Golden curls for a brunette

Some time ago I finally got the book that accompanied the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition which I was lucky enough to visit in 2016. I’ve been dipping into it off and on (it’s not really a book you read from cover to cover in one sitting!) and last night I got to the final exhibit, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ Pall. This is a beautifully embroidered coffin cover which was used at Guild members’ funerals. It features several depictions of St Peter, who was their patron saint, and of their coat of arms which is supported by an armour-clad merman and a mermaid holding a mirror. I’m afraid for reasons of copyright I can’t post pictures here, but you can see the pall and several other pieces in this V&A article. Have a particular look at the mermaid.

The Opus Anglicanum book shows her in a full-page close-up, which shows some wonderful details. For example, the mirror she is holding shows her reflection – how is that for attention to detail! But what really drew and held my attention was her hair. Let me post a close-up of a small segment of it, which I think is allowable for illustrative purposes:

The mermaid's hair

Can you see how the hair is stitched? I can’t be be absolutely sure just from the picture, but it looks to me as though the embroiderer worked a background of yellow silk (probably in split stitch, as that is the stitch most commonly used in Opus Anglicanum) and then couched gold threads on top in wavy curls. The result is wonderfully effective and 3D and tactile!

I was reading this and studying the picture at about 10.30pm, so setting up a bit of a doodle cloth and having a play was not really practical, although I was sorely tempted. And today unfortunately Bruce the kangaroo’s felt-padded leg took priority, and tomorrow her tail needs doing in time for Saturday’s class. But I definitely want to have a go at stitching hair like that, and for a very particular reason: Mechthild.

Remember Mechthild? She is going to be (when I get round to her…) the royal companion to Ethelnute the medieval king. She also has long flowing locks with just the sort of wave that the mermaid’s hair has.

Mechthild

There are a few things to consider. Challenges, possibly even snags. The least of which is the fact that Mechthild is a brunette, and gold couching is going to show up to rather more startling effect than I really intend. Nowadays some goldwork threads come in many colours, but I don’t think smooth passing (which is the obvious choice of thread for this) does; and even if it did, it would not be in keeping with the period at all. Silver would, and copper possibly, but neither would really solve the problem. She may just have to have a peroxide bleach. More problematic, however, is her size.

Working from a picture taken at an angle and some not very helpful measurements, my best guess is that the mermaid is at least 15cm from the top of her head to the bottom of her tummy (where her tail begins), and that her head (top to chin) is about 6cm. Mechthild is about 7cm high from crown to bosom, and 3cm from the top of her head to her chin. It would take some very fine passing to create the same effect.

And you know what? About a week ago I just happened to order some fine passing from America, among which there is a lovely rose gold, and which according to Royal Mail’s tracking information is at the moment in Langley (near Slough, my husband informs me). Once I’ve got Bruce’s padding out of the way, I feel a bit of goldwork hairdressing coming up!

Four shades of fine passing

Stretcher bars, eyes and rainbows

Some days ago I found myself saying to my husband, “More threads isn’t always the answer”. Yes, I know – heresy! But I have redeemed myself by ordering a pair of longer side stretchers for my Millennium frame. As I was commenting on a fellow member’s Cross Stitch Forum post about Millennium frames and Lowery stands I wrote “with hindsight I would have chosen the slightly longer side stretchers” and then thought, well, why not actually get them! The idea is that with the larger stitching area I could use it as a sampling set-up for the RSN Certificate goldwork module, mimicking the slate frame set-up better than a hoop can.

Now Needle Needs, known for their excellent craftsmanship and their beautiful, sturdy and effective frames and stands, are unfortunately also known for slow delivery and less than ideal communication. Personally I’ve never had any problems, possibly because I just ring them instead of emailing, but I know other people have had difficulties. I’m not in a frantic hurry for these stretchers (I’ve managed very well without them so far, after all) but in view of wanting to use them for the goldwork module it would be nice to have them before I finish! So I rang them to ask for a time frame – and found that the gentleman I spoke to remembered me (and my husband’s vintage Austins) from when I visited their workshop to try out the Aristo lapstand back in 2015!

Trying out the Aristo lap stand

Anyway, he said he would be making some stretchers of the right size in the next few days, and yesterday I got an email to say they would be delivered by 9th November, exactly one week after I ordered them. There may, of course, still be glitches, but it all looks promising!

Until then I continue to do my sampling on the spare silk mounted in a hoop, which works well enough. Today I heard that next Saturday’s Certificate class will go ahead, with only two students which should make it nice and safe, so I’m glad I managed to do most of my homework to show Angela. Part of that involved “mixed couching”, where instead of using a pair of the same threads you couch a pair of dissimilar threads, for example rococco paired with twist. Because rococco is by far my least favourite goldwork thread I decided to practise mainly with that, starting with it combined with twist, and then trying to work a pair of rococco and Jap right next to it, bricking the couching stitches as much as possible.

Mixed couching

“As much as possible” turned out to be not very much – one of my questions for Angela will be how on earth you evenly brick anything that has rococco in it, with its wave that should be regular but in practice turns out not to be even when stitched in a straight line, let alone on a curve. Oh well, I’m meant to be learning so it’s just as well I have questions smiley. (The picture also shows some improvement in my stitching already: there is a definite gap between the two pairs where I start on the left, whereas they are much better abutted as I went on. Reassuring to know sampling helps to sort these things out.)

Another thing I’ve been sampling is kangaroo eyes. That rather sounds like a buffet I don’t want to try, but actually it was a very useful exercise. In the design drawing, the kangaroo’s eye is roughly triangular, and my original idea was to use chips of smooth purl to somehow fill in that triangle, either with the chips all running vertically (with the front one slightly curved) or with some used as outlines (another idea of making them all run parallel with the top sloping line never even made it to the sampling stage). As you can see both these options looked awful. So then I started playing with the idea of a spangle with two chips of smooth purl for the top and bottom outline. That effect was much more like it, and after some experimenting with spangle sizes and placement of the securing stitches I eventually decided on the one indicated by the orange arrow: a 2mm spangle with the slit facing forward and one securing stitch facing backward.

Lots of kangaroo's eyes

And finally, remember the rainbow project I called Hope? I’ve been stitching quite a lot of variations on the theme (including a personalised one for a young girl facing a lockdown birthday) and was hoping to put the chart pack on the website this month, but the design was taken up by a magazine for publication which means I can’t publicise it myself until after that issue of the magazine has come off the shelves (some time next spring). I think I can probably get away with a teeny-weeny sneak peek though…

Five rainbows

How a kangaroo ousted a seahorse…

…and was in turn endangered by a miniature gecko. The story of how a goldwork design can be influenced by fabric, bedtime stories, and a Baptist minister.

Once upon a time, in 2015 to be exact, I sketched a whole series of ideas for goldwork designs, among them a toadstool, a sort-of-daisy and a seahorse. Forward a year, and on a visit to the Viking Loom I bought some scrumptious hand-painted silk dupion in turquoise, blue and purple shades. Forward another four years, and I’m starting the goldwork module for my RSN Certificate. For which I need to stitch my goldwork design on silk dupion. Well!

Sketch for a goldwork toadstool Sketches for a goldwork daisy and seahorse Hand-painted silk dupion

No-brainer, right? Sea-coloured dupion, seahorse – done! Hmm, not quite. All these sketches were for designs without any rules other than what I liked. But the goldwork module comes with a brief; there are only certain materials you are allowed to use (no kid leather, no smooth passing, no rough purl or wire check, no silver or copper let alone any other colours) and there are certain techniques you have to use (bricked Jap, mixed couching, cutwork over soft string padding), sometimes with a specified minimum area. The seahorse couldn’t quite fit all that in, and I’d have to get rid of some of the materials I’d originally included. No worries (keep that expression in mind…), we can add to it. How about a treasure chest? I worked out that that could be made to include several of the required techniques, so I did some sketching to work out the proportions and positions of seahorse and chest to make them into a coherent design.

Adding a treasure chest to the seahorse

And then, in my pile of sketches, I came across an undated, very basic sketch of a sitting kangaroo with the scribbled note “find good pose. check eye shape” and an indication of padded cutwork along the tail, and some chipping on the haunch/hip joint. (It also had a small sketch of a hot air balloon, but I ignored that.) A kangaroo… well, it would be unusual; I’d found plenty of sea creatures when looking at previous Certificate goldwork pieces, but no kangaroo (although there was a koala). It wouldn’t work with the hand-painted silk dupion, of course – I’d need to buy some more shades to have a good range of options (oh the hardship). As I talked to Hilary at the Silk Route about this I mentioned that it was now between a seahorse and a kangaroo and she immediately plumped for the kangaroo, simply because it was so unusual; and Angela, my tutor, had also greeted my simple sketch with some enthusiasm, not surprising perhaps as she is Australian smiley.

A basic kangaroo

Anyway, I figured there was no harm in finding some more kangaroo pics and deciding on a suitable position, and what about a pouch and possibly a Joey? And then it hit me. Haasje!

Haasje (“little hare” in Dutch) is the cuddly toy my grandmother bought for me before I was born. For various reasons it was a very special welcome into the world, and Haasje became my constant companion. He was also my champion: when an older cousin told me that “earworms” (Dutch for earwigs) would creep into your ears at night and nibble your brains (I had no older brothers, but my cousins obviously did a great job as substitutes), I looked for a solution to keep me safe. One ear was protected by the pillow, but what about the other? Haasje, of course! For several years I slept with him snugly held against my ear; my mother didn’t find out why until I was a grown-up.

Haasje, my constant companion

Now when my favourite aunt lived with us for two years and told me bedtime stories every night, she chose Haasje as the protagonist, and in one particularly memorable series of tales he travelled all the way to Australia, where a passing kangaroo gave him a lift in her pouch. He wasn’t used to hopping that fast and high, so he clung on for dear life while nervously looking down at the ground. That was it. The seahorse was forgotten. I had a design!

Haasje in the kangaroo's pouch

As is always the case the design went through several changes before it was finalised – it gained some grass, and a cloud with the sun behind it – but the basis for me was a panicky Haasje travelling by kangaroo (I hope to convey his wide-eyed look of fear by means of a big round spangle). In class I did some more work on what materials to put where, where to have padding, and which bits to leave open to contrast with the solid gold parts; the cutwork for the tail remained, as did the chipwork haunch, and other techniques and materials were added in, making sure all the requirements of the brief were covered. When I got home I did a mock-up (not easy for goldwork) to give myself a better idea of the balance between open and solid, and I think I’ve got it about right. I also printed the cleaned-up design on tracing paper to make the pricking needed for the prick & pounce transfer process.

The colour mock-up The tracing for prick and pounce

Then in the middle of this whole process, after Haasje had been added but before my class, our minister shared a holiday snap during the Sunday service’s all-age talk of this teeny-weeny little chap (that giant white thing is a teaspoon), almost changing my mind a second time, but although I did find some lovely pictures of miniature geckos in beautifully sinuous positions perfect for goldwork, I decided to stick with Bruce (as I have called the kangaroo) and Haasje.

The miniature gecko shared by our minister

Remember I mentioned getting some more colours of silk dupion? Here is the selection I got, with the two at the top bought specifically for Bruce. The olive shade was not at all what I was looking for, so that became my doodle cloth, but I absolutely loved the shade called Ether. It was a bit of a surprise as the picture on the Silk Route website was rather brighter, but actually this less saturated look was just what I wanted.

A collection of dupion shades

Unfortunately, although the 28cm x 33cm cut was fine as regards size, it had the grain running the wrong way. Well, “wrong” for this particular design. In order to accommodate the design I’d have to use the fabric in portrait orientation, but in that case the grain (which is very visible in silk dupion) runs vertically, and Angela and I both agreed that that would look all wrong. So this piece of fabric will become a second doodle cloth, and I’ve bought a fat quarter of the Ether dupion which is easily big enough to cut a piece of the right size with the grain running horizontally.

This does mean I won’t be able to fully frame up until my next class, as I would much prefer to attach the silk to the calico with a tutor to hand. On the few occasions I’ve attached a piece of silk to backing fabric I’ve ended up with puckers in the silk at the end of the project, so I want to get this absolutely right. Apparently the secret is to baste the two layers together on the design lines when the whole sandwich is under tension.

However, we could get the calico framed up. Angela had never worked with a slate frame this small so it was a new experience for her as well! But apart from everything being rather smaller, the rest of the process is pretty much the same: sew the top and bottom of the fabric to the webbing, sew herringbone tape to the sides, and lace up using the lethal bracing needle (I won’t show you the wounds…)

Sewing the calico to the webbing Lacing the side tapes to the bars

By the way, do you remember the four protective flaps I made for the big slate frame? True, they overlapped quite a bit, but it will give you some idea of the size difference when you see the effect of a single flap attached to the new frame.

Four flaps covering the large slate frame One protective flap is enough

And that’s it so far! I’ve got my homework – getting the silk ironed, sampling some couching and s-ing, creating a tonal plan, pricking the transfer, cutting the layers of felt padding; Angela is definitely keeping me busy smiley. After the next class I hope I’ll be able to show you the silk all framed up and with the design painted on, and who knows even a bit of gold (although all the padding needs to go on first, so it may be a while before I get to play with the bling bits – but there’s always the doodle cloth).

Ready for my homework!

A snowman goes public, and a silk gets overlooked

The latest issue of Stitch, the Embroiderers’ Guild’s magazine, hit the shops last weekend, and you may recognise a certain snowman in one of the small cover pictures – yes, Forever Frosty has made his first public appearance! It’s always great fun seeing your own project in print, and this time they gave me a full double spread especially for the goldwork diagrams as well as the main article with the usual photographs and instructions. I’m really pleased with it, but I can’t help wondering why colours never seem to come out quite right in photographs, even professional ones; the fabric is definitely blue-er in real life.

Stitch magazine, issue 127 Forever Frosty

Sending the stitched models to the magazine for photographing is always a bit fraught – the Stitch people are really careful with them, that’s not the problem, but their postal journey there and back is a time of nervous anticipation: will they make it, or will they become a Lost Item? So it was with a sigh of relief that I welcomed Frosty and the little willow that made it into issue 125 safely back home last week, in time for us to take them on our visit to my mother-in-law, who is a keen needlewoman and who I knew would like to see them.

So now I can concentrate on other things. The RSN Certificate, for one thing – but more about that in a later FoF. The other thing is Hope, my new rainbow design, which I’m currently working on in two different versions. I’m planning a third before putting the chart pack together, by which time the design should offer any stitcher a variation that suits her.

Remember the blues I was having a bit of a ponder about? Well, based on various digital shade cards I decided that Splendor 966 was probably the blue I really wanted: a little darker than the Splendor blue I already had, with the added bonus of being the same brand as all the other silks in that particular version of the rainbow.

Splendor 966, a slightly darker blue

I’ve been meaning to expand my collection of Splendor silks but unfortunately no shop in the UK has the entire range, and so for some shades I will have to resort to US sellers (I prefer Stitching Bits & Bobs who have been very helpful in the past) and just take the import duties and postage on the chin. But West End Embroidery, who are equally helpful and in the UK, have a fair few shades so I decided to start there – get as many of the shades on my list as they have from them, then go to SB&B for the others. Fortunately, Splendor 966 was one of the shades in their collection.

I went through my list, and their catalogue, and may have added a shade or two that wasn’t on my list, and finally hit the Check Out button to place the order. The order confirmation email duly arrived, and as I glanced through it I realised one shade was missing. Yes, I’d forgotten to order 966…

A quick phone call to Yvonne remedied that, so that when the order arrived, the blue which was the initial reason for the order was there among all the pretty colours which were not strictly necessary. It would have been terribly embarrassing having to place a second order for one single colour – I might have had to add a few extras smiley !

The whole Splendor order

Rainbow choices and a mystery

My rainbow is growing apace! Apart from a couple of evenings this week when we have other things on, I’ve been stitching a band a night, and I like how it’s developing. There have been a few decisions to take along the way, though – not quite the relaxed just-get-on-and-stitch project I first had in mind – but that is part of any project that will eventually become a chart pack or kit. And in a way it makes me concentrate more on the design and how I want it to look.

I wrote earlier about backstitch versus cable stitch in the red band; and for the orange band I had to choose between plain and reverse chain stitch (I went for the latter – easier to start a new thread mid-line). The yellow band threw up another decision; in my provisional notes I’d put it down as diagonal satin stitch, which would mean gradually changing the stitch direction to compensate for the curve. Not impossible of course, but not very relaxed either, and I did want to try and keep it relatively simple. Straight satin stitch then? You’d still need to adjust the stitch direction, but it’s definitely easier than in the diagonal version. Unfortunately that wasn’t the effect I wanted, and anyway I suspected that both diagonal and straight satin stitch throughout would look too solid, with too little texture. In the end I went for blocks of diagonal satin stitch alternating in direction. But would it need a split stitch outline? I started one just in case.

A provisional split stitch edge

The split stitch looked rather messy – I don’t really like doing split stitch in more than a single strand – so I started from the other end of the band without split stitch, tucking the ends under the previous band on one side, and knowing they’d be covered on the other side by the next band. And it looked just fine. Good, I’m all for simplifying things! The incipient line of split stitch was unpicked and the whole band worked without it; split stitch may make an appearance as a proper filling stitch in the smaller version worked in an indivisible thread, but here it isn’t needed.

Alternating satin stitch without a split stitch edge The yellow band finished

The green band, in stem stitch, posed no problem. The blue band, to compensate for this, threw up two.

First dilemma: fly stitch or Cretan? To begin with I was almost certain I’d go for fly stitch, then I doodled both and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. They both looked rather fun!

Fly stitch versus Cretan stitch

After discussing both options with my husband I decided to stick with fly stitch after all; much though I like Cretan stitch, I felt that (in contrast to the original satin stitch band idea) it has too much texture – a bit too fussy for this project. OK, fly stitch. But…

… in which blue? From a practical point of view it makes sense to stick with one brand of silk throughout, but the Splendor blue was a bit lighter than I’d like and the only darker blue of the right sort came from my collection of Caron Soie Cristale.

Which blue to choose

Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk is a 12-stranded silk in a slightly unusual distribution: it consists of three “bundles” of four strands. There are other silks on the market which use the same distribution (Crescent Colours Belle Soie, Gloriana Silk Floss and Thread Gatherer Silk ‘n Colors) and their weight too is pretty much identical, so I’ve long suspected they are really exactly the same silk marketed by four different companies. Ideally, then, I’d find a darker blue in my stash of these brands, but I have a fairly limited selection and moreover they are all overdyed or variegated threads rather than the solid blue I was looking for.

Caron Soie Cristale seemed a good alternative as it is also a 12-stranded thread, although not of the 3×4 type, and the individual strands are of a similar weight to Splendor and its doppelgangers. I cut a length of the darker blue, stripped four strands from it, got ready to thread them, and realised that the four strands together were noticeably thinner then the four strands of Splendor I’d been using. On closer inspection, the thread turned out to consist of 16 thinner strands. Had I misremembered the strand count and weight of Soie Cristale? I checked four or five other bobbins and this is the only Soie Cristale I have which has 16 thinner strands. I am puzzled.

The rogue thread, standard Soie Cristale and Splendor

Oh well, we work with what we have. Six strands of this rogue blue looked to have about the same bulk as four strands of the Splendor, so I got to work with that. Having struggled with six rather wayward strands for several hours I am happy with the look of the stitch, but the colour seems rather dark. Perhaps with hindsight my original Splendor blue would have been better. Unpick it all? That’s a bit drastic. I’ll see if it’s grown on me by the time my next stitching session comes around…

The blue band finished

By the way, exciting news – I’ve got a Certificate class booked at Rugby! Next Wednesday I hope to make a start on mounting the Jacobean tree, and going over my paperwork with Angela.

InspiRussian

Some weeks ago on the Antiques Roadshow someone brought in a Russian tea set and a rather exquisite enamel napkin ring which the expert pointed out was not actually part of it. It was Russian, though, and in fact turned out to be by Fabergé. I really liked the floral pattern on the napkin ring so I paused the programme, took a picture, and used it to make some sketches later. It just cried out to be stitched; silks would be ideal to show the sheen of the enamel but for some reason I saw it in my mind in crewel wools, and as the napkin ring was done in cloisonné enamel the main colour blocks of the embroidery would have to be outlined in some form of metal thread (copper or muted gold) to mimic the fine metal strips in the original.

As I scribbled down all these observations plus some colour ideas I was a little worried about copyright, but after some thought came to the conclusion that anything that age is unlikely to be covered anymore. If anyone knows differently, do please let me know before I start stitching! I’ve already got the design transferred to my favourite linen…

The Russian design transferred to a piece of linen

Having produced my first coloured version of the design, I set about choosing wools. I love choosing threads from my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool; quite apart from the joy of opening drawer after drawer of glorious colour, they are a delight to handle, beautifully soft and fondleable (yes, that is now a word). I picked five colour families, Old Gold, Madder Pink, Lagoon, Goblin Green and Cornflower Blue. For now I wasn’t too concerned with how light or dark the design was going to be, just with getting the right shades.

First attempts at picking colours

And I wasn’t. Getting the right shades, I mean. The combination of blues and greens I’d gone for in my digital version was always going to be tricky to replicate, and it might have been easier to go with something closer to the original napkin ring, but I’d grown rather fond of my version by now so I was jolly well going to see it through! The problem was the blue – it needed to be just a tiny bit closer to the green end of blue without merging into the turquoise shade. It was obviously time to hit the shops, or rather one shop in particular: Catkin Crown Textile Studio.

Steve and Hazel not only stock the entire range of Heathway Milano crewel wool at a very reasonable price, they are also invariably helpful – I can thoroughly recommend them. This time what I needed from their store of goodies was the Bluebell colour family which is just that bit less pure blue than the Cornflower family. And as I was getting those I might as well get the missing shades in the Madder Pink family, so that I had a wider range to choose from for the flowers. And as I was getting those I was only a few skeins off qualifying for free postage. And so, uhm, well…

The shades I needed The shades I added

Moving on, it was time to compare the Bluebell and the Cornflower combinations to see which one was going to make the final cut. Colour preferences are very personal, but for me the Bluebell version immediately appealed in a way that the Cornflower one hadn’t. Bluebell it is!

The Cornflower combination The Bluebell combination

Since then I have made a few changes to the colours, but only in the way they are distributed, particularly in the flowers, so no need for another purchase smiley. I also turned the black design lines golden yellow to better show the effect of the cloisonné outlining. And that’s as far as I go for the time being – first I have a rainbow to finish (among one or two other things…). But it’s nice to know I won’t run out of things to stitch any time soon.

The revised colour version, dark The revised colour version, light

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking what to call this design. At the moment I’m considering either Exquisite Enamel or Fabergé Floral; but perhaps I should just stick with the title of this post!

Light and hope

I may have mentioned once or twice that I have more than enough projects to keep me going for a long, long time. Works actually in progress (like Llandrindod and Hengest), works ready to go with the design transferred and the materials chosen (like Soli Deo Gloria and Come Rain), and several still in the exciting design stage (like Mechthild, Pickled Garden and the nameless Russian piece). And that’s without the kits and designs by other people that I have on the go or on my shelves!

But sometimes something needs to be stitched.

I’ve been having trouble with my eyes for some time now. Partly the usual thing of getting older and needing longer arms to read things, partly the fact that because of lockdown I haven’t seen an optician for some time and probably need new glasses, and partly because of a progressive condition which causes cloudiness in my left eye. For now that last part is an annoyance rather than seriously getting in the way – it’s a bit like having smudged glasses all the time (and in fact I do keep trying to polish them when I’m not thinking about it). But I have no idea how bad it will get, or how quickly. And that worries me. But (as our minister reminded us in last Sunday’s sermon) worrying is a very ineffective thing to do. And a couple of weeks ago, as I was worrying about the light going out of my eyes I suddenly thought of the Light of the World. And it comforted me. So I grabbed a bit of fabric and a 3-inch hoop and stitched the words in a style which is not really usual for me at all, with gel pen additions. If it speaks to you, feel free to copy it (I’ll keep the pop-up picture a bit larger than usual).

Light of the World

The other design that has elbowed its way to the front of the queue I’ve called Hope. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, a Dutch organisation called Agapè ran a campaign to encourage people to think and talk about faith. Its logo was a rainbow (and I’ve only just now realised it has a reddish purple on the outside instead of pure red) with the words “er is hoop” (“there is hope”).

The 'Er is hoop' logo

I’ve always loved rainbows and they’ve been rather prominent lately; even so, until a week or so ago I hadn’t felt any urge to stitch one. But when I did, and after a few sketches that weren’t what I wanted, I decided that I wanted the rainbow to be based on a circle. Some years ago, when flying to the Netherlands, I saw the shadow of the aeroplane inside what looked like a completely circular rainbow. It is apparently known as a “glory”; to me it looked like a sign of protection and security, and it always stayed with me. The photograph I took isn’t particularly clear but I hope it gives you an idea. With that starting point I sketched what became pretty much the final version of the design, a circular rainbow partly covered by a cloud containing the words “there is Hope”.

Glory around the shadow of a plane The design sketch for Hope Hope transferred onto blue cotton

Now I had to decide on stitches and colours. I wanted each of the colours to be in a different stitch, some line stitches following the arc of the rainbow, some with a different stitch direction or texture. And for the threads, silk. Chunky silk, in bold colours. I went for Rainbow Gallery Splendor, which is 12-stranded arranged in 3 clusters of 4 strands; each cluster should provide good coverage in a design that I chose to stitch a little larger than I would normally go for. Most of the colours were easy to pick, but I had a bit of a dilemma over the green. The one that seemed to fit in best was a very vibrant green, rather brighter than I ideally wanted (I’m not quite sure why I bought that shade in the first place!) But the only other green that would fit was on the dull side. After some comparisons I decided to go with the bright option – hope, after all, is a bright thing!

Splendor silk colours for the rainbow, with two greens

As I was about to start stitching the order of the various stitches from red to purple needed a bit of work, but eventually I was reasonably sure that I’d got them arranged the way I wanted them and it was safe to put the first stitch in.

The stitch plan for Hope

Now this project struck me as something nice and relaxing to do – pretty colourful bands that just need filling in, a whole band in stitch A, then a whole band in stitch B, hardly needs any thought at all. Hmm. This is what I got done the first evening:

First stitches

There were several reasons for my lack of productivity. The red band was planned in backstitch as a bricked filling, so with the backstitch in one line offset compared to the next line, like a brick wall. I started a line of backstitch, with stitches that were far too small. I’m simply not used to producing stitches this large and chunky! So that line was unpicked, and I started again, trying to remember to make the stitches larger while keeping them even.

But then there was the fact that backstitch is quite a wasteful stitch, producing a slightly messy stem stitch on the back of the fabric (blue arrow). How about using cable stitch? This produces the same effect but with less thread waste on the back of the fabric (orange arrow).

Backstitch and cable stitch seen from the back

I unpicked my backstitch and started again in cable stitch. Bad move, as I found it impossible to produce an even arch this way. Unpick again, work the very first line in backstitch (that’s where I got to on that first evening), then cable stitch from there on with the backstitch line as a guide. This worked much better.

First line of backstitch Starting a double line of cable stitch Cable stitch continued

Another option I considered (and tried out on a doodle cloth) was cable stem stitch (yellow arrow), which is quicker to work than cable stitch because you don’t have to gauge the width of your thread every time you place a stitch – like ordinary stem stitch, cable stem stitch is worked along a single line. But the effect lacks the straight lines I wanted in this first band, so I stuck with the combination of backstitch and cable stitch.

Doodling for Hope

And this is where I’ve got to so far. I like the texture of this band, and I look forward to seeing the contrast with the next bands, both in texture and colour.

Hope so far

Later this month we are hoping to visit my mother-in-law and I need a travel project; she is a very talented embroiderer and we like to stitch together, but as we also chat while doing this I need something straightforward. I could, of course, take the Ottoman Tulip, but I think I’ll set up a smaller version of this design, to be worked in only a few different stitches, none of which need a lot of attention (perhaps alternating bands of stem and chain stitch), and using an indivisible thread – either coton à broder (right) or perhaps floche (left), which comes in fewer colours but is lovely to work with. I’ll keep you posted!

Coton à broder and floche

An eventful flower and a mounted rabbit

Half of August has gone and Flights of Fancy have been thin on the ground. So has stitching. And if you ask me why I’m not altogether sure, except that the days seem to fly past rather more quickly than I would like. Still, some embroidery-related things have been happening in the Figworthy household, so I thought I’d fill you in.

One thing you already know about is the Nurge semi-deep hoops; they are now all bound and I’ve been using the 13cm one a couple of times. So is the “grip” better than on a bound shallow hoop? For this size there probably isn’t that much in it – the shallow hoop keeps the fabric about as taut as you can get it without tearing it, so it’s hard to improve on that. But the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get and above all to keep the tension, so it will be interesting to see whether I notice the difference on, say, the 19cm hoop. On this smaller one I do find it’s easier to hold in my non-stitching hand if I’m not using a clamp or stand; the fact that it’s got just that bit more body to it makes it more comfortable on the fingers.

My semi-deep Nurge hoops bound

I used my smallest semi-deep hoop for yet another last-minute card, this time for a niece who, besides being a whizz with accounts, is a linocut artist (you can see her designs in her Etsy shop Woah There Pickle). Some time ago she gave me permission to use one of her lino designs to turn into an embroidery. So far it hasn’t made it onto fabric, but I decided to use one flower from it to stitch for her as a birthday card. I chose a blue and white chambray linen for the background, which has a slightly mottled effect (not really visible in the picture) caused by being woven with a white weft and a coloured warp; I thought this would make a nice contrast with the deliberately flat colours of the flower. From a stitching point of view this turned out to be a bad idea as the not-solid colour made my eyes go funny after a while! Still, it does look good so on the whole it was worth it (but it did slow me down).

Starting on Vicky's daisy

The picture above shows my progress at the end of day one, a Thursday. The card had to be sent on Saturday morning at the latest, and normally I’d have expected to complete the thing in a fairly leisurely fashion on Friday evening, but that evening we were going to Meet Friends In A Pub Garden, a red-letter event that hadn’t happened since lockdown started way back in March. “I’ll finish the stitching off when we get back”, I said to Mr Mabel, “and then I can put it in a card tomorrow morning before going on my Ladies’ Walk and you can take it to the Post Office” (he goes every day to send off the business parcels, and on Saturday the cut-off point is quarter to eleven, just when our walking group’s walk tends to end).

Do you know that saying about “best laid plans”? The meeting at the pub garden was very pleasant, but on the way back a road closure signposted at the very last moment got us swept off onto the motorway. Not a problem normally, but we were in a 90-year-old Austin Seven, and the motorway at that point is on a slight incline. Modern cars don’t even notice it, but the Austin gets slowed down to about 30 mph, with lighting that isn’t nearly so bright as in modern cars, and lorries thundering past at 60mph. Mr Mabel decided it was not safe, so we pulled into a lay-by and contacted the Highway Authorities, who eventually sent a well-lit vehicle that escorted us to the nearest exit. We got home safe and sound. At a quarter to midnight. No, I wasn’t going to finish the card then smiley. But with some intense stitching early the next morning I fortunately did manage to get it sent off in time. Phew.

The finished flower The flower mounted in a card

Another bit of stitched nature was a lot less eventful, but it was instructive. Remember the crewelwork Rabbit With Carnations I did some time ago?

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Well, I decided to use it for a bit of an experiment. My two SAL Trees of Life are still in a hoop (the wool version) and on a frame (the silk/gold version), waiting to be laced and then framed. Now I usually lace over foam core board, but as the RSN Certificate pieces have to be laced over mount board I thought this might be a good opportunity to practice. I contacted Fosse House Gallery, our local framer who did such a great (and quick!) job on my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present, and they very kindly gave me some offcuts to have a go with. The lady mentioned that she used T-pins when lacing over mount board so I looked those up online and lo and behold, they were available from Toft Alpacas, who like the framer are within walking distance from where I live!

Mount board and T-pins, both local!

One of the things I like about foam core board is that at 5mm thick it gives you plenty of edge to stick your pins into! Standard mount board or mat board tends to be about 2mm thick, so it’s all a bit more cramped and your aim has to be rather more precise. It’s also a lot easier on the fingers to push pins into foam core board because, well, it’s foam instead of solid cardboard smiley. There is one drawback of foam core board which is very visible in the second picture: its corners and edges get squashed much more easily that mount board, so you have to be careful when storing it or be prepared to trim edges before cutting the board to size.

Mount or mat board and foam core board Mount or mat board and foam core board

There’s definitely no such problem with the mount board which in spite of being an offcut was in perfect condition. The sample of board was cut to the right size for the rabbit embroidery and I set to work. As I expected, it was quite fiddly getting the pins to go centrally into the edge of the board, and several times I was definitely just underneath the outer layer so you could see the contours of the pin. It is interesting that for the RSN mounting process you are instructed to glue together two layers of standard mount board to end up with a thicker piece of board which is then covered in calico – I haven’t got to that part of the module yet, but I can’t help thinking the pins will all end up in the glue layer. I’ll find out when classes start again in Rugby!

The mount board being more solid in texture than the foam core board I predictably found it difficult to push the pins right in, but that may have been at least in part because the T-pins I got were quite long. I’ll see if I can find some shorter, thinner ones. As I was lacing, the board seemed to bend and flex a little more than the foam core I tend to use, and this was on a relatively small piece of about 5½” square – I wonder how much it would flex if I was lacing something the size of the Trees.

The end result looks respectable enough, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the two Trees will be laced over foam core. I contacted Fosse House Gallery and they say they may have some in stock, so time to walk over there and support the local economy. Once they’re laced I’m hoping to get the two Trees framed together in a single tall frame with two circular apertures in the mount. Now for a colour that will work with both…

The Rabbit laced onto mount board

A horse of a different colour

My embroidery has been distinctly equine recently, and I’d like to show you some of my progress (and regress; that is to say, unpicking…) on two horsey creatures.

The first is the goldwork racehorse I started at Helen McCook’s three-day class last year. I’d been doing some couching and plunging but a week or so ago I decided that before I did anything more, something needed seeing to first – his eye. The centre of the eye is a gem, and in the stitched model it is round and makes a good iris. But the gem that was in the kit, although a round cut as well, was set in such a way that it looked quite square. It was also rather larger than in the model (at least partly because of the setting), and quite apart from the fact that it just didn’t look right, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to work the surrounding couching properly with the setting extending beyond the design line in places.

Two different eyes

Time to rummage through my stash and see if I could find an alternative. I remembered some tiny oval flat-backed gems I bought last year – might they work? But alas, even the tiniest was too large. How about a sequin? The 3mm flat ones I have would be too small, but what about a facetted cup sequin held on with a black bead? Would that look like an iris with a pupil? And it would still have some of the facetted look of the original gem.

A slightly too large oval gem A cup sequin-and-bead combination that looks promising

I unpicked the original eye, attached the sequin and bead, and gave a sigh of relief. The eye operation was a success!

A much better-looking eye

Next was a decision about the pearl purl curving around the eye and down the horse’s neck. This was a very fine pearl purl which had also been used in the tail, and I’d noticed there that the gold was very yellow. I didn’t think this would work very well against the copper that outlines the eye, and another rummage produced a much mellower-coloured pearl purl of roughly the same thickness. None of the photographs I took quite picked up on how different the colours were, but it should give you an idea.

Very yellow pearl purl

Since last time I also completed both the colour-graded couching and the plunging on the horse’s backside, and here it is as it looks at the moment (you can see the very yellow purl outlining the chipped section at the top of the tail).

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

On to a horse of a different colour, or rather of many different colours – although the bits I’ve been working on have been mostly grey smiley. For some time now I’d been itching to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn; I hadn’t worked on him since June last year! To ease myself back into it I started with his nose band. Once I’d stitched it I realised that if I stitched the rest of the bridle (if that’s the correct term) in the same light golden yellow (Old Gold #4) as I had planned, it wouldn’t look quite right next to the light yellow spot high up his neck. But I didn’t want to use the darker #6 because that was going to be used in his horn (together with darkest #8) and I needed the contrast. Fortunately I remembered that I also had shade #7 in my stash, so the rest of the bridle will be done in #6, and the horn in #7 and #8. One problem sorted, although putting the solution into practice would have to wait as I wanted to get on with his mane first.

And as I stitched the first two locks, another problem emerged. They were far too dark.

Hengest's mane is too dark

I’d worked it out so carefully, too. Because Hengest is quite cartoonish in look, I didn’t want the shading in the mane to be too subtle. All the rest of him is areas of flat colour, with the only “shading” coming from the direction of the split stitch. The mane would have dark locks and light locks, and each would be done in two shades which I wanted to be visibly different, with the light and dark locks also having to be different enough from each other. The design drawing has black outlines, but the stitched version doesn’t, so the locks had to be delineated by colour difference.

I had therefore decided to have no colour overlap between light and dark locks: for the light locks I chose Silver Grey #1 and #3, and for the dark locks #5 and #6 (the difference between two consecutive shades is not always equally large). But #6 was very obviously too dark compared to the pastel tints of the rest of Hengest. And so I ended up doing something I had strenuously resisted for this project so far – I started a doodle cloth. Five combinations of two greys would be tried out, and I started with the darker one in each of the combinations, then added the lighter shade. #5 plus #3, #4 plus #3 and #4 plus #2 were all options for the darker locks, while #3 plus #1 and #2 plus #1 were possible pairs for the lighter ones. Having studied all the combinations I opted for an overlap after all: #5 with #3 and #3 with #1.

Different shades of grey A doodle cloth with five combinations Starting with the darker shades The lighter shades have been added

Hurray! As tress after tress was added the new shades turned out to work very well together, the individual locks perfectly distinct in spite of the fact that they share shade #3. I’d completely forgotten that the direction of the split stitch would set them apart even if the colour didn’t.

The old mane is unpicked Starting the first locks The new mane is growing The locks are perfectly distinct

And that’s the state of the Figworthy stable to date. I love both its occupants, but I will admit to a soft spot for Hengest. He will never be a racing champion (his inspiration on the Steeple Aston cope is decidedly duck-footed) and he will never be decked out in the Queen’s colours, but I think he holds his own against any racehorse in his polka-dotted eccentricity smiley.

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!