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

“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

Certificate decisions

Last week I wrote about a significant set of four RSN Stitch Guides and ideas for the Canvaswork module of the RSN Certificate and this means, doesn’t it, surely it must, that I’ve decided to do The Whole Thing after all. As you may remember I set out on this course with the clear intention of doing the Jacobean and Goldwork modules, and then stopping. Several people (including tutors, my very supportive husband and a fellow student) have since encouraged me to do the whole Certificate, and I’ve been keeping this in the back of my mind throughout the first module. The ideas are there – my canvas scribbles and pictures-for-inspiration are fairly obvious indications of that. And yet.

Various ideas for the Canvaswork module

Having stitched for quite a few hours now using the trestle-and-slate-frame combination, I think I can confidently say it is simply not my cup of tea. I find the stitching position uncomfortable and the nearly horizontal orientation of the frame (even after putting the rear of the trestles up another notch to give it extra tilt) puts a strain on my eyes – with my ordinary glasses I can see the further end of the embroidery, but I can’t see the details nearby, while with my stitching glasses I can’t see far enough without things going blurry. When stitching the tree trunk, which covers quite a bit of the height of the design, neither of my glasses allowed me to work an entire row of chain stitch in focus while keeping a comfortable (and healthy!) posture.

The trestles at maximum tilt

But the slate frame is obligatory when doing the Certificate (and the other “big” RSN courses like the Diploma and the Future Tutor programme), and I don’t think it is negotiable. Not for the Canvaswork and Goldwork modules, with A5-sized projects, and not even for the Silk Shading module, where the brief specifies that “overall the piece should be no bigger than 8×8 centimeters (3in x 3in)”. Leaving aside for the moment that 3 inches is even less than 8 centimetres, does this really need a slate frame, even my “small” 18-inch one? I fear that it probably does if it’s part of the Certificate, and that no amount of coin-bouncing off my laced Millennium frame will convince them otherwise. But just possibly the Bling SAL Tree may sneak into my frame bag, come to my February class and show off its drum-taut tension, and then who knows?

Laced Millennium frame

PS Depending on the outcome, would anyone be interested in taking over a hardly-used slate frame in a year or so? With trestles?

Class notes, a hillock and a brick

It’s been a few weeks since my last RSN Certificate class so high time for an update. And the update doesn’t go beyond the class, I’m afraid, as I haven’t touched the project since – at the moment, the SAL is taking up most of my Mabel time!

We were a select few on 30th November at the Rugby branch of the RSN – only four of us, three of whom were on the Jacobean module. As always it was extremely interesting to see the other students’ projects, what design choices they had made, how they were handling certain stitches. I also found out that I was on the positive side (to my mind) of a change the RSN had made to the Jacobean brief. The other two crewel students both started a little after I did, and they were told that they could have only one animal in their design (I assume people had been going rather overboard on the animal front; the same thing happened some years back with the number of colours you are allowed to use). I heaved a sigh of relief that I’d started earlier, for how could I possibly have sacrificed either James the snail or Lexi the cat! Phew.

Talking of the cat, you may remember I had sampled the ball of wool that she is entangled in. Angela (the tutor) thought it looked very effective but warned me that the assessors (who, by the way, do not look at your work through a magnifying glass – the person telling me that was fibbing!) might have something to say about the long, unsecured satin stitches on the top. I prodded at them to show her that they were really quite firmly placed but she said normally they would expect satin stitches that long to have a little couching stitch in the middle. This, of course, would ruin the effect I was after, so she advised me to put a note in my log to explain that it was a conscious design decision to have the top stitches long and unsecured, and not just me being ignorant of best practice smiley.

Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch

In preparation for my fifth class I had worked on the gap in the tree trunk and the left hillock. I was going to ask the tutor about my idea of whipping the existing chain stitches bordering the gap, but completely forgot! However, if I do decide to add that whipping it can be done right up to when I finish the project, so I’ve made a note to ask next time. For the Pekinese stitches making up the hillock my pretty little stiletto came in handy once again, especially by the tree trunk where the stitches were threatening to get far too intimately acquainted with each other.

Using the stiletto on the left hillock Two areas of stitches coming together

I’d hoped to complete the hillock before going to class but that was clearly not going to happen unless I got up very early on the Saturday, and I felt I’d probably be doing quite enough stitching that day! So this is where I was at the start of my fifth class:

Before the fifth class

Incidentally, although your are expected to attend eight classes (or contact days) per module, don’t let that give you the idea that you put in your last stitch at the end of class #8. Part of the module is mounting your work, and that generally takes all of your eighth class as well as probably half (or more) of your seventh. Angela advised me to have most of my stitching done by the start of the seventh class, so that a bit of tidying and tweaking is all that’s left, stitching-wise, and then concentrate on the mounting. This includes cutting your own mount board and covering it with calico before you get to what I would usually think of as mounting.

But for now it was mostly checking with Angela that she was happy with the bits I’d done at home, like the lattice work and the long & short leaves; to show her the various samplings and ask her opinion; and to get on with stitching. Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that working on these various aspects of my project from 10am to 4pm (minus about 45 minutes for lunch and stretching my legs, and the odd cup of tea in the classroom) I’d get lots done. I certainly thought that, although previous experience should have taught me otherwise. Let’s face it, if you’re into instant gratification an RSN Certificate is not the way to get it. Stitching this precise is slow, not only because accuracy takes time but also because you stop and consider what you’ve done, judge previous decisions and decide whether to change or re-stitch, and so on. This meant that I finished the class with one completed hillock and a little over half a brick.

After the fifth class

Of course that’s a slightly misleading way of putting it, as I came away from the class with lots of feedback, advice, encouragement and ideas as well – and the pleasure of having seen the start of what is set to become an amazing piece of blackwork (creepy, but amazing) by a Diploma student, and of meeting a lady who to my mind is a stitching hero. Having done nothing more than a few needlepoint kits, she decided she wanted to get some solid embroidery schooling and is now working on the Jacobean module for her Certificate. My husband, when I told him about her, said it sounded like someone who’d got a provisional driving licence and a few lessons and then entered a Formula 1 race. Fortunately the risk of serious injury is not nearly so great in embroidery smiley and that Saturday she was having a lot of fun designing a worm as the animal in her crewel project.

Telling my husband all about the classes afterwards is part of my enjoyment of them, and I also like discussing bits of the design or stitch decisions with him as he knows enough about it to understand what I’m talking about, but because he is not an embroiderer himself he has a different way of looking at these things which can help me see them from a fresh perspective. He also helps me not to get too obsessive about the whole thing. When I confessed to him that I liked the doodle cloth hillock much better than the one on the proper project, and wondered aloud whether I should re-do it, his straightforward engineer’s solution was to threaten to take my doodle cloth away until I came to my senses. I have since come to realise that although they look different, and the shape of the doodle cloth hillock is still, to my mind, more pleasing, the final version is absolutely fine.

Now when I said that this FoF would not look beyond the class I was not entirely accurate. It is true that on Sunday afternoon I packed away the trestles and slate frame to sit idle until the new year, but before that I did do a little bit of work on it – I just couldn’t leave it with the brick only half done. There was a practical consideration to this: it is generally best to work a shape like that in one sitting, if possible, because your stitch tension changes from one day to the next. Imagine how it might change from one month to the next! So before bundling the whole set-up into the craft room I finished James’s brick, and I am really pleased with the smooth outline I managed to get on the satin stitch.

A satin stitch brick

And here is the whole thing as it’s gone into hibernation:

The RSN Jacobean project before hibernation

Roll on 2020!

An entangled cat and a ruffled tummy

I’ve been rather quickly and haphazardly adding to doodle-Lexi’s fur because I wanted to sample the couched thread of wool which winds around her tum. This worked well, and will be connected up with the satin stitch ball of wool when it gets to stitching her on the Big Project.

Cat with couched wool around her

When I showed the sample to my husband, he remarked that there was a very clear line between the light stitching on her tummy and the dark stitching on the rest of her. Drawing my attention to real-life Lexi, who was at that moment lying on her back on my lap, looking adorable and showing off her real-life tummy, he pointed out that on her the line was much more blurred. I pointed out that Jacobean embroidery is not exactly renowned for its accurate and naturalistic way of depicting the animals and vegetation in its realm. Even so, his words remained in the back of my mind. What if I added some angled medium and dark brown stitches to the edge of the dark fur so that they overlapped with and blended into the beige?

I tried quite spiky stitches first, sticking out noticeably from the dark top half and overlapping onto the light belly, but that just looked wrong – the angles were simply too different from the generally horizontal direction of the fur and they were too short. Some long stitches, only slightly more angled than the main ones were called for. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the spiky version, but here is the “milder” one (getting these stitches in was a bit challenging where I had to sneak them underneath the couching – obviously on the real thing they would be done before adding the turquoise – which is why they are not quite as neat as I’d like, but they’ll do as an illustration/sample).

Cat with slightly ruffled fur

And here are the stark-lined original and the slightly blurred new version side by side. It’s a subtle difference, but on the whole I do like the second version a little better. So when I get round to stitching her on the real project, wool Lexi will have her fur ruffled!

Two feline tummies

More sampling, a block shading lament and a finished tulip

Two months between my fourth and fifth RSN Certificate classes – surely I must have finished at least three-quarters of the tree by now? Well, not quite. But I have done a lot of sampling, and some “proper” work too, with a few more parts to follow this week with a bit of luck (and application). One of the things I sampled is the ball of wool which entangles the cat. Having decided to work my brick in straight satin stitch, this will be where I show off satin stitch that is both slanted and padded.

First I made a few sketches of the various options, and eventually I decided on a split stitch outline and padding top left to bottom right (surface satin stitch so it doesn’t create too much bulk at the back), then a complete layer of satin stitch in the darkest shade of turquoise bottom left to top right, and finally an incomplete layer like a band in the middle using the second darkest shade, again from top left to bottom right. And when I stitched it, it actually looked as I had envisaged it! Very encouraging – usually it takes at least a few goes. This may of course mean that the one on the actual Certificate piece is going to be disappointing, but let’s remain optimistic.

Sketches for the ball of wool Split stitch outline and padding First layer of satin stitch Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch Showing the lift that the padding gives

I like having that ball of wool in the design. The Anglo-Saxon word for it is “cleow” (very close to the present-day Dutch “kluwen”) which is said to be the origin of the term “crewel”. How cool to have a crewel cleow smiley.

Next was a couple of sketches for the gap in the tree trunk; Angela had expressed concern that Cretan stitch over the full width of the gap, especially towards the bottom, would be too wide. How to divide it? My idea was to sample one version in three parts, from shaded from medium to lightest turquoise, and another in two parts, with dark shades on the light side of the tree and light shades on the dark side, to create the illusion of a deep hollow in the tree which is just picked out by the light coming from the right.

Sketch for the gap in the tree trunk The gap divided into three parts The gap divided into two, to show depth

The three-part version turned out to be too fussy at the top; I like the look of the dark/light version better, although even there the Cretan stitch looks remarkably like feather stitch at the top where it can’t spread out. But then lots of stitches are really the same thing with only minor variations, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. One question remains: does it need the extra outline I had originally put in my plan? Perhaps I could just whip the chain stitches that border it already. I’ll bounce that off the tutor on Saturday.

On to block shading; I obviously need practice on that (see my previous report) plus I had to try out colours. I like the bold version on the left, but on consideration decided that a lighter version would show up the ball of wool better. The sample on the right uses two browns because the lighter one looked too light on the skein, but it turned out to look better when stitched – so the colour combination on the far right is the one I’ll go with. As for the block shading itself, it’s definitely getting better but I just can’t seem to keep the bands the width I set out with. It’s exasperating! I will have to draw really clear guidelines and stick to them like glue.

More block shading

Finally I managed to do some proper stitching on the actual embroidery: the two large leaves at the bottom of the tulip flower, to be worked in long & short stitch. You may remember from my report about the September class that Jessica Aldred gave her official blessing to what I’d been doing in long & short stitch all along, which was encouraging, so without any further sampling I got on with the Real Thing – split stitch outline in medium (except where they meet the tulip, as there will be later stitching along those lines), and then fill in from the tip in lightest to the base in darkest turquoise.

Split stitch outline and first shade of long and short filling One leaf And another one

Incidentally, all these photographs are upside down because I’m working with the top end of the frame towards me at the moment – I simply can’t reach the top of the design when the frame is the right way round!

Having finished the leaves I decided last Saturday to forgo my usual Ladies’ Walk (it looked like rain anyway…) and spent three solid hours on my Certificate homework, in spite of someone in the neighbourhood using some sort of machinery which emitted a continuous droning noise for the first 90 minutes or so. My tulip bulbs may be languishing in the garden shed instead of being planted, but this tulip was going to be completed!

Having seen effect of the dense turquoise stitching on the leaves, the colour of the frills on the petals decided itself: brown. As with the leaves I decided against sampling, plunged for medium brown for the buttonhole/blanket stitch and dark (not darkest) brown for the detached buttonhole fringe, and got stitching.

Blanket stitch along the tulip's fringe Adding the detached buttonhole frill A 3D frill

The last part of the tulip was the dark orange outline, which according to my stitch plan was to be done in knotted stem stitch (also known as Portuguese stem stitch). I had second thoughts; the lines surrounding the brown battlement couching should, I felt, be like the lines surrounding the turquoise lattice work – plain stem stitch. Fortunately it is a doddle to change from plain to knotted stem stitch and back again within a single line, without any need for fastening off and on again, so I decided to work the bits around the brown central petal in plain, and then switch to knotted once I was clear of that part.

Knotted stem stitch doesn't work

No. Absolutely no. It just looks fussy, and with so much going on in that flower already, the outlines need to be clean and simple and not distract the eye. So unpick the knotted bit, discard the unpicked thread because it did not stand up well to this, fasten on a new one and complete the outline in plain stem stitch all around.

A plain stem stitch outline

And here is the whole thing, right way up – I hope to complete at least the left-hand hillock (and possibly the brick) before Saturday’s class.

The tree so far

PS Don’t forget you can sign up for that other Tree of Life from this coming Friday!

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

A fruitful class and more sampling

Although there has been the occasional burst of activity on Mabel’s Fancies’ Facebook page it’s been two weeks since the last FoF – high time for an update! The long silence can at least in part be blamed on the SAL, as I’ve been spending rather longer than I thought I would on drawing, editing and writing up the remaining stitch diagrams. However, they are all done now; and although there are still chart packs to write and stitch photographs to take, I’m pretty much on schedule.

And so, finally, a report about my latest RSN Certificate class – more than a month ago now, but still fresh in my memory (helped by some photographs I took on the day). We had the luxury of not one, but two tutors: Angela was being shadowed by Jessica Aldred, who is in the process of becoming a Certificate and Diploma tutor. This meant twice the encouragement and advice – I was very pleased I decided not to cancel after all!

This doesn’t mean that I got a lot of stitching done. You may remember that I started the class with the trunk and the vine completed; well, at the end of a 10am-4pm day I had added a petal, and part of a petal…

The Tree of Life before the September class The Tree of Life after the September class

What I had done, was discuss a lot of my samples with both tutors and bounce ideas off them; I was scribbling notes the whole time, and it was very encouraging to hear, in some cases, that what I’d been doing different from the diagrams in most books was actually right smiley! More about that later; let’s go through the design elements we talked about that day.

First there was the bullion knot square-with-rounded-corners. This was give the thumbs-up. Jessica at first said perhaps to couch the longer ones (making sure that the tension of the couching thread doesn’t dent them) but on feeling how solid the square was said it didn’t seem necessary.

A bullion knot square

Then there was James the Snail. You may remember I sampled his shell in two different stitches: padded buttonhole stitch and raised backstitch. The former is by far the easier to do, and to do neatly. Unfortunately the raised backstitch version is preferred by most people who have seen them together, including Angela and Jessica, and me, for that matter. My homework is to do another sample, with the “spokes” for the raised backstitch sticking out further on the outside so the outer design line is covered, and possibly meshing the spokes on the inside of the coil to get sufficient coverage (at the moment there is a bare channel between the coils which simply will not do). I’ve also decided to try and use four shades of turquoise for the shell instead of the three in the sample.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

Next up was the satin stitch brick. I’ve pretty much decided to use satin stitch rather than burden stitch, and I really like the look of this version. But at my third class Helen Jones said all satin stitch had to be slanted, and I couldn’t see how that would work. Nor could Angela and Jessica. We all agreed the vertical version looked much better than a slanted one would; slanted would also make some of the stitches far too long. The RSN Guide mentioned only slanted satin stitch, but by actually calling it “slanted” it suggested that there was a legitimate straight version as well. In the end Angela promised to enquire into the RSN’s official position on satin stitch, and if they inisisted on slanted I might stick with vertical but write up the decision in my log, and perhaps show I could do slanted satin stitch in sampling. They also pointed out that there will be slanted satin stitch in the ball of wool anyway, so the straight version could just be seen as an extra stitch.

A satin stitch brick

As it happens I later heard back from Angela, who passed on the verdict that “satin stitch is often stitched in a slanted direction mainly for ease and a better finish, but in circumstances such as your particular shape, the vertical direction chosen is preferable because a slanted direction would not enhance your design”. So a vertically satin-stitched brick it is!

Then there were a few quick questions which I bounced off the tutors and which for a change needed only short answers (most of my questions seem to take rather longer to address…) – first, should I “void” the body of the cat where the wool is wound around her? Answer: no, work it over the top. That was a relief, as voiding such a thin line would be quite tricky! Angela also suggested that I couch the thread that comes off the ball of wool and entangles the cat, which would look more natural than the split stitch I had originally intended. Secondly, should I make one of the leaves underneath the big tulip darker than the other (leaving out the very lightest shade in one, and the very darkest shade in the other), to indicate where the light comes from, or have them identical (colour-wise, that is; the shading will be mirrored) as I first drew them? Answer: the latter. No need to be too naturalistic in Jacobean designs!

Where the wool winds around the cat Two leaves of equal darkness

While we were on the question of the petals, I took the opportunity to ask Jessica about long & short stitch. The diagrams in most if not all books (and my own diagrams as well) show a split stitch outline, a first row of stitches which are of two lengths and alternate (some disagreement about whether you come up inside the shape for the first row), and consecutive rows of stitches of equal length. Unfortunately following that to the letter does not give very nice results. It looks a bit regimented. So whenever I’ve used long & short I’ve made my stitches rather more random. And then there is the question of what to do when the stitches are almost parallel to the outline – in that case how do you cover the split stitch line without changing the angles too much? Most diagrams only show scenarios where the filling stitches are at a considerable angle to the outline. So far, I’ve solved this by making the final stitch in a row fairly long and working it practically on top of and in the same direction as the outline, going down only just the other side of the split stitch. I felt a bit guilty about all this; I was obviously bodging my long & short to get the look I wanted.

Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project

Imagine my delight when Jessica told me that I was doing exactly what I should be doing! She dislikes the name “long & short stitch” as it gives the wrong impression, and prefers “painting with the needle”, which allows for some more interpretative stitching. As for stitches that are parallel to the sides, go over the split stitch edge when you can, into it when you have to, and if necessary have a stitch completely outside it. So I can carry on as before smiley.

Jessica's notes on long & short stitch

On to the right-hand leaf, which I’d sampled in a sort of brick stitch. Both tutors liked the look, but we agreed that the way I was working it (in long lines rather than short rows) it wasn’t really brick stitch. After considering and rejecting “bricked backstitch” we decided I’d put it down as “backstitch filling”.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally the gap at the bottom of the tree. I charted that in Cretan stitch, but it’s a little wide – the stitches may get rather too long. I was told to sample it to see if it worked, but when I got home I had a different idea. How about working three very pointy “triangles” of Cretan within the main triangle? Keep the shading vertical (i.e. top to botton, in horizontal stripes) to contrast with the trunk. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The gap in the bottom of the trunk

Recently I had another idea for the ball of wool as well; originally I intended to do one layer of satin stitch, with a partial layer at right angles on top, to show how the wool was wound up. But why not turn this into properly padded satin stitch? First outline the ball in split stitch, then put padding in, then the full layer of satin stitch, and then the partial layer; that should make the ball look quite 3D. Sample to follow!

Scribbles about the ball of wool

Oh, one other thing came up, and it’s one that demonstrates Angela’s comment right at the start of my Certificate course, that the design will probably look quite different from the first drafts when it’s finished. As you may remember, for the Jacobean design the stitcher is allowed two main colours (five shades each) and an accent colour (two shades). My accent or contrast colour is Coral. Unfortunately I realised when having another look at my colour plan that there is rather a lot of it throughout the design, whereas the accent colour and the main colours should not have equal weight. A certain degree of de-oranging was called for. Painful for one Dutch-born and bred, but there it is. So far this is the result:

The previous colour scheme, with too much orange The de-oranged scheme

By the way, the frills on the tulip will actually be the same colour – either both brown or both turquoise.

I have, you will be pleased to hear, done some work on the Tree since the class, but I have hit two snags which are keeping me from getting on with things. I will report on these in a future FoF. So far sampling has been a little more productive, with some work done on my block shading. I’m trying to get the stitch right, but am also using the samples to try out different colour combinations; to this end I’ve divided the hillock into sections. (It’s not actually the right hillock, but I had this one drawn on the fabric and for sampling purposes it doesn’t matter much). This is not the first block shading I’ve done (there was some in the Rabbit & Carnations project where I pretty much winged it without a very clear idea of how the stitch was meant to be worked) but it’s definitely not a stitch I am very familiar with; one rather surprising problem was how difficult it proved to be to keep the line the same height along its entire length!

Dividing the hillock into sections and arcs Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project Trouble keeping the line thesame height Trying out a colour combination

And that wraps up my fourth class – number five follows at the end of November. By which time I hope to have completed the big tulip, the left-hand hillock and the brick, and possibly the right-hand leaf. Plus those samples, of course. We’ll see!

A Jacobean vine – adding some colour

Even with the extra stitching time scheduled in before my September Certificate class, it was quite clear I wasn’t going to get all the homework done that Helen Cook had suggested at the end of the previous class. But I was determined to get the vine finished – if only because it meant stitching something that wasn’t brown!

But a little preparation was needed before actually getting some orange and turquoise stitches in; careful though I had been, the voids in the trunk didn’t quite follow the curve I had intended for the vine, so I drew some extra guidelines to make sure the voids were all completely filled while keeping the lines suitably sinuous.

The voids for the vine across the trunk Extra lines to guide the vine stitching

And so on to some colour – the central line of orange to begin with, as I wanted to make sure that it was central, something which would be more difficult to achieve if I started with one of the turquoise shades on the outside of the vine. Using the extra step I’d been taught to use doing chain stitch for these lines of stem stitch as well (that is to say, using my hand at the back of the work to pull the loop left at the front through to the back before pulling the thread completely through to the front) proved helpful in creating nice even stitches with, I hoped, less wear than when using the usual pull-through-in-one-go method.

The first bit of non-brown

Unfortunately not even this extra step could counteract the fluffiness and unevenness of some of the threads. In fact, the thread was not only fluffy and uneven, it had some stiff, lighter fibres in it as well. All this meant that I had to unpick part of the vine because the fluffiness made the stem stitches stick together, losing the definition of the stitch, and the stiff alien fibres stood out both by their colour and their texture. And finding a nicely even length of Appleton’s wasn’t easy – looking at the sample below is it any wonder that very few lengths are used in their entirety?

Fuzzy thread with bits A very uneven thread

Still, eventually the orange centre got done, and I was very pleased with the curvaceousness of it. Now for some turquoise! And then I felt a tangle of thread at the back of the work… Now I can’t quite work out why I didn’t notice this tangle while it was happening. It is true that I start and finish from the front because the slate frame isn’t easy to flip, but for one thing I would have expected to notice that suddenly the thread I pulled through was a lot shorter than it should be (this is how I usually realise that all is not well at the back of the work). True, that doesn’t always register (it obviously didn’t this time), but then normally I don’t work two-handed – whereas on this project my right hand is permanently at the back of the work, pulling the needle through to the back and feeding it back to the front. How did I miss that tangle when my hand must have brushed against it several times??? Fortunately I managed to cut the tangle and weave in the ends without the need for any more unpicking, so not too much of a setback.

The orange part of the vine completed An annoying knot at the back The knot seen to

So finally I did get around to the turquoise surrounding the orange. And then I ran into the opposite problem – the thread I was using was relatively thin, and the stem stitch didn’t fully fill the void. Unpick, find a thicker thread (both the original and the replacement can be seen in the first picture below) and restitch, and it looks much better. One shade down, one to go.

Adding turquoise, which looks a bit thin The turquoise restitched with a thicker thread

Now in the original design, the last bit of the vine had only the darker shade of turquoise, on one side of the orange. If I ever do this design again (not going to happen!) I’d probably use the lighter shade instead, but I’m not seriously unhappy with the darker shade there. What I was unhappy with, was the fact that the change from three colours to two colours seemed a bit stark, happening as it did when the vine was hidden behind the trunk. I decided to add just a little of the lighter shade at the beginning of the top part of the vine, to make the transition a bit gentler.

A second turquoise added An extra bit of medium turquoise

And there you have it: the Tree of Life as it was before my September class. Had it grown much by the end of the class? Wait and see smiley.

The Tree of Life before the September class