Hooray for Doodle Cloths

(If you hummed the title, or even sang it to yourself in an Ethel Merman type of voice, you’re probably not in the first flush of youth; or you just love musicals smiley.)

Anyway, back to the point. Which is that Doodle Cloths are Awesome!

My current doodle cloth

45 minutes with one and I…

1) know how to do Quaker stitch – although it didn’t yet establish whether I actually like it better than its alternatives split stitch and stem stitch (of which it is a combination);

Quaker stitch compared to split stitch (left) and stem stitch (right) Quaker stitch compared to split stitch (top) and stem stitch (bottom)

2) have tried out a stitch I saw on one of my mother-in-law’s embroideries and which I’ve christened “fly stitch couching”, and played with the placement of the fly stitches which couch the long straight stitches;

Fly stitch couching

3) have got fairly confident with the stitch sequence of plaited braid stitch (although it’ll need quite a bit more practice to get it to look even); and

Plaited braid stitch in Wonderfil Fruitti

4) found out that crewel wool is not the ideal thread for plaited braid stitch!

Plaited braid stitch in Renaissance Dyeing crewel wool

And all this in well under an hour – pretty profitable use of stitching time, I’d say!

Of course I couldn’t leave it at that.

The doodle cloth, continued

Another half hour or so and I:

5) found out that floche does work well for plaited braid stitch (but that when I try to stitch it in a curve I get spiky bits sticking out – must work on that); and

Curved plaited braid stitch in floche

6) determined that split stitch (on the right) seems to take tightish curves just as well as Quaker stitch (on the left), and moreover that I don’t like the contrast in Quaker stitch between the look of straight lines and the look of curves (just in case it’s just me not getting it right I’ll try and find some close-ups of the Quaker Tapestry, for which it was designed).

Quaker stitch and split stitch lettering

Apart from having a personal tutor on standby whenever you need one, this must be one of the best ways of improving your stitching; and it’s fun, too smiley!

Fickleness and rivers

Having decisively stated not more than three days ago that the Tree of Life project was firmly on the back burner, I found myself newly inspired to look at it, and I now have a revised and revamped Tree with an addition, a cleaned-up set of drawings, and detailed notes.

Looking at my change of heart more closely, I realised it fitted in with what appears to be a wider trend in my stitching. I’ve been adding water to things. More specifically to greenery. Twice in the past few months I’ve taken a design which had either a tree or grass in it, and added running water.

The first was a willow tree inspired by the logo of a pop-up café in Leiden. In the logo, it sits on top of a sun and is surrounded by an irregularly drawn double oval. When drawing my transfer pattern I ignored those, but added a few lines to indicate water (not very visible in the photograph – the blue arrow points to it). Well, willows often grow by water, don’t they? Perfectly understandable.

Water at the foot of the Paco Ciao willow

The second was the Rabbit and Carnations design which I cobbled together from two crewel embroidery books (thank you Jane Rainbow and Barbara Jackson). Neither of the original designs had water in it. But I felt it needed water. Unfortunately you can’t tell from the transferred pattern – I haven’t actually drawn it in as I want it to play freely around the grassy knolls and stones and therefore be stitched completely freehand, but the two blues in the selection of crewel wools are a bit of a giveaway…

Water playing around the grass and stones of the Rabbit and Carnations

Then there was the Tree of Life, which managed to inveigle itself back into the forefront of my mind. And I began to have an inkling of what was going on. It’s rivers. Rivers, and my mother.

Right from the start the Tree of Life, although it occurs in many cultures, for me has been connected with the description of the new Jerusalem in the book of Revelation (the very last bit of the Bible). It is why I surrounded it with words from that book, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”. Now when my mother was very ill and knew she was coming to the end of her earthly life, she was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life, which comes from that same description of the New Jerusalem; in fact, the Tree of Life is said to grow by the River of Life! Suddenly all that embroidered water made sense.

And now my Tree of Life has been given its River of Life to grow by. My husband says it looks more like a sea, with the tree on an island, and he has a point – but I didn’t want the grass to extend too far as it will be stitched relatively densely compared to the rest. So I’ll just pretend the tree is on a little grassy peninsula jutting out into the river smiley.

The river by which the Tree of Life grows

PS isn’t it interesting where inspiration can come from? Having looked into crewel work a bit more these past few weeks I decided I wanted to do something with a squirrel and some of those unlikely-looking Jacobean flowers. And would you believe it, last Friday I noticed that the carpet adorning our church’s coffee room has just the right sort of flowers on it!

A floral carpet with crewel-like flowers

Choosing colours and accommodating different materials

Winter in England can mean beautiful snowy vistas under an icy blue sky, but more often it’s just rather grey and damp. Yesterday edged towards the former, although the snow was just a sprinkling. But icy it definitely was, and I managed to slip on a treacherous little patch just outside our church. The ladies preparing for the mother & toddler group immediately treated the patch with salt, and offered to treat me with tea, but I didn’t think it was too bad so I just went home. And it isn’t too bad – no broken bones or torn ligaments or anything – just aching muscles in my leg and a stiff arm, probably from trying to break my fall. Unfortunately it’s my right arm. The one I stitch with.

It’s a good thing that my order of Milano Heathway crewel wools from Pearsall’s had arrived the day before; sorting through threads distracts the mind very effectively from both the muscle ache and the inability to stitch. And I had quite some sorting to do! You see, some of the Milano wools already in my stash have been set aside (for quite some time now…) in a box with my Tree of Life project, to stitch experimental leaves. And some I had picked earlier in the week for a crewel project based on parts of two designs from the two crewel embroidery books I bought last week. The remainder of my existing collection was in a third box. And now these new shades had arrived. It was time to get organised.

The wools and other materials for the Tree of Life Two new crewel books Materials for the crewel Rabbit and Carnations The wools in my latest Pearsall's order

One thing I had to do was decide how to store skeins that have been used; so far I’d put them back on the cards in two different ways, and that just looked messy. As one method could fairly easily be transformed into the other but not vice versa, the choice was easy. That done, I got all the shades together and organised them on binder rings. The Tree of Life project is definitely on the back burner at the moment, so I will re-pick the shades for that as and when I get into my experimental leaves again. For now I needed the shades for my Rabbit & Carnations (above), and my wool version of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. I deliberately do not call it a crewel version, as it will be in split stitch only and I have a feeling that doesn’t quite qualify!

Whatever it is called, the change from silk to wool brought with it the need for a little change to Hengest. A leopard may not be able to change its spots, but I would have to change Hengest’s – even in my original version they are already a little bigger than on the medieval cope by which he was inspired, but crewel wool being rather thicker than a strand of silk there would simply not be enough room (especially in the smaller spots) to comfortable work a dense spiral of stitches, and show off the texture and colour of the thread. Fewer, larger spots were what was needed.

Hengest for silk with small spots Hengest for wool with big spots

In addition, I printed him a bit larger than I would for the silk version, once at 9cm high and once at 10cm. The fabric I intended to use was Normandie, a cotton/linen mix, probably in the “natural” shade, which is a bit beige-y. I got out the fabric to see whether it would work with the white and greys I’d picked.

Will the fabric and threads go together?

I was happy with that combination, and cut the Normandie to sit comfortably in a 7″ hoop. I cut some calico backing and ironed both pieces of fabric. I then realised that if I wanted to use the 10cm version (and I did) it would really need an 8″ hoop. Fortunately I had cut rather generously, and found that it was just about big enough for the larger hoop. Phew. Now all I had to do was get an 8″ hoop. My deep hoop is already in use for Soli Deo Gloria, and it turns out I have no other wooden hoop (which I prefer for this sort of work) of that size. Fortunately Barnyarns stock them and so one is on its way to me as I write this; when it arrives I’ll bind it, and then Hengest is good to go!

Hengest transferred and the threads chosen

By the way, I love split stitch in wool – compared to a single strand of silk there is so much more thread to aim for!

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