Thoroughbred goldwork

Months before I decided to do the RSN Certificate, my husband gave me an early birthday present in the form of a three-day goldwork class at Hampton Court Palace. As you may know, I take my Certificate classes at the Rugby branch, which is decidedly less glamorous. On the whole I don’t mind, as it’s a lot easier to get to from where we live, and most of the time you’re looking at your embroidery, not the view. Even so, there is something a bit special about doing your needlework in such grand surroundings. Just to give you an idea, here is the view from one of the classroom windows, and a view from the Palace Gardens up to our classroom. Impressive, huh smiley?

View from one of the windows Our classroom seen from the Palace Gardens

Strictly speaking the class wasn’t goldwork but metal thread embroidery, as the design includes silver, copper and several coloured metallics. The kit was presented in this rather stylish purple bag, and there were seat frames to use for the duration of the course. Unfortunately, this was the week of the heatwave, so we were all very grateful that several fans were also provided!

The course kit

The seat frame proved a bit of a problem; as I have mentioned before, the tilt on the RSN seat frames does not really suit me when wearing a skirt or dress – and on this occasion I was not only wearing a dress, but a calf-length one at that. Fortunately we were all girls together, so I hitched up my skirts as much as was necessary and managed to use the frame fairly successfully.

The title of the class was “Queen’s Silks”, and the subject a stylised racehorse with its jockey wearing the Queen’s colours. I had worked out from the picture on the RSN website that I was familiar with most of the techniques used, so I would mainly use the class for improving in those, but there was one which I had not used before and had been wanting to try: S-ing. That wouldn’t be tackled until day three, however. Day one started with soft string padding. First we waxed an enormous length of yellow soft cotton, then cut enough lengths to fill the shape that would be worked in raised cutwork (part of the tail). In order to get the shape, you start couching down in the middle and work towards the end, cutting threads as you go (always from the bottom of the bundle) and keeping the cut tapered by pointing the scissors towards the tip of the shape.

Soft string padding Bending back the threads you want to keep The underlying threads are cut to a taper

You might think that, having completed the padding, we would now cover it, but no – that too would have to wait until day three. First we moved on to couched Jap. Normally you would couch this in a thread as close to the colour of the metal as possible, to keep it almost invisible, but in this design we used coloured couching threads to add shading. I think Helen McCook, the tutor (who actually wrote the RSN goldwork book!) called this Italian shading, but I’m not absolutely sure. It is slightly different from or nué in that the couching stitches are placed in a regular bricking pattern, and the shading is done with the colours only, not with the density or openness of the couching. We used three shades of brown (the first two aren’t easy to distinguish in the pictures) and a golden yellow may be added when I complete the shape.

Couched Jap - the first couching colour Couched Jap - the second couching colour is added Couched Jap - working with the third couching colour

I am always fascinated by the back of goldwork projects. Normally I don’t look at back of my own or anyone else’s work; I’m happy if the front looks respectable, and the back is just neat enough not to impinge on the front (by means of bulky knots or travelling threads visibly shining through). But goldwork is, I think, unique (except perhaps for stumpwork) in that the back gives very little indication of what the front looks like – a fact which once made a friend use one of my embroideries as a Sunday school illustration smiley.

The back of the work

The next few steps were small and relatively quick: bits of metallic kid leather (the picture shows one of the four hooves and in later pictures you’ll notice the jockey’s cap has been worked in kid as well), two spangles to indicate the pivoting points of the legs (not quite the right word, but I’m sure you know what I mean), and a diamanté gem to give the horse a slightly scary eye. Spangles can be attached in several ways, some more elaborate than others, but here we went for two simple straight stitches. The gem was in a metal claw setting with holes, so it could be attached much like a button.

A kid hoof is added Some spangles, a gem and rococo

In the second picture above you’ll have noticed some wavy copper threads in one of the tail sections, couched but not yet plunged. This is rococo, and depending on which supplier’s website you visit or what goldwork book you read is can be spelled with what looks like a random number of “c”s, randomly distributed (roccoco, rococco, roccocco). I’ve decided to go with rococo on the grounds that it saves key presses, looks less complicated, and is the recognised spelling for the period after which it is presumably named.

As day two was drawing to a close, Helen asked us to make sure we had completed the gold pearl purl outline of one of the tail sections, so that the next morning we could start on the chipping straight away. I was finishing plunging my copper rococo, but decided that as couching pearl purl is one of the quicker goldwork techniques (although “quick” will always be a relative term in goldwork) I could probably squeeze in the outline before we had to pack up for the day. Bad move. It was nearly four o’clock, we’d been going since 10am, and it was about 33 degrees in the shade. About three-quarters into the outline, I pulled the couching thread with too little control and kinked the metal.

Pearl purl with a kink

It was just a little kink. A tiny kink even. Could I just leave it? Helen had a look and advised me to leave it until I’d completed the chipwork (filling the shape with small bits of hollow metal attached like beads) to see whether that would draw the eye away from it. The next morning I came in fairly early, looked at the pearl purl and realised it would forever nag me if I left it, no matter what the effect of the chipping was going to be. I took out the outline and redid it, and felt much happier. On to the chips!

The pearl purl outline redone Chipwork

After the chipping it was time to start on the cutwork. This was going to cover the soft string padding in the tail. It’s a tricky technique because the purl (in this case a smooth purl, which is round and shiny; it also comes in rough, which is round and matt – bright check, which is angular and shiny – and wire check, which is angular and matt) has to be cut into pieces (or chips) of exactly the right length to cover the padding, and as the padded shape is not the same size throughout, the chips have to vary in length as well. If the chips are not the right length, you will either have padding showing at the edges (if they are too short), or the metal will buckle and distort (if they are too long). It requires tongue-sticking-out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth concentration, the patience of Job, and the willingness to cut three or four lengths to get it just right (until such time as you develop an eye for it and get them right first time).

Starting the cutwork

Helen said I’d managed a nice crisp edge and good coverage, which was a more positive assessment than I’d feared – towards the tip I noticed a few slight gaps where I’d gradually changed the angle of the chips as instructed, but I was encouraged when I looked at the RSN Goldwork Guide later and saw similar minute gaps in one of the stitched models pictured there. And thinking about it I can see that unless all the chips are parallel, you’re bound to get a little room between them at one end. Even so, I’ll see if I can keep them just a little closer when working along the other half of the padded bit of tail.

Half a tail covered

The last technique we were shown was the one I’d never tried before, called S-ing (pronounced “essing”). It looks like stem stitch in metal purls, but because you can’t take the purls through the fabric you can’t work it as you would stem stitch. Instead, you cut lots of identical chips of purl (and I can tell you that cutting identical lengths is not that much easier than cutting graded lengths; fortunately “almost identical” seems to work reasonably well) and work each little curved bit separately.

The chips should be a little longer than your stitch length, to give them room to accomodate the chips on either side. Having attached the first one, you come up about half a stitch length ahead of the previous stitch, thread on a chip, and angle the needle half-way underneath the previous chip so you go down into the fabric where the last-but-one chip ends (this is what creates the impression of a continuous metal stem stitch). Pull the working thread through very carefully until the chip gently snuggles underneath the previous chip. Half chips at the beginning and end make the line look even. I really like the look of this stitch and will definitely use it again!

S-ing; lots of identical cut lengths Taking the needle down underneath the previous piece of purl The new piece of purl lies flat Pull, and the new piece of purl curls under the previous piece

And that was as far as we got. When I showed it to my sister-in-law, with whom I was staying, she was a little surprised and asked “that’s three days’ work?” – but when I explained some of the techniques and what was involved in getting them just right I think she was probably surprised that I’d got as much as this done smiley. When I got home I re-hooped the work – in class we were working in a 10″ hoop, but I found that I could just fit the fabric into a 12″ one, which gives a little bit more wiggle room at the edges. I have no idea when I’ll manage to finish it, what with the Certificate and getting the SAL ready, but it’ll be a very enjoyable project to do bits of work on in between all the other things.

The state of things at the end of the three days

Covering a book

One of the topics mentioned in my email correspondence with the Lady in America (see last week’s FoF) was Lviv, and particularly the way it was turned into a Bible cover. Composing a reply to her I was about to include a link to the FoF post about how the Bible cover (usable for other books as well, of course) was put together, when I found that I never wrote one! This was a bit puzzling, as I remembered the post as distinctly as the one about turning Douglas into a pen holder.

Lviv Bible cover, front Lviv Bible cover, back

Still, no amount of searching for terms like “cover” “Lviv” or “Bible” brought up a post about this particular finishing process, so in the end I was forced to acknowledge that my distinctly-remembered FoF was probably non-existent. Time to remedy that!

For some reason I seem to have saved some of the pictures I took of this finishing method at a much lower resolution than the others, which is why the first four are smaller. Nor do I seem to have photographed the very first stages. It’s rather too late to remedy either of these things, but I hope that even so you will find the sequence of images clear enough to show what I did.

First I measured the book I wanted to cover and drew a diagram with the sizes. I added one centimetre to the height of the cover, but used the exact width (front cover + spine + back cover). Then I decided on the width of the flaps (I went for 5cm, but for smaller or larger books you may want to adapt that) and added that to the overall size. To give a general example, if the book is 20cm x 12.5cm and the spine is 5cm wide, the “book-rectangle” would be 20cm x 30cm; add 5cm either side for the flap, and your final rectangle comes to 20cm x 40cm.

Now I had to work out where on the cover I wanted the stitching to end up, and then backstitch a rectangle of the size I had calculated around my stitching. Because I used two pieces of stitching I had to do two “half” rectangles and whipstitch the two together so they made one big rectangle; that’s what you see in the picture.

Backstitch around the stitching according to the measurements you calculated

The next step is to trim the fabric to about 1.5cm from the backstitch.

Trim the fabric around the backstitching

Here’s the back, to show you how the two bits of fabric were connected using whipstitch – If I did this again I would work out the positions beforehand and stitch front and back on one piece of fabric.

The two parts whipstitched together

I folded over all the edges and pressed them with an iron. The top and bottom folds were stuck down with double-sided hem interfacing; the spine and the flaps were reinforced with regular iron-on interfacing.

Fold the hems and reinforce spine and flaps

For the flaps I used trusty old whipstitch again (shown close up in the first picture; for that project, a bookmark, I worked the stitch in two colours). Fold over the front flap and whipstitch first the top and then the bottom: using the same sort of thread you used for the backstitch, bring the needle up between the two backstitches on either side of the fold, then take your needle underneath the first stitch on the “flap side” and the first stitch on the “book side”. You only go underneath the stitches, you don’t take the needle through the fabric. Go on taking your needle underneath the next backstitch on the flap side and its opposite number on the book side until the flap is fully connected. Do the back flap in the same way.

Whipstitching, close-up Whipstitch the flaps in place The finished cover

And that’s it smiley. All that is left to insert the book!

Changing suppliers

I don’t like change. This may sound odd coming from someone who changed country, job and marital status in one fell swoop some 14 years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Even the knowledge that quite a lot of change in my life has been for the better, and that I am fully enjoying the new (but by now familiar) situation, does not make me embrace change as it happens. And recently I’ve been faced with three disconcerting changes in suppliers. But is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel(s)?

Well, let’s start with the first tunnel: Sew & So. Anyone in this country (and many abroad) who does needlework will at least have heard of Sew & So, even if they’ve never bought anything from them. They are the go-to place for all basic supplies and quite a few not-so-basic ones; just to illustrate this, they stock both a wide range of standard Zweigart fabrics and a good selection of hand-dyed and silk threads. So to see the following notice after I’d just put some things in my shopping basket the day before (you can still see them there, but I can’t access them any more) came as rather a shock:

Sew and So has closed

In a way it was a shock-in-stages – last year they completely changed their website, making it much less user-friendly, and although there were plenty of comments and suggestions from customers on their Facebook page none of these seemed to be taken any notice of. Last month they suddenly closed temporarily for a “change of ownership”, opening again a few days later, so all seemed well. Then, looking for the RSN’s online courses (which they offer in partnership with Sew & So) after a conversation with a lady in America, I found they were no longer listed. I should perhaps have twigged it might be something to do with the Sew & So side of things, but I didn’t. Not until that notice! On their website and Facebook page they say that they are “securing a new home for you”, but no-one seems sure what that means. Tunnel #1 is very dark indeed.

Now for the second tunnel. In quite a few of the kits I offer, the projects are finished by mounting them in aperture cards. The freestyle Wildflower Garden, the two Shisha designs, the raised Christmas Wreath, the embellished Butterfly Wreath, the goldwork Flowers & Bee, plus a couple of workshop projects that aren’t for sale on the website yet – all made into cards. I like that way of finishing because it is relatively quick and you end up with something you can use.

As I have neither a suitable die-cutter nor the time or inclination to produce the cards myself, I buy them in. And for the past few years I’ve been getting all my cards from Craft Creations, who had an enormous range as well as the option to buy as few or as many as you needed of any size, cut and colour. Ideal.

Aperture cards from Craft Creations Craft Creations' value range

And then I got an email announcing that Craft Creations had been taken over by a new owner. With slight trepidation I checked the website. There was hardly anything there.

At this point I rushed into the craft room to check my stock of aperture cards, and found to my relief that there was a fairly good selection in my stash to tide me over, if the tiding-over period wasn’t going to be too long. I contacted the company and a kind lady told me that she was fairly sure all the card types I was looking for would be back in stock in time, as they would be adding more and more of the previous range to the website again, but that it might take time because they were trying to source materials themselves. Fair enough, I would exercise patience and have another look in a few months’ time. I did. Most of the cards I needed are still not there; the one cut and size that is there, is available in limited colours; and only in packs of twelve. Clearly it was time for another email.

This time I was told that they were still sourcing materials, but that in any case they would no longer be selling individual cards. That in itself need not be an insurmountable problem; it merely means that I will have to limit the number of colours I use for the various kits. Some come in a limited range already – the Wildflower Garden in red, blue and cream, the Christmas Wreath in red and green, the No Place Like Home workshop in red, green and blue. I’ll have to have a good look at the thread colours I use in the other kits and pick the two or three card colours that will work with most thread combinations.

Another possibility is to source the cards elsewhere, but unfortunately I have not found any other company with the range that Craft Creations used to do. There is a company who cut cards to order; they don’t offer all the exact sizes and colours I’m using now, they are more expensive, and they too require a minimum order, in their case at least nine of every different size/cut/colour combination. Still, they may be a useful option to fall back on if Craft Creations doesn’t come up with the goods.

So yes, there is a little light at the end of Tunnel #2, but I hope it grows brighter quickly as I’m beginning to run out of some of the cards!

As for the third tunnel, you may remember the picture below – Pearsall’s crewel wool starter pack. I found out about their lovely Heathway Milano crewel wool while trying to find the silks I used to buy from them, only to be told that they no longer did them (see what I mean? change everywhere! even though in this case it had a positive spin). Carol was absolutely lovely and looked through several available starter packs for me to see which would best suit my requirements, and I have bought a fair few skeins of wool from her since.

Wool from Pearsall's starter pack

Unfortunately my crewel Rabbit & Carnations piece showed that there were lamentable gaps in my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool, so when a bit of website maintenance (I’m nothing if not versatile) brought in a little extra cash, I was off to the Pearsall’s website with whoops of delight before you could say HTML. Mabel may be pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to stash, but if any of my non-needlework activities can lend a helping hand, I’m all for it!

Once on the website I was so engrossed in the delightful problem of deciding which colours to pick as definites and which as possibles that I initially missed a narrow red banner at the top; it bore the ominous message “Pearsalls Embroidery is closing down. Purchase of goods is disabled. Click here for more information.” Clicking as instructed brought up a message to the effect that the business was being taken over by Catkin Crown Textile Studio, with an email address.

Now I knew that Carol was thinking of selling the business, but I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. And I was worried whether Catkin Crown would carry on with the lovely wools. Time for yet another email.

And hurray, light! Steve & Hazel, who are Catkin Crown, turned out to be extremely helpful people. They assured me that although they will be adding all sorts of exciting products to the shop’s range of supplies, they are very keen on keeping the Heathway line going, and in fact it (and twill fabric) will be their core product range to begin with. They also said that although the new website was taking a bit longer than expected, if I could send them a list of the colours I wanted they’d see which ones they had in stock, and they’d be happy to do a special order for me.

So I did, and they did, and look:

A parcel from Catkin Crown Twill and Heathway Milano wool The new wools sorted by colour

Tunnel #3 is going to be just fine smiley.

What does it all mean?

What do embroidery designs mean? Well, sometimes I don’t think they mean anything much – we stitch a daisy, a mountain lake, a cat, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Tardis, because we like the picture. Sometimes there is a bit more to it; the Tardis might be more than just something from the tv series you enjoyed, it may remind you of watching that series with a loved one who is no longer with you; the daisy may have trumped the rose and the violet because your name happens to be Daisy; the cat may be the spitting (or hissing) image of your own pet.

You might think there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the design I did for my RSN Certificate course, because the subject is decided for you; everyone who does the crewel module stitches a Tree of Life. But that leaves plenty of room for personal input! So what are the reasons and stories behind the elements in my version of the Jacobean tree?

First there’s the tree itself. As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a Tree of Life design on and off for the past few years, and it has now turned itself into a SAL. That tree is not Jacobean, but it does share the stylised nature of the RSN design, albeit in a much simpler form. I love the idea of the Tree of Life, which for me is firmly rooted in the word picture painted of the New Jerusalem in the Bible, and so the opportunity of doing a second Tree was always going to be an attractive one.

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

Staying with the flora of the design for the moment, the most noticeable thing is probably the enormous flower at the top. I love the complete lack of proportions in Jacobean designs, they lead to some hilarious pictures – not just the historical squirrels-half-the-size-of-lions, but my poor Rabbit threatened by an enormous Carnation. Because I am Dutch, I thought a tulip would be a good flower to incorporate into my Certificate piece, and I found a particularly beautiful example in a design by Shelagh Amor in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery. Because of copyright I was going to change it fairly radically, but Angela assured me that as the Certificate piece is a) for my own use only and b) for educational purposes, I could actually use parts of existing designs. Even so, I changed the fillings and also added a frill as I wanted an area that would work for buttonhole stitch with a detached buttonhole edge. In the original tulip there is a lot of orange in the filling stitches; that didn’t quite work within my colour scheme, but the outlines and the fringe will be worked in the two shades of coral in my palette, which should be orange enough to emphasise the Dutch connection.

Carnation frightening a rabbit Shelagh Amor's tulip design The tulip in my RSN Certificate design

Originally I meant to base my large flower on the rather ancient carpet that adorns the children’s corner in the Coffee Shop room at our local Methodist Church, whose chapel we (the local Baptists) are sharing while we are rebuilding our own church. As part of the chapel into which we have been welcomed so warmly, to me it represents the unity of all Christians (I admit that is rather a lot to make an old carpet mean, but it does to me). But then the large tulip rather took over. Even so, I still wanted to use that carpet, and in the end I used the part indicated by the orange arrow as the inspiration for the small “flower” (for want of a better word) on the left of the design.

The carpet on which the small flower is based The small flower as it appears in the Certificate design

Many RSN Certificate Jacobean pieces (Google the phrase, you’ll find lots of pictures!) have some sort of hillock or hillocks at the bottom, and that’s where the design ends. Mine could easily have ended there too. But I wanted a river. Or some sort of water at least. I’ve written about the significance rivers have for me in a previous FoF, but the short version is that they remind me of my mother, who at the end of her life was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life. According to that description of the New Jerusalem I mentioned earlier, it is where the Tree of Life grows. How could I not have a river?

The river

As an added bonus it gives me the opportunity to use a stitch I first saw in an embroidery by my mother-in-law, fly stitch couching.

Fly stitch couching

Let’s move from flora and inanimate nature to fauna. The brief for the Certificate design says that it must contain at least one animal. Well, that was never going to be enough – I love adding animals to things. It’s only because I thought of it too late that there isn’t a web with a spider in it attached to the tree somewhere!

The first animal is based on a poem by A. A. Milne. It’s called “The Four Friends” and it’s in either When We Were Very Young or Now We Are Six. It contains my favourite line ever from children’s poetry: “James gave the huffle of a snail in danger, and nobody heard him at all”. Over the years, many leisurely moments have been pleasurably spent trying to imagine the sound of that huffle. James was going to be included. He needed a bit of tweaking, though. According to the poem he is “a very small snail”, something that doesn’t work very well in Jacobean embroidery. So James was bulked up a bit. He is also meant to be sitting on a brick, but any brick I tried to design was far too angular to fit in with the rest of the design. In the end I drew something that looked more like a stone, but it will be stitched in the orange shades to make it look a bit more brick-like.

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

And finally there is the cat. Of course there is a cat. A cat inspired by Lexi, our Bengal/tabby cross, in one of her less ladylike poses – you know the one, front legs stretched full-length, backside in the air and tail curled over her back. I saw her do it in the garden while doodling initial ideas for the Certificate design and I knew I simply had to have her in there, in that pose. I sketched a quick outline, which was just as well as despite numerous attempts to sneak up on her with a camera when she was doing her stretchy pose, I was never quick enough to catch her. Then came the question of colour. In my first colour scheme, I soon realised that the cat would have to be a ginger. Not in itself a problem (Lexi disagreed on this point), as our previous cat, the lovely Alfie, was a ginger, and in fact it would be rather nice to have them both in there, the pose of one with the colour of the other. But later colour schemes actually made it more suitable for the cat to be done in browns – they aren’t quite her colours, but I hope they are close enough to pacify her a bit.

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

So there you have it, a bit of background to the design I’ll be working on for the next seven or eight months. I hope I still like the various parts of it as much by the time I finish…

Persistent pounce, tremendous trestles and The First Stitch

Last Saturday was the third of my “contact days” for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. I hesitate to call them “classes” because they aren’t really, although we learn a lot; most of it seems to be done in a learning-through-doing sort of way. As ten students were expected we had two tutors this time, Helen Jones and Angela Bishop, but as it happens only six students turned up so we all got even more attention than usual smiley.

It was going to be an exciting day for me, as I would be transferring my pricked design to the fabric and actually Start Stitching! I’ve transferred designs using prick & pounce before, but only small ones like the little silverwork sheep, so this was going to be a bit of a challenge. Using grey pounce (simply a mixture of black pounce – charcoal – and white pounce – ground-up cuttlefish) I carefully went over all the holes, trying to stay away from the edges of the tracing paper. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in the latter. In fact, I got in a mild panic when I noticed that I’d rubbed a fair bit of pounce into the fabric at the bottom of the design (where the pricked lines actually didn’t get that close to the edge of the tracing paper; what on earth was I doing?), but Angela said not to worry, it would all come out just fine.

The pounced design

Except it didn’t. After giving the fabric a good beating from behind with a brush (apparently the accepted method of getting the pounce off while leaving the paint on; it looks a bit brutal but I’m willing to learn) there were two noticeable shadows below the hillocks. More beating, slightly less noticeable shadows but still definitely noticeable. More beating. Same result. Angela said she’d never known it to do this. The mild panic was beginning to grow into something less mild. Pounce can obviously be very persistent.

However, as there was no way I was going to start the whole thing again (prepare a new piece of fabric, dress the frame, prick & pounce, paint) I’d have to think of something. Helen said she thought the traces would actually disappear as I worked on it, and I decided with Angela that I would simply extend the water a bit. It was originally going to be a wavy line roughly parallel to the bottom of the hillocks, now it would be more of a circle segment, deeper in the middle.

My husband claims he can’t actually tell where the shadows are, and I must say I’m finding them hard to spot now unless I take my glasses off, so perhaps Helen is right and I can go back to plan A for the water, but it’s a reassuring thought that I have a plan B.

By the way, painting the design was an interesting experience in itself. It’s remarkable how, the moment you get the slightly thinned gouache on your fine brush and near the fabric, you stop breathing. Trying to draw steady lines, as thin as possible, while not leaning your hand on the not-yet-connected pounce dots requires nerves of steel and intense concentration. Not being in an old building with creaky floors that move when someone walks across the room would also help. As does remembering to breathe every now and then. Still, between moving floors and not breathing I managed to produce an acceptable transfer, with only one or two places where I may have to stitch slightly more heavily to cover the lines (though of course those places would be in one of the more open parts of the design…)

Joining the dots with thinned gouache paint The painted design

Now that the design was firmly on the fabric, we could roll it up slightly for easier access. As I am still getting to grips with the slate frame Angela helped me do this (remind me never to try and join the Boy Scouts; well, for obvious reasons, but in this case mostly because I simply cannot remember how to do a slip knot!) and before long I was finally ready to stitch.

Rolling up the fabric for better access Ready to stitch

My frame, unfortunately, is not quite flat so I had a little trouble keeping it stable on the trestles (this was also the reason I had been told to do my transferring on a table, with a heavy book on one corner of the frame, instead of on the trestles – try as we would, we couldn’t get it to sit right). Helen suggested hanging a heavy weight on the corner that was sticking up, but as we didn’t have any in the classroom I made do with slipping my camera strap over the offending slat; it’s a fairly lightweight camera but it did make a bit of difference.

We’d decided I’d start with the tree trunk, for one thing because in crewelwork (in fact, in most Western types of embroidery) you work a design from the back to the front, so elements that are in front of others get worked later, and the tree trunk is at the very back of the design. It was also one of the elements where I was absolutely sure what stitch I wanted to use, and in what colours. I’d done a stitch plan but there were still a few “To Be Decided” areas, so starting with one of the Definites felt nice and safe.

At this point I will admit I felt almost reluctant to actually put in the first stitch! But after a bit of lunch I really couldn’t put it off any longer, and fortunately I was beginning to feel quite excited about the whole thing. I started with Very Dark brown chain stitch. The die was cast. More lines of chain stitch, of staggered lengths to help with the shading. Even a little jump to the top half of the trunk. Then the realisation that there was too much Very Dark, and I should have made the last line shorter and switched to Dark. On to my first unpicking, and then to adding the second shade, and beginning to shape the triangular void at the foot of the tree which will be filled with Cretan stitch.

The very first stitches The first unpickings Two shades of brown

As it was getting on for 4 o’clock I went through my homework for next time with Helen, and packed up. No stitching time at home, unfortunately, but I did spend a little time getting my Home Stitching Set-Up just right. Two clamps to hold down the two springy corners (in the hope that over time they’ll give up fighting against the clamps and just lie flat), a stool to get me nice and close to my stitching, and the trestles put up several notches so I can stitch without bending my neck all the time.

The set-up at home The set-up at home

And talking of trestles, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Ikea ones actually work better for me than the RSN ones! Because I use the narrower frame, the trestles have to be pushed in quite close, and I kept hitting my left elbow on the upright bar; I also found I had to wriggle around the right-hand upright bar when I wanted to bring my right hand to the top of the fabric. The Ikea frames have no uprights, and my elbows enjoy perfect freedom. Win-win smiley.

Finally a picture of the complete design, with the work done so far. By the next meeting (late September) I hope to have finished at least the trunk, the vine, some of the large flower, and the left-hand hillock with the snail; I also need to decide on the remaining stitches. I have managed to come to a decision about the colour distribution: the cat is going to be a tabby rather than a ginger (Lexi will be pleased).

Where I've got to after the third class

Incidentally, I found it very encouraging to see a male stitcher at the class – Marcel was working on his Diploma Whitework module. I am definitely going to groom the imminent grandbaby to be a manbroiderer!

What do I want a SAL to do?

And, also a pertinent question, what do I not want a SAL to do, especially this particular SAL? Well, for one thing I don’t want it to give the wrong impression, and it might, in view of recent FoFs. So let’s get that out of the way first!

For the first module of the RSN Certificate I am required to stitch a Tree of Life in the Jacobean style, in crewel wool on twill. Although I haven’t quite decided on the final colours (well, I know which colours, but not necessarily where and in what stitch) the design is pretty much done. It’s got a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters.

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

As you can read on the SAL information page, the design for this stitch-along is a Tree of Life, and it is described as a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters. This might just lead people to think that the SAL is based on the Certificate course, and from there it might easily lead to some rather too high expectations – let’s make it quite clear, I’m not aiming to get you to RSN Certificate level in 10 easy instalments!

In fact the SAL Tree of Life came into being long, long before I even thought of the Certificate as something I might possibly one day do. It was initially inspired by a tree I saw in a picture of some Indian embroidery which had a sinuous stem and seven leaves. I took it from there, and my Tree does still have a sinuous stem and seven leaves but otherwise doesn’t resemble the Indian tree in the slightest. But – and this is important – nor does it resemble what I might call a Certificate tree. It is not Jacobean (although it could certainly be stitched in crewel wools on twill), and although it will contain many different stitches, it is not nearly as complex and detailed as a Certificate piece is expected to be; a relatively small number of colours is suggested (partly to keep the costs down – see below) but unlike with the limited palette of the Certificate tree, here there are no rules and you can stitch the whole things as a rainbow of leaves if you like.

Sneak peeks at the SAL

So what does the SAL aim to do? Does it have an aim at all? Does it have to? You may know that I am a great believer in never asking of a piece of needlework: “What is it for?” As far as I’m concerned stitching is for enjoying, that’s what it’s for. Even so, when one of the kind friends who gave their opinions and advice about the SAL information page asked me a similar question, it made me take a good look at the whole project. Why did I decide to publish this design as a SAL-with-variations, with all the time and effort that goes into writing the instructions for the extra stitches and 10 blog posts with detailed photographs of the stitching process and so on? And when I put it like that, I realised that my motivation for the SAL was not that much different from the motivation for my taster sessions and workshops. Here is what I replied:

“As with the Hardanger SALs it’s definitely intended for people who want to Have A Go. I hope that those who are more experienced will be kept interested by the variety and choice of stitches, but my ‘target audience’ is those who have never tried freestyle embroidery, or perhaps just dabbled a bit, and would like to see if it’s for them.
If you have been cross stitching for some time you’re likely to have all the threads you need in your stash (if you choose the stranded cotton route) so just add a piece of fabric and some sequins and beads (which you may also already have) and you’re good to go with not much of a financial outlay (another of my main concerns).”

In other words, I’d love people to try something new, or to enjoy something familiar in a slightly different way; to be challenged but not frightened off; to create something decorative; and to be able to do so without having to take out a mortgage smiley. If that appeals to you, do join in!