Stitching goodies under the Christmas tree

Did you get any stitchy presents this year? I was thoroughly spoilt – besides non-stitchy presents including a set of good kitchen knives from Youngest and a lovely cross pendant from my husband there was an embroidery book and box of inspiring stash (also husband) and a selection of really useful bits plus some unusual bling (from Eldest, DIL and grandson). And with only the tiniest of hints; aren’t they clever smiley?

I’d rather hoped to be able to pick up my signed copy of this book at my latest Certificate class which was meant to have Angela as the tutor, but they changed the teaching schedule so it was Becky Quine. I could have brought her Crewelwork book (which is from the same series as Angela’s, and Lizzie Pye’s for that matter) and have it signed as well, I suppose, but I thought that would be a bit forward. Anyway, as the new book had to be sent, my husband decided it would make a good Christmas present – which indeed it did! I’ve had a first read through and there are lots of interesting ideas in there; I particularly like the use of Turkey rug stitch for a girl’s plaited hair (shown on the cover).

Angela Bishop's book about embroidering people

A friend on the Cross Stitch Forum had alerted me to the lovely hand-dyed threads of Paint Box Threads; they sell them individually but also in “Inspiration Packs” containing interesting combinations with hand-dyed fabrics and speciality threads. This is the one called “Period Drama”. The sateen is lovely and soft and matches the threads beautifully. The speciality threads look interesting, there’s a sheer ribbon and a neutral & gold thread which can be couched, and something extremely hairy which I’m not sure how to use but it’ll be fun to try!

Inspiration Pack from Paint Box Threads What's in the box in detail

And finally there was this lovely selection. Well, when I say lovely in some cases I just mean “very useful”; I am the first to admit that the 10mm felt for really high padding is not the most attractive thing to look at, but I look forward to using it in future goldwork projects. I’m thinking possibly a toadstool… anyway, that’s for later. The other bits are three gorgeously shiny silks for couching metal threads, a light grey drawing pen for transferring designs, a dinky little pair of pliers which will be great for pulling needles through dense embroidery and bending wires, and some unusual goldwork materials. See the gold and silver looped wire in the pictures? On Jenny Adin-Christie’s website it is called “miniadice”, a wire I had never heard of before. A quick google yields only one other link (to a German website), so I guess it is not very commonly used. That means it’s not really suitable for any designs I intend to publish on the website, but I can still use it to interesting effect in purely personal projects.

A collection of goodies from Jenny Adin-Christie Couching silks, pliers, transfer pen and miniadice

With so many things to read and play with, it’s a shame the Christmas holiday is nearly over! But I’m sure I’ll find opportunities to use my presents even when work occasionally gets in the way smiley.

The joys of curvaceousness

No, this has nothing to do with the festive season or the fact that I inexplicably tend to acquire a few extra pounds at this time of year. It’s all about frames and needles! (Digression – my husband asked how the finishing of plunged goldwork threads was assessed as it would be covered up. I explained that, as far as I knew, if the metal threads on the front didn’t wobble and there were no unsightly bulges the assessors would assume the securing had been done properly. “Ah yes” he said, looking meaningfully at the various Christmas treats lying around, “wobbles and unsightly bulges can be quite a problem.” I ignored him.)

Remember the two SAL Trees of Life that went off for framing? Well, they came back looking rather beautiful in their shared accommodation! One of the things I really like about the finished look is those curvaceous apertures. Because the design for the Tree is just a little taller than it is wide, I made things a bit difficult for our poor local framers by asking the mount to be cut not with two perfect circles, but with two not-quite-circles-but-just-slightly-ovals. I think they came up trumps, don’t you?

The SAL Trees of Life framed

Over the weekend we finally got round to hanging them on the wall. They join a painting I brought with me from the Netherlands when I moved here, and appropriately hang right next to my craft room door. This also means I look at them whenever I’m working on my Certificate or other serious projects at the dining room table – ideal!

And hung in place Right by the craft room!

More curves entered my life this month, this time in the form of needles. I mentioned the ones I ordered from Creative Quilting, but I also found a set of six semi-circular and curved needles at Restore Products. Because the website didn’t mention the diameter I rang them and asked what sort of thickness they were, and the gentleman told me they were surgical needles which they themselves used for box making and mounting. I took the plunge and ordered a set, and they too arrived a little over a week ago. They were a bit of a surprise, being much smaller than I expected; I obviously hadn’t visualised the measurements on the website quite accurately enough. The smallest one, I suspect, will need an implement of some sort to manipulate it through the fabric, much like you see surgeons do in medical programmes. Perhaps the nifty little pliers I got for Christmas… but more about that some other time.

Back to needles. The Creative Quilting ones look the most promising, being more or less the size I’m used to but (as Becky had said) finer than the RSN kit needles and sturdier than the beading needles, so the Restore Products needles have been put away in my needle box for the time being. I’m sure they’ll come in handy at some point; tools and bits of equipment usually do, don’t they? The picture, by the way, shows both sizes of John James curved needles but I’ve only ever used the smaller of the two; I have no idea what I’ll ever use the larger one for, if anything. It doesn’t show a curved beading needle because I broke my last one while waiting for the new needles to arrive…

Various curved needles

And here is the result of me plying one of my new Creative Quilting needles: Bruce’s back is properly and fairly neatly secured! I still managed to pick up a bit of the main fabric once, but fortunately I noticed before pulling the needle through so I could remedy that quite easily. In the not too distant future I’ll show you what the front of this tamed spaghetti looks like smiley.

Bruce's back fully plunged and secured

A passing resemblance

Do you find that you have certain favourite materials and stitches for the various types of embroidery? I’ve been doing quite a bit of goldwork recently (you may have noticed…) and certain metals and threads have been steadily emerging as favourites whereas others are on the avoid-if-possible list. The larger sizes of rococco, for example, definitely fall into the latter category (I much prefer the also wavy but finer check thread); and passing thread in its various weights is one I reach for with much more enthusiasm than Jap, with which it shares certain characteristics. It’s a shame that Jap and rococco are required in my Certificate piece, whereas check thread and passing are not allowed.

Rococco and check thread

So what is passing, and how does it differ from Jap? Well, they both have a thread core (silk or cotton); the difference lies in what is wrapped around the outside. In Jap this is a relatively wide strip of metal foil paper, whereas in passing it is a metal wire or a thin strip of metal. This makes passing slightly stiffer, but also more suitable to take around sharp bends – Jap’s foil wrapping sometimes comes away from its thread core if the bend falls right in the middle of a wrap.

Passing and Jap Passing and Jap, close-up

A few weeks ago someone on the Needle ‘n Thread Facebook Group mentioned a shop called Tied to History which, they said, had some great bargains on discontinued threads, among them fine passing. This sounded interesting! I had a quick look, and before long several shades of fine passing had made it into my shopping basket, including a lovely rose gold which you may remember I thought might work for adding wavy highlights to Mechtild’s hair. When they arrived, I was not disappointed – lovely fine threads, much finer than any of the passing I had in my stash.

Passing threads from Tied to History

In fact what it most resembled was an unidentified metal thread I was given by my mother-in-law a few years ago. And like that thread, it seemed to be a bit betwixt and between: relative to the thread’s thickness, the wraps around the core are much narrower than in Jap, but rather wider than in passing. When I asked the seller about this, she said that she wasn’t an embroiderer herself but a maker of historic costumes; she hadn’t been able to find a thin enough metallic in the US, so had begun to source them herself, and eventually found these in India. She said she might well not be using the correct technical term for them. Be that as it may, they are lovely fine threads, and I look forward to using them!

Different weights of passing

But to do that, I need to undo the skeins. I started with one of the silver ones, partly because I bought two of them so if something went wrong I’d still have the other skein. Call me a pessimist, but metallic threads can be unruly and challenging, as I knew only to well after tackling the Jap that came in the bundle of gold threads my mother-in-law passed on to me.

Goldwork materials from my mother-in-law

And yes, before too long I ended up with an almighty tangle. Sigh. I contacted the seller, who said yes, the threads could be challenging to store; she usually popped them around a jam jar and took off as much as she needed, straightening the thread as she went. I can’t quite visualise the jam jar, but over the Christmas period, when the light is rather too bad for any serious goldwork stitching, I hope to take a leisurely afternoon or so to create shiny order out of metallic chaos. Wish me luck!

A passing tangle

A gold surprise, gold spaghetti and gold waste

As I got back from my Certificate class last Wednesday there was a padded envelope waiting for me among the Christmas cards. I opened it to find that it contained… a Christmas card! But there was a reason for the protective wrapping, which became apparent when I looked inside the very pretty stitched card – three little glassine bags containing three shades of gold bright check. What a lovely surprise to have some sparkle added to a dark December afternoon. Unfortunately the Certificate brief means I can’t use any of these kind gifts in Bruce the Kangaroo, but I’m sure I will find a good purpose for them.

A Christmas card and a lovely surprise

One thing the bright check won’t cause is the sort of gold spaghetti I ended up with at the back of my work after plunging the mixed couching on Bruce’s back. I’ll tell you more about the front of the work in a later FoF, but I thought I’d show you the slightly dispiriting sight that greets me at the moment when I turn over a frame whose front looks quite neat and tidy.

Goldwork spaghetti

The curved needles that come with the Certificate starter kit are fairly chunky which makes it difficult to pick up only the backing calico, and oversewing some earlier plunged threads I’d managed to catch the silk as well as the backing so that the sewing thread was visible at the front. This had to be unpicked (fortunately the silk wasn’t damaged) and re-done. I ditched the kit needle and used a curved beading needle I acquired a while ago. Well, I acquired two, but they are rather fragile and I broke one a few weeks ago. Now at the class Becky, the tutor, mentioned that a quilting shop near Hampton Court Palace did curved needles that were thinner and more flexible than the RSN ones, but sturdier than beading needles, so I rang them and ordered a couple of pairs. When they arrive I’ll get all those ends secured, and then Bruce and Haasje will go into hibernation over Christmas.

When I posted the spaghetti picture in a stitching forum, a fellow member asked about the wastage rate of goldwork threads, seeing that they are not the cheapest of materials to buy. Thinking it over, I found that actually it’s not too bad. Wastage in goldwork comes mainly in the couched threads where the ends of the thread get pulled through to the back (plunged) for the purpose of finishing off. The hollow wires that you treat like beads have (in theory at least) no waste at all because you cut them exactly to size; I say “in theory” as this takes a lot of practice, but even when you’re not yet very good at estimating the right length relatively little is thrown away – bits that are a little too long or short can usually be used elsewhere in the project. The same goes for pearl purl which is the only one of the couched materials to be cut to size and not plunged (because it doesn’t have a thread core). In fact, if you restrict your materials to pearl purl and the various flexible hollow purls and checks (and spangles), you won’t see any gold at the back of your work at all!

The back of this goldwork shows no gold at all All the gold is on the front

Anything with a thread core gets plunged, so you leave at least an inch on both sides; I actually tend to leave a little more when I pre-cut lengths, as I did for Bruce’s back where the lines are relatively short. The shorter the couched length, the greater the wastage as a percentage of the length used. But in Bruce’s hind leg, for example, where for the central part I’ll just be going round and round and round, the plunged bits will be a relatively small percentage.

Different lengths of couching

And even then I can’t really think of the plunged ends as “wastage” because, well, you need to finish off! In much the same way that you weave the thread end in when doing cross stitch or Hardanger you need to secure these gold threads. You only oversew about 10 to 15mm but you do need a bit more to pull to the back so you do tend to cut off a few centimetres each time after securing, and those offcuts can’t be used for anything else. Still, on the whole it’s fairly economical with the materials (depending to some extent on the design) – most of the gold is definitely on the front where it is seen!

Proper padding and a little bit of gold

After all the preparations I talked about in last week’s FoF, it was time for the third class in my Goldwork module. The first thing I did there was not concerned with the prep at all, but involved a little tweak to my sampled grass. Helen Jones, the tutor, suggested gently pinching the tips of the blades of grass with tweezers to make a sharper point, and it did make a difference. I still have to sample invisibly couched tips though! I also learnt that twist is always couched using the invisible in-between-the-plies method unless it is part of mixed couching, so both the grass and the kangaroo outline will have to be done in this way.

The tweezered points look pointier

On to discuss the soft string padding. Helen hadn’t seen the design or the extra bit of tail padding before, so we talked about possibly using thicker string or more strands as a documented design decision (as discussed with Angela last time), but when I remarked that I had sampled a blunt ending and moved the tail felt because the tail had to gradually get down to the level of Bruce’s rump, she suggested I cut 20 short lengths of my slightly thicker soft string, wax them, outline the tail on my sample cloth and see whether splayed out the twenty strings might not be enough to cover the base of the tail after all. They were. Helen said the sample I’d done at home was fine so she suggested I move straight on to the real thing. Away with the sampling cloth and out comes the slate frame!

On to the actual padding!

It took several goes and a fair bit of unpicking, because I wanted to get this absolutely right. The cutwork tail is going to be quite an eyecatcher, and having the proper foundation will make it much easier to get the cutwork even. So the tapering had to be gradual, and the securing stitches not stick out. It took most of the class, but then I did have a tail to be proud of! Well, Bruce did smiley.

The tapered end done, now for the chisel end Close-up of the tapered end Working on the chisel end The finished tail

Actually, it was rather nice to be able to spend such a long time just getting an important part of the project done just right. It’s not something you can easily manage at home, but in class, well, there’s nothing else to do but concentrate on your stitching!

And finally, I did manage to get on a little bit of actual gold thread that would be seen – but not without a design change. I was going to use a pair of rococco and Jap for the outline of the cloud, but the Jap looked dwarfed by the chunky medium rococco, so I changed it to a single line of rococco with a pair of Jap couched next to it. I got the rococco on in class and later that weekend added the Jap and the pearl purl outline of the sun at home.

The first gold

So the first gold is on – yay! Although… I’m not at all sure the bricking on the Jap and the rococco is up to scratch. The irregular nature of rococco when couched in curves makes it difficult to space the couching stitches evenly, which in turn makes it difficult to know where to place the couching stitches on the Jap; bricking based on the rococco will simply make the spacing on the Jap uneven as well, while spacing the couching on the Jap evenly upsets the bricking pattern. For now I will leave plunging and fastening off on the cloud, in case I decide to take it all out after discussing it with Angela. If a thing is worth doing…