All of a flutter for stumpwork

A week or so ago I was in sudden need of a butterfly. (What? Have you never needed an urgent butterfly?) For various reasons I wanted it to be a stand-alone butterfly, if possible modelled on the painted lady. It seemed that stumpwork was going to be called for…

Now if you are a regular reader of these stitchy outpourings of mine you will know that stumpwork is one of only a few needlework techniques which do not appeal to me. Like blackwork and whitework the results can be stunning and I admire what people do with them, but I rarely feel the slightest inclination to try any of them myself. So I’m still not quite sure how I ended up with Sarah Homfray’s Holly Blue stumpwork kit last summer. But I did, and I completed the butterfly (described at the time as “what is likely to be my one and only stumpwork finish”), and I knew that somewhere in my craft room there was the box with the instructions and some left-over wire. My second stumpwork venture was about to begin.

My first-ever stumpwork project

As this is not a technique I have a great deal of experience with, I wanted to do a bit of planning first – and that involved making a sketch with colour notes for the silk shading that was to turn a piece of stiff interfacing into a recognisable butterfly. Interestingly, I had come across an article some months ago with the intriguing title “Stop drawing dead butterflies”, which pointed out that what we think of as a typical butterfly shape with the tips of the top wings perkily pointing upwards (like the holly blue above, in fact) is only ever achieved by dead butterflies pinned onto a board – a live butterfly will hold its top wings so that their top edge is much nearer to horizontal, with the tips pointing outwards not upwards. Although I felt that I was possibly taking on a bit too much in trying to change the shape to a more naturalistic one, I attempted to at least include it in my sketch.

A painted lady butterfly The initial sketch

The next step was to cut the butterfly shape from heavy-weight interfacing, and as you can see I wasn’t brave enough to diverge dramatically from Sarah’s shape, apart from elongating the top wings a little (which seemed more suitable to a painted lady) and pushing the wing tips down ever so slightly. It’s a start, but on a report card it would definitely get a Must Do Better! More fun than wrestling with the butterfly shape was choosing the threads; I went for some overdyed stranded cottons by Carrie’s Creation. The company unfortunately seems to have ceased trading, which is a shame as they had some lovely threads (silks as well). The threads are not variegated but they are very subtly shaded, and I figured every little helps when you’re trying to shade a butterfly. You can see the shading of the thread quite nicely in the brown on the wing tip.

Cutting the butterfly shape and choosing the colours Shaded brown

The picture above also shows the first, preparatory stages of the stitching: attaching the interfacing to a calico background, shaping paper-covered wire (this is a 28 gauge) very closely all around the interfacing, and attaching it with small couching stitches. At this point the stitches can be relatively widely spaced – you’re just holding the wire in place until it’s going to be completely covered in closely-stitched buttonhole stitch.

Because I am by no means an expert in needlepainting or silk shading, I decided that I wouldn’t even try to go for taxonomic accuracy; my aim was a recognisable approximation. So I limited the palette to a dark brown, a not-too-bright white, orange and beige; I also picked a mid-brown that would come into play in the body. For the top wings I wanted some white spots in the dark brown, and some dark brown markings in the orange. These were all worked in silk shading or long & short stitch, which meant working with two threaded needles at a time for those mixed areas; the only stitches worked on top of others were the long thin brown veins on the orange. The bottom wings had a swirly bit where the orange and beige intertwined, which I worked in long & short, but I also wanted to put in some very small brown dots, and doing those as part of the silk shading was a bit too much of a challenge for now (I’ll keep that sort of detail for my RSN Silk Shading module, if I ever get to that) so they were worked over the top of the orange stitching.

A simplified wing Not including needlepainted spots Spots added on top of the orange stitching

When all the wings had been stitched, and I was satisfied that they were reasonably symmetrical (“perfectly symmetrical” was never going to happen, but then nature isn’t like that, is it? If it is, please don’t tell me) it was time for the buttonhole surround. This secures the wire outline to the calico, so that the butterfly can be cut out once the stitching is complete. Now one of the things I was least happy with in the holly blue was that very noticeable white line all around it. I have since found out that holly blues do in fact have a white edge to their wings so it is actually quite naturalistic, but I didn’t want it for this butterfly. Too attention-grabbing. As you can tell from the photograph, painted ladies do have some white touches around the side edges of the top wings and even more so to the edges of the bottom wings, so I had to get white in there, but especially along the top edge of the wing it seemed more realistic to follow the wing colours.

The buttonholing follows the colours of the wing

For the sides of the top wings I decided on a sort of checkerboard effect, or perhaps zebra crossing effect would be more accurate: alternating chunks of dark brown and white. The bottom wing would ideally have something similar, but after stitching three bits of white within the brown the complexity of changing colours, buttonholing with two needles in play, and making sure there were no gaps when I changed colour – and knowing I’d have to do it all again for the top wing on the other side – made me wonder whether there might not be an alternative method. As the black/dark brown bits in the white edge along the bottom wings are quite tiny in the original butterfly, I decided to work some spaced-out brown couching stitches along the wire which would then be incorporated into the white buttonhole stitch as I came across them. This worked quite well. The top and bottom outlines of the body were done in beige and mid-brown as I intended to shade the body from one colour to the other along its length.

Zebra crossing pattern Brown couching stitches incorporated into the buttonholing The buttonhole edge complete

Although it was not an immediate concern, I started thinking about the antennae. Sarah Homfray’s stumpwork kit had some black wire for the antennae (I asked her about it later and she said it was beading wire) but unlike the paper-covered wire there was none of it left. I considered using the thin wire from a sandwich bag tie, but fearing that would be too thin and bendy in the end I went with the remnant of paper-covered wire, coloured black with a Sharpie. The next step was applying thinned PVA glue to the back of the buttonhole outline; once dried, this would help stabilise the fabric when cutting out the butterfly.

Antennae from Sharpie-blackened wire Applying glue to the back of the buttonhole outline

When I started the butterfly I’d decided not to do the body in turkey rug stitch, which is very fiddly and time-consuming. But having got to this stage I realised I wanted the butterfly to look its very best, and turkey rug stitch would look much much better than just covering the body in long & short stitch. So turkey rug stitch it was, starting with beige at the bottom and gradually shading into mid-brown. At this point the butterfly also gained some French knot eyes. The holly blue had beads for eyes but I found those a bit too prominent; the French knots were just noticeable enough. As for the body, I may have made some of the loops rather longer than they really needed to be… still, it meant I had plenty of thread to play with.

Mostly beige turkey rug stitch with a bit of mid-brown Shading the turkey rug stitch into solid mid-brown

The first cut was a very rough one, just to open up the loops and get the threads to a manageable length. Then came the more precise trimming. This is the bit I dread – as with lockdown haircuts, if you take off too much there is no way to put it back; and unlike lockdown haircuts, these stitches won’t grow back however long you wait!

The first stage of the body haircut A side view of turkey rug stitch after the initial cut The body has its final shape

Next: more cutting. It was time to release the butterfly from the fabric surrounding it. As with the body, first a very rough and ready cut with plenty of margin, after which I got closer and closer to the buttonhole-covered wire. The final cutting was done from the back, where I could get really close to the stitching. My trusty 4″ scissors once again proved invaluable in this process, reliably sharp and with pointy tips to get into the tightest corners.

Cutting roughly around the butterfly Getting closer The closest trim

Then all that was left to do was to attach the antennae, and to photograph it in some appropriate places. I had hoped to place it on one of the blue geranium flowers, but being rather heavier than a real-life butterfly it proved to be too big a burden for the poor flower, so it had to be photographed on the leaves instead.

Attaching the antennae The finished butterfly The finished butterfly on a leaf The finished butterfly by some blue geranium flowers

So am I a convert to stumpwork now? Well, I think you could definitely call me a convert to stumpwork butterflies, as long as they don’t get too complicated smiley – recently on the Needle ‘n Thread FB group there have been some extremely lifelike butterflies made up of separate wings, bodies, heads… I don’t see myself doing anything like that, nor any of the stumpwork that requires big wooden beads to cover or lots of detached stitches or too much ironmongery. But this idea of outlining a simple shape with wire, filling it in with stitching, buttonholing round it and cutting it out – yes, that may well become a more regular part of the repertoire from now on!

Another trial fabric to use with another book

Some time ago now I got Thread Painting and Silk Shading by Margaret Dier (from the same series as the Lizzy Pye and Becky Quine books). It’s got lots of interesting information and some pretty projects (must try felt padded stitching some time – I’ve used it in goldwork of course, under metallic kid, chipping and cutwork but never under other types of embroidery).

A thread painting book

One of them, a small part-padded Japanese flower (there are also some interesting Chinese ones) struck me as perfect to try out two new Empress Mills samples: their Egyptian cotton. They sent me white and natural, and I tried one without and one with backing fabric. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the samples when they arrived, so I can only show them with the stitching!

These two little projects also offered a nice opportunity to use different types of silk: a spun silk, overdyed Soie d’Alger (Chameleon Threads’ Shades of Africa), for the un-backed version on natural cotton, and a discontinued flat reeled silk called Eterna on the backed version on white. Spun silk is generally easier to work with than reeled silk, which is made from the continuous silk filament as it comes off the silk worm’s cocoon (and is therefore also known as filament silk); filament silk, especially when it’s a flat silk, will snag on thin air but it has an incredible sheen, whereas the lustre of spun silk is a little more muted.

Chameleon Threads' Shades of Africa overdyed Soie d'Alger Eterna flat filament silk

The version without any backing stood up remarkably well to some serious stitching, especially the padding which is worked with 6 strands in the needle, which means that where it doubles up around the eye I was pulling 12 strands through the fabric. In spite of this rough treatment, there were no obvious holes or distortions in the fabric. Thumbs up!

The design drawn onto the natural cotton Padding for the petals The first row of long and short stitch The finished flower

On the version with backing I decided I could try an extra layer of padding, as the petals weren’t quite as rounded as I’d hoped and expected with a single layer. Even though the unbacked fabric had taken the full six strands for the padding surprisingly well, I felt that two layers of six strands might be inflicting a bit too much of a challenge on the fabric in spite of the strengthening layer of muslin behind it; on the other hand, adding an extra layer of padding but making both layers less voluminous would rather defeat the purpose. I compromised by using three strands doubled in the needle – I’d still be stitching with six strands, but there wouldn’t be the extra bulk of the tail going through the eye.

Six strands in the needle, twelve strands by the eye Three doubles dtrands in the needle, six strands by the eye

The extra padding definitely worked to make the outside of the petals more curvaceous and the difference in height towards the centre more noticeable, and with the sheen of the flat silk that shows up even more (although unfortunately it seems to be impossible to capture the effect satisfactorily in a photograph if you’re an amateur). And the fabric behaved beautifully – not surprisingly, as apart from the colour it is exactly the same as the one used for the other flower and it had the added advantage of a backing fabric. The pure white is a bit stark for my taste, so I would probably have the natural-coloured cotton as my default choice.

A double layer of padding The first row of long and short stitch in shiny flat silk The finished flower

A successful experiment then, both because I enjoyed trying out this part-padded embroidery and seeing how it gave a more subtle lift to the petals than complete padding, and because I’ve got another fabric to add to my list of Useful Embroidery Fabrics!

Waste knot, want knot

Most stitchers I know are not enamoured of fastening on and off (and some, like me, therefore choose to use threads that are far too long and by doing so cause themselves more problems than if they’s just fastened on and off a bit more often…) Still, it has to be done, and recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about the various methods I use to fasten on and off, and what determines which one I choose.

First of all a confession. I use knots. At the back of my work. Drum me out of the Society of True Embroiderers if you like, but if I’m stitching a small project that will go into a padded card, standard knots will do me just fine (for fastening on, that is; I fasten off by weaving under previous stitches). Sometimes I use them in larger projects too, if I know the end product is going to be padded, and is not going to be handled or washed or generally fiddled with. So that’s the first method I use, and it is by far my favourite because it is quick and easy.

Knots at the back of my work

Quick and easy partly because I use a method for knotting the end of the thread which I learnt from my grandmother, and which I’ve only recently found out is known in English as a quilter’s knot or a tailor’s knot. Note about the pictures: I realised too late that the needle I’m using has a curved tip – I grabbed the first one that was about the right size and forgot that this was the one my husband bent for me as an experiment to use for ribbed spider’s web stitch. It makes no difference to the knot, but just in case it looks a bit odd in some of the pictures, that’s why smiley.

Anyway, on to the knot. Thread your needle, then place the end of your thread on the needle’s eye. Place your thumb over it to keep it secure, then wrap the thread around the needle a few times. Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger, then very gently pull the needle through, and you’ll end up with a knot at the end of the thread. In effect you’ve just made a French knot without the fabric! Incidentally, the length of the tail after the knot depends on how much the thread overhangs the needle in the first step; I tend to put the very end of the thread onto the eye and so have practically no tail at all, but too little and it may undo itself. On the whole, however, this seems to be a perfectly secure way of making a knot.

Place the end of the thread on the needle's eye Place your thumb over the thread to keep it secure Wrap the thread around the needle a few times  
Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger Gently pull the needle through Pull until a knot forms at the end of the thread The completed knot

However, most books on embroidery will tell you that it is better not to have knots at the back of your work. They may come undone, they may cause lumps and bumps, you may catch them with your needle – and so they advise a knotless way of fastening on. These often start with a knot, but it’s a knot that will get snipped off later, hence its name “waste knot”. Knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down somewhere along the line that you’ll be stitching so that the knot sits at the front of the fabric, then come up at the start of the design line and start stitching towards the knot. When you get to the knot, you can snip it off – but first check the back of your work! With stitches like stem stitch, the stitches at the back may not actually be covering the tail leading to the knot…

Take the needle down somewhere along the design line Work your stitches in the usual way towards the knot When you come to the knot, snip it off But first check that the thread is secured at the back...

This is why a waste knot works best with stitches where the thread at the back of the work are at an angle to the tail you are trying to cover, rather than going in the same direction. The pictures below show a line of Palestrina knots being worked towards the waste knot; as you can see the stitches automatically secure the tail because of the way they are positioned.

Using a waste knot with Palestrina stitch The stitching at the back crosses the thread tail After a few stitches you can snip off the waste knot The tail is secured at the back

When the waste knot method is not ideal, you can use the away knot. This is like a waste knot a long way away instead of on the design line. As before, knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down a good distance away from your starting point (the tail needs to be long enough to thread comfortably in a needle). Work your stitches in the usual way, and after four or five stitches cut the away knot. You now have a tail at the back of the work.

Take the needle down a good way away from your starting point Work your stitches in the usual way Snip off the knot You now have a tail at the back of the work

Thread the tail, then weave the needle behind a few stitches at the back as though you were fastening off. Snip off any excess thread and continue stitching.

Thread the tail Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Snip off the excess

And finally the method which uses/wastes the least thread of any no-remaining-knot ways of fastening on: anchoring stitches. This is the method they teach at the RSN, and which I’ve been using throughout my Jacobean Tree of Life. It has the advantage that you can start and finish at the front of the work so you don’t have to flip your hoop or frame – particularly useful when working with a cumbersome slate frame on trestles!

Knot your thread, then take the needle down either on the design line or in a nearby area that will be covered later. Work two or three tiny stab stitches (taking the needle straight up and down), then bring the needle up at the starting point. Work a few stitches according to the design, the snip off the knot. To fasten off (not shown in the pictures), work a few tiny stitches snuggled underneath your “proper” stitches or again on a line or in a shape that will be covered, bring the needle to the front and cut the thread.

With the knot at the front make a few tiny stitches on the design line, Come up at the starting point, and after a few stitches snip off the knot

On the whole this works really well, but I have on occasion found myself pulling the thread through if I snipped the knot too quickly, especially with a slippery thread like silk; so if at all possible work a few stitches before cutting the knot.

There are other starting methods out there, like the pin stitch, but these are ones I find myself returning to most. If your favourite fastening on/fastening off method isn’t mentioned here, do champion it in the comments!

In the pink

Nearly eight years ago I tried some embroidery scissors at a Knitting & Stitching Show workshop (before I started teaching there) and I was so impressed with them that I put them on my Christmas wish list. Small, sharp, manoeuvrable, and with very pointy blades, they were the perfect complement to the squissors I mostly used for Hardanger. I was given two pairs, in two different colours so I could keep one for goldwork and one for general embroidery. They turned out to be particularly effective for cutting around the buttonhole edging of projects like Windows on the World; that they came with a useful protective cap and in pretty colours was a bonus!

My small, sharp embroidery scissors Buttonhole edging on a pair of bookmarks

Three years later I wanted some spares and for various reasons ended up stocking them in Mabel’s Fancies’ shop. When the order came in I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new scissors came with pretty floral caps! No blue ones, though – the only ones I could get were purple and turquoise (or what the supplier called “green”).

Scissors with floral caps

Fast-forward several years and suddenly the company I always ordered these from no longer supplies them. I got the last few pairs they had, including some blue ones with plain caps, but then the search was on for a new supplier. Unfortunately I could only find retailers in America and Australia, and with the postage and import duty they were simply not an affordable option. I decided to try the manufacturer, hoping that they would be willing to stretch the definition of “wholesale” for a small outfit like mine. Their initial suggestion of a minimum order of 600 pairs nearly made me lose heart, but after a week’s email correspondence we managed to find a quantity we were both happy with.

But no turquoise. Which is a shame because it really is a very pretty colour. No blue either. Purple, yes. And pink. Any orders placed would be half purple, half pink.

Now I know Mabel’s logo is pale pink and turquoise, but oddly enough I’m not really a pink girl myself. Still, that was the only option and I did want to keep stocking these useful little scissors, so the order was placed and late last week there arrived on our doorstep a box full of purple and pink floral snippers. And the pink turned out to be quite a robust fuchsia colour which is definitely growing on me!

Which means that if you want to get yourself a pair of these pretty 4″ embroidery scissors, for the time being you’ve got a choice of no fewer than four colours. Of the floral-capped ones we have purple and pink in quantity, and a limited number of turquoise; plus a small number of blue with plain caps.

Scissors in four colours

And they all cut equally well smiley.

A little bit of progress

So did I manage to get any work done on Queen’s Silks, the goldwork racehorse started last summer at Hampton Court Palace during a heatwave? Yes, I did; not a great deal, but at least I’m getting into the goldwork routine again.

And some of my first foray back into metalwork was routine indeed – plunging! There is an awful lot of couched Jap and passing in this project, and consequently an awful lot of plunging. Not my favourite part of goldwork, and therefore best undertaken in small doses. Here I could have finished filling the complete shape first, but it looked like such a jumble that I felt I’d like to get the ends out of the way first. I also finished the chipping on a nearby shape. The first picture shows the state of play in this area of the design when I got the racehorse home last July, the second what it looks like now.

Where I left off in July last year Some chipping and plunging

Before I started the plunging there was one thing I did need to do; I noticed that part of the design line was still visible on the right-hand side of the lower end of the couched area, and this would have to be covered. Fortunately I had cut the Jap fairly generously at that end, so I could continue to couch a single thread to cover the design line and still have enough left (albeit only just) to plunge and finish off.

A visible design line A single line of couching

And that’s where we are now! It’ll clearly be a while before this horse passes the post smiley but that’s fine – I’m in no hurry. Just very pleased to be working on something shiny again!

Shiny