How absent-minded ordering leads to another project

As you may know I’ve got seven or eight projects on hold, patiently waiting in my craft room in various stages of WIP-ness, and have only allowed myself the Ottoman Tulip because I need something that I can just use as a sort of paint-by-numbers exercise in between the Certificate and the SAL – and then my lovely Heathway Milano wools arrived.

Heathway Milano wool for the SAL

I ordered them as back-up for the SAL threads, with a few spares thrown in for good measure. But as I sorted through them I realised that for two of the greens I’d ordered as spares, I already had a spare. And because Steve at Catkin Crown had very kindly pointed out to me that if I ordered one more skein I’d qualify for free postage I had also ordered another “neutral”; always useful, but I now have perhaps slightly more than I strictly speaking need. And then there was a brown for which I ordered a spare and of which I had a bit left from a previous skein. And they went so beautifully together, and I happened to have a spare bit of twill…

To cut a long story short, this is another Oh Sew Bootiful design; it is meant to be done in purple and yellow stranded cotton and contains French knots as well as stem stitch and satin stitch, but I’m ditching the knots – I want some really relaxing embroidery to do when I’m tired and just want to enjoy the rhythm of the needle, and the soothing colours and the soft feel of the threads.

The transfer on this is quite wobbly (all right, I admit, I rushed it) and the two circles I’ve stitched so far are, to say the least, rustic. But oh my goodness I enjoyed stitching them! It was the most relaxing bit of embroidery I’ve done in a long time, and I don’t care what it looks like when I’ve finished – this is just the perfect bit of therapy smiley.

Oh Sew Bootiful kaleidoscopic design

Can you tell I’ve waxed?

Commenting on a previous FoF about the Tree of Life SAL, Louise asked about Thread Heaven as a conditioner and we got onto the subject of using beeswax. I use it in goldwork to wax the threads used for couching or otherwise attaching the gold threads and wires, but I have never used it to smooth or tame wayward embroidery threads – I’ve always been slightly nervous of making the thread lose its sheen or look, well, waxy. However, I know of stitchers who have used it and they tell me it makes the thread more manageable without affecting the look.

Then a fellow-member of the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked about Silk Mill silks and when I mentioned how springy they are (I may have used the technical term “boingy”…) she expressed concern that they would not lie flat. Now I’ve only used the silk for split stitch and a bit of underside couching, where this is not a great issue. But in satin stitch, for example, it would be. I could feel an experiment coming up.

Earlier that day I had been re-arranging boxes and folders of designs, and in one of them there was a 3″ flexihoop and a piece of Normandy fabric which I’m sure had a purpose at one time, but as I couldn’t remember what it was I decided it would do very well for this experiment (which I wanted to be fairly quick). In one of the folders I also found a Mary Corbet freebie, the inner part of which was just right for trying out both line and filling stitches. I would work the lines in stem stitch and the shapes in satin stitch, half of the project with waxed threads and half with unwaxed (and unsteamed) threads.

Notes for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I transferred the design standing at an awkward angle over my lightbox wearing the wrong glasses, which is why the lines are not the cleanest, but it’ll do. The experiment could have been done in one colour, but I chose two for a bit of interest, and also to see whether different colours would stitch up differently when waxed. I will readily admit that the combination is not very subtle, but the green is a colour of which I was sent a duplicate in error so I’ve got plenty of it, and the pink (which I chose based on the Silk Mill website rather than on their real-life samples) turned out to be much more shockingly pink then I had expected, so I’m unlikely to use it in any “proper” project.

Materials for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I started with the outermost circle in unwaxed pink stem stitch. And I’d got about half-way round the circle when something I knew in the back of my mind suddenly came rushing to the fore: Silk Mill silk is Z-twisted! What does this mean? Well, almost all cotton and wool embroidery threads and most silks are plied in an S-twist, that is to say the direction of the thread’s twist is like the slanting middle part of an S, top left to bottom right. But rayons and some silks, including Silk Mill, are plied in a Z-twist, with the slant of the thread going bottom left to top right like the diagonal line of a Z.

At this point a polite non-stitching friend might say “ah”, displaying a mild interest and wondering whether the knowledge could come in handy in a pub quiz some time; a less polite one might opt for “so what?” And it is true that the difference is not always important. As I said, so far I’ve only used this particular silk for split stitch and underside couching, neither of which involves a great amount of twist (in fact underside couching involves no twist at all, as most of the thread lies flat of the surface with bits of it pulled through to the back at regular intervals by the couching thread). This means that the twist of the working thread doesn’t make much difference to the look of these stitches. But when working stitches that do incorporate a certain amount of twist, such as stem stitch or French knots, S-twisted threads and Z-twisted threads behave differently.

Take stem stitch. When working from left to right, the loop of working thread is always kept underneath the line of stitching. This results in that lovely rope-like texture which makes such nice crisp outlines. Were you to keep the loop of working thread above the line of stitching, you would technically be producing outline stitch – and the effect is quite distinct, especially when worked in a thread with a noticeable twist like perle cotton. This is because stem stitch twists the working thread in the direction of its natural twist, causing it to tighten up, whereas outline stitch twists it in the opposite direction, making the twist looser and the line of stitches much less textured.

Stem stitch (top) versus outline stitch (bottom) Outline stitch (left) versus stem stitch (right)

At least it does when the thread is S-twisted; but if you have a Z-twisted thread, the effect is the opposite! So when the stitch instructions for a design say “stem stitch” but you’re using a Z-twisted thread, you need to work outline stitch, and vice versa. You’ll also have to twist the thread around the needle in the opposite direction when doing French knots or bullions, and it will make a difference to whipped stitches as well. You can see this effect in the picture below; you’d expect the green to be stem stitch and the pink to be outline stitch, but in fact it’s the other way round as they are worked in Z-twisted Silk Mill silk.

Outline stitch (green) and stem stitch (pink) in a Z-twisted thread

I’m rather pleased to think that my choice of silk is going to add another learning experience to the SAL: I’ll be able to point out in the blog which stitches need to be worked in mirror image to the usual instructions to get the same effect!

But back to waxing. The finished experiment shows stem stitch, unwaxed (pink circle), outline stitch, unwaxed (green circle), stem stitch, waxed (pink quatrefoil), outline stitch, waxed (green quatrefoil), satin stitch, unwaxed (outer pink) and satin stitch, waxed (green and central pink).

The experiment complete

And the first thing that struck me was how much darker the waxed quatrefoil lines look than the unwaxed circle ones. Whether the coating of wax does actually make them darker or whether it’s because they reflect less light (or reflect it differently; there definitely seems to be less of a sheen), the effect is quite noticeable and would have to be borne in mind when choosing whether to wax. A second difference between the unwaxed and waxed threads shows up more clearly in the satin stitch sections: when waxed the threads look much more cord-like and separate – they don’t blend into one smooth surface nearly so well as the unwaxed threads.

The experiment complete

That’s how wax influences the thread’s look; but does it make a difference to how it handles? Well, waxed it was a little more manageable with less bounce to it, although I was actually surprised how well the unwaxed thread behaved when I was doing satin stitch, especially considering that I hadn’t steamed them. On the whole I don’t think the slight improvement in handling is worth the loss of sheen and the loss of “spread” in the satin stitch areas. Yes, I can tell where I’ve waxed – and I won’t be doing it again.

All framed up

All right, I can’t resist. I’m so ridiculously pleased with the lacing I’ve done on the Millennium frame and the good tension I managed to get on my 14″ hoop that I just want to show them off! A bit of work in my photo editing programme to blur the transferred designs, and now I can share my framed and hooped SAL fabrics without spoiling the mystery smiley.

I photographed them both with the threads and other bits and bobs around them to give some sense of the size (the cat in the hoop picture is not there for scale, just for her decorative value). For a stitcher who until relatively recently thought of a 7″ hoop as quite large, this 14″ whopper comes as a bit of a shock whenever I see it. The bigger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get good tension on the fabric, but as I mentioned before the bound inner hoop helps, as does the fact that it is a 20mm deep quilting hoop; a few more judicious tugs at the fabric yesterday and some persuasive wingnut action and the tension is now equal to what I would expect from a much smaller hoop.

Hooped fabric and materials for the plain Tree of Life

The Millennium frame has superb tension when used as it comes, even side to side – in fact surprisingly so for a frame which (like pretty much all scroll frames) holds the fabric top and bottom only. The top-to-bottom tension is incredible, and must, I assume, be so much better than on any scroll frame I’ve tried because it is achieved by lengthening the side bars (they each have a thick wooden screw inside them which screws up and down), in effect pushing the roller bars apart, rather than by trying to roll the fabric tightly onto the bars. You can apply so much more force that way. The Millennium frame’s side-to-side tension is derived purely from the scroll bars – because the fabric is held firmly along its entire width by an ingenious groove-and-rod combination, it is almost as taut at the edges as it is in the centre, something that is practically unheard of with other scroll frames.

Orpheus mounted on the Millennium frame

So why lace the fabric? Two reasons. Firstly, I said “almost as taut”. You can bounce a penny off the centre of the fabric, but there is a little bit of give right at the edges. Secondly, because of the very strong top-to-bottom tension the fabric will stretch vertically, albeit only slightly; this will be more noticeable the longer the fabric is on the frame, and this project will likely be there some time. You can slacken off the tension between sessions, but I prefer to keep the fabric taut so the tension remains more or less the same throughout my work on the piece.

Neither of these is an insurmountable problem, and I have happily used the frame without any further fabric preparation, as you can see from the picture above. But because this time I’m working with two layers of fabric, and there are goldwork elements in the piece, I thought I’d apply some of my newly-gained knowledge of dressing a slate frame to this smaller frame for even better tension. Attaching the fabric to the top and bottom bar is done as usual – there is no canvas to sew it on it to, and I’m very pleased there isn’t as the rod-and-groove system is a lot quicker – and after that I extended the side bars enough to make the fabric sit flat, without sagging, but not so much that it was stretched.

Next, sew herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and use that lethal bracing needle I showed last time to lace them to the side bars. Slightly more fiddly than with a slate frame because the Millennium side bars are not uniformly shaped from top to bottom, and part of what I’m lacing around is the exposed wooden screw. But with a bit of string manipulation it works perfectly well, so on to the final stage of gradually increasing the tension in both directions by extending the side bars and tightening the lacing. At the end of all that I’ve got a piece of fabric you could play an impressive drum solo on, and it’s much more portable and manoeuvrable than the slate frame, sitting quite happily on my Aristo lapstand rather than needing trestles. Win!

Framed fabric and materials for the bling Tree of Life

I might sneak in a few SAL stitches later this week during my RSN Certificate Homework Time…

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

Choosing SAL materials

Last Friday the SAL materials list was published – high time for me to stop stitching samples and start stitching complete trees! But before I can do that, like every other stitcher who will be doing the SAL, I need to choose my materials.

As I need to stitch both the Plain and the Bling version, it seemed a sensible idea to make sure they differed as much as possible, not just in the addition of goldwork materials. In previous SALs I generally made sure I did at least one version with the most basic materials possible, which in this case would be stranded cotton (DMC for me, but Anchor works equally well) on a cotton ground. This budget version, even if you had to buy everything from scratch (20 skeins of stranded cotton, a fat quarter of medium-weight cotton fabric plus calico backing, one size of sequins and 2 colours of beads) would come in at around £25, and you’d have plenty of leftovers. Work from stash and you can get away with a minimal outlay.

But… but… Even though I know that an “economy” version with standard threads and fabric can look just as good as a more expensive one, I already had two combinations in mind, and I really don’t want to do three trees! So I’m hoping some of you will show us just how beautiful a stranded cotton tree can be, and I’ll show the effect of wool on twill and silk on linen.

First the fabrics. I was about to post pictures of my actual fabrics in action, with the design transferred onto them, and then realised this rather defeats the purpose of a Mystery SAL. So just pictures of the fabrics used in other projects, I’m afraid: traditional twill as in the Rabbit & Carnations, and a densely-woven German linen as in Llandrindod.

Crewel project on twill Llandrindod on German linen

Once you’ve chosen your fabric, there is another decision to be made: To Back or Not To Back, that is the question. Easy enough with the twill – twill is a sturdy fabric that can stand on its own and doesn’t need backing (I’m sure there are exceptional circumstances when it would be a good idea, but let’s stick with unexceptional for now). But what about the linen? Because it’s a good weight and a close weave, I don’t back it when I use it for small projects like the Ottoman Tulip; I did back it with a very light Egyptian muslin for Llandrindod, but with hindsight that wasn’t necessary. The SAL design, however, is not only a much larger piece than either of these, it will also have goldwork elements in it, and I do find a backing invaluable when doing goldwork because it makes all the oversewing of plunged ends so much easier. So a lightweight calico backing it is.

As for hoops and frames, the twill (which will have the design in the larger of the two sizes) is now securely fitted in my humongous 14″ hoop (it’s a monster!) – the binding definitely helps to get good tension, and although it is very difficult to get perfectly drum-taut tension with a hoop that size, there is a distinct drum-like noise when I gently tap the fabric. The linen and its backing will be mounted on the Millennium frame, and I will then lace the sides for extra side-to-side tension.

On to more colourful decisions: threads! The twill pretty much chose its own threads – traditionally it is used with crewel wool, and although it is of course perfectly possible to use it with other threads it is such a tried and tested combination that I am happy to go with it. Added to which I absolutely adore working with my Heathway Milano crewel wools, so any opportunity is gratefully seized on. When I first started designing this tree I envisaged it with leaves in blue, green and purple. As blue and green are also two of the non-leaf colours, this means you can save on your materials by having those two shades double up. With two shades of beads (leaving out the optional leaf-coloured ones) and one size of sequin instead of three, this gives you the bare minimum needed for the SAL. I went for fairly muted shades, especially the purple.

Minimal materials, including Heathway Milano crewel wool

However, I have lots more shades of wool and it seems a shame not to use them, especially as some of them are rather lovely and bright. So I also put together a set with separate leaf colours – muted Aubergine made way for Lilac and was joined by Lagoon and Dusky Rose, as well as an extra shade of beads.

Extra crewel colours

For the silk version I originally picked Rainbow Gallery Splendor stranded silks, which are lovely to work with (and some of which I’m using in Llandrindod), but although there were enough shades for the blue-and-green-doubling-up version, I just didn’t have the range of colours needed for a version with separate leaf colours. I reluctantly abandoned Splendor and had a rummage in my Silk Mill boxes. Their threads are filament silks so they have a lovely sheen; unfortunately they are also rather more difficult to work with because of their springiness (steaming them beforehand helps). Still, I managed to stitch a medieval King with them quite successfully, so I’ll have a go! Some of the goldwork materials in the picture won’t be in the final project, as I put in both options where I hadn’t quite decided yet which one to use (like the two black metals, one rough purl and one wire check). Silk being rather less bulky then crewel wool, I could fit all the threads and goldwork materials in one little project box – doesn’t it look neat?

Silk Mill silks and goldwork materials All that is needed in one small box

So there I am, all set to start stitching! (In between sorting out some issues with my Certificate piece…)