Multi-functional trestles and felted jaws

Now that I’ve got my trestles-for-the-slate-frame, they turn out to be quite useful for other things as well!

We have a marquee which we use for our annual trade show, and which we occasionally lend to people. Last weekend our local churches used it for their stand at the village fête, but as we took it down after letting it dry out in our back garden the canvas got torn in two places. We can get mending patches to glue on, but they tend to work better if the tear is pre-mended by sewing it up. Guess who usually gets that job smiley.

Now the canvas part of the marquee is rather large and cumbersome, and not easy to manoeuvre around; I usually try to stretch the affected bit on some chair backs if I can. This time my husband tentatively suggested using the trestles. Tentatively, because as a man with plenty of tools himself (he owns vintage cars, after all) he knows people can get upset when you suggest putting a piece of equipment to non-standard use (think embroidery scissors for cutting a nail, or shiny new spanners for hitting a nail – different types of nail, of course). In this case, however, I felt it was a legitimate extension of the trestles’ proper function; we draped the canvas so that the tear was easily accessible, and yes, this round of mending was definitely a lot quicker than previous ones.

The canvas of a marquee stretched on the trestles Mending a marquee on the trestles

On to another bit of equipment: my trusty Lowery stand. It holds hoops and frames perfectly but the side clamp, like the rest of the Lowery, is made of sturdy metal, and I’m always slightly worried it will damage the hoop. Cue a doubled bit of felt folded around the edge of the hoop before inserting it into the clamp.

The felt I used in the Lowery clamp The felt folded around the edge of a hoop

This works perfectly well, but it can be a bit fiddly to keep the felt in place when feeding the hoop into the jaws (that sounds rather odd, but let me reassure you no hoops were hurt in this procedure), and when not in use the felt has to be kept somewhere; I usually keep it in the clamp, but then I undo the clamp forgetting it’s there and it falls out and gets pounced on by the cat or I step on it. There must be an easier, more permanent way of doing this, surely? Well, there is always sticky felt, or failing that ordinary felt and double-sided sticky tape. And why I didn’t think of that years ago is beyond me. But when the idea did come to me I wanted to try it out immediately, so with the works phone parked nearby on the floor in case of people wanting to place an order, I plonked myself down beside the Lowery with felt, sticky tape, and two types of scissors (see above remark about improper use of tools) and got to work.

Ready to put some more permanent felt on the jaws of the Lowery

And did it work? Yes it did. Not too much later I had two neatly felt-covered clamp jaws, and a quick trial run showed it to clamp a hoop beautifully; as protected as with the loose felt, but possibly even a little firmer and more secure than before because this felt can’t slip. Victory!

Felt attached to the top jaw Felt attached to the movable bottom jaw The felted clamp in action

The pros and cons of versatility

A friend just posted something on Facebook about Constance Howard, who set up a Department of Embroidery at the Goldsmiths College of Art. The video picked up on her opinion that “you don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well!”

There is a lot of sense in that. My mother-in-law, who does probably know hundreds of stitches, in recent years has said that she prefers to embroider using only about a handful of them – stem stitch, fly stitch, chain stitch, buttonhole, French knot – because with them she can make whatever she wants. As this pretty-much-exclusively-chain-stitched tea cosy demonstrates.

Tea cosy embroidered in chain stitch

On the other hand, I do think that my willingness to try all sorts of techniques has been helpful to my development as an embroiderer, if only because it showed me which things I liked and wanted to learn more about (hello goldwork!) and which things were just not for me (I’m looking at you, stumpwork). If I’d never ventured beyond my first steps in stitching I would be doing only cross stitch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m glad I did try other things! So I’m not sure I agree with her belief that “a desire to try everything can actually have a detrimental effect on your work as a textile artist”.

When I mentioned this to a friend who knew Constance Howard (through his grandmother, an accomplished needle artist), he said “‘Know (about) and have decided not to use’ is a perfectly valid state for any stitch – if you don’t learn/try them you don’t know whether you want to use them.” And I would agree with that. I get what CH says about versatility being a possible enemy of artistic development, because you can get bogged down in adding lots of variety for the sake of it, or feel unable to decide which of the umpteen techniques and stitches in your repertoire to use (although I have found that often a design suggests its own technique); and there is always the danger of being a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, and master (or mistress) of none. Still, on the whole I feel you need to know things in order to make an informed decision as to whether they are appropriate for the design you’re working on.

Of course the easiest way of avoiding that decision is to get a kit and follow the instructions, and sometimes it’s really enjoyable to do just that. Did I mention that stumpwork was just not my thing? I wonder how that little stumpwork butterfly made its way into my Sarah Homfray shopping basket a while ago… I’ve even made a start on it! It’s challenging because I’m trying things I haven’t done before, reassuring because it also includes stitches and techniques I’m already familiar with, and relaxing because someone else has made all the decisions for me smiley.

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit The butterfly attached and wire couched

PS With regards to the Jack-of-all-trades thing – is it really such a bad thing to be moderately good at lots of things? I will never be as good at goldwork or crewel embroidery as some of the frighteningly talented stitchers out there; but I enjoy my projects, I produce quite decorative results, and I am creating something that is as good as I am capable of creating. You don’t have to achieve Grade 8 in order to enjoy playing the piano, after all!

Getting it wrong and starting again – the joy of designing

Designing can occasionally feel like the famous procession at Echternach, going three steps forward and two steps back. Take Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. No, I’m not talking about the spot debacle – that was just me not paying attention. It’s when something in the design just doesn’t work.

In the case of Hengest it was (among other things) his chest band. In my original design, meant to be worked in silk with a bit of goldwork and gem embellishments, the chest band is bright golden yellow with colourful pip beads all along its length. But then the spots are meant to be “coloured white” – the very lightest shades of various colours. Wool Hengest’s spots are rather more colourful than that, so giving him such gaudy tack simply wouldn’t look right.

Very well then, we need a different chest band. Leather? Gold and leather? That sounds quite good – an outline in golden yellow with brown for the main body of the band; perhaps with a few honey-gold pip beads.

A changed chest band

But as I was working on it, I liked it less and less. Too little golden yellow (it was hardly noticeable once I started adding the brown) and the brown itself was much too dark. Unfortunately the next shade of this brown in my stash is rather light, and I wasn’t at all sure that would look any better.

The dark brown doesn't work But will the light brown be any better?

Still, this darker brown was definitely not working, so out it came, and soon it was reduced to a pile of rejected fluff.

Cutting out the dark brown A pile of rejected fluff

It was getting rather late, but as I was on a roll, I added the extra rows of golden yellow.

Extra gold

And at my next embroidery group meeting I filled in with the lighter brown.

Light brown leather

It is rather a light shade for leather, but with the rest of Hengest being so pale and pastel it does look better on him. However, without the coloured pip beads the effect is a bit more solid than I’d like, and even the honey-gold pip beads don’t really look the part with the wool. Let’s try adding a little swirly pattern in a slightly lighter gold:

A swirly gold pattern saves the day

And that is why Wool Hengest’s chest band looks the way it does. Is it too much to hope that his bridle and mane will work first time round…?

Recycling a memory

After my mother died, a little over three years ago, I had to clear out the rented flat she had lived in since 1973 (with solid help from my aunt who lives in the same tower block), and decide what I was going to take back with me to England, and what would be sold or given to charity. Among the things I took were several duvet covers (Dutch duvet covers have tucking-in strips at the bottom, which I sorely miss on the ones I can buy here), one of which was a particular favourite of mine. The seam at the top was frayed but otherwise it was fine, so I mended it – by hand, as sewing machines and I don’t really get on – and we’ve used it ever since (not continually, I hasten to say).

A mended duvet cover

But last week I had to admit defeat. It’s not just seams coming apart, it’s the actual fabric that is perishing.

A duvet cover beyond repair

Is it stupid to cry over a duvet cover? Perhaps not if it’s the memories more than the cover itself. Even so, it’s no use crying over spilt duvet covers, as they say, and so I had to decide what to do with it. Consign it to the rag bag? Turn it into dusters? Or… recycle it as protective flaps for my slate frame instead of the tissue paper I was given when framing up?

A slate frame covered in tissue paper

The more I thought of it, the more it seemed like a spiffing idea. Bearing in mind the size of the actual design I’d be working on (rather than the size of the twill fabric mounted on the frame) I sketched a few ideas, took some measurements, and decided to go with two 35cm square flaps, and two 40cm square ones; with a double-folded seam (0.5cm, then 1cm) that meant I’d need two 38cm squares and two 43cm ones. Even staying well away from the perishing edges (shame I couldn’t re-use the seams) there should be plenty of fabric in a double duvet cover!

A sketch and the necessary measurements

Now I was all set to do this by hand (did I mention my less-than-cordial relationship with sewing machines?) – and then my mother-in-law came to stay. Although nowadays she prefers to sew by hand, she is a whiz with the sewing machine (many, many quilts bear witness to this) and so I enlisted her help. My husband got the old Singer down and installed it on the kitchen table, I cut the squares, my mother-in-law finger-pressed the first narrow seam, I ironed the full seams, she sewed them, I read bits of the sewing machine manual and re-wound bobbins and ironed the final squares. Teamwork!

Finger-pressed turn-under Pinning the hems Mother-in-law subdues the sewing machine Ready to iron

Behold, the finished squares. As it happened, the thread on the bobbin ran out halfway through and a little part of one hem was left unsewn, so there is a little bit of hand sewing in them after all smiley.

Square 1 Square 2 Square 3 Square 4 A bit of hand stitching

Here they in situ, attached to the webbing with safety pins, ready to do their protective job. At my next class I’ll ask how to attach the top and bottom flaps when the fabric is rolled up on the bars.

The side flaps folded over the twill All four flaps folded over the twill The flaps folded back to show the stitching area And the view that will distract me

And so bits of old duvet cover will aid me in my stitching while reminding me of both my mother and my mother-in-law – a great outcome, don’t you think?

My 10% trestles

Right, so I’ve got the slate frame, and all framed up too – now where do I put it? Thinking about it, that question could go in two different directions, so first I’ll briefly touch upon the one I didn’t intend.

Although that was not what I was driving at, the question could mean “where do I store it?”, and although the easy answer to that is “in my craft room”, that won’t really do. Do I just keep it in the big sturdy plastic wrapper I was given in my starter kit? And if so, how do I transport it? So the slightly more complicated answer turned out to be “in a bag”. Or more accurately, “in a very very big bag”. This one was made for me by Adele at Little Thimble Co based on measurements and requirements I gave her. In hindsight, an inch less all around would have sufficed, but at least the frame isn’t cramped in there!

The quilted bag for my slate frame The quilted bag for my slate frame

What I actually meant when I asked the question was “where do I put it when I’m using it?” As soon as I saw the slate frame in its full glory I realised there wasn’t a hope of using it with any of the stands I have, whether of the floor, seat or lap variety. It would have to be trestles. And after a brief play with the ones we use for our annual trade fair I decided to splash out, not on the £500+ RSN ones, but a more modestly priced pair of Ikea ones which set me back almost exactly a tenth of that. If I was going to do a lot of ecclesiastical embroidery I’d have called them my tithe trestles, but as Baptists don’t go in much for vestments and altar cloths I’ll have to stick with the more secular-sounding 10% trestles.

My husband is an engineer, so no sooner had the box arrived than he was on the floor, putting the first of the trestles together. Here he is with our inevitable assistant.

Mr Figworthy building one of the trestles, supervised by Lexi

When one trestle had been completed, I was entrusted with the pile of bits that would make up the second one.

One trestle down, one to go

So would the frame fit on the trestles? And more to the point, once the trestles were in the right position to support the frame, would I be able to fit my legs in between? A quick trial run demonstrated that as long as I didn’t indulge in manspreading (unlikely, you will agree) then yes, I would fit. We also found that with a modest one-hole tilt (one end of the trestle pegged one hole further up than the other end) there was no need for added stops on the lower ends of the trestles, as gravity and friction kept the slate frame from slipping. Even with a two-hole tilt it was reasonably secure, and I don’t think I’ll often use it at that angle.

Trying the trestles on for size

And here is the trestles-and-frame set-up in what will be its designated spot whenever I want to work on my Certificate piece. Isn’t it idyllic?

My Certificate stitching set-up

PS Don’t the trestle shelves look like the purrfect place for a pussycat to curl up and have a nap? So far Lexi has resisted the temptation.

Poland to the rescue!

Last month I wrote about the stitched models I’d been producing for the No Place Like Home workshop, and I mentioned that one of the shades of Lana I was using in them has been discontinued by Madeira. When Barnyarns told me this I went on a quest to find a shop that had one or two spools left. One spool will do me 200 kits, so no need to go overboard. Unfortunately it soon became clear that my only option in the UK was an eBay Buy It Now offer of five spools at a cost of about £21. Other shops who still showed the colour on their website usually wrote back immediately to say they didn’t actually have any left; one shop which, like Barnyarns, allowed the order to be processed, cancelled it after a few days and when I rang (as their email said it had been cancelled at my request) said that they’d never stocked the variegated Madeira Lana at all, so they were at a loss why it was shown on their website.

A post on the Mary Corbet Facebook group brought a fair few suggestions, but mostly from shops which I’d already found and rejected because they were in the US or Australia or New Zealand – with the postage that these countries charge for sending anything to the UK, let alone something as bulky as spools of threads, and considering that anything over £15 attracts VAT plus Royal Mail’s frankly criminal £8 handling fee, it would simply be too expensive.

So as we are, for the moment, still part of the EU, I looked for shops in Europe. I found three, all of which confirmed that they did have at least two spools of the variegated red in stock, and as they had all been equally helpful by email I went for the cheapest one, a Polish company called Haftix Pasmanteria. I put two spools of red in the shopping basket, and then added a few others to see if that would change the postage. It didn’t so I got a light green which Barnyarns didn’t have any more, plus the brown and sandy orange which are also used in the kits. Including postage they set me back only 35p more than the set of five reds would have been.

And here they are, less than a week after I ordered them – three cheers for Haftix Pasmanteria!

My Poland-to-the-rescue spools of Madeira Lana