How a kangaroo ousted a seahorse…

…and was in turn endangered by a miniature gecko. The story of how a goldwork design can be influenced by fabric, bedtime stories, and a Baptist minister.

Once upon a time, in 2015 to be exact, I sketched a whole series of ideas for goldwork designs, among them a toadstool, a sort-of-daisy and a seahorse. Forward a year, and on a visit to the Viking Loom I bought some scrumptious hand-painted silk dupion in turquoise, blue and purple shades. Forward another four years, and I’m starting the goldwork module for my RSN Certificate. For which I need to stitch my goldwork design on silk dupion. Well!

Sketch for a goldwork toadstool Sketches for a goldwork daisy and seahorse Hand-painted silk dupion

No-brainer, right? Sea-coloured dupion, seahorse – done! Hmm, not quite. All these sketches were for designs without any rules other than what I liked. But the goldwork module comes with a brief; there are only certain materials you are allowed to use (no kid leather, no smooth passing, no rough purl or wire check, no silver or copper let alone any other colours) and there are certain techniques you have to use (bricked Jap, mixed couching, cutwork over soft string padding), sometimes with a specified minimum area. The seahorse couldn’t quite fit all that in, and I’d have to get rid of some of the materials I’d originally included. No worries (keep that expression in mind…), we can add to it. How about a treasure chest? I worked out that that could be made to include several of the required techniques, so I did some sketching to work out the proportions and positions of seahorse and chest to make them into a coherent design.

Adding a treasure chest to the seahorse

And then, in my pile of sketches, I came across an undated, very basic sketch of a sitting kangaroo with the scribbled note “find good pose. check eye shape” and an indication of padded cutwork along the tail, and some chipping on the haunch/hip joint. (It also had a small sketch of a hot air balloon, but I ignored that.) A kangaroo… well, it would be unusual; I’d found plenty of sea creatures when looking at previous Certificate goldwork pieces, but no kangaroo (although there was a koala). It wouldn’t work with the hand-painted silk dupion, of course – I’d need to buy some more shades to have a good range of options (oh the hardship). As I talked to Hilary at the Silk Route about this I mentioned that it was now between a seahorse and a kangaroo and she immediately plumped for the kangaroo, simply because it was so unusual; and Angela, my tutor, had also greeted my simple sketch with some enthusiasm, not surprising perhaps as she is Australian smiley.

A basic kangaroo

Anyway, I figured there was no harm in finding some more kangaroo pics and deciding on a suitable position, and what about a pouch and possibly a Joey? And then it hit me. Haasje!

Haasje (“little hare” in Dutch) is the cuddly toy my grandmother bought for me before I was born. For various reasons it was a very special welcome into the world, and Haasje became my constant companion. He was also my champion: when an older cousin told me that “earworms” (Dutch for earwigs) would creep into your ears at night and nibble your brains (I had no older brothers, but my cousins obviously did a great job as substitutes), I looked for a solution to keep me safe. One ear was protected by the pillow, but what about the other? Haasje, of course! For several years I slept with him snugly held against my ear; my mother didn’t find out why until I was a grown-up.

Haasje, my constant companion

Now when my favourite aunt lived with us for two years and told me bedtime stories every night, she chose Haasje as the protagonist, and in one particularly memorable series of tales he travelled all the way to Australia, where a passing kangaroo gave him a lift in her pouch. He wasn’t used to hopping that fast and high, so he clung on for dear life while nervously looking down at the ground. That was it. The seahorse was forgotten. I had a design!

Haasje in the kangaroo's pouch

As is always the case the design went through several changes before it was finalised – it gained some grass, and a cloud with the sun behind it – but the basis for me was a panicky Haasje travelling by kangaroo (I hope to convey his wide-eyed look of fear by means of a big round spangle). In class I did some more work on what materials to put where, where to have padding, and which bits to leave open to contrast with the solid gold parts; the cutwork for the tail remained, as did the chipwork haunch, and other techniques and materials were added in, making sure all the requirements of the brief were covered. When I got home I did a mock-up (not easy for goldwork) to give myself a better idea of the balance between open and solid, and I think I’ve got it about right. I also printed the cleaned-up design on tracing paper to make the pricking needed for the prick & pounce transfer process.

The colour mock-up The tracing for prick and pounce

Then in the middle of this whole process, after Haasje had been added but before my class, our minister shared a holiday snap during the Sunday service’s all-age talk of this teeny-weeny little chap (that giant white thing is a teaspoon), almost changing my mind a second time, but although I did find some lovely pictures of miniature geckos in beautifully sinuous positions perfect for goldwork, I decided to stick with Bruce (as I have called the kangaroo) and Haasje.

The miniature gecko shared by our minister

Remember I mentioned getting some more colours of silk dupion? Here is the selection I got, with the two at the top bought specifically for Bruce. The olive shade was not at all what I was looking for, so that became my doodle cloth, but I absolutely loved the shade called Ether. It was a bit of a surprise as the picture on the Silk Route website was rather brighter, but actually this less saturated look was just what I wanted.

A collection of dupion shades

Unfortunately, although the 28cm x 33cm cut was fine as regards size, it had the grain running the wrong way. Well, “wrong” for this particular design. In order to accommodate the design I’d have to use the fabric in portrait orientation, but in that case the grain (which is very visible in silk dupion) runs vertically, and Angela and I both agreed that that would look all wrong. So this piece of fabric will become a second doodle cloth, and I’ve bought a fat quarter of the Ether dupion which is easily big enough to cut a piece of the right size with the grain running horizontally.

This does mean I won’t be able to fully frame up until my next class, as I would much prefer to attach the silk to the calico with a tutor to hand. On the few occasions I’ve attached a piece of silk to backing fabric I’ve ended up with puckers in the silk at the end of the project, so I want to get this absolutely right. Apparently the secret is to baste the two layers together on the design lines when the whole sandwich is under tension.

However, we could get the calico framed up. Angela had never worked with a slate frame this small so it was a new experience for her as well! But apart from everything being rather smaller, the rest of the process is pretty much the same: sew the top and bottom of the fabric to the webbing, sew herringbone tape to the sides, and lace up using the lethal bracing needle (I won’t show you the wounds…)

Sewing the calico to the webbing Lacing the side tapes to the bars

By the way, do you remember the four protective flaps I made for the big slate frame? True, they overlapped quite a bit, but it will give you some idea of the size difference when you see the effect of a single flap attached to the new frame.

Four flaps covering the large slate frame One protective flap is enough

And that’s it so far! I’ve got my homework – getting the silk ironed, sampling some couching and s-ing, creating a tonal plan, pricking the transfer, cutting the layers of felt padding; Angela is definitely keeping me busy smiley. After the next class I hope I’ll be able to show you the silk all framed up and with the design painted on, and who knows even a bit of gold (although all the padding needs to go on first, so it may be a while before I get to play with the bling bits – but there’s always the doodle cloth).

Ready for my homework!

And now we wait…

Those of you who follow Mabel’s Facebook page will know that last week I finished mounting my Jacobean Certificate piece and handed it in for assessment. Definitely a Proud Picture moment, and Angela kindly obliged. Yay me! And now we wait for the assessment to come back, probably some time in January. Patience is a virtue, they say, and I will be getting a lot of practice…

Posing with the now fully finished Jacobean piece

But how did we get to that point? You may remember that at the start of my last Jacobean class I had the twill all herringbone-stitched to the calico, and the sateen cut to size and ironed. As it happens I’d misunderstood Angela and cut a 10cm excess all around, instead of 10cm in total (5cm all around) so some cropping was needed, but then the sateen could be folded to the right size and pinned to the twill in the four corners.

The sateen backing pinned at the corners

Then it was a matter of slip stitching the twill and sateen together. It’s a bit like a ladder stitch really, except with ladder stitch you have two folds that need sewing together and you scoop a bit of both folds alternately. Here the sateen got scooped in the fold, but the twill just got picked up as close to the sateen as possible. Boy do you need a curved needle for this! I hate them with a vengeance because they have a will of their own and are a pain to work with, but I will admit that this sewing would be well-nigh impossible without one.

A slip stitch in the twill A slip stitch in the sateen

You work several slip stitches before firmly pulling the thread (a sturdy buttonhole) to make the stitches disappear into the fabric. In the picture I’m getting near to a corner and am about to pull, so the stitches further away are already neatly tightened away but the ones near the corner are still visible. Which brings me to the invisible even stitches mentioned in the brief – I asked Angela and she explained that although if properly done the actual stitches are invisible, the tension on the fabric shows where they are so you can see whether they are evenly done even if you can’t see the stitches themselves! What do you think, in the second picture – are they even?

Getting to a corner The sateen all attached, pins still to be removed

The final step was to take out all the pins, and then get rid of 140 or so pin holes. Quite a satisfying task, it was rather fun to see them disappear when gently rubbing the edge of the fabric.

getting rid of pin holes

And here it is, fully mounted, front and back view.

The mounted piece, front The mounted piece, back

Irrelevant picture: while pinning I found these two entangled pins in the box. I thought they looked rather sweet smiley.

Entangled pins

Tomorrow will be my first proper class for the Goldwork module, and I’m hoping to frame up the new, small slate frame and finalise the design. Yes, I have a design – not either of the ones I started out with as ideas, but that’s what happens. It’ll change a bit more over the next few weeks I don’t wonder, but I’ve got the general idea plus a personal twist, which I think is very important to have in a project you’ll be working on for many months. I’ve also got my doodle cloth hooped up: one of the silk dupions I got from the Silk Route turned out to be an olive green I am unlikely ever to use for a proper project, so it may as well be put to work in this way.

Sample cloth for goldwork

Incidentally, I finally unlaced the SAL Tree on my Millennium frame – quite a difference in tension, isn’t it! Perhaps slate frames do have the right idea after all smiley.

The Millennium frame all laced up for the SAL Unlacing the Millennium frame at completion of the SAL

An unexpected twist

Last week I bought two sets of Sulky 12wt cotton to try, having heard a lot of praise for them, and having enjoyed using one of their 12wt “Blendables” (variegated colours) in the Butterfly Wreath. Some of them (with a few others acquired since) were bought with a third version of the Hope rainbow in mind; the set of muted pinks and greens has no immediate purpose, but I just found the colour combination irresistible!

Two sets of Sulky 12wt cotton

“12wt”, or “12 weight”, by the way, refers to the thickness of the thread, or more accurately to its length: it is defined as the number of kilometres of thread in a kilo. So 12 kilometres of 12wt thread and 40 kilometres of a 40wt thread both weigh 1 kilo. This means that the higher the number, the thinner the thread; 12wt is roughly equal to two strands of standed cotton.

Before the Sulky threads arrived I took the opportunity to compare the thickness of my Blendables 12wt with a Weeks Dye Works perle #12 (they happen to be stored together as I got them both – plus a few others – when looking for just the right variegated green), mostly to compare thicknesses as you would expect the 12 in perle #12 to stand for its weight as well.

Weeks Dye Works perle and Sulky cotton

But as I put them down on white paper together I noticed something unexpected: Sulky blendables is a Z-twist! I’d never noticed this before because the Butterfly Wreath doesn’t use it for a stitch that shows up the difference clearly, like stem stitch.

I remembered that some years ago I purchased a few spools of another brand of 12wt cotton at the Knitting & Stitching Show. I dug out a spool of Wonderfil and yes, that’s a Z-twist too. But the WDW overdyed perle is, predictably enough, an S-twist like most other hand embroidery threads.

Three twelve-weight threads An S-twist and two Z-twists

And that last bit (“hand embroidery threads”) turns out to be the pertinent fact in this twisty surprise. Some research online brought up an interesting page on the website of thread manufacturer Yli, which says that “A thread with a Z-twist, or left twist, is engineered specifically for the sewing machine. The action of the sewing process tends to increase the twist of a Z-twisted thread, but can actually untwist a thread with S-twist, or right twist.” We live and learn! The threads are still perfectly usable for hand embroidery – I’ll just have to remember to work my stem stitch as outline stitch. Fortunately I don’t think many of the other stitches in the Hope design are affected; other than stem stitch just the whipping, probably. I wrote about the effect of the whipping direction in an earlier FoF, finding that I liked a Z-direction whip with an S-twist thread (that is to say the whipping and the thread twist go in opposite directions), so here I’ll have to do the whipping in the S-direction. Oh well, think of it as brain training.

Incidentally, coming back to the relative thickness of all these threads labelled as a size 12 – the Sulky thread is clearly thinner than the other two. Could it be because of a difference in twist? Sulky’s appears to be longer/less tight than either the WDW perle or the Wonderfil cotton. Must do a bit more research!

The home stretch

Early last February, Wednesday 5th to be precise, I attended my 6th class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. My next class was originally going to be 14th March, but for reasons I can’t quite remember now I changed that to Wednesday 22nd April, with the 8th and final class on 25th April. Both those classes were going to be mostly dedicated to getting my completed project mounted, always assuming that it was completed by 22nd April.

Well, you saw what was coming the moment I mentioned April, didn’t you? Yes, if I hadn’t changed dates I might just have snuck that 7th class in, but it was not to be. At that point no-one had any idea how long this was going to go on for, but even so I decided to try and finish the stitching by the date the class would have been. And I did. The mounting, which I was not going to attempt by means of a Zoom tutorial, would have to wait.

The finished tree

It had to wait until late last month, when the Rugby satellite location opened its doors once again to the Certificate & Diploma students. I was lucky enough to have Angela as a tutor again, both for this class and for the next one I booked at the same time for 7th October. There were four students in total, and everything had been so well arranged that it felt completely safe, while at the same time being very familiar in that we all had a good chat, and even managed to see each other’s work by being careful to switch places with plenty of distance between us.

Angela had asked me to bring my threads in case of any tweaking necessary, so before I could get on with the mounting process she scrutinised my poor tree from all sides (including the back) before handing it back to me saying that was fine, no need for tweaks. I was very pleased about that – I hadn’t touched the embroidery since I finished the stitching last April, and I hadn’t relished the thought of having to get back into it.

Now I could really get started. To begin with I had to decide what size the mounted work was going to be. I was handed two right-angled “half mats” to play with, and after a bit of indecision I worked out what I thought looked best.

Working out the size for mounting

Next was cutting two pieces of mount board to size (measuring them very carefully first, at least twice). These were then glued together and left under a pile of books to set.

Cutting the mount board

While waiting for the glue to set, it was time to take the embroidery off the slate frame. Before cutting the mount board, while the work was still under tension, I had put tacking stitches in the fabric exactly where the centres of the four sides were going to be. Now I took out the lacing threads which provide the horizontal tension and the split pins which provide the vertical tension, and cut the fabric off the bars.

Tacking stitches in, lacing threads out Split pins removed The embroidery is set free

The two glued pieces of mount board were then covered with calico by glueing round the edge of the back board and pulling the calico tight before sticking the edges down; the glue was not quite on the edge because a “channel” of unglued calico is needed for the twill to be attached. Here is the covered board and the upside down embroidery (giving you a rare look at the back of the work) ready to be folded around it.

Ready to start pinning (and a glimpse of the back)

Next, pins. Lots of pins. Far more pins than I’d expected. At a guess, approximately 140 of them by the time I’d pinned as far towards the corners as I could get. The tricky bit was making sure I pinned exactly on the grain; this was definitely a glasses-off close-up job.

The first few pins More pins

I’d been quite prepared to do a second round, as I’d been told at the beginning of the course that it was rarely tight enough after the first pinning, and generally needed another round of pull-and-pin to get it properly stretched, but Angela had a good look at the result of round one, and said I could go straight on to sewing the twill to the calico and mitring the corners. With hindsight, I think I would have preferred a second round after all, but not enough to undo all the sewing I’ve done since!

Angela checks my pinning

The twill is attached to the calico using herringbone stitch, pulling the fabric taut while stitching. What with pushing in 140 or so pins, stretching the fabric and pulling the buttonhole sewing thread tightly at every stitch, after a while my fingers were becoming quite sore (I’d been warned about this). By the end of the class, this is how far I’d got, with Angela having demonstrated how to ladder stitch the corner when moving from one side to the next. Homework: finish the herringbone stitching and the mitred corners, and cut and iron the cotton sateen which will be the final backing.

The state of things at the end of my class

I definitely improved with practice: my first ladder stitch was not quite parallel (although fortunately the corner came out quite nicely even so), but the second definitely looked more even.

Ladder stitch in a mitred corner The corner pulled close More parallel ladder stitch

And here it is, ready for my 8th Jacobean class this coming Wednesday, when I hope to finish the process by attaching the cotton sateen with, as the brief phrases it, “even slip stitches” which are “not visible”. How they assess whether my slip stitches are even or uneven if they’re not visible I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps you get marked down less if your slip stitches are visible but even smiley?

The herringbone and mitring finished The front, still with pins

Shortly after this class I booked another for 14th October (also with Angela), on the grounds that it would keep the momentum going and get me started on that goldwork project – I figured that as long as I could get framed up and with a bit of luck even get the design transferred (this is a teeny weeny bit ambitious as I have yet to decide what exactly the design is going to be…) I would be willing to try some online classes for this particular module. But since then they’ve opened up the November and December classes for booking, and I’ve added two November face-to-face dates – fingers crossed they’ll actually happen!