A different use

Remember those twelve or so projects I had in various stages of WIPness? Well, several have been finished – the Wedding Umbrellas, the little flower and the Sarah Homfray crewel bird. So there are fewer in the pile now? Well, no. A doodle cloth has been added for Soli Deo Gloria (I have worked out what I want to do with the flower centre; now to try different approaches for the petals), as well as a crewel project made up of bits of designs from two books, and a wool version of Hengest (using some of the Milano Heathway wools that arrived today). But at least I am finishing things as well as starting them!

Milano Heathway crewel wools - some of them for Hengest

One small project, however, was in danger of turning from a WIP (Work In Progress) into a UFO (UnFinished Object). It was a small pansy which I found on an embroidery website somewhere and which I thought would be handy to try out my Madeira Lana threads. And so it was; I got some useful long & short stitch in on one of the petals, then rather lost interest, at least partly because by then I’d used the Lana for one of my Quatrefoils as well, so the pansy’s original use had been rather overtaken by events.

Long and short stitch in Lana on a pansy petal

And I realised I didn’t really like the way the leaves were designed, divided into two halves, light and dark green. Of course I could change that to be long & short stitch as well, but by then I’d already done half a leaf in dark green split stitch. And then it dawned on me: I could use this pansy to Try Out Something Else!

The Tree of Life I’ve been designing for the past three years or so has one of those willowy trunks that you see a lot in Jacobean crewel work as well; mine is meant to be worked in stem stitch lines, and probably not solidly filled. But that, and a daffodil I did some time ago, made me wonder about using stem stitch and split stitch as a solid filling when you don’t go round and round but work in lines. If you work the two outlines and then work your way in from both sides to the middle (which is what I would instinctively do) then unless the shape is uniformly wide along its entire length you will get a sort of vein in the middle where the lines coming from left and right meet. How could you avoid that effect? Well, one way might be to work middle-to-sides instead of sides-to-middle – then the lines would get shorter on the outside of the shape. Start at the bottom in the middle to do a full-length line right to the top, then add lines on the left and right of the middle which are each a little shorter than the previous one, simply stopping when they reach the outline.

My theory, when thinking it over, was that the former method (sides-to-middle) would cause a ridge or vein in the middle but also have smoother sides, while the latter (middle-to-sides) would be smooth in the centre but perhaps a little stepped on the sides. Well, why not try this out on the four leaves of the pansy! So I set out to work the dark green halves of the leaves, side-to-middle on the left-hand leaves and middle-to-side on the right-hand ones. As you can see the bottom leaf on the left particularly shows the slightly stepped line down the centre, where the light green other half will meet it.

Split stitch leaves, side-to-middle, first half Split stitch leaves, middle-to-side, first half

The photographs below were taken before I managed to completely finish the final leaf, but I think the difference is clear enough to see, and a very useful record to keep in my doodle folder. I managed to keep the sides of the middle-to-sides leaves rather smoother than I had feared/expected, which was a pleasant surprise!

Split stitch leaves, side-to-middle, second half Split stitch leaves, middle-to-side, second half

So now I know: if I want a vein down the middle, for example because I am stitching a leaf, I’ll use sides-to-middle – and if I don’t, for example on petals or trunks, I’ll use middle-to-sides! As for the rest of the pansy, it may get finished. Or not. It depends on how loudly the wool unicorn calls…

In defence of multiple projects

Wherever stitchers meet, sooner or later the discussion comes up – one project or many? And I’d be perfectly happy to let everyone enter that discussion for themselves, if it weren’t for something I’ve noticed: that it often starts with a remark like “I really shouldn’t start another project, I’ve got two on the go already” or “Do you think it’s all right to start a new project when I haven’t finished the one I’m working on?” or something equally apologetic.

Now if you happen to be the sort of person who likes finishing one thing before starting another, even if that one thing takes three years, then that’s all well and good. But if you’d like to work on more than one project at a time, why on earth shouldn’t you?

About a week ago, that discussion came up in one of the embroidery groups I’m a member of. At that time (the situation is slightly different now) I had three works actually in progress (the Wedding Umbrellas, a small pansy, and Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird), four more hooped up and ready to go (a Quatrefoil in Madeira Lana, a willow tree based on a Dutch pop-up restaurant’s logo [don’t worry, I asked their permission smiley], a Hardanger design on hand-dyed fabric, and a silk & gold flower called Soli Deo Gloria), three in the design stage (Tree of Life, Mechthild the Medieval Queen and Hengest the Medieval Unicorn), and two kits (Helen Stevens goldwork and Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly).

Projects in progress Projects hooped up Projects in the design stage Kits

I will admit that a dozen projects is probably as much as I would like to have in one or other stage of progress at any given time; even I don’t usually have that many. But my point is that there is no need to apologise for this, or to feel guilty about it. Unless the multitude of projects stops you from finishing any of them, this variety can actually work quite beneficially! For example, yesterday I’d reached a part of the crewel bird which I didn’t want to do until I’d watched Sarah Homfray’s video about it, as mentioned in the kit instructions. Unfortunately, the video is not actually on her site; so I’ve emailed her, and in the meantime worked on the pansy.

Another instance: having finished the wedding project, my next big piece (not size-wise – I don’t really do big – but in complexity and time to complete) will be Soli Deo Gloria. But the bit it starts with (the French knots filling the centre) has thrown up the first dilemma of this design. This silk and gold flower is based on one I did some time ago, where I took a Kelly Fletcher freebie and worked it in completely different colours, stitches and threads (more about that in a later FoF). For that one, I used slightly variegated Gloriana silks; for this present one I’m using solid-coloured Soie d’Alger. The centre will be worked in two shades of golden yellow, but how? Blended, to reproduce to some extent the original variegation? In two distinct regions, with the darker of the two providing shading? Randomly dotted throughout the circle (as suggested in my coloured-in outline)? If I had just that one project on the go, I’d be stuck for something to stitch until this matter has been solved to my satisfaction. But as it is, I can ponder this question at leisure while doing some Hardanger, or crewel work, or freestyle embroidery. What’s not to like?

The variegated centre of the Kelly Fletcher flower in silk and gold The centre of the new flower - blended, shaded or dotted?

Having several (though not necessarily a dozen) projects ready to go gives me a sense of freedom; I can pick up whichever I feel like stitching – colourful or muted, big or small, counted or freestyle, simple or complex. If occasionally the range of choices on offer makes me indecisive, leading to an evening of no stitching at all, on the whole I think for me the benefits outweigh any disadvantages. After all, on evenings when I simply can’t decide what to stitch, I can always rearrange my fabrics or stroke my silks, or even write a FoF smiley.

An interruption

I have an aunt whom I love very much. She lived with my mother and me for two years from the time I was three (which must have been quite crowded, two grown-up sisters and a child in a two-bedroom flat – but you don’t think of that when you’re little), and after that had a flat three floors up in the same tower block. When she lived with us she made up a series of bed-time stories featuring my favourite stuffed toy Haasje (Little Hare), detailing his adventures in Australia where he travelled around in the pouch of a friendly kangaroo. She took me on my first trip to London when I was thirteen. I ring her or she rings me about once a week, when we talk for 40 minutes or so to catch up on things. Did I mention I love her very much?

And then, today, she called me just as I was trying to make the most of what miserable light we get at this time of year, for the delicate operation of unpicking and restitching two letters in my big Wedding Project. Well!

You will be relieved to hear that my better self won, I was a Good Niece and we had a nice 50-minute chat smiley. But it did make me wonder whether we stitchers are perhaps not as mild and friendly as people might expect us to be… (Mind you, they may not be deceived anyway; a friend recently posted a cross stitch on my FB timeline that read “This is proof that I have the patience to stab something 1000 times”.)

It also reminded me of something I said yesterday to Gary Parr of Fiber Talk as he interviewed me for a podcast (to be published Sunday after next, by the way); that I enjoyed going to stitching classes and retreats so much at least partly because they offer an opportunity to stitch without any interruptions whatsoever. Ah, bliss!

But in everyday life we have to deal with interruptions, and I am pleased to say that the Wedding Project (also known as the Wedding Umbrellas, even though one of them is a parasol) got finished nonetheless – yay! It just needs to be laced, which I hope to do tomorrow.

And what was all the unpicking about? Well, the names of the groom (our eldest) and his bride are on the umbrella and parasol, and I was unhappy with the last two letters of Andreea’s name; they were a bit too small, and too low. I’d been hemming and hawing about whether to unpick or not, and had been putting off the decision by doing everything else on the project first, but today I finally bit the bullet and unpicked.

As it happens I couldn’t change the letters very much or they would no longer have fitted in with the other letters (and I was definitely not going to unpick the entire name), but I hope the small change has made enough of a difference in the overall look. There are still some things I’d probably do differently if I did this again, but as I won’t be doing it again I won’t worry about those!

The Wedding Project, finished

PS Should this project remind you of Come Rain and Come Shine in the Planned section of the website, you are absolutely right – it was shamelessly copied from those two designs, conceived as full-blown goldwork and silverwork projects but as yet unstitched. After all, if you can’t plagiarise your own work, whose work can you plagiarise!

A newly furnished stitching spot and unrelated ponderings

It’s possible to stitch practically anywhere. I have stitched on trains, in a field, and various waiting rooms, for example. But it’s really nice to have a comfy permanent stitching spot, one where it is not just possible, but a great pleasure to stitch. At home, I have two such spots, and one of them has just had a make-over.

That’s the armchair in our sitting room (the other spot is at the dining table by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden). My Lowery embroidery stand and Serious Reader light stood with one of our pair of big blue wing armchairs which had a small side table and a standard lamp between them, and which were in dire need of being both re-upholstered and resprung. Now we’ve been clearing out my mother-in-law’s bungalow as she has moved into sheltered accommodation, and my husband and his sisters have been choosing bits and pieces from the house, paintings, family papers, mementoes, and also bits of furniture. Last Tuesday my eldest sister-in-law and her husband dropped off, among other things, two pretty armchairs and a side table with shelf and drawer.

The chairs have relatively recently been overhauled, and they are of a rather more moderate size than our two blue giants (they also fit much better into the overall colour scheme of our sitting room). And because they are narrower than the old chairs and a bit lower

  1. I can have the really useful wider side table with drawer and shelf to put all my stitching on and in;
  2. my Lowery stand actually reaches the middle of the chair so it’s much more comfortable to stitch; and
  3. there is more room for a cat underneath the stitching smiley
The new set-up of chairs and wider table The new set-up in action, with cat

I have to admit that since that picture was taken I have adjusted the Lowery a bit, as with me sitting lower the stitching was rather too close to my eyes – a little less space for Lexi, but still considerably more than in the original set-up, so we’re both happy.

The project I’ve been working on in my new stitching chair is Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird Turaco, and I’m really enjoying it. But it did bring home to me how often we stitchers judge our work from the wrong distance, and in doing so are far more harsh on ourselves than we need be. We tend to look at our work from, well, a working distance, and sometimes forget that we are very probably the only people ever to look at it like that. Literally standing back from our work can be very beneficial; while working on it the stitching looks uneven, lumpy, not neat – but take a step back and hey presto, it suddenly looks much better! In my case it was the bird’s tail feathers. I just could not get them to look even and tidy, and after a while I decided to give it a rest and see if I could do better in daylight. I swung the Lowery stand away from me, got up to stretch my legs, caught sight of the embroidery while standing a little way away, and realised that they don’t look so bad after all!

The tail feathers on Sarah Homfray's crewel bird

Do you change things when you stitch other people’s designs? I often do. Not, I hasten to assure you, from an arrogant conviction that I know better than the designer, but just because we all have different tastes, and even when I like an overall design I might tweak a bit here or change a colour there to make it just the way I like it. For example, in the Turaco kit the branch on which the bird sits has “empty lines” among the stem stitch; but I happen to love the look of closely fitting stem stitch, so my branch is fully stitched. I also adjusted the printed line of the bird’s head (but as in this case it was to make it more like Sarah’s own stitched model that doesn’t really count).

You may remember I also played about a lot with several of Kelly Fletcher’s designs. I hope she and Sarah don’t mind (and as Kelly Fletcher posted some of my pics on her FB page I assume she at least doesn’t!) – I certainly don’t, and actually find it rather satisfying when people take a design of mine and make it their own. Your stitching project is yours, to stitch as you want it to be. If you stitch a Mabel design but want to do it in pink instead of blue, or use different threads, or stitch only part of it, or stitch it lots of times to make a big project, then go ahead – and please send me a picture of it for the Stitchers’ Gallery where it can join such personalised projects as a BonBon in purple instead of pink, Blackthorn worked in poppy colours, and an extended Flodgarry.

purple BonBon poppy-coloured Blackthorn enlarged Flodgarry

Mechthild’s bosom

Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night with A Thought. If I really wake up (rather than just being a little less asleep) I tend to scribble a note to self so that in the morning I don’t have that annoying feeling of a brilliant idea lost forever. Admittedly quite a few of the scribbles turn out to be less than brilliant in the cold light of morning, and some are frankly incomprehensible, but on average it’s beneficial enough for me to continue the practice.

Yesterday’s note read: “Mechthild’s bosom”.

And yes, that was actually a usable note smiley.

Earlier this week, still flu-ridden and looking for some soothing, simple stitch-related activity that didn’t actually involve sitting up and holding a needle, I worked on the stitch direction for Hengest and Mechthild, my two Opus Anglicanum-inspired projects. Because they will be worked mostly in split stitch, the direction of the stitching is very important as it provides a large part of the shading, especially in Mechthild’s face. And so it is helpful to have a little diagram handy to refer to while stitching – it prevents one from trying to work out the direction on the fly and making a pig’s ear of it instead of a Queen’s face.

I started with Hengest the Medieval Unicorn on the grounds that he doesn’t have much of a face, or at least not as much as Mechthild, and that I was already quite sure about the majority of the stitching in his case – the most important bit being the fact that his body background will be stitched in long vertical lines following the outlines, with his spots worked in spirals to set them off.

Stitch direction for Hengest

Then on to Mechthild. Her face is going to be done in much the same way as King Ethelnute’s, and her neck in curved verticals like his. Her hair is almost self-directing because of the curly texture (a bit like Hengest’s mane). The challenge with her is her clothing – she has much more of it than Ethelnute, who ended with his collar! The cloak (of which more later) is relatively straightforward, just flowing lines along the outlines. Because there is so much more textile here than on Ethelnute, I will use shading-by-colour as well as shading-by-stitch-direction, with two shades each for the outside of the cloak and the visible bit of lining. But what about her bodice?

Two shades there as well, but I definitely want to use directional shading too. And the obvious use is in her, uhm, curves. I tried some possible outlines and came up with this:

Stitch direction for Mechthild, first try

It was the following night that my note was scribbled. Somehow my unconscious mind was convinced that Mechthild needed a bit of help in the bosom department. This could all go horribly wrong, but fortunately in pencil (or digitally drawn lines) only, so worth a try. My second version, although undoubtedly highlighting the lady’s assets, does make her look a little as if she is wearing one of those 1950s pointy bras; the effect wouldn’t be quite so strong in stitches, but even so I fear it might give the impression that her bosom is somehow a separate entity. In fact it would look rather like Hengest’s spots!

Stitch direction for Mechthild, second try

Back to the drawing board, and for now I have decided on a compromise between versions one and two – more emphasis on the curves, but without the spiral effect. There may still be a lot of unpicking and restitching on the horizon, but at least I’ve got a plan to work from.

Stitch direction for Mechthild, third try

Incidentally, while working on her stitch direction I also tweaked her cloak a bit. The medieval manuscript on which the cloak is mostly based shows it as quite a stripy affair in about four colours. I almost immediately changed that to two colours, hoping the colour closest to the bodice would look like the lining of the cloak, as though the edges were turned back. The only problem was that it didn’t. I changed a few lines and I think I’m closer to the effect I wanted now; but until it’s stitched, it’s open to improvements!

Mechthild with her new cloak