Half a C and no D

I really enjoy the Royal School of Needlework’s classes. Years ago I started out with some of their one-hour workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show (blackwork, silk shading, goldwork [twice] and crewelwork). I then did some day classes (goldwork [twice] and Shisha). Then a one-on-one goldwork tutorial. The Opus Anglicanum retreat sort of counts as well, as the tutors were both RSN-trained. And I’m signed up for a three-day goldwork class this summer (the only one of the pictures below that’s not my stitching, as I haven’t actually done it yet). Did I mention I enjoy their classes?

RSN workshop kits Finished workshop projects RSN day classes
RSN one-on-one tutorial Opus Anglicanum retreat RSN 3-day goldwork class - the tutor's stitched model, not mine!

It’s not surprising, therefore, that over the years I’ve considered (in a rather vague, unfocused sort of way) the RSN’s more formal teaching programmes. There have been some changes in the range they offer (the apprenticeship, for example, doesn’t exist any more) but there is still a fairly bewildering variety of options. The ones I looked at are the Certificate & Diploma, the Future Tutor Programme, and the Degree course, and I found it quite difficult to work out which was best for what. I decided to ask them.

They replied: The easiest way to explain the difference between our three distinct programmes is to look at where graduates can go when they’re finished. The Degree is a springboard to a creative career in fashion, interiors or textile art. The Certificate/Diploma enables you to develop solid skills and become part of a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards in hand embroidery. The Future Tutor Programme is your route into teaching for the RSN (on Day Classes, Degree and Certificate/Diploma Programmes) and into the commercial Studio, specialising in bespoke commissions, conservation and restoration of historic embroideries. Freelance business skills are also taught on this course, as we anticipate graduates will branch out in their own professional practice as well as becoming part of the RSN team.

Well, that made things a lot clearer as to what each course was for. But what exactly did I want? I worked out that I definitely did not want a career in fashion, interiors or textile art, so the Degree was out. And although I enjoy teaching, the Future Tutor programme is probably a little over the top for what I am likely to want to do; unless you’re going to make a career out of teaching and possibly studio work, three years of full-time study at a cost of a little under £35,000 is rather too much of an investment in both time and money. When my husband retires I would like to develop Mabel’s Fancies a bit more, but not to that extent. That left the C & D, which would give me a more solid grounding for any teaching I would like to do in the future – and also undoubtedly benefit my designing – without taking over three years of my life and requiring a second mortgage.

The Certificate consists of four modules, the Diploma of six; and in those modules you learn all about the various embroidery techniques. Surely that sounds ideal? Add to that the fact that my one-on-one goldwork tutor had suggested that the C & D might be just the thing for me and you may wonder why I didn’t immediately sign up. Well, two things kept me back. One was cost. When I first looked into this programme, it gave the overall cost as a little over £10,000 in tuition fees. Modest compared to the Future Tutor programme, perhaps, but still far beyond what funds I am willing to allocate to this. The other factor was the techniques taught in the various modules. I greatly admire blackwork and the stunning pieces of embroidery people produce with it – but I have no desire whatsoever to learn it in great detail myself. Likewise canvas work or appliqué. I’d be spending a lot of time on things I was greatly interested in, like goldwork, and things I was quite interested in, like Jacobean embroidery, but I’d also spend a lot of time, and money, on things that don’t really do it for me. And so I relegated the programme to the back of my mind and booked another day class.

Enter Jo.

I’ve known Jo for years through the Cross Stitch Forum, and she came to a few of my workshops (Hardanger and goldwork, I think). And one day she announced on the Forum that she had signed up for the Certificate, at the RSN satellite location in Rugby. Rugby. Three miles from where I live. And she mentioned that you could do the modules on a pay-as-you-go basis, per tuition day. It was the nudge I needed.

I contacted the RSN and asked whether it would be possible to do certain modules only, preferably the Certificate and Diploma in goldwork and possibly the Certificate in Jacobean embroidery. Hari Sparkes, the Education Manager, explained to me that I was quite at liberty to do only the modules I wanted, with a few provisos. Everyone starts with Jacobean crewelwork. And learns to work on a slate frame (something I would happily have omitted if possible). And although I could then go on to goldwork (which is usually the fourth module), I would not be able to do the Diploma goldwork module unless I completed the entire Certificate first. Also, if I decided to do the two modules only, I would not get a physical certificate to show I had successfully completed them, although I could still have my assignments officially assessed. Well, one module of goldwork is better than none; and a piece of paper is nice but not essential for my future activities – I’m happy to do without that.

So. I’ve done it. I’ve signed up for the Royal School of Needlework Certificate in Technical Hand Embroidery, which is as daunting as it sounds. My first tuition day will be on 22nd May.

I will enjoy it!


A willowy tale

Have you ever taken a close look at cotton shopping bags? I must say I haven’t much – there’s a Christmas At Kew Gardens one my mother-in-law gave me which is very pretty, and I do like the ones I make myself by attaching bits of Hardanger to plain bags smiley, but otherwise they don’t generally attract my attention.

Christmas At Kew shopping bag Mabel's Stitching Bug shopping bag

Except once. It was last December on a train in The Netherlands, where I was visiting family. I’d been to see a friend in The Hague and was on my way back to my aunt, when I noticed a young woman sitting across the gangway with a cotton shopping bag hanging from her shoulder and lying, slightly crumpled, in her lap. There was a logo on it of a roughly drawn willow tree above a sun, all surrounded by an irregular rounded rectangle and looking a bit like an Egyptian cartouche.

I really liked the shape of the tree, which was rather bent; as it was a line drawing without a lot of detail I thought I’d be able to capture it relatively easily, so I made some surreptitious sketches in a small notebook. Then, as she got up to get off the train, I noticed a name on the bag: Paco Ciao. I didn’t have a computer with me and I haven’t got a smart phone, so I had to wait until I was back in England to look up that name. It turned out to be a pop-up café in Leiden.

It wasn’t difficult to find their website; I wrote to them to ask permission, and unlike another shop I contacted recently (watch this space), the person replying on behalf of the company that had designed the café’s logo was extremely relaxed about the whole thing – slightly amused, even. He said that as long as the design was not identical to the logo, it was fine for me to do whatever I wanted with it. This made me think he was not an embroiderer or particularly familiar with embroidery, because unless I did the whole thing in black outlines it would automatically look quite different from their drawing!

Pretty much from the start I knew I wanted to do the tree only, not the border and the sun; and that I would like the water to be fairly prominent. I decided on not-too-bright colours, three shades each of blue, green and brown.

The start of Ciao Willow - choosing colours

Then came choosing stitches. Stem stitch for the trunk and long and short shading for the grass were quickly decided on. The hanging branches I wanted to do in double seed stitch, so I started (at the bottom left) with a single thread, and two little stitches for each leaf. But to get the effect I wanted, I found I was working the two halves of the double seed stitch in the same holes, so that I really might as well use two strands and get on a whole lot quicker!

Working out how to stitch the hanging branches

But in that case, hmm, I could use blending so instead of three shades of green I had five to play with. I did the first branch in light/light-medium/medium and then realised that if I had thought it out beforehand I would have stitched the lower branches darker and the upper branches lighter. But actually it worked out well to have the darker branch in the middle! Just as well, as I wasn’t going to unpick a whole branch worth of tiny straight stitches…

Colour distribution within the hanging branches

I was particularly pleased with how the water turned out. I felt a little bit nervous about using chain stitch because I thought it might be too chunky compared to the rest, but it worked. The three shades worked in randomly wavy lines gave a nice impression of flowing water.

Water flows at the foot of the tree

So the project was finished; but I wasn’t completely happy with the bottom right-hand branch – it had too much light brown in it. So a day or two later I put the fabric back in the hoop, added a few little medium brown lines, and liked the result much better!

The original branch A few extra stitches

As you know I am not much of a finisher, so the completed embroidery was just going to be stored in my folder of stitched models. But it seemed a shame not to have this little tree on show, so I decided to mount it in a woodgrain flexi-hoop with a card backing, as I had done with Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird. First up: choose a hoop size. 5″ to give the tree a bit of breathing space, or 4″ for a cosier, more bijoux finish? I decided on the latter.

Materials for finishing the tree

I didn’t take pictures of the back of this particular finish, but the idea is that rather than gathering the surplus fabric and backing it with felt, painstakingly attached with tiny stitches (like the one below left), you tuck in the trimmed fabric and hold it in place with a disc of stiff card (middle and right).

A felt-backed finish A card-backed finish - materials A card-backed finish

And that is how Ciao Willow was finished, so it can now sit in my craft room for me to look at and enjoy!

Ciao Willow finished in its hoop

Further excursions into needlepoint

I blame Fiber Talk. There I was, perfectly content doing just Hardanger, freestyle embroidery, goldwork, Shisha, crewelwork, embellished embroidery and chunky stuff (not a technical term, but I don’t think the Christmas Wreath counts as stumpwork and I don’t know what else to call it), and they get me interested in canvaswork, or needlepoint as they call it. You may remember that I indulged in a little needlepoint recently, and I had rather hoped that had got it out of my system. And then, in my chronological trawl through the Fiber Talk archives, I came to this Midweek Chat. And I was lost. Because one of the pictures shown with the podcast was this:

Carole Lake's Bali Ha'i

It’s a Carole Lake freebie called Bali Ha’i. It uses Caron threads in the shade called Tahiti, which I’ve always loved. And in the middle of the design there is a double fan doubled, which I think is a perfectly irresistible name, like pearl purl. Until recently, I had never even heard of double fan doubleds, if that is the correct plural. But I love the name, I love the look, and here was one in one of my favourite Caron colours, in a project small enough to be doable in between all the other projects I should really be getting on with. What could I do? I downloaded it.

However, looking at the list of materials needed I realised two things: firstly, that even though the list was quite short, I had only one of the five required threads (and I wasn’t going to buy £15 worth of Caron threads just for this small project), and secondly, that the threads were chosen to work on 18ct canvas, and I had intended to do it on 24ct Congress cloth. And then there was a third consideration, which was that you can’t put Congress cloth in a hoop, and unlike my earlier small experiments this project couldn’t easily be worked in hand. It looked like the Figworthy Bali Ha’i was scuppered before it had even started. Or was it?

Looking at the picture of the design, it seemed fairly “open”, so working it on 24ct instead of 18ct would probably just result in a slightly denser look. I remembered once having bought some cheap stretcher bars, and after some rummaging found them in the back of my hoop drawer. And a quick trawl through my box of Caron threads yielded a rather pleasing green-and-yellow combination of Lemon & Lime Watercolours (3-ply cotton) and Waterlilies (variegated stranded silk), Jade Impressions (wool/silk mix) and an anonymous green Soie Cristale (solid stranded silk). Together with a not-quite-gold-not-quite-silver Kreinik #4 braid, which I decided would do as a stand-in for the required Kreinik #8 on my finer canvas, it made quite a pretty picture against the background of my black Congress cloth.

Black Congress cloth on 6 inch stretcher bars Green and yellow threads for Bali Ha'i

I was all set to go. But then I had a session of thread-rearranging, as some of my boxes were getting terribly crowded and threads don’t like to be cramped, and although the box of Caron variegated threads was one of the few that didn’t actually need rearranging, I did come across some orange Soie Cristale in one of my silk boxes which turned out to go very nicely with Caron Tequila, which I happened to have in both Watercolours and Waterlilies; I didn’t have an orange Impressions, but I did have a Wildflowers (an indivisible cotton about the weight of a perle #8). It’s not as matt or as soft as Impressions, but unless you knew the original design specified Impressions, you wouldn’t notice.

Orange/yellow/pink threads for Bali Ha'i

So now I had two possible colourways. It was beginning to look as if I’d have to do two versions!

Green or Orange?

After some consideration I decided to use the Tequila one first, on the grounds that it was brighter and therefore more like the original. I clamped the stretcher bars to my seat frame, and set about stitching my very first double fan doubled. It was a new thing for me to be allowed, nay told to work with a very long thread (72″ in fact) – I tend to use longish lengths of thread but every tutor at every workshop or day class or retreat always tells you to use short ones. Obviously needlepoint is different! I did figure, though, that 72″ on 18ct meant that 54″ should be ample on my 24ct. If not, I’d just have to start again smiley.

Now the instructions described the first few rounds of stitching in detail, noting exactly which previous stitches to weave over and under, but then it just said “continue to weave over and under”. Unfortunately it was clear from the first two rounds that it wasn’t a simple over-and-under, as you sometimes went over or under two previous stitches. I tried to work out the pattern, then decided to see if I could find a video. I found two, one without any comment or sound at all which was oddly disconcerting, and one by Debbie Rowley of Debbee’s Designs.

Now I know her from Fiber Talk (Gary must be her biggest fan) and I remember Christine mentioning in one of the podcasts that Debbie Rowley had said not to count but to feel the rhythm of the stitch. Hoping I’d be able to work out the rhythm from the video, I started watching. And right where my written instructions left off, she gave me the vital clue: over and under, yes, but over and under groups of threads, which (especially as she worked the stitch in two colours) were actually relatively easy to identify (even though she did work them opposite to my written instructions – over/under where mine said under/over). I watched the rest of the video, activated my sense of rhythm, and produced a… well, not perfect but perfectly acceptable double fan doubled. Yay me!

My first double fan doubled

The Kreinik #4 feels a little thin for the motif; I’m working at 3/4 scale (and yes, the 54″ length of Caron was plenty long enough), but Kreinik #4 is, as far as I know, half the thickness of #8, so the effect is understandably a little less pronounced. Still, it gives a nice bit of sparkle. At this point I wasn’t very happy with the threads showing through from the back – I worked them exactly as instructed, so the travelling threads are presumably where they are meant to be; perhaps it’s just that canvas is more open than the fabrics I’m used to. Fortunately most of the empty canvas around the central motif is actually covered as the project progresses, so I was hopeful it would turn out all right. But just to make sure the stranded threads filled as much space as possible, I even used my stiletto as a laying tool!

Using a laying tool

Then, as I’d done several bits of the Soie Cristale but had not yet used the Impressions (the two solid colours in the design) I realised that in the original these are a dark and a light red. In my green colour scheme the two solids did happen to be a dark and a light (albeit the other way around from the original) as those were the only greens I had in these threads, but for the bright colour scheme I had for some reason picked a dark orange silk that was very similar to the solid cotton Wildflowers thread I was using – and I did actually have two lighter oranges! However, there was no way I was going to unpick the silk stitches I had already done, so I looked for Wildflowers that might offer some contrast with the orange silk. In the end, I decided on the variegated yellow/orange; the variegation on it is gradual and mild enough to work as a replacement for the solid colour.

A change of colour

One of the things I really like about this design is that it looks complete at the various intermediate stages; the center with its mosaic stitch border works perfectly well on its own, and again when the Scottish stitch border is added, and again after the half Rhodes border (the outer one in the picture below). That one, by the way, was tricky to start and finish. On embroidery fabric like Lugana I would have used a waste knot running underneath the length of the border, but because of the open nature of canvas (even a 24ct canvas) that was simply not an option here. I’m getting quite creative in finding ways of fastening on and off! That did give me an idea, however. In time I want to work the green combination as well, so why not try that on 25ct Lugana or 22ct Hardanger fabric? It may turn out that fabric isn’t sturdy or stiff or solid enough to stand up to the needlepoint stitches, but then I’ll just find out, won’t I? And it will certainly make starting and finishing easier! I’ve even got ideas running through my head of a double fan doubled as the central motif in a Hardanger design…

Looking complete after the half Rhodes border

But let’s not get carried away, and get back to stitching on canvas. Two more borders to go, both very relaxing once I got into the rhythm (as were the half Rhodes and Scottish borders; it’s quite meditative, this needlepoint thing!) and Bali Ha’i was finished – my first proper needlepoint project (not counting the teeny weeny experiment). I’m quite proud! And I’ll let you know how the fabric version turns out.

Bali Ha'i finished

Incidentally, if you Google “Carole Lake Bali Ha’i” you’ll as likely as not find a link to the Caron site, where she was once a Featured Designer, and where you can also find the chart. This reminded me that once, at the dawn of Mabel’s career, I too featured on Caron’s website. I’ve not re-read it, so I can’t tell you whether it is by now horribly embarrassing, but it does have a link to a freebie design smiley.

Counting the uncountable

You may have noticed the linen I’m stitching Llandrindod on; it’s definitely a surface embroidery fabric, with its lovely dense weave which makes it really easy to put the needle exactly where you want it. On the other hand, it’s an evenweave. So, having the sort of mind I have, I wondered – could you use it for counted techniques, say, Hardanger? In fact Hardanger in particular, as the dense weave would contrast rather nicely with the cut areas. Worth a try, would’t you say?

There’s a simple little cross design I use for sympathy cards and which, unfortunately, I have stitched so often I can now do it from memory. Actually that’s rather nice when I stitch it for that purpose, as it means I can think of the person who passed away, and the people the card will be sent to, while stitching it. But it also made it an ideal project to try out this linen.

Now I usually stitch this on hand-dyed Hardanger fabric, which is 22ct; that makes the design a good size for putting into a card. This linen is 40ct. And did I mention the weave is dense? I decided this was definitely a take-off-my-glasses project, letting my short-sighted eyes do what they do best, which is look at things extremely close up. To give you an idea of the size, this is a 3″ hoop, and the needle resting on the fabric is a size 26 tapestry needle. The thread is a perle #8.

Starting Hardanger on surface linen

The surface stitching was fine. Even the touches of gold worked in blending filament were OK. But the cutting… oh my. I did it, without snipping any of the stitches, and I even managed to tuck in all the cut ends as I usually do; but I can tell you now that this is definitely a one-off! Here it is, all finished:

The finished Hardanger cross on surface linen

And here it is again, accompanied by a match (and no, it’s not one of those extra long ones smiley)

Hardanger on 40ct linen, with match

So I won’t be using this fabric for anything counted again, but it is lovely for surface embroidery, and I am seriously thinking of discarding the piece of Normandie with Soli Deo Gloria drawn on it and re-transferring the design onto this fabric. Well, I won’t discard the Normandie entirely; I could use it for a different version, perhaps in wool or stranded cotton, using different stitches. But the silk-and-gold version – yes, I do think this is just the fabric for it.

Welsh inspiration

Almost every year my husband and I travel to Wales for a weekend around the end of March, to participate in the rally organised by the Light Car & Edwardian Section of the Vintage Sports-Car Club (usually sensibly abbreviated to LC&ES). We all meet up on the Friday, do a navigation rally on the Saturday, and there is a trial (a type of competition) on the Sunday at which we generally marshal. It’s not like some events where people dress up in period clothing, but a few years ago I couldn’t resist smiley.

The Welsh rally in 2016

That’s our 1925 Austin 7 Chummy. Unfortunately it is in need of a lot of TLC at the moment, so our transport this year was a bit grander – here she is with Eldest and his bride last year (Lily the Lagonda does make a splendid wedding vehicle). My mother used to say the car made her feel like royalty, so that it felt almost compulsory to wave graciously as you pass people.

Our transport for this year (minus bride and groom)

We’re usually dressed up in waterproofs and/or thermals (it’s not exactly warm in an open car in Wales in March) so I’m afraid we don’t really live up to Lily’s glamour, but that doesn’t dampen our enjoyment! The rain sometimes does… this year, however, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather.

With Lily the Lagonda at Usk reservoir

You may wonder what any of this has to do with stitching. Well, the Welsh rally splendidly demonstrates how all sorts of things can inspire an embroidery design. Some years ago, for example, we passed several banks of blackthorn on our way there. They had only just come out, their blossom pristine and white, like a frothy wave or yards and yards of crumpled up lace. I sketched a few ideas, and the result was Blackthorn.


The rally is based in Llandrindod Wells, and every year on the Sunday morning we go to early morning Communion at the local church before rejoining the vintage car gang to help at the trial. The vicar and several members of the congregation know us by now, and we joke that we’re regulars at Holy Trinity – we attend regularly once a year.

As is usual, we are always handed a service sheet, and last year I noticed for the first time a line drawing of a Celtic cross on the front. The shape appealed to me, and I took the sheet with me. Back home that evening I made some sketches and scribbled a few notes, and over the months various ideas were added. Possibly partly because of the rather rough lines of the drawing I got the impression it was based on a stone cross, but from the start I envisaged it with colour in it, and possibly goldwork. It wasn’t until a week or so ago that I took my drawing and tentatively put some facets into some of the shapes. I liked the effect, and a jewelled cross called “Llandrindod” was born! (This year the vicar explained to me that the cross is the logo of the Church in Wales in general, not of their parish in particular, but to me it will always be associated with Llandrindod Wells.)

The colour model for Llandrindod

Some of the colours I’d picked were similar to the ones in Soli Deo Gloria, so that was easy – I had the Soie d’Alger colours to hand! I didn’t really want to try and find the right shades for the emerald and the diamond, remembering the trouble I had just to get the right blue dye lot recently, so I had a rummage in my collection of Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk, and found some that would do very well. A few shades of Petite Treasure Braid will add a bit of sparkle.

Materials chosen and design transferred

And here is the project in progress! The centre of the gems will be done in padded satin stitch, and in the picture below the outlining and about half of the padding has been done but the top layers are as yet missing. That is because I wanted to take the cross to Llandrindod to show to the vicar, and I wanted it to have some more colour than just the light gold of the four quarter circles (which would normally be the first bits to be stitched). It also made for a good travel project that way – the split stitch outlines were done at home before we left, so I could fill in the padding without the need for magnification or special lighting, as it doesn’t have to be particularly precise (well, not as precise as the top stitching, anyway).

Llandrindod in progress

Often when I take a travel project (and I’m sure many of you will recognise this) I come home with it looking exactly as it did when we left, but this time I actually had time for some embroidery – while acting as Driving Standards Observers on the Saturday rally there were several lulls, during which I could put in a few quick padding stitches. And how is this for a stitching spot smiley?

An unusual stitching spot