A digital consultation

I left you last time with an inconclusive answer to the question of Bruce’s buckling leg, and the hope of some answers from an hour online with my tutor, Angela. Time to fill you in on what happened next!

Beforehand I had emailed Angela the issues I wanted to look at, and sent her some pictures. The question of Bruce’s hind leg, which might get dramatic if the advice was to unpick the whole lot, was kept as the main course; the starter was the two possible arrangements for the front leg. I showed Angela the samples I’d done and she (like most people I’ve shown them to, and in fact like myself) preferred the right hand version. Neat though the other one is, it makes the front leg look like a detached motif rather than a leg that is part of the kangaroo. She did suggest that I don’t turn the Jap, but plunge it staggered (this method seems to go by half a dozen different names including herringbone, fishbone, fishtail and dovetail; any of them will tell you what it looks like) to create a neat seam. As I have demonstrated sharp turns in the hind leg, she said I wouldn’t need them here; I’d been a little worried that there were only a few there, but she seems to be happy that they fulfill the brief.

The front leg sampled two ways

One last-minute question I’d added to my list was about mixed couching. Having seen progress pictures of the goldwork unicorn that a fellow Certificate student is stitching, I became concerned that the smallish area of mixed couching on Bruce’s back might not be quite enough. Could I perhaps add some to the front leg? Angela did think a bit more mixed couching would be a good idea, but suggested that instead of the front leg, which is a relatively small and complicated area, I could add it into the hind leg, which has a rather vast expanse of couched Jap already and more to come. This led neatly into our discussing the thorny question of whether any of that expanse needed unpicking, and if so, how much?

Having looked at the sample, she agreed that the straight-up-and-down method was out; gappiness, she implied, was the ultimate sin in goldwork couching (unless intentional, for effect). When I described in detail how I did the couching on Bruce she said that was exactly what I should do; the only thing she suggested was an occasional little stab stitch, which she said might make the couching a little more secure; she’d been taught that when she was training. I’d never heard of it! And I must say, if the tutors are taught that, I wonder why we students aren’t. All I can think of is that it might be because in the first four classes of this module I’ve had three different tutors, each of whom may have thought the other would have told me.

Be that as it may, having looked at close-ups of the thin part of Bruce’s leg her opinion was that it didn’t need unpicking. Hurray! She said that there was a little slippage in some of the pairs, but nowhere were they actually completely on top of each other, and the overall effect was neat enough. Well, that was obviously a relief smiley. Then we got on to the question of turning versus plunging. So far I’ve been plunging (as symmetrically as possible) when the Jap goes down from the haunch into the leg, but when the curve becomes sufficiently shallow (though still forming an acute angle) I want to start turning the Jap. Not only does it make for another demonstration of my ability to neatly execute a sharp turn, it also means less plunging!

When to start turning instead of plunging

Angela thought that I had definitely come to the point where I could start turning. But then the conversation took a different, erm, turn. This was partly because of the earlier discussion about adding mixed couching, and partly because of something else I had only noticed a few days before the online class, when I happened to be looking at close-up photographs to send to Angela: Bruce’s backside was not as taut as it ought to be – there were gaps…

Gaps in Bruce's backside

There is a reason why you put yellow felt underneath gold couching (and chipping, for that matter). Quite apart from the fact that it gives some lift to the metal and makes it catch the light in nice sparkly ways, it makes any gaps much less noticeable. These ones, as I said, I hadn’t actually noticed at all looking at the work from a normal distance, and even at “working distance” they hadn’t looked particularly alarming. In the close-up photograph, however, they looked positively cavernous! Would I have to unpick after all? Angela, fortunately, didn’t think so; close-up photographs, however useful in studying your work, are cruel in what they show up. She suggested I try and tweak the gappy pairs with a needle or mellor, and I said I could also push them to a small extent with the next pair.

Which brought us to what the next pair would be. We talked about various ways of introducing mixed couching, and having considered a few options (and discarded the ones that included twist, as I want to keep that for outlines only) I decided on a pair of rococco/Jap, followed by a pair of rococco, followed by a pair of Jap/rococco, and then back to Jap only. In order to accommodate this, I would unpick the most recent round of Jap, which hadn’t been plunged yet anyway. This would also help to address the gappiness I just mentioned. Unfortunately it does make it impossible to do a turn instead of plunging when going down into the leg, as each of the three pairs is different.

Plan for mixed couching

When I wrote up my notes after the meeting with this in mind, I had a look at Bruce’s haunch and how much of it has already been filled. I don’t want the mixed couching to get too close to the central area of chipping, and I do want some Jap turnings, so I will take out (in fact by the time you read this I will have taken out) two pairs of Jap, even though that means undoing the secured ends on the last but one pair and “unplunging” them. This will make the position of the three mixed pairs within the leg a bit more balanced, and with a bit of luck still leave a sharp turn when I get back to Jap-only.

Finally, a brief note on online classes. So far I have felt absolutely no inclination to do some or all of my Certificate online; has this one-hour consultation changed my mind? Even though this meeting was very effective in sorting out issues I needed help and advice on, no. There were difficulties. Zoom froze every now and then, and it was difficult to know how much of the previous conversation had been missed, so we would either repeat what the other had already heard, or not repeat enough. It also rather interrupts the flow of your thoughts when you have to keep going back a bit. A Whatsapp video call, which I wanted to use to show Angela close-ups of the work while moving the camera around (more informative than still pictures when trying to show texture, especially in goldwork), wouldn’t connect properly. You might say these are technical problems, and if everything works 100% as it should these classes would be fine. And if that could be guaranteed I could see myself taking the odd online class. But computers and internet connections hardly ever work 100% as they should, so the problems I had today would almost certainly also turn up in a day class. No, for the time being I’ll stick with face-to-face classes as much as I can. Roll on 24th April!

An inconclusive sample

Last time I updated you on my RSN Goldwork module, progress on Bruce’s leg was about to be interrupted by some sampling. To establish once and for all whether the buckling noticeable on the thin, steep part of his leg was caused by angling the needle when couching, I would couch all around a four-layer padded oval, angling on one side and not angling on the other. There was a picture of the felt I’d be using, but before attaching it to my sample cloth I decided I wanted it to be rather narrower, so I trimmed the four bits of felt and then secured my padded shape. Time to get couching! I started with a loop to minimise cut ends at the front (I was definitely not going to plunge and secure on my sampling…)

Trimmed felt for padding The padding is complete, and the Jap attached

I didn’t fill the shape completely – after all, what I wanted was the effect on the sloping sides, so the top was irrelevant – and I was pleased to see the sample had a nice bit of height to it. Just so I wouldn’t forget how to stitch on which side, I marked them on the fabric. This was very helpful as it is easy to get distracted (you can call me bird brain; or, if our Lexi is anything to go by, cat brain).

The 'straight' side of the sample The 'angled' side of the sample A nice bit of height

Remember those words “once and for all”? Well, that didn’t quite work out. There was some difference between the two sides, with the straight-up-and-down couching showing (as I rather expected) distinct gappiness, but the angled side rather let me down.

Distinct gappiness where the couching is straight-up-and-down

You see, although there was noticeable buckling on the tight curves, the side was actually pretty smooth…

Buckling on the curves A pretty smooth side

I hadn’t managed to reproduce the degree of buckling seen on the leg (indicated by the blue arrows), and so in one sense the experiment was a washout. On the other hand, it did clearly show that the only alternative, straight couching, was a definite no-no. It gave me more couching practice as well. And, as any sample cloths are handed in with the assessment piece, it shows the assessors I was willing to spend time and effort trying to find a solution to the problem; so on the whole a fairly useful exercise after all.

Buckling on the leg

And that’s where I was at the start of the one-hour online consultation I’d booked with Angela: an inconclusive sample, and Bruce with ends of Jap sticking out of his thigh. To be continued…

The state of play before the online consultation

Remembering Elizabeth

I have written recently about my mother-in-law Elizabeth. On Good Friday my husband and I went down to Devon to look after her for a week, which we had been doing alternately with my sisters-in-law for the past couple of months; we returned home last Friday, and yesterday afternoon we received the news that she had passed away. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.

As this is a blog about embroidery, I want to remember her here as the outstanding needlewoman she was – but also as a wonderful mother-in-law, who (apart from perhaps not always being the most tactful person in the world) couldn’t be further away from the usual stereotype. She and I enjoyed many a joint stitching session whenever we visited.

Stitching with Elizabeth

Elizabeth would try anything that involved thread and fabric and some sort of needle or hooked implement. She knitted me a fabulous dress – when I asked if I could have it in beige she said “you’re not old enough to wear beige!” and only budged when I explained that a beige dress could be worn with all sorts of brightly coloured and patterned tights smiley. She crocheted as well, and was a whizz with a sewing machine: when she and her husband moved to the States for three years in the 1970s she sewed their outfits for the square dancing classes they joined.

I don’t have pictures of some of her more experimental embroideries (including an abstract piece with various appliquéd arches in different materials, and a Monet-style waterlily garden), but here are a few of her projects: a Suffolk puff Christmas tree, a canvaswork piece called The Garden of Jersies, a tea cosy with shisha work which she made for one of her daughters, and the quilted patchwork bedspread she made for my husband and me (the back is all in shades of green).

a Suffolk puff Christmas tree A Garden of Jersies canvaswork An embroidered tea cosy A patchwork quilt

For decades she was happy to experiment and try new things, but a few years ago she said to me, “I’ve found that I can embroider anything I want using just a few simple stitches, so I don’t bother with the fancy ones anymore”. Seeing what she could do with stem stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch and French knots, I didn’t argue!

Vintage stash and shop sadness

My mother-in-law Elizabeth, who has been a keen needlewoman all her life, has asked me over the past few years to go through some of the embroidery stash she had no further use for (you may remember some interesting goldwork threads she bestowed on me some years ago). Recently, in view of her failing health, she asked me to sift through the remainder and divide it into things I could use, and things to be passed on to her embroidery group once they are allowed to meet again.

In the drawers of her needlework chest I found a wealth of lovely textured threads and ribbons, some of which I hope to use in my Canvaswork module (the next one after Bruce is finished), as well as a variety of metal threads, something that looks like coloured pipe cleaner (the blue a bit mottled with age), and miscellaneous bits and bobs including some pretty mother of pearl thread winders.

Textured threads and other bits and bobs Silk ribbons Miscellaneous metal threads Coloured metal passing Chenille wire, also known as pipe cleaner

But the biggest haul, going by quantity, was an enormous bundle of vintage Filoselle silks. My guess is that they were originally intended for a tablecloth or a project of similar scope, presumably with a pattern of leaves and flowers – mostly leaves, if the amount of green is anything to go by!

Vintage Filoselle silks (and a darning egg)

Pearsall’s Filoselle silk, which has sadly been discontinued, was produced until relatively recently (I bought some in a sale in Cumbria back in 2012). Judging by the paper wrappers, however, these skeins are likely to be a lot older than that. They may well be the same age as the “Journal of the Embroiderers’ Guild” which I found on one of the bookshelves – Spring 1956, when Elizabeth was four years married and a young mother. Perhaps they were bought for the transfer illustrated on the back cover?

An old issue of Embroidery magazine

One of the things that struck me in the magazine was the names, or rather the titles, of the various “Officers of the Guild” and the Presidents, Chairmen (mostly women, actually), Secretaries and Treasurers. Her Grace the Duchess (two, plus a Baroness, if we count vice-patrons as well); a Countess and a Viscountess; numerous Honourables, Ladies, and Honourable Ladies; a Captain and a Major. I fear the Guild has come down in the world somewhat since then… Still, a more egalitarian Guild may well be a reason for rejoicing; but what saddened me when flicking through the magazine was the advertisements. Such an abundance of shops to buy your needlework materials from! And what has happened to them all?

Francis of Bath Street in Leamington Spa is long gone; Celic in Bedford who advertise as Mail Order Stores are now a “catalogue shop”, but what they offer and whether they in fact still do so is anybody’s guess, as Google declines to throw up any further information. The name of Boynton & Turner, “Designers and Makers of Transfers for Every Kind of Embroidery since 1906”, turns up only on Etsy and eBay and the like where people offer their “vintage transfers”. Art Needlework Industries of Oxford is no more either; one of the few mentions I found was about an old shade card for their wool. Harrods – well, Harrods still exists of course, but I had no idea whether nowadays it has “everything for the needlewoman”, let alone whether “demonstrators” are still “at hand from time to time”. A bit of search engine activity brings up a promising page called “Needle & Thread” on the Harrods website, but this turns out to be a clothing brand. The only remotely crafty things seem to be in the Children’s/Toys section…

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Art Needlework Industries or A.N.I. must have been quite an influential shop – they appear in several more adverts dotted throughout the magazine. As for the other advertisers on the page shown below, the Dundee Heritage Trust has some swatch cards and sample booklets which seem to be the only remnants of Richmond Brothes and their Glenshee Embroidery Fabrics. Like Boynton & Turner, Peri-Lusta turns up only on sites like eBay as vintage materials. Briggs & Co. of Manchester and their “Waffle-Weave Embroidery by Penelope” have been through some changes too – James Briggs & Sons are stil trading, but have nothing to do with needlework now; Penelope seems to be still going although I’m not sure what they stand for now besides the name of a type of canvas. Searching for Aero hoops leads to bicycle parts rather than embroidery, and “Flora Macdonald embroidery needles” once again turn up only in “vintage” sales.

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Elsewhere in the magazine, Deighton Brothers advertised transfers, “art needlework and needlework accessories” and a book on smocking; they still exist, but only for “on-demand tapestry printing”. Knox of Kilbirnie stopped making their linen embroidery threads (some of which – see below – I found in a charity shop in The Netherlands!) in the 1990s and now produce “industrial and military nets”. The Needlewoman Shop in Regent Street closed in 1985. The Old Glamis Factory in Dundee which produced embroidery fabrics closed in 1984.

Knox linen floss

We still have many amazing manufacturers of threads and fabrics, and we’re not likely to run out of resources any time soon, but it is sad to think of those many, many shops selling beautiful materials which for whatever reason were no longer viable. Fortunately we can still use and enjoy their products, now with the label “vintage”; here is one of each of the Filoselle colours from my mother-in-law’s collection with a square of linen from another of her needlework drawers for a project. A rose, perhaps? Or an E decorated with flowers? Whatever it is going to be, it will be a lovely reminder both of my mother-in-law and of all those wonderful needlework manufacturers.

One of each colour and some vintage linen for a project

The last leg

Ah, if only smiley. But starting from the front I suppose a creature’s hind leg can be thought of as its last leg, so I’ll stick with that! Before I got on to Bruce’s haunch, however, I invisible-couched the grass. Most of the points I managed to get nice and sharp with the aid of the lovely little pliers I was given for Christmas; one blade of grass (indicated by the arrow) would not do what I wanted it to, even after unpicking and re-couching. More unpicking would have damaged the twist to such an extent that I would have had to pick out the entire line and start again, and I did briefly consider that, but in the end decided I could live with one blunt bit of grass.

Grass couching in progress The whole line couched A wayward bit of grass

Now for the leg. On one of the design print-outs I’d pencilled in a rough guide to the way I wanted the Jap to go, with indications where I would likely have to fill in little “pockets” and start new threads. Another thing: you may be able to see from the way the shadows fall on the felt that especially on the thin part of the leg the incline is quite steep! A bit like the legs of Alpine cattle on a mountain side, one half of the pair of Jap threads is going to be significantly lower than the other. Which brings me to another challenge of couching through up to four layers of felt: I must pull the couching thread enough to lie snugly over the Jap, but not so much that it pulls the Jap into the padding. Deep breath, and off we go!

Getting ready for the leg

I started with a loop start in the toe, trying to get it right inside the tip, and then proceeded to couch along the twist outline. After a while I realised I could use the width of the foil wrapping on the Jap to gauge the distance between my couching stitches, which made them much more regular. The next tricky bit was getting the Jap to run smoothly along the edge of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back.

A loop start in the toe Couching along the edge of the mixed couching

I’m happy with the couching around the haunch, that’s nice and regular, but yes, there are a few gaps between the mixed couching on the back and the Jap on the haunch. With a staggered edge I suppose some gappiness is inevitable but in one place I could have taken the back thread a bit further in (see arrow). I bounced this picture off the lovely stitchers in the Facebook C & D group and one of those who had done their Goldwork module already said she thought it was an acceptable amount of gap, which was encouraging.

Gappiness along the edge

On with the foot. Feeling terribly organised and bathed in a virtuous glow I drew up a digital plan (easier to include in my log than pencil scribblings on a printed picture) for filling in the remaining gap by the ball of the foot, and a tentative start on the gap at the ankle.

A plan!

As I was couching I realised that lines drawn on a picture are never going to tell you how the Jap will fit on the actual piece – for one thing the lines are never going to be the exact width of the Jap, and for another there is variability in stitch tension (however much you aim for consistency) and the angle of the padding which you can’t see in the photograph. In the end I had to use some quite short lengths, and rather more plunging than I’d hoped for, to get the foot and ankle filled. Coming down the narrow part of leg, for example, there was only room for one thread so I plunged the second one, took the remaining single through, and added new thread to make a pair again. It was too tight for the planned turn so both were plunged staggered, then a new pair was started with a loop. And so on and so forth. I could have called this post “A twisted ankle” – my goodness it got tight! I’m not completely satisfied, but a stitching forum friend said the resulting triangle looked very much like an ankle bone, and although that was the almost automatic result of the shape of the foot rather than a conscious design decision, I was rather pleased with that comment.

Filling the foot The narrow part of the leg is closed Overview after filling the foot and ankle

One thing you will notice in the close-up below (if only because I’ve drawn attention to it with arrows smiley) is that there are some places where the gold foil does not quite cover the core thread. There is a trick of tightening the Jap by twisting it as you couch, and I’ve done that as much as possible, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. And unlike with wool you can’t keep stopping and restarting with a new, neater thread. However, another message on the Facebook C & D group brought similar reassurance that this is quite normal and to be expected. Phew.

An ankle bone and some separating gold foil

With the lower leg completely covered, it now just remained to keep going round and round the haunch until I had a pleasing shape left in the centre to fill with chipping and a pearl purl border. That sounds nice and straightforward, but there were decisions to be made. To Turn Or To Plunge, for one thing. At first that was an easy one to answer, as the angle down the leg was just too sharp to turn. Ideally I would have plunged everything herringbone fashion, that is to say where the pair of Jap meets itself in the leg, you would first plunge the outer thread on one side, then the outer thread on the other side, then the inner thread on the first side and finally the inner thread on the second side. This makes for a neat line down the centre. Unfortunately I had placed my first couching stitch rather too close to the plunging point for this too work on the first circuit of the haunch, and I’d forgotten to take into account the single plunged thread I mentioned earlier – so the line starts with three consecutive plunges on the left side followed by two consecutive plunges on the right.

Asymmetric plunging down the leg

After that I managed to plunge symmetrically.

Symmetric plunging down the leg

Then I got to the point where I could either plunge or turn, and as I didn’t want to make that decision after several hours of concentrated work, I left it there, to be picked up again this weekend.

Plunge or turn?

But… I hit a snag. Actually, I hit that snag quite a while back, but I eventually decided to ignore it, which may turn out to have been a Very Bad Idea.

So what is it? Well, you will remember that the leg is padded with several layers of felt to give it plenty of lift. Where the leg is narrow, that creates quite a steep slope. And on those sloping sides the pairs of Jap simply will not stay flat. They start out flat, but by the time I come back to that point after another circuit of the leg, one of the pair will have tried to hide underneath the other. It isn’t very obvious when you look at the piece straight on, but when looking from the side (and the assessors will definitely be doing that) you can see the threads slip and buckle.

Jap slipping and buckling

I didn’t immediately and completely ignore the problem. I manipulated the misbehaving threads with my mellor and that would initially look quite promising, but after a while they frustratingly just slipped back again. The mellor having failed me, I tried pulling the couching stitches tighter – but that just dented the padding by pulling the gold threads down into it. I tried looser couching stitches – but then the gold threads just wobbled around. In the end I assumed that this is simply what pairs of Jap do when on a steep incline, and tried not to worry about it.

And then one night I woke up with A Thought. Could it be the rule about angling your needle when bricking Jap? Every goldwork class I’ve attended and pretty much every goldwork book I’ve read mentions this: when couching a stand-alone line of paired threads, the needle goes pretty much straight up and down to make the couching stitch. But when you couch a pair of threads next to an earlier pair, bricking the couching stitches (i.e. staggering them relative to the previous pair to create a brick pattern), you are told to come up on the outside of the pair and then angle the needle underneath the previous pair in order to pull the new pair snugly next to it. Now that works beautifully when the surface is flat or nearly flat, but might it be what caused the slipping and buckling on the steep sides?

Angling the needle when bricking

So here’s the plan: on my sample cloth I will make a four-layer padded oval with fairly steep sides. I will then couch paired Jap all around it, using angled stitches on the left and perpendicular/straight-up-and-down stitches on the right. If they both look the same (i.e. both “bunch up”), I’ll just continue with Bruce as he is. But if the right looks markedly better than the left, then it’s time for some Big Decisions…

The padding for my couching experiment

A Welsh gem and two of my Five-a-Day

For various reasons I haven’t done a lot of stitching lately, although I have made some progress on Bruce which I hope to report on soon (probably after this weekend when I intend to complete the section I’m currently working on – sneak peek below). As you know I am never short of a project or two (or three, or twelve), but none of them particularly appealed to me even when I had the opportunity. So I’ve tried to re-ignite my enthusiasm by planning some sampling, and kitting up a couple of uncomplicated projects.

A sneak peek at Bruce's leg

Two of my long-term projects (and I do mean long-term; we’re talking several years here) which have not had the attention they deserve are Hengest and Llandrindod. In both projects I’m at a stage where there are decisions to be made, and that is always a dangerous point for me. So much easier to just start something new! Hengest has been languishing in his stable because after his mane I need to decide how to stitch his bridle and especially the jewels on it; but as there is still some mane to stitch first I’m hoping to return to him when I’ve reached the point with Bruce where I can’t do anything more until I see a tutor. Llandrindod is a bit more problematic, but I’ve decided that now is the time to tackle it. The challenge is the direction in which the facets of the central diamond are stitched.

The central diamond in Llandrindod

Originally I intended to stitch these facets so that the lines of stitches go around the central part, much like the outer facets on the coloured stones. For some reason I changed my mind a little over a year ago and started working them from the outside edge towards the centre. Unfortunately I failed to make a note anywhere documenting this change – or if I did, I can’t find it – so I have no idea why I discarded the around-the-centre approach in favour if the into-the-centre one. Equally unfortunately I don’t particularly like what I’ve done so far. But I don’t want to unpick it, start again with the other method, find out that there was in fact a fatal flaw in it, and have to unpick again. The solution: a sample cloth! In spite of what the outlines may suggest that doesn’t mean I have to stitch the diamond three times in total, as I won’t have to stitch all the facets to get an idea of what the effect of each method is; at least I fervently hope a few facets on each will do the trick!

A sample cloth set up to try two ways of stitching the facets

With Llandrindod and Bruce both what you might call “concentration projects”, as I really want to get them right and there’s a lot of note-taking going on (although in the case of Llandrindod obviously not quite enough…), it’s nice to have some relaxed projects on the go as well. On rare occasions these can be my own designs when they aren’t intended to become chart packs or kits, like Septimus the Septopus, but generally it’s someone else’s design, whether as a kit (I’ve got a good few waiting in the wings, from wonderful designers like Lizzie Pye of Laurelin, Helen Richman of Bluebird Embroidery and Alison Cole) or as a design only where I get to play with my stash and pick everything myself.

The projects I set up the other day are somewhere in between – a couple of little fruit trees by Sarah Homfray which used to come as a set of four kits but two of which I found last January as printed fabric only. So the fabric has been decided for me, and I don’t have to transfer the designs, but I do get to rummage through my thread boxes and play with colours. The originals were stitched using Madeira Lana, of which I have a respectable collection, but I decided to go with my favourite Heathway Milano crewel wool, which is a little thicker but not so much as to be a problem. And this is what I ended up with:

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool

They were meant to be my relaxing bits of stitching while we were away on family care duty, but I didn’t actually get any stitching done during that week. Never mind, they make lovely little fillers for when I haven’t got the clear mind (and the time) I need for Bruce or when I can’t face anything that involves making decisions. I can just pick them up and stitch. Perfect.

A novel use for ice lolly sticks

As the new ickle slate frame doesn’t fit on trestles (just as well, as that was rather the point smiley I use it with my trusty Aristo lap stand; but you may remember that the Aristo’s arms were just a little bit too short to accommodate the slate frame reliably – and you don’t want the frame to slip off right in the middle of a tricky bit of goldwork! So Mr Figworthy and I teamed up to create a Meccano solution.

Meccano Aristo arm extender

This worked well, but when I first took it to a class it managed to lose a nut in transit. Another slight drawback is the fixed width; surely there must be a more flexible way of doing this? Enter the ice lolly stick (or rather, four of them), courtesy of a friend from church who teaches Sunday School and therefore has a craft stash you wouldn’t believe. Two glued pairs of sticks and four rubber bands later, hey presto!

Ice lolly stick Aristo arm extenders

And does it work? It does. It won’t win any design awards with its Make Do And Mend look, but after several months of use without any problems I’m happy to make do with it!

The ice lolly sticks in action

Counting down in Latin

Remember the rainbow birthday card I stitched for a girl who had her birthday during the second lockdown? Well, her younger brother will soon have his birthday during this third lockdown, so their mum has asked people to send him birthday cards as well. He likes dinosaurs, which are very much not my cup of tea, but fortunately he likes sea creatures too, and as he turns seven:

Meet Septimus the Septopus!

The first sketch The tidied-up design

Now from the start this octopus-with-a-leg-missing and his surroundings suggested something very textured to me. So a great opportunity to rummage through my stash of lumpy, bulky, fuzzy, stretchy threads and any other bits and bobs I could think of to create tentacles, sand, seaweed, coral and the like. Now I don’t know about you, but whenever I go on a rummage like this invariably there are things that I was sure were there, but which aren’t. I thought I had some small round and square stone-coloured buttons, and also a very lumpy red thread. I don’t. But I found plenty of other things so I’m good to go!

Possible ribbons, threads and beads

And what will all this be attached to? I decided to go for a blue cotton to give an instant watery background. Unlike the cotton duck and heavy sateen I’ve been using for the recent baby cards, this does need a backing fabric, especially with heavyish threads and beads couched all over it; some time ago I bought an Egyptian muslin which because of its fairly open weave unfortunately doesn’t work as a backing for any detailed designs, so it’s good to be able to use it up in projects like these. Next step was to transfer the design, and play with placing the various threads on the fabric to see what they look like all together.

What goes where?

Sometimes with projects like these you need to get creative. One of the things I thought I had was a blueish wavy thread which would work for the surface of the sea right at the top of the design. Well, I have the wavy thread, but it’s grey. However, as the fabric is blue I think I can get away with grey, especially if I combine it with a very fluffy white thread. After all, when you look at the sea (especially the North Sea, which is the one I grew up going to for beach trips) it is rarely blue, and in fact grey is probably a lot more realistic. Also, there’s going to be plenty of colour in other parts of the design to compensate. In the previous picture, did you notice the red variegated thread? That’s going to make a bit of coral, and as it is not a lumpy thread as I originally though, I’ll use it with a lumpy stitch instead!

Combining threads

As I prepared to start stitching, there was one last decision to make: after creating this one and sending it off to the birthday boy, is this going to be a “commercial” design? If so, I need to take notes, think of the instructions, make sure I use only widely available threads… No. Although most of the threads and bits & bobs I’m using are available (though some of them not what you would call widely), others are unlabelled or I can’t remember where I got them from, and really I just want this project to be fun. I want to play around with what I’ve got while creating something that will hopefully bring some cheer to a lockdown birthday.

This meant I could relax and just get on with stitching! I will mention the materials I used, partly for my own benefit (“what on earth did I use for that coral?” I may wonder as I look at a photographs of this project years down the line) and also for reasons which will become clear later. By the way, apologies for the quality of some of these pictures, I took them as I was stitching in the evening by artifical light.

First up was the sea surface, couching grey Rainbow Gallery (RG) Fluffy Fleece twisted together with white RG Arctic Rays. The seabed consists of three lengths of a beige RG Ultra Suede, also couched. There’s a lot of couching in this design, which does make it relatively quick!

Sea surface and seabed

Next came the seaweed, and more couching. On the left a variegated thick silk from The Thread Studio; I think I picked this up at a Knitting & Stitching Show some years ago. The shade I’m using here, Marble, doesn’t appear to be part of their range anymore. The other bit of seaweed is a nameless silk ribbon from my silk ribbon bag. I did look at some hand-dyed Au Ver à Soie ribbon, but the colour changes didn’t quite work for this short a length so plain green it was, couched down in twists. For the rocks I used some rose gold pebble beads (appropriate name); I bought these online for a children’s project years ago, and found them infuriatingly uneven in shape and size. In this project, that was a bonus!

Seaweed and rocks

The coral was the first thing to be stitched rather than couched; using a thick spun silk from Oliver Twists (again bought at one of the Knitting & Stitching Shows) my first idea was to use either Palestrina stitch or (possibly the most obvious choice) coral stitch, but the rather complicated shape I’d drawn and the thickness of the thread made that too complicated, so it’s a combination of French knots, small straight stitches, and some knotted stitches that I made up as I went along. Septimus’ head is outlined and shaded in stem stitch using two shades of RG Treasure Braid Petite (21 Copper and 27 Ice Pastels). I chose that blend because it seems the best match for the metallic in the thread I’ll be using for his tentacles.

Coral and a head

The moment I started planning an octopus/septopus I thought of one of the speciality threads from the Paint-Box Threads Inspiration Pack I got for Christmas as being ideal for the tentacles. The metallic part snaking in and out does a great job of suggesting suckers! Unfortunately it turned out to be too thick and fussy to do all the tentacles in it – they would have been impossible to tell apart – so three of them were worked in doubled Anchor metallic perle #5 (white/gold). For the eyes plain DMC was an option but I wanted them to stand out so I opted instead for Kreinik #4 braid 5760 Marshmallow and RG Treasure Braid Petite 05 Black, both in satin stitch. The white is stitched across the ovals, the black pupils lengthwise.

What's in the box in detail The eyes done, but what about the tentacles? Tentacles in two different textures

The last part was the figure 7 in bubbles, for which I used unbranded iridescent beads (probably a size 8) They got a bit close to the sea surface, but I think they still work. What surprised me, though, was how different the beads and other parts of the project looked with different lighting! Below is the finished piece, once photographed with the light coming from the right, and once with the light coming from the bottom.

Finished and lit from the side Finished and lit from the bottom

And so on to finishing. From memory I thought the aperture in the card I had in mind for this was 10cm square, and because I wanted a tight fit that’s the size at which I printed the design transfer. Unfortunately the aperture is 9.6cm… So a slightly tighter fit than intended, but with a bit of fiddling I got it all in. Phew.

It will fit...just The finished card

And now it’s over to you – whether you’re making a birthday card (add the desired age in bubbles) or just a Cheer Up! card, get out those odds and ends in your stash and start experimenting. The Septimus Freebie download has the design in two versions, the original Septimus and a more traditional octopus with the full complement of tentacles. Enjoy!

Assessing an assessment: Jacobean

Last week I got an exciting email: the assessment for my RSN Certificate Jacobean module! Just so you don’t have to skip ahead to the end, I passed smiley. But I thought it might be interesting to show what such an assessment looks like, and also to go through the assessors’ comments to see what I can learn from them.

We were off to a good start with my name being spelled wrong in the general information section; I just hope that won’t cause administrative hassle further down the line. It then shows the range of markings. In practice these turn out to be points from 1 to 5 for each criterion within a section, or a multiple if the section is given more weight. In the Stitches section, for example, the five possible marks are multiplied by three. This means there is no option of awarding, say, 14 points – if you don’t score the perfect 15 it’s down to 12 as the next highest mark.

General comments at the start of the assessment

The assessment proper started with some general comments with quite a bit of appreciative attention paid to The Two Critters. When Lexi found out she was mentioned by name it quite turned her little feline head; I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was actually referred to as Alfie/Lexi. I was really pleased that James’ shell, which was enormously fiddly to do, was praised for being very precisely executed.

Lexi the cat James the snail

Well, what can I say about the First Impressions section except that I am astonished they found no alien fibres! The amount of cat hair I removed from that piece of work in the course of its creation would probably make up at least a small kitten – somewhat surprisingly I must have got rid of it all successfully. I’m pleased they were happy about the thread condition; several times I unpicked things and used a new thread because it started to look fluffy, or was too irregular in thickness to begin with, or had inclusions. It’s nice to know that paid off.

Assessment: First Impressions

On to the Design section. This looks at two aspects of the design: as it was drawn (these are criteria that would apply even if it were never stitched) and as it appears on the fabric (is it straight, is it like the drawing, etc.)

Assessment: Design

Here I lost one point each on three criteria. One of the sides (I’ve asked them to clarify which right side they meant…) is thought to be a bit empty, causing a lack of balance; the accent colour has been over-used; and they would have liked to have seen more stitches from what you might call the “leaf family”. To begin with the second one: fair point. I loved the orange shades and there would have been even more orange areas if I hadn’t restrained myself; notably the fringe on the big tulip, which I changed to brown, and Lexi who was originally Alfie our ginger tom. I still like the way it works in the design, but I agree that it does not comply fully with the brief.

An empty area and a lot of orange

As for the slight emptiness on one side, I’m guessing they mean the area indicated by the purple arrow. I did, in fact, have a flower there in an early stage of the design process (not to mention a bee, with a balancing fellow on the other side), but the tutor thought they made it too busy overall, and I must say I agree with her, it would have looked fussy. Possibly a slightly bolder flower and no bees would have satisfied the assessors while avoiding the over-crowded look.

A flower and some bees

Finally the point about the leaf stitches. It is true that I have used none of the stitches they mention from that particular family. In hindsight this rather surprises me, as I really like fishbone stitch and closed fly in particular for leaves. Possibly this is because there are no smallish leaf shapes in the design that I could have filled that way. On the other hand, for the gap in the tree trunk I used Cretan stitch, which is essentially a shallow feather stitch, so the category has not been completely ignored. But I appreciate their comment about including more different textures, and in future designs will pay extra attention to that aspect when appropriate.

Cretan stitch

The next section is called Stitches, and accounts for the majority of points available (120 out of 205) partly because each criterion is scored in multiples of three points. This was also the section that felt most important to me as it is concerned with the actual thread-on-fabric stitching, and with how well you, the student, have mastered the technique. I was therefore chuffed to bits to have dropped only three points, the minimum you can drop in this section. (Obviously I would have been even more chuffed with a perfect score, but I’m definitely not complaining!)

Assessment: Stitches

Although I was quite pleased with how the long & short stitch leaves on the big tulip had come out, as the assessors point out there is visible banding. Avoiding that is definitely one of the things I find most difficult to achieve in long & short, and I’ll have to do quite a bit more sampling and practicing before I do the Silk Shading module! I’m pleased with the shading on the left-hand flower though, so I hope they were referring only to the tulip. Choosing to work the trunk of the tree deliberately stripy rather than shaded (which I noted in my log) may, in hindsight, not have been the right decision. The hillocks are stripy by the very nature of the stitches, and Lexi is stripy by the very nature of being a tabby, so I can see why they wanted a bit more shading demonstrated.

Slightly stripy shading Better shading

Scoring full points for smooth outlines (purple arrows) and sharp points (green arrows) was very gratifying as I’d worked really hard on those, with a fair amount of unpicking and restitching. Good to know that was worth the effort!

Outlines and points

The final section is Mounting, which accounts for about a fifth of the total points (more than Design, which seems quite a lot). Some of the criteria here are about getting the balance right: pulling the fabric taut, but not so much that you bend the mount board. Others are about accuracy in the securing stitches.

Assessment: Mounting

Well, I’d expected to lose points here, as I had never mounted my work in this way before, and I did. Most of them on the looseness of the fabric, both front and back. And as much as I expected to lose points here, I will admit that this annoys me a little. I’m completely with them as regards their comments about the corners of the linen, some of which were not 100% square, and I’m perfectly willing to take their word for it that the grain was not completely straight to the edges. But both when I had the fabric pinned and when I had finished the mounting Angela did the finger test (pushing your finger along the fabric to see whether it ripples) and pronounced it a good stretch. In fact, I asked her after the initial pinning whether I should let the fabric relax and then re-stretch, as some people do, but having tested the tautness of the fabric she said she didn’t think that was necessary. So I can only assume that the fabric did relax during the longish wait for the assessment, but I’m not sure what I could have done to prevent this.

The mounted piece, front The mounted piece, back

I’m sorry to end the discussion with a bit of a grump, and even more sorry if this makes it sound as though I’m not satisfied with the result. I am most definitely elated to score 94% on my very first module! Next time I will do a re-stretch and see if that makes a difference to the mounting outcome, but on the whole the points that really matter to me are in the Design and Stitches section, and with those I am more than happy. And now on with Bruce the golden kangaroo smiley.