All around the houses

Some time ago one of our nieces and her husband moved house, and as she is the sort of person who appreciates handmade things (she used to make cute cuddly elephants under the name Nelly Button) I decided to stitch a card rather than buy one. Going through my stash I picked a blue chambray fabric (chambray is woven with white in the warp and a colour in the weft – or possibly the other way round) and my collection of Madeira Lana threads; the fabric because it didn’t work for the design I originally bought it for and now I had quite a quantity of fabric-without-a-purpose, and the threads because I only recently got into them and I love them smiley. A quick sketch, use whatever stitch comes to mind, et voilà, a little house with two people, their hair and clothing based on a picture of niece and husband in the garden of their new home.

The original New Home design

Mount it in an aperture card with a bit of wadding behind it, send it off, and that’s that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Several people commented on pictures I posted of the little house, so I put it in my Freebie section with a materials list and stitch suggestions. And that was that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Round about that time I was putting together my workshop proposals for the Kintting & Stitching Show at Ally Pally in October. One of the most popular of my workshops has long been the Little Wildflower Garden, a freestyle design. This is also a freestyle design, but with some different stitches and using a slightly unusual thread. Why not turn it into a workshop/kit? For there is another thing about this design which makes it really good workshop material: it has potential for personalisation. My original design has two people, and they look like my niece and her husband (well, roughly; after all they are only about a centimetre high). But there’s nothing to stop you from having one person, or three, or one with two little people, or a dog or a cat; and if I supply a selection of colours, every person can stitch the clothing of their choice, and change the flowers, or add some where they aren’t charted. This is a great project for teaching people how to play with a design!

Well, K&S picked No Place Like Home (plus the Wildflower Garden and two others), so I needed some stitched models. I try to have three per class, so that with a maximum of twelve people there’s one to every four. It can be really helpful to be able to see and touch a stitched version of what you are trying to create! And in order to encourage variation and play, I decided to make each of them slightly different. As I was starting from scratch (I didn’t think it would be good manners to ask our niece for their card back…) the first one was pretty much like the original. I only changed the clothing a bit, used a variegated thread for the thatched roof instead of the original solid, and two greens instead of one for the grass. I also remembered to make a note of how much of each colour was needed.

The first No Place Like Home version - much like the original

The second one used a lighter blue for the window frames, and added a dog. Well, a four-legged creature. The grass was back to variegated light green only.

The second No Place Like Home version - a dog, and lighter window frames

In the third version one of the people is a child, and there is wisteria growing up the side of the house. The grass is variegated dark green, and the flowers dotting the turf are different colours from the other two versions.

The third No Place Like Home version - a child and wisteria

Finally I mounted them in three differently coloured cards.

No Place Like Home cards

So now all that remains is to print the instructions and put together twelve kits; after the Knitting & Stitching Show I will make the kits available on the website, but don’t worry, the design will still be available as a freebie if you prefer to stitch from stash.

PS One slight snag with this design emerged today: Barnyarns cancelled my back order for a spool of variegated Madeira Lana and on enquiry told me that Madeira has discontinued that particular shade. I’m now trying to find a shop that’s got a spool left so I can stock up – but not much luck so far! (There is a seller on eBay who appears to have plenty left, but he sells it in sets of five spools, and I honestly don’t think I’ll need a kilometre and a half of variegated red Lana…)

A question of copyright (I)

Do you know those sturdy, reusable bags supermarkets sell, the ones that will stand up, with a wide gusset and canvas handles? I have one from a Dutch shop which I picked up on one of our visits a few years ago. For reasons which will become clear further on I won’t show a picture of it, but it’s covered in stylised birds and butterflies. The peacocks are recognisably peacocks, but all the other creatures are just generic birds and butterflies, done in a style reminiscent of a child’s drawing made with one of those hard plastic stencil sheets: simple outlines filled with blocks of solid colour.

Plastic stencils

As I was getting my collection of reusable bags out in preparation for the weekly shop, for some reason I looked at this particular bag more closely and it dawned on me that a few of those birds would make rather nice embroidery designs. Having considered and discarded several as not being quite what I wanted, I picked one and sketched it, adding details to the wing and tail feathers and the feet and changing the twig it sat on. Because of where the shop is located, in a busy shopping centre but right by a public garden, I was going to call it “City Song”. I was making notes on possible stitches and sketching in stitch directions when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and thought, “Hold on – most of my designs become chart packs or kits or workshops. Someone has the copyright to the design of this bag; I need to contact the shop to ask if I can use it!”

Now often when you approach a person or company about using a logo or other publicity image to turn it into an embroidery they’ll be happy for you to do so (assuming we’re not talking Disney or top fashion brands or the like). Sometimes they’ll put some conditions on it (Paco Ciao, the little pop-up café in Leiden I wrote about last month, gave me permission to use their logo as long as the embroidery “didn’t look identical”) but generally they’ll say go ahead and have fun, especially if (like the illustrations on the carrier bag) it is not an image that is immediately identifiable as theirs, or from which they are directly making money themselves.

Unfortunately my original message to the company was sent via their online contact form, and like so many companies they failed to include that message in any of their subsequent replies (I hate it when they do that), and as I forgot to copy and paste the message into a document somewhere for my own files I can’t be sure of the exact wording of my request. But their reply was that they would allow me the use of the bird for one workshop only, as long as neither I nor the students put it to commercial use.

As workshops are generally taught to make money for the teacher (however enjoyable the teaching itself is, doing it for the love of it doesn’t pay the rent) I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by “no commercial use”. Also, as I pointed out in my reply, what with charting the design, stitching one or more models (and the cost of the materials), writing the instructions and drawing the stitch diagrams, it would not be economically viable for me to then use it for one workshop only. Would they consider licensing the particular bird I had in mind so I could turn it into a chart pack or teach it more than once? No they would not. The single workshop use was already a concession they didn’t normally make. End of story.

In a final reply I wrote that it was disappointing as I felt it would have made a good embroidery design, but that in view of their decision I would not use the bird. I may feel it’s a rotten decision; I may even wonder why on earth they would mind my using this bird as a) it’s not their logo or part of their logo, b) it’s one small element within a large, busy design, c) though undeniably charming (which is why it caught my eye in the first place) at no point did it strike me as a groundbreaking piece of graphic design, and d) I’d offered to negotiate a licence – but what it comes down to is this: their copyright, their decision.

So that is that. I can stitch the bird for my own enjoyment – you can always do that – but nothing more. Part of me wished I hadn’t thought of contacting them; how would they ever find out I had used their bird, and would they even recognise it in stitch if they did see it? But either you play by the copyright rules or you don’t; it’s no good saying you will respect copyright until it’s inconvenient to do so.

And yet… it may not be quite the end of the road for this project, or at least some form of it. A bird on a flowering twig is a general enough concept for it to be uncopyrightable in its own right – it can be interpreted in far too many ways. I had already changed the twig on which it sat quite a bit (below on the left is the original shape, on the right what I turned it into) so I may play around with the bird to see if I can keep the idea but turn it into a bird of my own. I will sing my own City Song smiley.

The twig with its flower and leaves The redesigned twig with larger flower and single leaf

Owlish inspiration

A church friend of mine paints owl pebbles. Pebble owls. Well, whatever you call them, they’re adorable, whether on their own or attached to bits of tree.

Some of Trina's owls

She showed me one which was her favourite, painted in brown and turquoise with an orange beak. Does that remind you of anything…?

Yes, me too smiley. Using my RSN project wools, surely I could do a quick little embroidery based on this owl to surprise her?

When I got home I did a quick sketch from memory, then managed to get her to send me a few pictures (the ones above) without letting on what I wanted them for (I can be devious when I have to!) so I could do a more accurate line drawing.

A line drawing based on my sketch and her photos

Now Trina’s owls, being pebbles, do not have toes. But the memory of Yin’s lovely crewel owl which I saw at the RSN class a week ago proved irresistible – bullion toes he had to have.

Yin's owl's toes Trina's owl gets some toes, too

Unfortunately he looked a bit silly with toes that don’t hold on to anything. So a branch was called for.

...and a branch to sit on

Then I realised that although the little pebble owl was painted in brown, turquoise and orange, he wasn’t painted in brown, turquoise and orange only. There is white and yellow around the eyes, and in some of the owls there is some yellow in the chest feathers as well. My stash of Appletons isn’t very large, but a rummage in the depths of the storage tin unearthed white, off-white, a couple of yellows and a dark chestnutty orange from the same range.

Extra Appletons colours

My quick little project was beginning to take rather longer than I thought it would! I’m afraid I do have a tendency to overthink and complicate things. Still, I got everything together and could start plying my needle.

Ready to begin

There were a few unpickings and restitchings, one bit where I couldn’t quite face unpicking and restitching (the eyes – I left gaps for the pupils, and should just have worked solid yellow satin stitch with the pupils worked over the top), an element where I chose to leave something out which I’d originally planned (short lines of whipping or detached buttonhole accents on the wings), a part that took some research (how many toes do owls have? Yin’s had two showing per foot but I’d drawn three without thinking about it), some stitches and parts which have room for improvement (the buttonhole scallops; the rather differently shaped yellow ovals of the eyes) and one bit that I am particularly pleased with: the circles of feathers around his eyes, and especially the ridge that is formed between his eyes by the abutting buttonhole stitches, rather like a barn owl’s.

The finished owl

This owl will, I’m sure, acquire several friends over time. I want to try some in different colours, using different threads (a smaller one in Madeira Lana perhaps?), and also different stitches here and there; the wings in encroaching satin stitch with dark markings in coral or palestrina stitch, for example. And with a bit of luck they’ll be quicker, most of the decisions and choices having been made. But even though this little owl took a lot longer than I expected, it’s been a really good exercise. What with creating a colour plan (albeit tiny), deciding on stitches, working out the best order in which to stitch the various elements and working with crewel wool, it’s great practice for the Big One – as well as making a smile-inducing card!

Stitch plans, colour plans, notes... A smile-inducing owl card

Working with a late frame

No, that’s not a typo – it’ll become clear in a bit smiley.

Yesterday was my unexpectedly soon first day of the RSN Certificate’s Jacobean module. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but went armed with colour schemes, scribbles, sketches and a head full of ideas, as well as a pencil case with the recommended tape measure, ruler, pencil and notebook plus a thin paintbrush added on my own initiative and a mellor and tweezers (I was using the goldwork pencil case which they live in and thought they might come in handy; as it happens, it would have been better if I’d left in the screwdriver I use to tighten hoops – I’d taken it out as it’s quite heavy and I wasn’t expecting to be using a hoop. I was mistaken.)

There were six of us in total, three in the final stages of the Jacobean module, one in the middle of silk shading, one coming towards the end of her stumpwork, and me. Tutor for the day was Angela Bishop. As everyone was setting up I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the work in progress. I was particularly taken with Yin’s nearly completed crewel piece, especially her owl, which used bullion knots for the toes gripping the branch on which he sat – a clever idea which she was happy for me to file away for future reference.

Yin's owl's toes

As Angela prepared to get me started we hit a snag. The 18″ slate frame which I’d ordered had not arrived. Time for Plan B, which involved getting on with the design process instead. We talked through the colour schemes I was considering and the elements I wanted to include, and she answered a few questions I’d noted down about the twill fabric and some stitches; then I was provided with several books about crewelwork, a photo album of previous Certificate projects, tracing paper and a box with samples of the complete range of Appleton’s crewel wool. Angela told me to collect the various elements of my design together, trace and/or draw them and then play with size and placement. I set about doing this, but couldn’t resist having a go at the wool first. There was only one suitable turquoise series (helpfully called Turquoise), but several possible browns and pinks.

Finding Appleton's colours to match my DMC choices

Eventually I settled for Turquoise, a muted brown series called Chocolate, and accent colours from the Coral series. Then some serious drawing began, and also a conversation about copyright. As you know I try to be extremely careful about copyright, and so I was a little surprised when, having shown Angela a tulip motif from a design in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery, I was told I needn’t actually change or adapt it, I could use the flower as it stood; in the final embroidery it would look different from the original because I’d be using different colours and stitches, and – the most important point – it would be used in a personal piece, stitched for educational purposes. I’m so used to looking at designs from the point of view of turning them into chart packs or workshops (i.e. using them commercially) that I hadn’t considered the different situation I am in as a Certificate student! So I traced the tulip to incorporate into the design, although one of my aims before my second class is to do an alternative version with an adapted “carpet flower” (from a carpet used in the church where we worship) just to see which I like best.

Sketch with wool colours

I put all the elements together, plus a few small additions, and then Angela came to have a look and commented on elements that were perhaps too small, or superfluous, or would be better placed slightly higher or lower. After taking in her comments and advice and making some alterations, it was time to produce a clean line drawing, done in drawing pen on tracing paper and reducing the detail in some of the elements to those lines that need to be transferred. This (apart from the possible change in flower) is the design I’ll be starting with – though not necessarily, as Angela warned me, what I will end up with!

The line drawing of my Jacobean design

What else did I do? Actually, it’s remarkable how long all this took, so there wasn’t a lot of time for other things. But we did look at a small crewel piece I started some time ago (the rabbit with carnations) so I could ask Angela’s opinion about some of the stitches; I was surprised to hear that not pre-outlining my fishbone leaf in split stitch was actually correct, and gratified that she thought most of the outline was very good (apart from one bumpy bit). We agreed that the shading was a bit too blocky and discussed ways of making the colour transitions gentler, as well as talking about the stitch direction in the leaf – she suggested using small “extra” stitches to smooth out the curve where necessary. I also learnt more about where to use a split stitch outline on long & short stitch and buttonhole shading, and equally importantly, where not to.

Crewel rabbit with carnations A fishbone leaf

We also went through the content of the bag that is part of the introductory kit – all the paperwork about the course, including the design brief and instructions on setting up the slate frame and mounting the finished work, and materials and tools needed for transferring and eventually mounting the design and preparing the frame (the bracing needle, that chunky curved piece of metal stuck in a cork, is stuck in a cork for a reason, as my husband found out when he took it out before I could say “be careful with that, it’s very sharp!” – it is used for taking the thick string with which the fabric is tensed through the webbing; I have as yet no idea what the extremely large piece of plastic is for, as I forgot to ask).

An intriguing purple bag Paperwork, some boring but important, some very interesting Materials for transferring the design, setting up the slate frame and mounting the work

My homework for next time (22nd May) is to produce two colour plans, a tonal plan (black & white, showing light and dark) and a stitch plan, and to try out trellis stitch and laid work on a doodle cloth. I’m also going to play with that large flower, possibly producing and alternative design (with its own colour plan etc.) and make changes to the rock the snail is sitting on (I’ll explain why in a future post). Angela assured me that I’m still on track – I’m just more or less reversing the first two classes, getting the design work done before learning how to set up the slate frame. So I’ve had fun playing with colours and ideas, and I’ve got a little longer to get used to the idea of using something that large to hold my fabric; I’m happy with that smiley.

A willowy tale

Have you ever taken a close look at cotton shopping bags? I must say I haven’t much – there’s a Christmas At Kew Gardens one my mother-in-law gave me which is very pretty, and I do like the ones I make myself by attaching bits of Hardanger to plain bags smiley, but otherwise they don’t generally attract my attention.

Christmas At Kew shopping bag Mabel's Stitching Bug shopping bag

Except once. It was last December on a train in The Netherlands, where I was visiting family. I’d been to see a friend in The Hague and was on my way back to my aunt, when I noticed a young woman sitting across the gangway with a cotton shopping bag hanging from her shoulder and lying, slightly crumpled, in her lap. There was a logo on it of a roughly drawn willow tree above a sun, all surrounded by an irregular rounded rectangle and looking a bit like an Egyptian cartouche.

I really liked the shape of the tree, which was rather bent; as it was a line drawing without a lot of detail I thought I’d be able to capture it relatively easily, so I made some surreptitious sketches in a small notebook. Then, as she got up to get off the train, I noticed a name on the bag: Paco Ciao. I didn’t have a computer with me and I haven’t got a smart phone, so I had to wait until I was back in England to look up that name. It turned out to be a pop-up café in Leiden.

It wasn’t difficult to find their website; I wrote to them to ask permission, and unlike another shop I contacted recently (watch this space), the person replying on behalf of the company that had designed the café’s logo was extremely relaxed about the whole thing – slightly amused, even. He said that as long as the design was not identical to the logo, it was fine for me to do whatever I wanted with it. This made me think he was not an embroiderer or particularly familiar with embroidery, because unless I did the whole thing in black outlines it would automatically look quite different from their drawing!

Pretty much from the start I knew I wanted to do the tree only, not the border and the sun; and that I would like the water to be fairly prominent. I decided on not-too-bright colours, three shades each of blue, green and brown.

The start of Ciao Willow - choosing colours

Then came choosing stitches. Stem stitch for the trunk and long and short shading for the grass were quickly decided on. The hanging branches I wanted to do in double seed stitch, so I started (at the bottom left) with a single thread, and two little stitches for each leaf. But to get the effect I wanted, I found I was working the two halves of the double seed stitch in the same holes, so that I really might as well use two strands and get on a whole lot quicker!

Working out how to stitch the hanging branches

But in that case, hmm, I could use blending so instead of three shades of green I had five to play with. I did the first branch in light/light-medium/medium and then realised that if I had thought it out beforehand I would have stitched the lower branches darker and the upper branches lighter. But actually it worked out well to have the darker branch in the middle! Just as well, as I wasn’t going to unpick a whole branch worth of tiny straight stitches…

Colour distribution within the hanging branches

I was particularly pleased with how the water turned out. I felt a little bit nervous about using chain stitch because I thought it might be too chunky compared to the rest, but it worked. The three shades worked in randomly wavy lines gave a nice impression of flowing water.

Water flows at the foot of the tree

So the project was finished; but I wasn’t completely happy with the bottom right-hand branch – it had too much light brown in it. So a day or two later I put the fabric back in the hoop, added a few little medium brown lines, and liked the result much better!

The original branch A few extra stitches

As you know I am not much of a finisher, so the completed embroidery was just going to be stored in my folder of stitched models. But it seemed a shame not to have this little tree on show, so I decided to mount it in a woodgrain flexi-hoop with a card backing, as I had done with Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird. First up: choose a hoop size. 5″ to give the tree a bit of breathing space, or 4″ for a cosier, more bijoux finish? I decided on the latter.

Materials for finishing the tree

I didn’t take pictures of the back of this particular finish, but the idea is that rather than gathering the surplus fabric and backing it with felt, painstakingly attached with tiny stitches (like the one below left), you tuck in the trimmed fabric and hold it in place with a disc of stiff card (middle and right).

A felt-backed finish A card-backed finish - materials A card-backed finish

And that is how Ciao Willow was finished, so it can now sit in my craft room for me to look at and enjoy!

Ciao Willow finished in its hoop

Welsh inspiration

Almost every year my husband and I travel to Wales for a weekend around the end of March, to participate in the rally organised by the Light Car & Edwardian Section of the Vintage Sports-Car Club (usually sensibly abbreviated to LC&ES). We all meet up on the Friday, do a navigation rally on the Saturday, and there is a trial (a type of competition) on the Sunday at which we generally marshal. It’s not like some events where people dress up in period clothing, but a few years ago I couldn’t resist smiley.

The Welsh rally in 2016

That’s our 1925 Austin 7 Chummy. Unfortunately it is in need of a lot of TLC at the moment, so our transport this year was a bit grander – here she is with Eldest and his bride last year (Lily the Lagonda does make a splendid wedding vehicle). My mother used to say the car made her feel like royalty, so that it felt almost compulsory to wave graciously as you pass people.

Our transport for this year (minus bride and groom)

We’re usually dressed up in waterproofs and/or thermals (it’s not exactly warm in an open car in Wales in March) so I’m afraid we don’t really live up to Lily’s glamour, but that doesn’t dampen our enjoyment! The rain sometimes does… this year, however, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather.

With Lily the Lagonda at Usk reservoir

You may wonder what any of this has to do with stitching. Well, the Welsh rally splendidly demonstrates how all sorts of things can inspire an embroidery design. Some years ago, for example, we passed several banks of blackthorn on our way there. They had only just come out, their blossom pristine and white, like a frothy wave or yards and yards of crumpled up lace. I sketched a few ideas, and the result was Blackthorn.

Blackthorn

The rally is based in Llandrindod Wells, and every year on the Sunday morning we go to early morning Communion at the local church before rejoining the vintage car gang to help at the trial. The vicar and several members of the congregation know us by now, and we joke that we’re regulars at Holy Trinity – we attend regularly once a year.

As is usual, we are always handed a service sheet, and last year I noticed for the first time a line drawing of a Celtic cross on the front. The shape appealed to me, and I took the sheet with me. Back home that evening I made some sketches and scribbled a few notes, and over the months various ideas were added. Possibly partly because of the rather rough lines of the drawing I got the impression it was based on a stone cross, but from the start I envisaged it with colour in it, and possibly goldwork. It wasn’t until a week or so ago that I took my drawing and tentatively put some facets into some of the shapes. I liked the effect, and a jewelled cross called “Llandrindod” was born! (This year the vicar explained to me that the cross is the logo of the Church in Wales in general, not of their parish in particular, but to me it will always be associated with Llandrindod Wells.)

The colour model for Llandrindod

Some of the colours I’d picked were similar to the ones in Soli Deo Gloria, so that was easy – I had the Soie d’Alger colours to hand! I didn’t really want to try and find the right shades for the emerald and the diamond, remembering the trouble I had just to get the right blue dye lot recently, so I had a rummage in my collection of Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk, and found some that would do very well. A few shades of Petite Treasure Braid will add a bit of sparkle.

Materials chosen and design transferred

And here is the project in progress! The centre of the gems will be done in padded satin stitch, and in the picture below the outlining and about half of the padding has been done but the top layers are as yet missing. That is because I wanted to take the cross to Llandrindod to show to the vicar, and I wanted it to have some more colour than just the light gold of the four quarter circles (which would normally be the first bits to be stitched). It also made for a good travel project that way – the split stitch outlines were done at home before we left, so I could fill in the padding without the need for magnification or special lighting, as it doesn’t have to be particularly precise (well, not as precise as the top stitching, anyway).

Llandrindod in progress

Often when I take a travel project (and I’m sure many of you will recognise this) I come home with it looking exactly as it did when we left, but this time I actually had time for some embroidery – while acting as Driving Standards Observers on the Saturday rally there were several lulls, during which I could put in a few quick padding stitches. And how is this for a stitching spot smiley?

An unusual stitching spot

Blue silks dispel the silk blues – now for purples. And greens.

The post was exciting this week, with several blue silks dropping through the letterbox. These are the “why not as they are on offer and I’m bound to use them” Caron silks – aren’t they beautiful?

Soie Cristale blues

Colourwise, they would definitely be an option; but if at all possible my preference was still to do the whole project in Soie d’Alger, even though there’s nothing in priniciple against mixing silks. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I opened the envelope from West End Embroidery, with a single skein of Soie d’Alger 4913.

A single skein only, but the sheer relief when it turned out to fit in exactly with the rest of the series, without even a tingle of purple, made me positively giddy!

The new Soie d'Alger fits in!

So now I have my series of three blue silks. In fact, I have a series of four. And that is, of course, fatal, because it means choice. Do I use the three darkest and discard the lightest, or vice versa? How does this fit in with the two other colour runs in the project? Well, here are the four blues together with the three reds and purples which are my current selection. Do you see the problem?

The four blues, with three reds and purples

That’s right, when matching the colours by lightness/darkness the gaps don’t line up. My husband’s view was that it needed a lighter red. Well, I just happened to have one!

The missing purple

Much better, true. But what I really want now is a fourth purple to fill the gap, and use the three lighter shades of each colour. The trouble is that those three purples are the entire series of that particular colour. And by now I know from experience that trying to choose a similar series containing at least four shades from the digital Au Ver à Soie shade card is a mispurchase waiting to happen.

And then there are the greens. Not the ones in Soli Deo Gloria, they’re sorted. But I’m thinking of re-using the blues, reds and purples in a Celtic cross together with a series of greens. I’m going to try something facetted rather than the shaded look in the trial colour version below, but even so I’d need at least three and preferably four shades of a bright, warm green.

Colour idea for the Llandrindod cross

So back to Yvonne at West End Embroidery, who must be getting fed up with me by now but who is far too polite to show it smiley. I’ll keep you informed!

Stitching setbacks – a spot and a SAL

In which one of Hengest’s pink spots is in The Wrong Place, and a SAL hits a snag.

They say we show our character by how we respond to adversity. Well, I didn’t throw either a tantrum or my embroidery, so I suppose I’m doing reasonably well. But I can’t say I enjoyed it when two of my pet projects suffered a setback this week.

At least one of them is going to be relatively simple to put right. Time-consuming and annoying, but simple. It involves unpicking the pink spot at Hengest’s bottom left, getting the skein of Tudor Rose 2 out again, and applying it two spots to the right.

Hengest's spot in in The Wrong Place

And I was so proud of that spot, too! The white surrounding it was a little irregular (a small portion of the outline was straight rather than curved) so I set out to correct that with the coloured spiral filling it in, and I was pleased to see that it worked quite well. Then, as I fastened off, put on my regular glasses, and prepared to contemplate my work with a happy and satisfied sigh, I noticed it was straight underneath the other pink spot. And it shouldn’t have been. Why I didn’t see this throughout the time it took me to stitch the second spot I will never know. I have said before that sometimes we are too close to our own work (literally) and need to step back to see the project as a whole, and I suppose that’s what was needed here. Oh well. Today I will take my nice sharp scissors to Hengest once again, and stitch the correct spot.

The other problem may take a bit longer to solve. It involves the mechanics of a mystery Stitch-A-Long, thwarted (for the time being) by the mechanics of using a backing fabric.

This was not the way I had hoped to announce this SAL. It will be my first since 2016, and it will be my first non-Hardanger one, and it will be my first non-year-long one, and all of that I felt deserved a bit of a fanfare when I was ready to spring it on the world, and the needleworking part of the world in particular.

Of course I could have waited for this issue to be solved (if it ever is) and then done the fanfare unveiling and not mention the rocky road that lead to it. But then I thought some of you might be interested in the process of developing a SAL, and all – or at least some of – the things that are involved.

So here is the snag I ran into. The SAL is going to be a Mystery SAL, which means you don’t know at the start what the finished article will look like. In a sense this was always somewhat compromised in my Hardanger SALs, in that they consisted of 12 individual little projects, so that each month you would see exactly what that small individual project would look like when finished – the remaining mystery being what the following months would be like and how they fitted in with the general theme. This one, being one big freestyle embroidery picture built up in the course of 10 instalments, is much more of a traditional Mystery.

And it is the combination of the phrases “one big picture” and “freestyle embroidery” that caused the problem. Freestyle designs are generally worked with the pattern transferred to the fabric; this can be done in more or less detail, but there is always some transferring to be done. And in a home environment that generally means drawing the pattern onto the fabric by means of a lightbox or a well-lit window. Then you add a backing fabric and hoop it up and start stitching.

So far so good. But for the Big Picture to remain a mystery, the various parts will have to be added after stitching has already commenced. My idea was that whenever a new instalment came out, people would take their project out of the hoop, add the new element, re-hoop and start stitching the new bit. What I hadn’t thought about was that what comes out of the hoop is not just the original fabric, but the fabric-and-backing-fabric sandwich. And they will be firmly attached to each other by means of the stitching done so far.

An embroidered project with backing fabric The backing fabric is attached by the embroidery The embroidery goes through the backing fabric

So how do you transfer the new bits? Transferring through one layer of fabric can be tricky enough – transferring through a double layer of fabric is challenging to say the least, and I feared it might prove to be downright impossible. Because of the way the design is laid out, you could just about cut out new bits of the design and carefully slip them between the layers where they are not attached, but that’s not ideal, especially when using a window rather than a lightbox.

My husband, who is an engineer and therefore wants to (and often does) solve things, suggested using the prick & pounce method. (Slight digression to include a “proud wife” moment – how many husbands of stitchers would suggest this, or even know what it is smiley?) But not everyone feels comfortable with this method of transferring, and moreover it needs additional equipment, which I’m trying to keep to a minimum.

But it did make me think of a possible variation on that method. What if you traced the new bit of the design onto tracing paper, then pricked holes in it as for prick & pounce, only a spaced a little wider apart, place it on the fabric and then go through each hole with a pencil to make a dot? Then after removing the tracing paper you could connect the dots for a complete transfer. Again, the nature of the design makes this feasible as there aren’t many very detailed parts to transfer. But would it work? Time to try Prick & Pencil!

On the matter of additional equipment, in the pictures I’m using a cheap children’s pricking mat and pen, but if that is difficult to get hold of or simply an expense you’re not willing to incur, then a folded-up towel and a pin with a reasonably large head will do just as well. The pencil I’m using is a propelling one so it stays sharp, and it’s fairly soft so it makes a good mark. As you can see on the right-hand petal I spaced the holes further apart to see if that would be enough of a guide for drawing the complete design.

Equipment used to try the prick and pencil method Pricking the transferred design The pricked design
Using a pencil to draw dots through the holes The design shown in dots Connecting the dots The finished transfer

And just because I happened to have them handy, I also tried the pricked transfer with some drawing pens, green and black; these are Sakura Micron pens (I transferred only the flower centre in black, not the petals).

Using a Sakura Micron pen A green and a black transfer

So does it work? On the whole, yes. I did find I needed the tracing there to refer to when connecting the dots, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It also takes a bit of experimenting with how close together you want the holes to be, and the light green pen wasn’t as easy to see as the black or the pencil (although it was clearer than it looks in the photograph) so you have to choose your writing implement wisely. But it’s definitely a viable alternative to transferring on a lightbox.

Is it a good enough alternative to SOS (Save Our SAL), though? I’m not sure yet. But it’s a glimmer of hope! And as I was playing with my lightbox, I found another – although transferring through two layers of fabric isn’t ideal, it’s not impossible as long as there isn’t a great amount of detail. The first picture shows a design seen through light blue cotton with no light behind it; the second shows it on the lightbox, and the third on the lightbox with backing fabric. Although the dots in the design aren’t easy to see, the simpler outlines are visible even in the third picture.

Design behind cotton fabric, no light Design behind cotton fabric, with light Design behind cotton fabric and backing, with light

Even when using cotton duck, a heavier fabric, the design lines show up both without and with backing fabric, though again details are lost. Unexpectedly, the most difficult fabric was a natural-coloured Normandie, a cotton/linen mix which is not particularly heavy. The picture shows it with backing fabric, and whether it is the texture or the not-quite-plain colour it would definitely be more of a challenge to transfer new parts to it.

Design behind cotton duck, with light Design behind cotton duck and backing, with light Design behind Normandie fabric and backing, with light

Still, there are possibilities, so for now the SAL is alive! But I’ll keep trying to find better and easier ways to deal with transferring parts 2 to 10 before the real fanfare announcement.

The effect of “more” on a design

We’ve probably all had moments when we were presented with too wide a choice and just ended up saying “I don’t know” and not picking anything. Too much choice can be paralysing. And even if you are usually an extremely adventurous stitcher, there may be times when you don’t want to hear “you can do this design in 5 different colourways, would you like the blue, red, purple, green or neutral, and with or without speciality stitches?” – you just want to pick up a kit or chart that tells you exactly what to do in exactly what spot with exactly what thread in exactly what colour.

On the other hand, it is equally true to say that choice is liberating! Now that I have more shades or Pearsall’s crewel wool to choose from, I can decide whether I want Hengest’s spots to be muted pastels (which is all I had until my most recent purchase) or bright pastels, if the latter isn’t a contradiction in terms. And I’ve chosen the bright pastels (my husband says they remind him of Edinburgh rock). They’re so cheerful that I find myself smiling just looking at them, and I’m looking forward to seeing Hengest in all his unnaturalistic, brightly pastel-spotted glory.

New colours for Hengest's spots

By the way, I managed to fit in irises! (And incidentally also found that surrounding the eyes with a single line of white before working the vertical lines of the face sets them off beautifully while also reducing the dark grey outlines to something a little more subtle.)

Hengest has blue eyes

As I was using that light blue anyway, I treated myself to a few spots smiley. Just the one colour, the rest of the sweet shop will have to wait until I’ve finished his face!

A first few spots

The eyes have it

Last week, Hengest gained a face. And what a face it was. Let’s just say that someone compared him to Claudia Winkleman.

Is it Hengest, or is it Claudia?

When stitching Ethelnute at the medieval embroidery retreat I found that the dark lines we put in for the nose and eyes looked much less prominent once the other stitching had been done around it (the later stitching part-covered it, pushing up against it) so that’s what I expected would happen here as well. But even so, the eyes were very black. Very very black. And I remembered that Ethelnute’s facial features had actually been done in a dark brown. And that, in the past, I had read or heard that pure black is often a no-no.

So I surveyed my collection of crewel wools and pulled out the darkest grey and the darkest brown I could find; because of all the other greys in Hengest, I picked the brown from the more muted, cooler range, rather than one of the warm browns.

Hengest with black, grey and brown for the eyes

Lots of people have come up with comments and suggestions about how to make this change, and mulling them over for a bit I decided to cut out the black, then stitch the outline only in a quick running stitch in brown for one eye and grey for the other. Some people suggested stitching the eyes last, when I have a better overview of what Hengest’s colours look like together, but as I said above, I think the eyes (and the nostrils) will actually blend in better if the other stitching is done around them.

Did you notice I said “cut out the black”? Having read what I wrote about unpicking split stitch when Hengest acquired his unplanned blue spot, a fellow-stitcher asked why I didn’t just cut the stitching out. Well, there I was taking out part of a thread, and I needed to retain enough of the unpicked bit to be able to fasten off again, so the other part of the thread, which was clean and OK to stay put, wouldn’t get undone. The eyes and nostrils, on the other hand, are isolated elements, so here I was definitely happy to take the short cut and use my nice small pointy scissors. And tweezers as well, because black leaves quite a residue!

Unpicking Hengest's eyes Black residue

Then it was a matter of trying with the two dark-not-blacks, in simple running stitch so it’ll be easy to take out before the official restitch.

A brown eye and a grey one

So now I’ve got a brown and a grey eye. And I don’t know which one I like best. I still think the grey would fit in better with the rest of the palette, but in isolation I rather like the look of the brown. Perhaps I could give him grey eyes and brown nostrils! That way I can use the brown, but not in such a prominent position. But no, that’s just chickening out from taking a decision. So my decisive decision is that I’ll mull it over for a bit, perhaps stitch some other wool project, or something different altogether, and then have another look at it and make a real firm decisive decision.

By the way, someone on an embroidery FB group posted a close-up picture of the original Steeple Aston Cope horse, and oh my goodness me, it’s got irises! I hadn’t noticed that in the pictures I used, which were all rather smaller. However, I don’t think I’ll manage to get in an iris in Hengest’s eyes, as he is much more diminutive than his cope cousin. Not in the wool version anyway – it should be possible in the silk though… *scuttles off to find the coloured pattern and add a line of blue*

The original eyes have an iris!

PS concerning my earlier remarks about not posting embroidery photographs which are not your own even if the embroidery itself is in the public domain – they still hold, but I decided that showing the eyes only would probably be all right. If you know otherwise, please let me know so I can rectify it.