Some small projects

It has been a shamefully long time since I’ve written anything here – this was partly because of trying to get things done (particularly all the SAL blog posts) before going away for a weekend (in Wales) and a week (in the Netherlands), and partly because even since those trips were cancelled due to Coronavirus I’ve been working on other websites that I look after (such as our Church’s) to keep them up to date with the latest advice. I also seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time foraging; all of a sudden I feel great sympathy for our grandmothers’ generation who had to spend a considerable part of their day shopping for food.

Meanwhile, the Figworthy household is keeping well, and in line with government advice both the main family business and Mabel’s Fancies remain open as they are online only. So work as usual, and stitching mostly in the evenings as usual, but although in some ways things haven’t changed too dramatically for us, I do find it difficult to concentrate on anything large and/or complicated. It was time for a few more small projects. And the perfect occasions were two birthdays: my aunt, whose 80th birthday I was meant to be celebrating with her in the Netherlands, and my sister-in-law.

For my aunt I turned to a set of number outlines I keep by for this sort of card, Anchor’s perle-with-metallic, some Petite Treasure Braid and petite seed beeds for added bling, and a spare piece of material left over from some old cushions.

Setting up aunt Juliette's 80

It stitched up quite quickly but still looks suitably festive – not quite the same thing as celebrating her birthday with her (we were going to have a combined party for her 80th and my 50th) but I hope it will make her smile.

Aunt Juliette's 80 mounted in a card

For the other birthday card, which had to be stitched in a single evening because I started rather late, I chose a Sarah Homfray freebie – a small butterfly. I changed the shape of the lower wings a little, and got out my box of coton à broder #16; a slightly chunkier thread so that even with mostly outline stitches it wouldn’t look too empty.

Preparing Sarah Homfray's butterfly

The bullion knots were a last-minute addition because the wings looked a bit bare without them. I did think of adding some detached buttonhole frills here and there, but as it was past 11pm by then I decided against it; they would have made an interesting addition but they weren’t absolutely necessary to make the butterfly look pretty. And in fact it was rather nice to know that a very decorative butterfly could be produced in a little under two and a half hours!

The finished butterfly

The next morning, Saturday, I had to make up the card in time to catch the 11am post – and preferably in time for me to still be able to go for my usual Saturday walk with a group of friends (observing proper social distancing). In my stash of cards I found a wine-red one with an oval aperture which would have been ideal if it hadn’t been just too small – I should have measured it first and adjusted the design size to it! Fortunately a dark blue card with a circular aperture made quite a good alternative.

Making up the card

Finally, before sending it off, it had to be inspected by the Quality Control Feline. She approved.

The card is inspected by Lexi

So what next? Well, there are a few things still to do on the SAL, and of course there is the Certificate Tree of Life – although what with classes having been suspended because of Covid-19 who knows when I’ll be able to hand it in for assessment. Not to mention that mounting it the proper way is not something to be undertaken lightly, as I have been told by other students, and really should be done with a tutor present. So for now my plan is to finish the stitching by 22nd April as I originally intended, and then to decide how to proceed. I may just take it off the frame and store it flat until I can go to a class to mount it, and in the meantime prepare as much as possible for my Canvaswork module. We’ll see.

I’d also like to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn, who has lain neglected for far too long, and to start on Soli Deo Gloria – a good reminder in these uncertain times. But I will also start a few projects that are not my design, and which I can just have fun with. A smaller version of Percy the Parrot worked in coton à broder #25, a Sarah Homfray freebie flower (not sure yet what stitches I’ll use for that, but I’m thinking of using Palestrina stitch as a filling for the stem, with the knots offset in consecutive lines) and some designs from one of the small Anchor embroidery books, including a teddy bear for our grandson Teddy, and some aeroplanes for his room to tell him about his late great-grandfather who flew planes in the war. That should keep me busy for a bit!

Possible future projects

Proud Percy

Percy the parrot turned out to be the perfect travelling project, as well as the perfect relaxing project – no planning, no thinking, no note-taking, just stitching. Bliss.

He came out looking rather different from his inspiration, although in one respect he resembles the original more than I thought he would. You may remember I described the Anchor version as being worked in “colours (purples and blues and pinks on a blue background) that were not what I would have chosen” and yet here he is with blue and purple plumage and accompanied by a pink flower!

The original parrot in the Anchor book Percy the Parrot, finished

Some people have asked about the stitches I used, and also whether they can use them in projects of their own. The answer to the latter part of the question is that it’s not up to me to say yes or no to that! Embroidery stitches belong to no-one, so you can use any and every stitch you like. As for the former part, the picture below shows what I used where; the order in which I worked the various bits, as far as I can remember, was branch/feet & beak/leaves & flower/tail/chest/wing/crest/head/eye.

Stitches used for Percy

I pretty much used whatever stitch happened to pop into my mind when looking at the design; I decided on whipping the tail feathers each in a blue that was one shade lighter than the chain stitch, partly to create texture but mostly to make sure they weren’t just three separate feathers – the colours link them together. For his chest feathers I was originally going to use Mountmellick stitch, but I felt that was more spiky than feathery, and so I went for the more frilly look of detached buttonhole stitch.

Incidentally, for something that was meant to be relaxing and non-challenging I did occasionally make things unnecessarily complicated; at one point I was trying to get the shading I wanted in the branch by having three threads on the go at once, threading and re-threading because I’d only brought one needle. Sigh. Note to self: try and keep travel projects straightforward.

Juggling three shades of brown and one needle

And after all that, am I pleased with him? On the whole, yes. There are a few things which I would probably do differently if I stitched him again (not an unlikely event – I’ve already printed out my pared-down version of the design in several sizes, the smallest to be used for cards) but I like his look, and I am partcularly pleased with his eye. It’s got character, that eye smiley.

Percy printed out in several sizes Percy the Parrot, a close-up

So what would I have changed? And am I being too fussy and self-critical, as so many stitchers are? To answer that last question first, I tend to look at anything I stitch with a critical eye, but with different aims in mind. I look at the RSN Certificate piece to find anything that isn’t as near-perfect as I can make it, and improve it if I feel that I can. I look at something like Percy with a critical eye in order to store up ideas for future projects. I’m definitely not unpicking and re-doing him – he is fine as he is!

But for future reference, I would divide the second-lightest bit of the wing into two parts like the part underneath it (in the middle shade of blue) – I think that would look more balanced. I would not use the rather bright shade of orange that is on the outside of the flower centre (the colour is shown more accurately in the close-up). And I would probably keep only his chest in purple, and use blues for his crest – although I must admit the purple crest is growing on me.

Things I would do differently Rather too orange

One thing which niggles me but which I won’t change because I think the alternative would look less effective is the placing of his tail in front of the branch he is sitting on. In the original, the branch is (correctly, from a perspective point of view) stitched over the tail feathers. But in the original the branch is a single line of chain stitch, whereas mine is a rather more elaborate affair. I feel it would break up the flow of the tail feathers too much (quite apart from making those feathers more awkward to stitch). And let’s face it, he’s not exactly a naturalistic parrot anyway! So in future versions as here I will allow Percy to show off his tail in all its glory.

Pretty threads and a parrot project

In my search for inspiration threads for canvaswork I came across a job lot of Rainbow Gallery Silk Lamé on eBay. Will they be used in the RSN Canvaswork module? Perhaps. Certainly not all of them. But they are very, very pretty, and they came to less than half price. I succumbed.

Rainbow Gallery Silk Lamé

These threads are for future projects, however, so we will put them aside for now and move on to the exciting topic of Travel Projects! I need a travel project for when we go and visit my mother-in-law. I don’t actually need a new travel project because there are at least four small existing ones, ranging from itty bitty (the Quatrefoil I started in order to try out the Quaker Tapestry transfer method and a padded rose about which I will write more in a future FoF) to a little bit larger but still fitting a 5″ hoop (the Ottoman Tulip and the kaleidoscope design I got from Oh Sew Bootiful). But you know how it is…

Some time ago I found one of those small Anchor embroidery books in a charity shop – there’s a whole series of them, introductory guides about 6″ not-quite-square. This one was about crewelwork, and besides stitch descriptions it also has photographs of projects worked using these stitches (although as quite a few of them are worked in stranded cotton or perle they aren’t strictly speaking crewelwork), as well as transfers for most of these designs in the back of the book.

The Anchor Crewel book

One design that caught my eye was a parrot on a branch. True, because of the way the big circle around his eye had been stitched he looked rather grumpy, and the colours (purples and blues and pinks on a blue background) were not what I would have chosen, but in spite of all that he had that indefinable quality of Potential. This parrot could go places!

Parrot from the Anchor book, far too blue and purple

And so he will – to Devon, when we visit my mother-in-law smiley. I wanted him to be a relatively small and simple project, so I left out quite a bit of the foliage when I transferred him onto a spare piece of Essex linen I had lying around. As for threads, I’m doing quite a lot of things in crewel wool at the moment so he is not going to be a proper crewel parrot; instead, I’m going to use some of the DMC floche I got from America several years ago. Because it’s so difficult to find here I’ve never felt able to use it in any of my own designs, as it would be difficult for customers from the UK and Europe to get the threads. But Percy Parrot here is just for my own enjoyment, so I can use whatever I like. I’ve put my whole (admittedly not extensive) collection of floche in the travel box so I can decide what colours to use as I stitch, and I haven’t got a stitch plan – he is going to be very free freestyle.

A parrot travel project

By the way, that little blue bird shape in the project box is a hummingbird needle threader – Mary Corbet wrote about it on Needle ‘n Thread and I found it was available in the UK as well for only a couple of pounds; it looks like a good one for threading the smaller needles, which isn’t always easy with regular needle threaders. The trick in using it appear to be that after you’ve pushed the little hook through the needle’s eye and hooked the thread you move the needle along the threader to slip it off rather than pulling the threader through. I haven’t used it yet, but I’ll let you know how I get on with it!

A two-stage transfer

Last Monday at our weekly embroidery group a friend brought a kit which she’d been given for Christmas; it was a Quaker Tapestry kit. She’d got everything hooped up and was about to start, and she explained the first thing was to do stem stitch on the back of the work so that there would be backstitch on the front. We were all a bit puzzled about this, and I asked why she didn’t simply work backstitch on the front of the work. She wasn’t absolutely sure herself but said she was just following the Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide which came with the kit. Several of us had a look at it and after a while we worked out why this was the first step: it was part of the Quaker Tapestry transfer method. I was intrigued and that afternoon bought a copy of the Stitch Guide myself (which fortunately could be obtained without having to buy a kit).

The Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide

The trouble with the Quaker Tapestry and its kit offspring from a transfer point of view is that pretty much none of the usual methods work on the specially-woven woollen fabric they use. It’s too thick for a lightbox transfer, too textured for prick & pounce (even if the variegated colour didn’t make it difficult to work out what shade of pounce to use in the first place) – tacking the design on through a layer of tissue paper would probably work, but pulling every last bit of tissue paper out from under the tacking without damaging or at least fluffing the fabric would be challenging. So the Quaker Tapestry people came up with a method that as far as I know is unique to them. And it so happens that it looks to me like a jolly good method for transferring designs onto other “difficult” fabrics – dark, thick, textured or a combination of the three. I decided to have a go myself to see whether I liked it.

I didn’t want to use anything too big, so I fell back on my trusted little Quatrefoil. Wouldn’t it look rather rich and luxurious done on burgundy dupion? As this fabric is both dark and textured, it would make the perfect trial piece for this transfer method.

The not-easy-to-transfer-on fabric

The first step is to transfer the design to your backing fabric, which you then hoop up with your main fabric. A few things things to bear in mind: firstly, as you’re working on the back of the fabric the transfer needs to be a mirror image of the design. Not a problem here as the Quatrefoil is pretty much symmetrical, but especially important to remember if there is any lettering in the design! Secondly, when you hoop up do so with the backing fabric facing you, to make sure you get the transferred design centred in the hoop. And thirdly, make sure the backing fabric is relatively densely woven, for example a medium-weight calico. I used a very open Egyptian muslin and regretted it because it makes it difficult to place your stitches accurately. (By the way, I am using these terms in the British sense; British calico is American muslin, and British muslin I think is American mousseline.)

The design transferred to the backing Mounting the two pieces of fabric, centring the back The front of the fabric, without transfer

The Stitch Guide tells you to fasten on with a knot at the front of the work (that is to say, the side you are working on as you transfer the design, which is actually the back), taking the needle down right at the beginning of a design line. You then come up a stitch length further along the line – this in effect makes your first backstitch on the right side of the fabric. You then go down a stitch length further, and come up again where you came up the first time. This makes the second backstitch on the right side of the fabric, but also sets you up for your line of stem stitch on the backing side.

You need to remember this “extra” stitch at the beginning of every new line, but you soon get used to that. I found it helpful to think not of how neat (or not) my stem stitch was looking, but of what the backstitch on the other side of the fabric was doing. Sometimes, especially on corners, the stem stitch will look quite ragged, and the thing is not to get hung up on that as long as the backstitch on the other side is correct. Keeping your mind on the unseen backstitch (quite apart from providing some good mental exercise) helps when you need to move from one design line to another, to make sure the whole line is covered on the right side of the fabric.

Work stem stitch on the back The backstitch outline on the front

As I was going to stitch this little flower in Splendor silks, I used a single strand of the lightest colour for this transfer. The Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide says you should use whatever colour will be used on the front, so that the transferred design shows the correct colours; mainly, I assume, so that the design lines are more easily hidden in the finished embroidery – if a little does peep through it won’t be so noticeable – but as an added bonus it would help the stitcher pick the right colour for the various parts without having to refer to the instructions every time. Still, I felt that would be overkill in a design as small and simple as this, and anyway as I was just quickly trying out the method I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.

The silks I picked for the design; the lightest colour only would be used for the outline An outline in the correct colours

Looking at the emerging design lines, however, I wondered what would happen on the parts that were going to be outlined in split stitch. It might be rather difficult to work a nice even line of split stitch on top of the backstitch. Ideally what my transfer produced would be as close to paint or ink lines as possible, and as unintrusive to the stitching. An unattainable ideal from the very nature of things – thread is never going to be as flat as paint – but would a finer thread be the answer? I switched to Gütermann sewing thread and it definitely does make a difference: the teal arrow shows the outline done in one strand of silk, the orange arrow points to a part done in sewing thread. (The lilac arrow points to one of a couple of places where there is room for improvement in my stitch placement; a denser backing fabric – see above – would help.)

Gütermann sewing thread for thinner lines Thinner and thicker lines, and a few irregularities

I can see myself using this method for goldwork on a silk dupion background, using the sewing threads normally used for couching the metal threads and wires: dark yellow where there is going to be gold, light grey for silver, dark orange for copper. Or perhaps for stitching on velvet or other difficult-to-transfer-onto fabrics. A useful addition to my stitching arsenal!

The home straight

Last week I had my sixth class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate, which means that we’re on the home straight. In fact, my homework is to finish the Tree before coming to my seventh class!

As usual, not an awful lot of stitching got done at the class, but there was plenty of learning and information-gathering going on. One student doing her Silk Shading module was trying out colours by cutting a print of the flower petal she was stitching in half, attaching it to her doodle cloth, and stitching the other half to match the photograph – a great idea, which I promptly appropriated (with her permission, I hasten to add) even though it’ll be a couple of years before I need it. Two others were working on silk shading and I picked up some good tips from listening to tutor Helen McCook’s advice to them. It’s never too early to start learning.

A way to match thread colours to reality

I did manage to finish the last row of the block shading on the right-hand hillock (had to start a new thread for the last five stitches or so – annoying!) and Helen said the lines are nice and crisp, so happy with that.

Running out of thread at an annoying moment The finished rows

Going through my notes with her I decided I won’t outline the gap in the tree trunk (it’s neat enough as it is and doesn’t really need it), and that I will add extra padding to ball of wool – Helen suggested using full satin padding instead of the usual surface satin, as the bulk at the back would help create more lift at the front when mounted. I’m all for a more ball-like ball of wool so I’ll give that a go.

Helen also asked me to sample the cat with broader stripes, as the narrow stripes didn’t look very smooth. I said that Lexi’s stripes were narrow and I didn’t want to lose the tabby look (for one thing Lexi would never forgive me); I’ve shown I can do smooth long & short shading in the sepals on the tulip so surely this can just be a bit more, well, furry? She said it wasn’t so much about the shading as the smoothness of the stitching. I agreed to sample some broad stripes. When I showed them to Helen she said, “That’s much smoother. And it looks all wrong, like she’s wearing a striped jumper.” Lexi is back to narrow stripes smiley.

Broad stripes on Lexi

Next was the left-hand floral thingy (not sure what it is, really). I’d intended to start on the Bayeux part but fortunately Helen reminded me that you work back to front so first came the seeding in the back petal. Officially this should be followed by the Palestrina outline, but time was getting on and I wanted to start the laid work on the scalloped part of the front petal. As I was working on this Helen said, “Are you shading from light to dark?” To my mind I was shading from dark to light because I looked at it top to bottom, but she meant looking at it from the base. Apparently (although no-one had thought to tell me this before) traditionally the darker shade is at the base of the flower/plant/petal/leaf, as indeed it is in the tulip sepals. I explained I’d never heard of this and I’d just chosen what looked pleasing to me, and she said that was fine.

Shading on plant parts

I got on with trying to fill very curved scallops with very straight laid stitches, making sure that the edges were crisp and no outline was visible. A challenge. So challenging, in fact, that I unpicked my first five stitches or so three times. It was then that I had a light-bulb moment. One of the reasons why it was extremely difficult to get the edge to look neat and crisp and so on was that my dark thread contrasted very strongly with the fabric. What if I used Helen’s traditional shade order and started with the lightest of my shades? The scalloped edge would probably be no neater, but it would look neater, and the dark shades would be used at the bottom of the shape where there were no nasty curves to navigate. I’m afraid I didn’t take pictures of the top-dark version, but take it from me, the top-light version does indeed look a lot better!

Seeding on the back petal, and the start of Bayeux stitch

That’s where I got to at the end of the class. With my next class not until late April I now needed to put this away for a while and concentrate on the Tree of Life SAL, but I did just want to finish the left-hand flower and the little diamond that connects it to the branch. First, the Palestrina stitch outline of the back petal; on my various colour plans this was sometimes dark orange, sometimes light orange, and on the last one two oranges and a light brown, which was never a good idea. In the end I went with the light direction as shown by the trunk, so the right-facing parts are done in light orange and the others in dark.

Palestrina stitch outline in two colours

On to my Bayeux petal, and time for some shading. I’m very pleased with how that’s come out, and the outline isn’t too shabby either – no need to cover it up. (I’d intially included a decorative outline stitch in the design, but both Helen and Angela said that an extra border stitch around laid work immediately makes the assessors think there is something messy to hide.)

Shading and outline on the laid work

Next was the long couching lines, and an interesting challenge – where to fasten on and off? There is no outline to sneak stitches under, no area that will be covered later… In the end I very gently pushed aside the laid stitches and hid the anchoring stitches underneath.

Where to fasten on?

It was only when I’d completed the two stages of couching (long dark brown lines across the laid foundation held down themselves with tiny beige stitches) that I noticed not all the long lines were the same thickness (Appleton’s – grrrr). Well, I’m not going to take them out; I’m happy with their placement and I don’t want to do it again (pictures in a future FoF will explain why)!

Uneven lines will have to do

Finally, the little orange diamond at the base of the flower, consisting of alternating light and dark bullion knots. It’s not a perfect diamond but it is a little less elongated than the doodle version I did some time ago, and the design lines don’t show on the real project, so I call that progress.

The bullion knot diamond The doodled bullion knot diamond

By the way, what a difference lighting makes – here’s the Tree as it is lit when I’m working on it (light coming from the top and the work nearly horizontal), and photographed with my husband holding it up (facing the window with the work nearly vertical, and at a 45-degree angle towards the window but still vertical).

The Tree, photographed horizontally The Tree, photographed vertically, facing the window The Tree, photographed vertically, angled towards the window

Now on to mounting (a challenge in itself) and then canvaswork – and to encourage the creative process I’ve treated myself to some inspirational threads!

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery

Certificate progress

Tomorrow is my 6th Certificate class, and I have done my homework. Most of it. Some of it. I have finally realised that my estimates of what I will get stitched between classes is ludicrously optimistic so I will just be pleased with whatever bits I managed. For this class they are, in order, a snail, a leaf, a water sample, and part of a hillock.

I wrote about James the Snail in as much detail as anyone is likely to want in an earlier FoF, but I will just show him again here because I’m chuffed to bits with him!

The finished snail

I shouldn’t have started with James, really; he is definitely the crowning glory of the piece so far, so all the other parts will have a hard time living up to him. Heigh ho, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be disappointed smiley.

Next up was the leaf on the right of the tree, which was going to have scattered ermine stitches in the centre. “Scattered” implies “random”, a concept I have had to work on. I am inherently a symmetry nut, so I fully understand people who panic at a workshop when being told to “apply beads at random”. For those people (and for myself, when I’m not in a random mood) I generally provide one non-random pleasing pattern, and one way of being random in an organised manner. The latter method was the one I adopted for the leaf.

That meant drawing the ermine stitches on my sample cloth and stitching them there (also to see whether I could get all five shades of turquoise in – I could!), then tracing them, deciding that some of them needed to be moved, pricking the tracing with those necessary movements in mind, and using the pricked tracing to put guide dots on the fabric.

Drawing the ermine stitches on the sample cloth Tracing the sample Annotating and pricking the sample Guide dots on the fabric

By this method I managed to resist the temptation to put all the ermine stitches in a regimented symmetrical pattern. I still feel the urge to unpick and move some of them to look less random, but I’m ignoring it. This is my scattered leaf!

The finished ermine stitches

You may remember the tutors and I couldn’t quite work out what to call the stitch I was going to use for the border – it wasn’t brick stitch, because it would be worked in long lines instead of rows, but it was bricked. However, I wasn’t sure how consistently I’d be able to keep up the bricking because of the very curvy and pointy bits of the shape I was filling. So we decided on “backstitch filling”, which covered all bases. Compensating for the curves and for the fact that the border isn’t equally wide all around was a bit tricky here and there, and my stitch length definitely isn’t uniform around the leaf, but I’m happy with the overal look of it.

Incidentally, as I was editing the close-up photograph I’d taken of the finished leaf I noticed something I hadn’t seen while working on it: a visible bit of painted outline. Although it is sometimes possible to very gently scrape the paint off the fabric, it seemed a better idea to put in a few extra stitches – it would smooth out the outline at the same time as covering the paint. Fastening on and off was a bit fiddly with no suitable areas nearby, but I managed to sneak them underneath existing stitches to keep them invisible.

The finished leaf - with paint visible The finished leaf really finished

As it is really only possible to work on the actual project by daylight, I put in a little sampling on Saturday evening. Along the bottom of the hillocks there will be a few lines of waves worked in fly stitch couching. Previous samples (not for the Certificate) had been in fairly rigid lines, but I wanted to experiment with lines that would vary in height along their length, and possibly also have an undulating couched line (originally I had intended the v-shapes of the fly stitches to represent the waves, while keeping the lines they were couching straight). As I had a sample cloth with the left-hand hillock on it, I stitched a bit of sea/river along the bottom, and although the fly stitches are perhaps a little higher than I’ll make them in the proper piece, I like the effect of the wavy lines – they are definitely in!

Sampling water

I had hoped to finish both the block shading and the Bayeux stitch floral element, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen. I settled for two-thirds of the block shading (well, it’s more than that actually as the rows get progressively shorter and I’ve done the two longer ones). The first thing I had to decide on was the corners of my rows. The RSN Crewel book shows block shading with straight edges – that is to say, the very first and the very last stitch of the row are horizontal and cover the full height of the row. But my corners are much sharper than the ones in the picture, and it would mean having a sort of fan of stitches there in order to get from the horizontal to the proper stitch angle for the rest of the arc. My worry was that that would get bulky where the fanning stitches met, so I worked some slightly shorter stitches instead, keeping the direction of the stitches near the corner.

Block shading in the RSN crewel book Corners in my block shading

I bounced this off Angela and she said that was the right way to go about it, so on with the rest of the row. Having completed it I was quite happy with it! The top edge is smooth, the corners are neat, the stitches aren’t crowded (something Angela had asked me to concentrate on), the stitch direction changes gradually, and – yay! – the row is virtually the same width all along (unlike my earlier samples).

The first row of block shading Tapering block shading

Unfortunately, because of the nearly horizontal position of the slate frame, I see the work at an angle, and wool stitching having quite a bit of body, that means I can’t actually see the fabric right by the far side of my stitches unless I lean over, which is not a very good stitching position. It meant that I didn’t notice until I was about two-thirds of the way through that the teensiest bit of design line is visible at the top of the hillock. A bit of a dilemma, as this will cost me points in the assessment; on the other hand a dilemma that wasn’t too hard to solve – I’d just produced the larger part of a very respectable-looking row of block shading and there was no way I was going to unpick it all! The risk of ending up with a row that covered the paint line but looked much less nice than this one was too big. It’ll have to stand.

The lift of the wool hides the paint line from view A hint of paint

In between work I found time to complete the second row of shading, with some tricky voiding for the ball of wool; the third row (a light brown) will have to be done at the class, and hopefully that Bayeux leaf as well. For now, this is the state of the Tree at the start of my sixth class:

Two rows of block shading The tree before my sixth class

Bad lighting and a medieval Mabel

We all know how important light is in needlework. I loved finding out that medieval Guild regulations forbade owners of embroidery workshops from making their needleworkers stitch by artificial light – they were allowed to work during daylight hours only. In these modern days we have much better artificial lighting available, and Mary Corbet wrote on her blog once that if you were thinking of getting a magnifier or special glasses, she’d suggest looking at your lighting first. Get the right light and you may not need additional magnification at all!

When stitching in the evening (my usual time, Guild regulations notwithstanding) I will admit to needing both if I’m doing very detailed work, but my Serious Readers floor-standing lamp does make a great difference. Even so, much the most comfortable way of stitching is during the day by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden; I still need my special glasses, but it is definitely less of a strain on the eyes.

Stitching by the window using the slate frame Stitching by the window using a seat frame

When I mentioned bad lighting, however, I was actually talking about a different kind of lighting – but like the lack of good lighting to stitch by, it has lead to a substantial amount of unpicking.

This is Llandrindod with all the facets completed on the coloured stones. Very pretty and colourful. Sit back and enjoy before moving on to the facets on the diamond and the surrounding gold. But wait – notice anything about those coloured stones? About how they catch the light?

Progress on Llandrindod

That’s right. The blue, purple and green stones are in agreement, but the red stone has different ideas about where her light source comes from. We are suffering from a case of Llandrindodgy lighting!

Llandrindodgy lighting

And I had paid such attention to the direction of the light when I was designing this and deciding on colours and stitches. I printed out a large coloured version to keep by me as a reference. I must have looked at it hundreds of times over the past months. And I Did Not Notice!!!!

Llandrindod colour plan

There was no help for it – it would have to be unpicked. And split stitch is just about the worst stitch to unpick, so what that meant in practice was that the majority of stitches would have to be cut and teased out, all the while making sure I didn’t catch the satin stitch centre or make the stitches on the edges of the other facets unstable. It took 75 minutes, but I am now ready to put in the correctly lit facets. Well, once I’ve oversewn the cut ends at the back, as they are far too short to fasten off in any other way – after peering at tiny cut stitches for well over an hour I wasn’t going to do that by artificial light, however good, so that awaits some daylight stitching time.

Unpicking Llandrindod Unpicking Llandrindod Ready to re-stitch the facets

To return for a moment to medieval embroiderers, I was delighted to discover from an article in the big Opus Anglicanum book that the first professional embroiderer of whom there is documentary evidence was a Mabel. I obviously chose well when I picked my nom d’aiguille (like a nom de plume but for stitchers). The book tells us that “Mabel of Bury St Edmunds was commissioned in 1239 to produce an embroidered chasuble for the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, at the behest of Henry III. The chasuble, which was embellished with pearls and gold work, and lined with canvas and fine silk, took two years to complete, and must have been extremely elaborate.” Go Mabel! I shall endeavour to live up to her example.

Trying out fabrics

Although choosing threads (both the type and the colours) is, to me at least, by far the most enjoyable part of getting materials together for a design, the fabric is also very important – not just because of its contribution to the final look of the piece, but also because the pleasure I get from working on a project can be seriously marred or enhanced by the fabric I’m stitching on. I have a few favourites (like that lovely dense linen I’m doing one of the SAL models on) but I’m always on the lookout for nice fabrics to add to my collection.

A week or two ago I contacted Empress Mills about the weight (gsm) of their lightweight and heavyweight Mountmellick fabrics and they very generously sent me a couple of samples. It’s a cotton sateen, and that type of weave means it looks different back and front, because the weft goes over several warp threads in one leap instead of going over one, under one. The picture shows one side of the heavyweight and the other of the lightweight.

Two weights of Mountmellick fabric

The samples were just big enough to fit into a 3″ hoop, so I decided to try them with my little Quatrefoil flower to see what they are like to work on.

Quatrefoils transferred to the Mountmellick fabric

Both allowed for a well-lit-window transfer (I couldn’t easily get at my lightbox) and both of them have a nice “feel”, but from first impressions I thought the heavyweight would be more suitable for use in kits as it’s nice and sturdy; and would the two weights stand up differently to the goldwork threads being plunged, I wondered?

Using a well-lit window as a lightbox Holding the design and the fabric in place

The lightweight, which I tried first, took it quite well, although the strain put on it by plunging the Jap threads did seem to distort it a bit. It was absolutely fine for the crewel part. It’s quite a dense weave so it’s easy to place the needle just where you want it, and in fact it would be perfectly good fabric for any kits bar the goldwork one, especially with the light calico backing I usually include.

One down, one to go

The heavyweight was next. As they are both Mountmellick fabric/cotton sateen I’d rather expected them to look exactly alike with the only difference being the weight, but the heavyweight somehow looks a little more even and this sample at least is also somewhat straighter on the grain. But would the difference be noticeable in practice?

Yes it was, but really only the difference in weight. The weave on both samples is more or less equally dense, and placing the needle was therefore equally easy. The weight of this sample, however, did sometimes make it slightly more difficult to pull the needle through, especially where there was a lot of previous stitching to get through. On the other hand, it stood up much better to plunging and having the gold threads secured at the back without distorting the front. I think this fabric would work particularly well if you’ve got a project that needs a solid ground but for whatever reason you’d prefer not to use an extra backing fabric. I’d have to try it on a bigger design, but I’d expect it to work just fine with a moderate amount of goldwork, and certainly with anything lighter.

The Quatrefoil on heavyweight Mountmellick

So I ordered some of the heavyweight, as well as half a metre of another fabric they do which is simply called “cotton sateen”, and which is available in all sorts of interesting colours. As Mountmellick is a type of cotton sateen I wondered what the difference was, and when I rang Empress Mills the lady told me it was mostly the weight. The fabrics arrived last week (I showed a picture of them in the previous FoF) and the cotton sateen does indeed feel much like the lightweight Mountmellick fabric. I may get a few more colours, as it looks like a useful kit fabric!

Another book, and being a proud satsuma

A few days ago a lovely surprise came in the post – I’d pre-ordered Lizzy Pye’s Goldwork Embroidery: Techniques and Projects and although we had been warned on her FB page to expect some delay, that delay turned out to be shorter than expected! So here it is, signed and all.

Lizzy Pye's goldwork book Signed by the author

And a first perusal shows it to be a wonderful addition to my stitching library – good photographs, clear explanations, and some interesting facts I didn’t know. And as an unexpected bonus, two of the projects in the book turn out to be designs I had been eyeing up on the Laurelin website: The Holly and the Ivy and the Silk and Goldwork Butterfly. Both very pretty designs, but until now only available as kits, and I could see that I already had all the materials in my stash. So now I can have a go at them whenever I like! (Well, after the SAL, the Certificate, the goldwork race horse, Hengest, Mechthild, the Llandrindod cross, the silk and gold flower, the silverwork umbrella…)

The Holly & Ivy project The Butterfly project

I also received some cotton sateen fabrics, about which I will write more in the near future. These are Empress Mills’ heavyweight Mountmellick fabric (the white) and cotton sateen (the cream). A friend of mine will be using the Mountmellick for her Tree of Life, so I’ll be sure to ask her opinion of it as well.

Two Empress Mills fabrics

And finally, something only tangentially (or tangerine-ly?) stitch-related. I love embroidery and (very un-British of me to say this, but then I’m not British smiley) I’m quite good at it. But I have long since realised and accepted that there are extremely talented people out there who produce work of a kind and standard that I will never produce (take a bow Mary Corbet, among others). And you know what? It doesn’t matter! I do the best that I can, and – very important, this – I enjoy it. And for all of us who are never going to be the absolute best at something, I’ve found an encouraging quotation. Commenting on the fact that small can be beautiful (and I will stretch this to mean that small achievements can be beautiful) the Rev Canon Dr Rob Kelsey remarked “A satsuma is not a failed orange”. It can be inspirational to look at the oranges of this world and admire them, but for those of us who are not, let’s take pride in being jolly good satsumas!

A satsuma is not a failed orange

“And James reached the end of his brick”

Or more accurately, I have reached the end of both James and his brick – yay! And at no point did he feel the need to give the huffle of a snail in danger, in spite of being poked with two types of needle smiley. (If the previous sounds like total gibberish, do read “The Four Friends” by A.A. Milne, it will tell you all about James.)

You may remember that once upon a time I doodled two possible snail shells, one in padded buttonhole stitch and one in raised backstitch (or modified whipped wheel / ribbed spider’s web – they’re all the same thing). I liked the ribbed look of the raised backstitch version, but it was terribly fiddly and difficult to fill completely, so I decided to stick with the padded buttonhole, although possibly a bit more padded than on the doodle cloth.

Padded buttonhole shell Raised backstitch shell

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose!) literally everyone who saw the two together preferred the raised backstitch one, including me. Fiddly or not, challenging or not, it was useless to resist any longer: James was going to have a ribbed shell.

But first he needed a body. That was going to be the simple and relatively quick part: stem stitch outline in the darkest brown, with seed stitch shading in medium and light brown. I positioned the covers to protect the rest of the work and help me focus on the snail (is it just me, or does it look slightly surgical?) and set to work. And I hadn’t done more than fasten on and work the first stitch before it became very clear that this brown was far too dark – it was going to make his body stand out more than I wanted it to (he is, after all, quite a diffident snail and wouldn’t want to be conspicuous). So I unpicked and restitched using dark for the outline and a small part of the seeding, with medium and light for the rest of the seeding. I also decided to couch down the stems of the antennae pistil stitches to make them very slightly curved.

Setting up a snail Too dark a body The finished body

On to the shell!

First it needed the “spokes”, as evenly spaced as possible around the spiral, and all sticking out beyond the design line so that the filling/whipping would cover the line instead of stopping short of it as it did in the doodle version. The first spoke had to be rather longer because the shell widens out there; that would also need some creative manipulation of the whipping to ensure a nice solid filling.

The first spoke All the spokes, ready for whipping

Time to start whipping. Unlike the doodle version, this one would be rather more subtly shaded, using light, medium and dark turquoise. For ease of access I’d have preferred starting with the dark thread on the outside of the spiral, but the stitches would drag to the centre unless I was very careful indeed about tension, and even then it’s not ideal. Light thread starting from the centre was the way to go, changing to medium after two rows. Incidentally, if I did this again (no, don’t worry, I’m not about to unpick the whole thing) I would continue with the light thread a bit longer – as it is the shell as a whole is a bit darker than I had intended.

Two rows of light whipping Changing to medium turquoise

While working with the medium turquoise I added some incomplete rows where the shell was wider to make sure the shading widened with the shell. And as the centre filled up, new rows were started a little further along the spiral where there was still room.

The more the shell filled up, the more difficult it became to manipulate the needle; right from the start the last thing I wanted was to inadvertently catch the satin stitch on the brick and pull it awry or fluff up the threads, but with the ribs of the shell growing there was the added challenge of keeping the needle away from them while looping the thread around the spokes. I had been about to cut my nails that morning because several had split, but I was now very glad I hadn’t, as my thumb nails turned out to be an invaluable tool in guiding the needle safely over any previous stitching.

Using a thumb nail to guide the needle Keeping previous stitching safe

And so on and on and round and round until the whole spiral was filled, and James reached the end of his brick just before I reached the end of my tether!

By the way, it must be the way the light falls onto the fabric, but for some reason the spokes that are at right angles to the light hardly show up, and the shading is much less obvious at the top of the shell than at the bottom, even though the rows of light, medium and dark turquoise are pretty much the same in both places. I’ll see if I can take a photograph with the frame turned 90 degrees and see how that comes out.

The finished snail

With my terribly picky and fussy hat on I can see that the spokes aren’t perfectly evenly spaced, and that they aren’t perfectly evenly covered either; still, this was without doubt the best I could do going round that tricky shape, so I will be happy to show James to the tutor in February!

The tree with the now completed snail