. But I won’t buy them again. The difference between the Tulip needles and my ordinary ones is simply not great enough to justify the difference in price.

Next up were Clover needles (incidentally also from Japan). I picked up some gold-eye between needles in the Netherlands some years ago, and have found them very useful; this was partly because they were the first between/quilting needles I’d ever used. I’m a bit hazy as to the exact difference between betweens and quilting needles, but they are both shorter than ordinary embroidery needles and therefore easier to use when you’re trying to manoeuvre in a small space (for example at the back of the work near the edge of the hoop). For smoothness the Clover ones compare favourably with the Tulip betweens, and at less than 15p each there is really no contest there.

Clover embroidery needles in their packages A Clover #12 needle on my fingertip

The black & gold ones are rather more expensive; they come in at about 23 of the Tulip needles. The black polish, which according to the description is grooved along the length of the needle, is meant to make it glide through the fabric more smoothly.

I tried some of them out on King Ethelnute (my nickname for the split stitch & gold project started at the medieval embroidery retreat) using two of the black & gold needles, a #9 quilting needle and a #10 between, both with a single strand of Silk Mill silk, doing split stitch. Oddly enough the #10 was more difficult to pull through even though it is significantly thinner than the #9. The #9 was very smooth to use, and pierced the fabric very accurately. I’ve got a whole pack of the #10 betweens so will try one of the others to see whether it was just this one needle being difficult! On the whole, however, I’m not sure the black & gold needles are significantly more pleasant to use than the standard gold-eye Clover needles, so unless further use changes my mind I will stick with the standard ones, which are very good indeed.

And what’s next? Well, I would like to try Bohin needles, made in France, which have also been praised for their smoothness, and possibly Piecemakers (from America). But for now I’m happy with the John James needles for everyday use, and the gold-eye Clover betweens/quilting needles for fine and accurate work.

PS On one of the online embroidery groups I’m a member of, someone asked (having seen the picture of the #12 needle on my fingertip) how you thread a needle that thin. Well, there are needle threaders (although for a needle that size you’d have to use a micro-threader) but so far I’ve managed with the method I was taught at one of the RSN day classes I attended: “bring the needle to the thread” instead of the other way round. Hold the very end of the thread between thumb and index finger, open up so that the end of the thread is just visible, then bring the needle’s eye towards the thread between your fingers, so that the eye of the needle is the only place that the thread can go when you open up your fingers further. It’s not easy to describe in words only but I hope it gives you the general idea. If you decide to give it a try do let me know how you get on with it!

An old adversary

Something has been niggling me over the past week. It came about as I was stitching Carousel. And it needs Seeing To.

Are there stitches that you love on paper but which don’t live up to expectations? There is one which has been my bugbear ever since I first heard about it. I even devoted an entire FoF post to it three years ago! That post started “Once upon a time there was a stitch. It looked lovely on paper. It had an attractive name. It got itself included in the Round in Circles SAL. It was stitched up in a model, and given a diagram and a description. So far so good.” Substitute “Carousel” for “Round in Circles SAL” and it still infuriatingly holds.

The stitch in question is the Maltese Cross, also known as Maltese Interlacing, and whereas the SAL had it and lost it, Carousel started without it but gained it. It got designed and revamped long before the SAL but I never got round to stitching it until now, when I was forcefully reminded of the problem of this particular stitch. It is that it Never Looks As Good As It Should. In my mind I know exactly what it should look like, a bit like the braided ornamental fasteners on coats which I have always known as “mattekloppers” (“carpet beaters”) but which I am told are officially known as Brandenburg fasteners in Dutch and frog fasteners in English.

Carpet beaters, Brandenburg or frog fasteners

Intricate, swirly, braided, beautiful. That’s what Maltese crosses should look like. But they hardly ever do. In order to make them work (for me – tastes differ) they either have to be done in very thin thread in two colours, when they look attractive but not the least bit like the thickly braided effect I had in mind, or in thick thread in one colour (yes, I changed my mind on that since 2015) so that the braided effect shows up without the distraction of the foundation colours.

High-contrast, lightweight Maltese cross A single unit of Maltese interlacing

In Carousel, it was charted with a thin dark foundation thread and a thick light interlacing thread – in my stitched model, Caron Wildflowers (Tanzanite) and Watercolours (Celestial Blue). And it looks Plain Wrong.

Malteser cross in dark and light

I was tempted to just chuck the whole idea and put in a different stitch, but I thought I’d persevere and try the thing with two changes: one, to use only one colour, the light one. And two, to pull the thread more tightly as I had seen it done on some Indian embroidery. And then it did work.

Malteser cross in light only, pulled more tightly

So now I need only to unpick the first Maltese cross and re-do it, and then I can get started on the cutting. And before you know it Carousel will be available in all its Maltese glory smiley.