A sheep, a SAL, a mag, and a trio of kits

First of all apologies for the long radio silence here at Flights of Fancies. This was partly to do with the final wrap-up of the Tree of Life Stitch-Along, partly with new tasks and obligations which have sprung up during lockdown, partly with a small project I wanted to do for a friend which took longer than I expected, partly with an article I need to write by mid-June, and partly with me somehow having more trouble than usual to work up the motivation and energy for anything that requires the least mental effort. Comments from friends and family tell me I am not alone in this; perhaps it’s the effects of nine weeks of lockdown.

Fortunately our hobby is one that can be enjoyed even when we don’t get round to stitching much – surely it’s not just me who enjoys looking at, playing with and rearranging threads, fabrics, stitch books and all the other paraphernalia of embroidery!

But as I said I did actually get some stitching done, and it took longer than expected because it was a sheep whose fleece was made up of several thousand French knots. No, I didn’t actually count them, but that’s definitely what it felt like. Still, I was pleased with the resulting fluffy sheep, which you may recognise as the stranded cotton twin to Trina’s silverwork Sheep.

A sheep for Dot

Finishing all the stitching and blog writing for the Stitch-Along felt almost on a par with finishing the stitching on my RSN Jacobean module smiley. It’s been great to see people’s different trees growing leaf by leaf and creature by creature, and a few stitchers have already sent in pictures of their finished trees. Some have even stitched two trees, using different materials for each one – impressive!

Incidentally, although all ten parts of the SAL are now out (you can see my own two completed trees below), you can still sign up until midnight 31st May for immediate access to all parts and the SAL blog with its stitch pictures and extra tips & tricks – after that the Tree of Life will be on the website as a stand-alone design with optional blog access.

Tree of Life in Heathway Milano crewel wool on linen twill Tree of Life in Silk Mill stranded silk and goldwork threads on close-weave linen

Another exciting thing that happened this month (yesterday, in fact) was the publication of Stitch Magazine issue 125, which contains a little willow that may be familiar to regular readers of FoF… It’s odd to think that when I submitted the article to the editor in mid-February we were all still happily going about our business, and that even a month later the Knitting & Stitching Show organisers were sending out their usual request for workshop proposals. I’m delighted to say four of mine were accepted, but whether I’ll actually get to teach them is anybody’s guess!

Stitch Magazine issue 125 with a familiar willow

Still, it keeps me off the streets smiley. As will my lockdown resolution of supporting independent designers and embroidery suppliers – you may have seen the spoils in a previous FoF, and to that impressive pile were added these three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits. My excuse is that they will be good practice for the RSN Certificate Silk Shading module.

Three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits

The kits are well presented, each with the design printed on the fabric (which, together with a piece of backing fabric, comes wrapped in tissue paper) in crisp thin lines, and a detailed and richly illustrated instruction booklet.

The silk shading Fox ready to go (after a few other projects) The Fox booklet

The only area where there is room for improvement in these kits (and it is a fairly minor niggle) is that the blue envelope which holds the materials is very difficult to open neatly, and once it is open it is very difficult to get the tissue-wrapped fabric out without it sticking to the envelope’s extremely sticky flap. With the other two kits I decided to slit open the envelopes with a letter opener.

The kits with one of the envelopes containg the materials The envelope has a sticky flap

But as I said, a minor niggle only, and I look forward at having a go at this cheeky fox. First, however, it’s the goldwork racehorse to finish – and if I can resist the temptation to spend all my free time this weekend in the garden with a book, I’ll post an update next week!

A kit(ty) production line

For some time now I’d been running low on kits and making them up as people ordered them, which is really not a good idea. So now that I no longer have the Certificate deadline looming over me (although there are still a few things to finish on the SAL) it was time to get a bit of a production line going once again.

If possible I like to do some of the sorting and assembling in the garden, and as the weather looked set to change after the weekend I had a good incentive to get them done quickly. On Friday all the instructions were printed, and Saturday’s task was folding them, sticking the covers on and inserting them into plastic grip seal bags – just the thing you can do outside!

The lawn was dotted with violets (soon to be decapitated by Mr Figworthy with the lawnmower), an orange tip butterfly landed on the purple lilac bush (fellow to the white lilac bush blooming its head off in the picture), a robin vociferously defended his territory on the fence behind the variegated holly, and Lexi decided that snuggled half underneath my lap tray was just the place for a cat to be.

Putting the paper part of the kits together A feline helper

Unfortunately cutting fabric would be difficult in the garden, so it was back indoors for the next part, taking over the kitchen table to produce a pile of squares of various sizes in blue cotton, Hardanger fabric, muslin backing and wadding. And as it’s impossible to store fabric in such a way that it stays perfectly flat and uncreased, the Hardanger and cotton then had to be ironed. Well, I suppose they don’t have to be, but when you buy a kit the last thing you want to have to do is iron your fabric – you want to start stitching, right? So I do the ironing for you – and as I had the iron out I thought I might as well get the “household ironing” out of the way too!

Cutting squares of fabric And then there's the ironing

On Sunday, after our online church service and the after-service Zoom fellowship chat, I got to the colourful part of the kit production process: threads, cards, beads and various kinds of bling had to be sorted and where necessary put into little bags.

Colourful kit components

First up were the Hardanger needle books. Two needles per piece of felt, match it up with a suitable piece of pre-scored patterned card, fabric, two weights of perle cotton and of course the printed instructions and hey presto, we have a kit.

Materials for a needle book Putting the needle book kits together

Next up was the Little Wildflower Garden. This is generally quite a quick one to put together, provided I have the threads pre-cut and sorted. Which I did, for two of the kits… so first I had to prep some more stranded cotton. Now I’ve devised a cunning method for this which is nice and fast, when it works. That is to say, when all twelve skeins of cotton pull without tangling and I can cut twelve colours into 65cm lengths in one go. Anyone who has worked with stranded cotton more than a few times will now emit a peal of hollow laughter and say “good luck with that!” and it’s true that by the time I’m three-quarters through the skeins there tends to be some unknotting going on as well as straightforward pulling and cutting, but on the whole it’s still a lot quicker than measuring and cutting all twelve colours separately.

Preparing the threads The components of the kit ready for assembling

And finally the two types of Shisha card, Flower and Tile. These were by far the fiddliest to put together with their mirrors, beads, sequins and bits of sewing thread as well as the embroidery threads. It’s fun to choose nice colour combinations though!

Shisha kits in bits

As well as putting together kits that have long been in our range, I also had a go at a design that until now has only been available as a workshop. Yes, it is The Mug That Cheers! Whether your tipple of choice is tea, coffee or hot chocolate, this is the perfect mug of comfort in these challenging times. I first meant to put it on the website as a chart pack only, but I couldn’t resist putting together a few boxed kits as well – don’t they look cheerful?

The Mug That Cheers comes as a chart pack... ...and as a kit... ...in different colours

Incidentally, it is not unusual when providing kits to try and buy a couple of years’ worth of supplies at a time. This has the obvious advantage of not having to go through the whole ordering process very often, but when the last time you ordered stuff was spring 2018, reordering two years later throws up a variety of problems. Shops you used to order from have closed (Sew & So), kit components you used to buy have been discontinued (Craft Creations’ coloured aperture cards), and supplies that are still available have gone up in price alarmingly (Hardanger fabric). That last problem, together with Royal Mail’s annual increase in postal rates, has unfortunately made it necessary to adjust the prices of Mabel’s range of kits. Please rest assured that I will continue to do my best to keep them as affordable as possible, keeping the threshold low for anyone who would like to have a go at a new technique, or while away a few enjoyable evenings stitching up a present or a card for a special occasion.

Playing with stitches

After overcoming a certain amount of mental resistance, last weekend I finally put the first stitches into the very last part of my Jacobean Certificate piece: Lexi. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to start on her – perhaps because she is a fairly complex piece of stitching in that she is much less formal (and therefore less predictable and rule-based) than the rest of the design. Whatever the reason, I’d been putting it off but with my (admittedly self-imposed) deadline of 22nd April looming, I really needed to get on with it.

Well, she is far from being a complete cat yet, but the two furthest legs are done as is her tummy, and she has an outline – some of it in two strands, as advised by Helen McCook, to make the legs that are to the front of the image stand out more from the two dark legs in the background. With a bit of luck she will get her stripes (and I must not forget the light beige tip of the tail!) next weekend, after which all that remains is the wool wound around her.

An empty cat An partially filled cat

In between trying to get the Certificate finished I’ve been having fun with other people’s designs, like this Sarah Homfray freebie (do have a look at her kits and supplies as well – now is a good time to support our independent designers!)

Someone on the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked me about the stitches I’d used, so I made a diagram like I did for Percy the Parrot (remember him?). The thread I used is Threadworx overdyed Vineyard silk and it’s really a bit too heavy for this size project, which is partly why my original plan for the stem didn’t work. Vineyard silk is two-ply, and the individual plies look rather like a very nice flat silk, so I started by separating the plies and working Palestrina stitch on the left-hand side of the stem, meaning to fill the whole stem with Palestrina, off-setting the knots in consecutive rows. Unfortunately the untwisted plies were not very stable and they kept fraying and breaking, so I had to go back to using the full two-ply silk, which was too thick for my Palestrina plan. Never mind, stem stitch to the rescue!

A silk flower

The other stitches were not planned in any way, I partly followed Sarah’s crewel version (especially in determining open and solid areas) and partly did my own thing, and I used stem stitch far too much smiley – it’s such a versatile and easy stitch that in several places I decided I couldn’t be bothered trying something more decorative but also more complicated! In fact I’ve been playing with a fruit bowl design which I want to do in Bayeux stitch but which I think would also look quite good just outlined in stem stitch, perhaps as a Get Well card; what do you think?

A fruit bowl to play with

Free download during the Coronavirus lockdown

We all know that stitching is very therapeutic – so obviously we can never have too many patterns, especially now that many needlework fans have a little bit of extra stitching time!

So for as long as the UK is in lockdown for the Coronavirus, Mabel’s Hardanger design Home Sweet Home will be a free download (everywhere, not just the UK). It’s the full chart pack with diagrams and instructions, and it comes with a little extra chart for the alternative wording Stay At Home.

Home Sweet Home - stay at home!

Enjoy – and do send us pictures of your completed Home Sweet Home!

Bad lighting and a medieval Mabel

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

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

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

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

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

Progress on Llandrindod

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

Llandrindodgy lighting

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

Llandrindod colour plan

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

Unpicking Llandrindod Unpicking Llandrindod Ready to re-stitch the facets

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

Reading about stitching

Many moons ago, on my 2016 London workshops-at-Ally-Pally visit in fact, I had the opportunity of seeing the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V & A. It was absolutely stunning, and I’d have loved to go twice because there was so much to see and take in that my brain felt quite numb by the time I got to the end of the exhibition. At that time I didn’t buy the catalogue, an enormous hardback book that was A) far too heavy to carry around with me until going home, B) far too expensive and C) far more detailed than I needed. Fast forward three years or so and a fellow member of the Cross Stitch Forum mentions that she has been given this book as a Christmas present, and how wonderful it is.

Could I possibly treat myself? Well, ordering it online would mean a delivery to my door rather than traipsing through London with it. That took care of objection A). A bit of Googling found it on Wordery at £9 less than the RRP, which took care of B). And most importantly, in the intervening years I’ve become much more interested in medieval embroidery in general (I’ve recently been engrossed in Carola Hicks’ excellent book about the Bayeux Tapestry) and Opus Anglicanum in particular (I blame the Coombe Abbey retreat with Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray); having learnt a bit more about the style and technique and tried it out myself I would now really like to “re-visit” that exhibition. So that was objection C) done with. And yesterday morning it arrived:

Catalogue of the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition

I haven’t had time yet to look at all the large photographs in detail (let alone read everything) but I do hope I will find the embroidery depicting Jesus’ betrayal which shows Judas and the other attackers wearing, according to the explanatory notice beside it, “striped leggings [which] were a marker of their sinful pride and bad character”. Well, they do say clothes make the man!

Two pictures I would like to share with you, and as they are partial pictures and meant to illustrate a point I hope the V & A won’t feel too upset. First of all a certain chap who looks decidedly familiar – surely he is kin (although admittedly larger and rather more detailed kin) to King Ethelnute of Coombe Abbey?

Ethelnute meets a similar king

And secondly a source of inspiration – the dappled horse from the Steeple Aston cope who is the spiritual ancestor of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. Not having seen the original horse for a while (and not having worked on Hengest for some time either) I was surprised both at how recognisably alike they are, and yet how much Hengest has developed a personality of his own (not least because of that goofy look in his eyes).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn meets his horsy inspiration

The book also contains a picture of a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout reading Hick’s “life story” of that particular piece of embroidery, I found it quite exhilarating to think that if one of the stitchers of the Tapestry walked into our house, one of the few things she’d immediately recognise would be my Certificate set-up of a slate frame on trestles with wool embroidery on linen. In some ways we who do hand embroidery may be closer to those medieval stitchers than to some of our contemporaries who have no love or appreciation of craft.

How to pack a mug

Thank you to the many people who gave me feedback on the matter of packing my Mug That Cheers kit. On the whole, opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of a single, slightly larger bag. The main argument was that it was more convenient to have everything together, especially if the kit was to be kept for a while before stitching it, or if it was bought as a present. Several people indicated a concern that the envelope, if supplied separately, might get lost.

The contents of the kit, minus envelope

Very valid concerns, and ones I had considered myself. So surely the solution is simple: just get the next size grip seal bag and get on with it. There was just one slight problem with that solution. I didn’t like it.

In a way that shouldn’t really matter; after all, I’m not the one buying the kit! But I simply couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of a baggy kit, with the instructions and everything else just rattling around in it like a child in a hand-me-down from a cousin two sizes larger.

And then there was another issue. A couple of people remarked that they would much prefer no plastic at all. Again, a very valid concern. The suggestion of making cotton bags for the kits was simply not feasible – too labour-intensive or, if bought in, too expensive for my scale of operations (especially if I wanted to make sure they were ethically made without sweatshop labour) – and paper envelopes or bags unfortunately have neither the strength nor the flexibility of the plastic grip seal bags.

But there was another option, and one which I already had in the house: the cardboard boxes I use for the goldwork kits. Because of the fragility of some of the goldwork materials, a squishy plastic bag is simply not a practical way of packing those kits. But they are not just sturdier than the plastic bags, they are also ever so slightly wider. Would they be wide enough to hold the awkward envelope?

Front of the boxed mug kit What's in the boxed mug kit Boxed mug kit, open

Yes they were smiley.

There are a few small points still to work out; for example, how to attach the kit picture to the front without ripples, whether to add tissue paper inside, and how to wrap the box so that it doesn’t exceed the Large Letter postal rate dimensions. And then there is the cost – the boxes are about ten times the price of the grip seal bags, and as they are heavier, postage will increase as well. Still, as people are becoming more and more environmentally conscious, selling the kits in a recyclable and reusable container may well be something that customers are willing to pay a little more for.

Who knows, in the near future all Mabel’s kits may come in those nifty little boxes!

Covering a book

One of the topics mentioned in my email correspondence with the Lady in America (see last week’s FoF) was Lviv, and particularly the way it was turned into a Bible cover. Composing a reply to her I was about to include a link to the FoF post about how the Bible cover (usable for other books as well, of course) was put together, when I found that I never wrote one! This was a bit puzzling, as I remembered the post as distinctly as the one about turning Douglas into a pen holder.

Lviv Bible cover, front Lviv Bible cover, back

Still, no amount of searching for terms like “cover” “Lviv” or “Bible” brought up a post about this particular finishing process, so in the end I was forced to acknowledge that my distinctly-remembered FoF was probably non-existent. Time to remedy that!

For some reason I seem to have saved some of the pictures I took of this finishing method at a much lower resolution than the others, which is why the first four are smaller. Nor do I seem to have photographed the very first stages. It’s rather too late to remedy either of these things, but I hope that even so you will find the sequence of images clear enough to show what I did.

First I measured the book I wanted to cover and drew a diagram with the sizes. I added one centimetre to the height of the cover, but used the exact width (front cover + spine + back cover). Then I decided on the width of the flaps (I went for 5cm, but for smaller or larger books you may want to adapt that) and added that to the overall size. To give a general example, if the book is 20cm x 12.5cm and the spine is 5cm wide, the “book-rectangle” would be 20cm x 30cm; add 5cm either side for the flap, and your final rectangle comes to 20cm x 40cm.

Now I had to work out where on the cover I wanted the stitching to end up, and then backstitch a rectangle of the size I had calculated around my stitching. Because I used two pieces of stitching I had to do two “half” rectangles and whipstitch the two together so they made one big rectangle; that’s what you see in the picture.

Backstitch around the stitching according to the measurements you calculated

The next step is to trim the fabric to about 1.5cm from the backstitch.

Trim the fabric around the backstitching

Here’s the back, to show you how the two bits of fabric were connected using whipstitch – If I did this again I would work out the positions beforehand and stitch front and back on one piece of fabric.

The two parts whipstitched together

I folded over all the edges and pressed them with an iron. The top and bottom folds were stuck down with double-sided hem interfacing; the spine and the flaps were reinforced with regular iron-on interfacing.

Fold the hems and reinforce spine and flaps

For the flaps I used trusty old whipstitch again (shown close up in the first picture; for that project, a bookmark, I worked the stitch in two colours). Fold over the front flap and whipstitch first the top and then the bottom: using the same sort of thread you used for the backstitch, bring the needle up between the two backstitches on either side of the fold, then take your needle underneath the first stitch on the “flap side” and the first stitch on the “book side”. You only go underneath the stitches, you don’t take the needle through the fabric. Go on taking your needle underneath the next backstitch on the flap side and its opposite number on the book side until the flap is fully connected. Do the back flap in the same way.

Whipstitching, close-up Whipstitch the flaps in place The finished cover

And that’s it smiley. All that is left to insert the book!

What does it all mean?

What do embroidery designs mean? Well, sometimes I don’t think they mean anything much – we stitch a daisy, a mountain lake, a cat, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Tardis, because we like the picture. Sometimes there is a bit more to it; the Tardis might be more than just something from the tv series you enjoyed, it may remind you of watching that series with a loved one who is no longer with you; the daisy may have trumped the rose and the violet because your name happens to be Daisy; the cat may be the spitting (or hissing) image of your own pet.

You might think there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the design I did for my RSN Certificate course, because the subject is decided for you; everyone who does the crewel module stitches a Tree of Life. But that leaves plenty of room for personal input! So what are the reasons and stories behind the elements in my version of the Jacobean tree?

First there’s the tree itself. As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a Tree of Life design on and off for the past few years, and it has now turned itself into a SAL. That tree is not Jacobean, but it does share the stylised nature of the RSN design, albeit in a much simpler form. I love the idea of the Tree of Life, which for me is firmly rooted in the word picture painted of the New Jerusalem in the Bible, and so the opportunity of doing a second Tree was always going to be an attractive one.

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

Staying with the flora of the design for the moment, the most noticeable thing is probably the enormous flower at the top. I love the complete lack of proportions in Jacobean designs, they lead to some hilarious pictures – not just the historical squirrels-half-the-size-of-lions, but my poor Rabbit threatened by an enormous Carnation. Because I am Dutch, I thought a tulip would be a good flower to incorporate into my Certificate piece, and I found a particularly beautiful example in a design by Shelagh Amor in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery. Because of copyright I was going to change it fairly radically, but Angela assured me that as the Certificate piece is a) for my own use only and b) for educational purposes, I could actually use parts of existing designs. Even so, I changed the fillings and also added a frill as I wanted an area that would work for buttonhole stitch with a detached buttonhole edge. In the original tulip there is a lot of orange in the filling stitches; that didn’t quite work within my colour scheme, but the outlines and the fringe will be worked in the two shades of coral in my palette, which should be orange enough to emphasise the Dutch connection.

Carnation frightening a rabbit Shelagh Amor's tulip design The tulip in my RSN Certificate design

Originally I meant to base my large flower on the rather ancient carpet that adorns the children’s corner in the Coffee Shop room at our local Methodist Church, whose chapel we (the local Baptists) are sharing while we are rebuilding our own church. As part of the chapel into which we have been welcomed so warmly, to me it represents the unity of all Christians (I admit that is rather a lot to make an old carpet mean, but it does to me). But then the large tulip rather took over. Even so, I still wanted to use that carpet, and in the end I used the part indicated by the orange arrow as the inspiration for the small “flower” (for want of a better word) on the left of the design.

The carpet on which the small flower is based The small flower as it appears in the Certificate design

Many RSN Certificate Jacobean pieces (Google the phrase, you’ll find lots of pictures!) have some sort of hillock or hillocks at the bottom, and that’s where the design ends. Mine could easily have ended there too. But I wanted a river. Or some sort of water at least. I’ve written about the significance rivers have for me in a previous FoF, but the short version is that they remind me of my mother, who at the end of her life was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life. According to that description of the New Jerusalem I mentioned earlier, it is where the Tree of Life grows. How could I not have a river?

The river

As an added bonus it gives me the opportunity to use a stitch I first saw in an embroidery by my mother-in-law, fly stitch couching.

Fly stitch couching

Let’s move from flora and inanimate nature to fauna. The brief for the Certificate design says that it must contain at least one animal. Well, that was never going to be enough – I love adding animals to things. It’s only because I thought of it too late that there isn’t a web with a spider in it attached to the tree somewhere!

The first animal is based on a poem by A. A. Milne. It’s called “The Four Friends” and it’s in either When We Were Very Young or Now We Are Six. It contains my favourite line ever from children’s poetry: “James gave the huffle of a snail in danger, and nobody heard him at all”. Over the years, many leisurely moments have been pleasurably spent trying to imagine the sound of that huffle. James was going to be included. He needed a bit of tweaking, though. According to the poem he is “a very small snail”, something that doesn’t work very well in Jacobean embroidery. So James was bulked up a bit. He is also meant to be sitting on a brick, but any brick I tried to design was far too angular to fit in with the rest of the design. In the end I drew something that looked more like a stone, but it will be stitched in the orange shades to make it look a bit more brick-like.

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

And finally there is the cat. Of course there is a cat. A cat inspired by Lexi, our Bengal/tabby cross, in one of her less ladylike poses – you know the one, front legs stretched full-length, backside in the air and tail curled over her back. I saw her do it in the garden while doodling initial ideas for the Certificate design and I knew I simply had to have her in there, in that pose. I sketched a quick outline, which was just as well as despite numerous attempts to sneak up on her with a camera when she was doing her stretchy pose, I was never quick enough to catch her. Then came the question of colour. In my first colour scheme, I soon realised that the cat would have to be a ginger. Not in itself a problem (Lexi disagreed on this point), as our previous cat, the lovely Alfie, was a ginger, and in fact it would be rather nice to have them both in there, the pose of one with the colour of the other. But later colour schemes actually made it more suitable for the cat to be done in browns – they aren’t quite her colours, but I hope they are close enough to pacify her a bit.

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

So there you have it, a bit of background to the design I’ll be working on for the next seven or eight months. I hope I still like the various parts of it as much by the time I finish…

What do I want a SAL to do?

And, also a pertinent question, what do I not want a SAL to do, especially this particular SAL? Well, for one thing I don’t want it to give the wrong impression, and it might, in view of recent FoFs. So let’s get that out of the way first!

For the first module of the RSN Certificate I am required to stitch a Tree of Life in the Jacobean style, in crewel wool on twill. Although I haven’t quite decided on the final colours (well, I know which colours, but not necessarily where and in what stitch) the design is pretty much done. It’s got a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters.

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

As you can read on the SAL information page, the design for this stitch-along is a Tree of Life, and it is described as a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters. This might just lead people to think that the SAL is based on the Certificate course, and from there it might easily lead to some rather too high expectations – let’s make it quite clear, I’m not aiming to get you to RSN Certificate level in 10 easy instalments!

In fact the SAL Tree of Life came into being long, long before I even thought of the Certificate as something I might possibly one day do. It was initially inspired by a tree I saw in a picture of some Indian embroidery which had a sinuous stem and seven leaves. I took it from there, and my Tree does still have a sinuous stem and seven leaves but otherwise doesn’t resemble the Indian tree in the slightest. But – and this is important – nor does it resemble what I might call a Certificate tree. It is not Jacobean (although it could certainly be stitched in crewel wools on twill), and although it will contain many different stitches, it is not nearly as complex and detailed as a Certificate piece is expected to be; a relatively small number of colours is suggested (partly to keep the costs down – see below) but unlike with the limited palette of the Certificate tree, here there are no rules and you can stitch the whole things as a rainbow of leaves if you like.

Sneak peeks at the SAL

So what does the SAL aim to do? Does it have an aim at all? Does it have to? You may know that I am a great believer in never asking of a piece of needlework: “What is it for?” As far as I’m concerned stitching is for enjoying, that’s what it’s for. Even so, when one of the kind friends who gave their opinions and advice about the SAL information page asked me a similar question, it made me take a good look at the whole project. Why did I decide to publish this design as a SAL-with-variations, with all the time and effort that goes into writing the instructions for the extra stitches and 10 blog posts with detailed photographs of the stitching process and so on? And when I put it like that, I realised that my motivation for the SAL was not that much different from the motivation for my taster sessions and workshops. Here is what I replied:

“As with the Hardanger SALs it’s definitely intended for people who want to Have A Go. I hope that those who are more experienced will be kept interested by the variety and choice of stitches, but my ‘target audience’ is those who have never tried freestyle embroidery, or perhaps just dabbled a bit, and would like to see if it’s for them.
If you have been cross stitching for some time you’re likely to have all the threads you need in your stash (if you choose the stranded cotton route) so just add a piece of fabric and some sequins and beads (which you may also already have) and you’re good to go with not much of a financial outlay (another of my main concerns).”

In other words, I’d love people to try something new, or to enjoy something familiar in a slightly different way; to be challenged but not frightened off; to create something decorative; and to be able to do so without having to take out a mortgage smiley. If that appeals to you, do join in!