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.