Holiday finds and shades of black

Last week we had the opportunity to stay at the seaside flat of friends of ours in Norfolk and despite some changeable weather – including the tail end of storm Francis – we had a very relaxing and enjoyable time. Flat countryside, windmills and the North Sea, what more could a Dutch girl wish for smiley.

I even managed to pick up a few stitch-related goodies! The local charity shop provided me with a book about blackwork for a mere 50p, and at a nearby art & craft centre I found a very pretty ceramic magnet and a little jewellery dish made by Wilton Road Ceramics. Sue, the lady who is Wilton Road Ceramics, was working on some story stones while we were there, which was interesting to watch. The magnet is now serving as a needle minder on my Lowery stand; the little tray could be used for odds and ends while stitching, I suppose, but has instead been designated my tea bag dish – an almost equally important task.

A blackwork book for 50p A needle minder and a tea bag dish

While on holiday I did some work on the Ottoman Tulip. I had hoped to bring a different travel project, one which I’d done some sketches for, but unfortunately I ran out of time to finish drawing the design properly, let alone choose the threads, iron the fabric, transfer the design and hoop up. The Ottoman Tulip sits undisturbed in one of my document boxes most of the time, but there is no denying it comes into its own when the need for a travel project arises: it’s small, uses only a few colours, and is made up of areas to be filled in using mainly split stitch and stem stitch, so I hardly need to look at my notes.

In the course of stitching this design (which I started in October last year) there have been a few dilemmas about colour. I’m using Carrie’s Creation overdyed stranded cotton, which with hindsight was not ideal as I’ve since found out they have been discontinued. Still, the slight variegation in them does work very well in capturing the not-quite-solid shades of the original medieval tile, and unless I decide to turn this design into a chart pack it doesn’t matter that my stitched model can’t be replicated exactly.

The tulip design based on a medieval ceramic tile

The original tile uses only two blues, but I realised a bit too late that the darker of my blues was going to make the whole piece look very dark indeed if I used it for the two outer areas as well as for the main tulip. I decided to bring in a third blue, which does not go with the other two quite as well as I’d hoped, but at least will contrast better with the surrounding black lines. Which brings me to the other change.

For the black lines I’d picked Raven, which lives up to its name being a very deep black. But the black in the original tile is not actually a pure black – it is slightly washed out. I looked through my box of Carrie’s Creation to see if there was anything else that might work. There were two: Double Shot and Soot. Double Shot, as the name suggests, is a very very dark coffee colour; practically black, but a warm black. Soot is a purer grey but looking at it on the bobbin I felt it might be too light.

Raven and Double Shot Raven and Soot

In the end I decided I’d try them both, working each of the two thin black leaves on either side of the flower in a different shade. For some reason I’d brought only Double Shot with me to Norfolk, so I started with that. And I liked it so much that I won’t bother with Soot! (It’s difficult to get it to show up in the photograph, but it is a rich, dark colour that is not quite black.)

And that’s where I leave the Ottoman Tulip until I next need a travel project – which under the current circumstances may well be a while… Meanwhile I have plenty of other projects to occupy myself with; not just the existing bunch (which is quite large enough) but a few new ones as well. Watch out for Hope, and a Russian inspired design which has yet to find a name.

Horsey decisions

One of the exciting things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. One of the scary things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. Both statements can be equally true, but they tend to apply to either your own design or at least a chart rather than a kit. When purchasing a kit (or attending a workshop, which tends to come with a kit) most of the choices are made for you: what to stitch, which stitch to use, and what materials in which colours – it’s all been mapped out in advance.

Even the order in which you work the elements is only free to some extent; very often it is determined by either the order of teaching, the design, or what is considered the usual progression of techniques and materials. Left to my own devices with the metalwork racehorse I started at the RSN 3-day class last summer, for example, I would probably have left the padded cutwork in the tail till last, purely because it minimises the risk of damage to that very prominent domed golden curve while working on the rest of the design; but it was taught on the second day of the class and so at least half a padded gold tail has been courting danger for the past year.

Pretty much the only decision I expected to be fully my own in this particular project was whether to plunge as I go or leave it all until the end. (Plunge as I go, definitely. I dislike plunging and there is a lot of it in this design which I don’t want to be left with when all the stitching at the front of the work is done and I should be celebrating.) And that is not a decision which affects the way the finished piece looks.

The jockey's jacket with ends waiting to be plunged

Even so, the end result will never be quite like the model, for a variety of reasons. Here is Helen McCook’s original stitched model, of which we were given an enlarged photograph for reference. You will notice that the background colour is different from mine – when she first started teaching this class she offered both the olive green of the model and the darker green I’m working on, but when absolutely no-one chose the olive green she abandoned that colour. Other tutor-made changes are the change from purple to blue for the body of the jockey’s jacket, and a different metal thread used for the red sleeve. Originally this was intended to be worked in a red version of the blue of the jacket and the black of the boot, a couching thread known as 371 thread (no, I have no idea why) which is similar to a smooth passing thread but coloured and without any precious metal content. I can’t quite remember why the change was made to a six-stranded metallic thread but I’m sure there was a good reason for it.

Helen McCook's stitched model The jockey's arm in red 6-stranded metallic thread

Sometimes differences are unintentional – the one shown below occurred because, on a roll couching silver pearl purl, I failed to pay attention to the stitched model and couched the jockey’s hand with the same sort of angle as his face. That line abutting the sleeve should not have been there. I am definitely not unpicking it, though! Unless I show people the picture of the stitched model side by side with my version, no-one will know. (Yes, I realise that you know now, but I’m sure you won’t tell.)

A different hand

Other differences are, in a sense, originated by the tutor but the stitcher has some choice in interpreting them. In the instances shown below, I couldn’t work the line as shown in the stitched model because the design lines pre-drawn on the kit fabric would have been visible if I had. The horse’s jaw is a single curve in the model, followed by a gap and then the curve of the muzzle. The design line showed a shorter jaw curve, a gap closer to the front of the muzzle, and a line between them. I chose to couch that element separately in pearl purl. The jockey’s elbow is quite rounded in the stitched model (which would be a lot easier to stitch) but the design lines give him a very pointy elbow. I have tried to adjust the couching to these pointy lines, but you may just be able to see that a little of them is still visible; I had to decide whether it was worth the effort unpicking the whole sleeve and working it afresh starting from the pointy elbow (with no guarantee that it would look any neater). I decided it wasn’t – I know the lines are there, but they are fairly faint and won’t be very noticeable when viewing the finished piece from a normal distance.

A different jaw A different elbow

And finally even with a workshop kit there are some things the stitcher can decide all by herself – especially if she happens to have a reasonably abundant stash of goldwork materials… Some of these you know about already, like the horse’s eye (originally a gem in a squarish mount, now a silver cup sequin with a black bead) and some of the gold pearl purl in his head and neck. You may remember I didn’t like the bright yellow gold of the pearl purl that came with the kit and used a slightly finer one from my stash which was a rather mellower colour. This brought with it another dilemma, however. There is quite a bit of gold pearl purl in the design; did I really want to use up my nice, fine, mellow pearl purl and be left with a goodly amount of bright yellow pearl purl that I would be unlikely to want to use in future projects? No. So I used up the remains of the length I’d snipped off my stash purl in the jaw and in a small V-shape inside the rear leg, and I’ll use the kit purl for the other lines. In fact I rather like the effect of the two colours and thicknesses combined in the leg – an unintended bonus smiley.

A mixture of gold pearl purls

And that’s where the racehorse is now. There are several projects clamouring for attention at the moment but I may just get him finished first; I’ve just received an email to say RSN classes in Rugby will be starting again in the not too distant future, and after mounting my Jacobean piece the next module will be goldwork, so any practice I can get in before then is a good thing!

The racehorse at the moment

An eventful flower and a mounted rabbit

Half of August has gone and Flights of Fancy have been thin on the ground. So has stitching. And if you ask me why I’m not altogether sure, except that the days seem to fly past rather more quickly than I would like. Still, some embroidery-related things have been happening in the Figworthy household, so I thought I’d fill you in.

One thing you already know about is the Nurge semi-deep hoops; they are now all bound and I’ve been using the 13cm one a couple of times. So is the “grip” better than on a bound shallow hoop? For this size there probably isn’t that much in it – the shallow hoop keeps the fabric about as taut as you can get it without tearing it, so it’s hard to improve on that. But the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get and above all to keep the tension, so it will be interesting to see whether I notice the difference on, say, the 19cm hoop. On this smaller one I do find it’s easier to hold in my non-stitching hand if I’m not using a clamp or stand; the fact that it’s got just that bit more body to it makes it more comfortable on the fingers.

My semi-deep Nurge hoops bound

I used my smallest semi-deep hoop for yet another last-minute card, this time for a niece who, besides being a whizz with accounts, is a linocut artist (you can see her designs in her Etsy shop Woah There Pickle). Some time ago she gave me permission to use one of her lino designs to turn into an embroidery. So far it hasn’t made it onto fabric, but I decided to use one flower from it to stitch for her as a birthday card. I chose a blue and white chambray linen for the background, which has a slightly mottled effect (not really visible in the picture) caused by being woven with a white weft and a coloured warp; I thought this would make a nice contrast with the deliberately flat colours of the flower. From a stitching point of view this turned out to be a bad idea as the not-solid colour made my eyes go funny after a while! Still, it does look good so on the whole it was worth it (but it did slow me down).

Starting on Vicky's daisy

The picture above shows my progress at the end of day one, a Thursday. The card had to be sent on Saturday morning at the latest, and normally I’d have expected to complete the thing in a fairly leisurely fashion on Friday evening, but that evening we were going to Meet Friends In A Pub Garden, a red-letter event that hadn’t happened since lockdown started way back in March. “I’ll finish the stitching off when we get back”, I said to Mr Mabel, “and then I can put it in a card tomorrow morning before going on my Ladies’ Walk and you can take it to the Post Office” (he goes every day to send off the business parcels, and on Saturday the cut-off point is quarter to eleven, just when our walking group’s walk tends to end).

Do you know that saying about “best laid plans”? The meeting at the pub garden was very pleasant, but on the way back a road closure signposted at the very last moment got us swept off onto the motorway. Not a problem normally, but we were in a 90-year-old Austin Seven, and the motorway at that point is on a slight incline. Modern cars don’t even notice it, but the Austin gets slowed down to about 30 mph, with lighting that isn’t nearly so bright as in modern cars, and lorries thundering past at 60mph. Mr Mabel decided it was not safe, so we pulled into a lay-by and contacted the Highway Authorities, who eventually sent a well-lit vehicle that escorted us to the nearest exit. We got home safe and sound. At a quarter to midnight. No, I wasn’t going to finish the card then smiley. But with some intense stitching early the next morning I fortunately did manage to get it sent off in time. Phew.

The finished flower The flower mounted in a card

Another bit of stitched nature was a lot less eventful, but it was instructive. Remember the crewelwork Rabbit With Carnations I did some time ago?

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Well, I decided to use it for a bit of an experiment. My two SAL Trees of Life are still in a hoop (the wool version) and on a frame (the silk/gold version), waiting to be laced and then framed. Now I usually lace over foam core board, but as the RSN Certificate pieces have to be laced over mount board I thought this might be a good opportunity to practice. I contacted Fosse House Gallery, our local framer who did such a great (and quick!) job on my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present, and they very kindly gave me some offcuts to have a go with. The lady mentioned that she used T-pins when lacing over mount board so I looked those up online and lo and behold, they were available from Toft Alpacas, who like the framer are within walking distance from where I live!

Mount board and T-pins, both local!

One of the things I like about foam core board is that at 5mm thick it gives you plenty of edge to stick your pins into! Standard mount board or mat board tends to be about 2mm thick, so it’s all a bit more cramped and your aim has to be rather more precise. It’s also a lot easier on the fingers to push pins into foam core board because, well, it’s foam instead of solid cardboard smiley. There is one drawback of foam core board which is very visible in the second picture: its corners and edges get squashed much more easily that mount board, so you have to be careful when storing it or be prepared to trim edges before cutting the board to size.

Mount or mat board and foam core board Mount or mat board and foam core board

There’s definitely no such problem with the mount board which in spite of being an offcut was in perfect condition. The sample of board was cut to the right size for the rabbit embroidery and I set to work. As I expected, it was quite fiddly getting the pins to go centrally into the edge of the board, and several times I was definitely just underneath the outer layer so you could see the contours of the pin. It is interesting that for the RSN mounting process you are instructed to glue together two layers of standard mount board to end up with a thicker piece of board which is then covered in calico – I haven’t got to that part of the module yet, but I can’t help thinking the pins will all end up in the glue layer. I’ll find out when classes start again in Rugby!

The mount board being more solid in texture than the foam core board I predictably found it difficult to push the pins right in, but that may have been at least in part because the T-pins I got were quite long. I’ll see if I can find some shorter, thinner ones. As I was lacing, the board seemed to bend and flex a little more than the foam core I tend to use, and this was on a relatively small piece of about 5½” square – I wonder how much it would flex if I was lacing something the size of the Trees.

The end result looks respectable enough, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the two Trees will be laced over foam core. I contacted Fosse House Gallery and they say they may have some in stock, so time to walk over there and support the local economy. Once they’re laced I’m hoping to get the two Trees framed together in a single tall frame with two circular apertures in the mount. Now for a colour that will work with both…

The Rabbit laced onto mount board