Cats and elephants and what to do with them

Sometimes, usually much to my own surprise, I do manage to finish my finished projects. That is to say, rather than stuffing them into my “stitched models” folder I turn them into something useful or decorative (or, if I’m feeling particularly inspired, both). Over the past few weeks my small elephants (variations on the bigger Remember the Day elephant) were given the useful-and-hopefully-decorative treatment and turned into a gift tag (or place card, or favour tag) and a felt bookmark. The bookmark is on the large side, which is why I’m showing it off marking a large book smiley.

Bookend elephants made into a bookmark, and an elephant tag The elephant bookmark in action

The freestyle Elegant Cats couldn’t possibly be allowed to languish in a plastic folder; for one thing, Lexi wouldn’t allow it! Fortunately I bought a selection of satin-covered boxes from the wonderful Viking Loom a while back, and even as I was stitching the cats I had a vague idea in my mind that there was a rectangular box of that sort of size in my box of boxes – and that it might just be dark green. There was, and it was, and it was just the right size, and Lexi was deeply impressed with the result, as you can see…

Elegant Cats mounted in a jewellery box Elegant Cats with an elegant cat

PS When posting some of these pictures elsewhere people asked me about the artist whose book the elephants are marking. He is a Dutch artist called Rien Poortvliet who started out as mostly a wildlife painter, but who wrote and illustrated many books on a variety of subjects, including the history of his family inspired by a chest belonging to one of his ancestors, a life of Jesus, books about dogs and horses, a book about “whatever happened to come into his mind”, books about gnomes, and this one about Noah’s ark. I admire his art as much as I admire his simple but profound faith.

An elephantine fillip

As all stitchers know – as anybody with a hobby or favourite pastime knows – life can get rather in the way sometimes. Not necessarily in very dramatic or tragic ways (although that, too, happens) but just by the demands of work, other obligations, and the odd spell of under-the-weather-ness. It is this that explains why throughout September no Fancies took Flight and it is also the reason why very little stitching got done in the Figworthy household during that time; I simply did not have the inclination, apart from some experimental leaves for the Tree of Life (more about which hopefully later this month).

Sometimes the projects that we have lined up simply fail to inspire, however enthusiastic we may have been about them at the outset. Although I enjoy stitching the various leaves once I get into them, often I simply don’t feel like picking them up and getting started on them; and even when I do I can get stuck half-way through – quite an achievement when the whole project is one small leaf! Fortunately I had other things to occupy me, such as putting together 48 workshop kits (more about that later as well…), but it feels odd not to have something stitchy on the go that I want to get on with.

And then, as I was thinking about an email I need to write concerning some designs, I was reminded of this elephant:

A Wedding Elephant

Some time ago, well over a year in fact, I was asked whether I would consider doing a smaller version of the elephant (known as The Wedding Elephant as well as by its official title “Remember the Day”) which would work on favour cards or place cards. At the time I just stored that idea away in the back of my mind, as it would require a fair bit of fiddling with the design – how small does an elephant need to get if it is to fit onto a favour card? Surely too small to accommodate both the lattice work and the flowers? And an empty elephant would look a bit minimalist, besides not tying in with the original elephant (whether the person who asked me was thinking of the original elephant as a wedding invitation I don’t know, but she definitely meant the small one to complement the full-sized one).

But as the elephant was brought to my mind again by that email (which, incidentally, is still unwritten…), I could suddenly envisage what the mini elephant might look like. Could there be a pair of elephants, facing each other, one with the lattice and one with the flowers? Or if you couldn’t fit two of them on one favour card, perhaps half the cards could have the lattice one facing one way, and the other half the floral one facing the other way. Diversity in symmetry, or something like that.

So I got to work drawing and redrawing and mirroring and resizing, and getting my boxes of hand-dyed stranded cottons and silks out, and now I can’t wait for my stitching time after dinner to get to work on a baby elephant or two. Hurray for a stimulating pachyderm!

Mini variations on an elephant

More workshops

When I had put together the two Church Building Fund workshops for last May and June, stitching the Floral Gems wreath, I decided that this was going to be the last for a while. Over the past three years I’ve taught five sets of workshops covering Hardanger, shisha, freestyle, tactile (the raised wreath) and embellished embroidery, and I felt I was running out of techniques. There is goldwork, of course, which would no doubt be very popular, but the cost of the materials makes it unsuitable for a charity workshop. So I mentioned this to the ladies attending, and was met with a wave of disappointment. And when I showed the appliqué Bauble to the participants at the second workshop as a possible project for some unspecified time in the future, they all agreed that a pre-Christmas workshop was called for. This year.

The appliqué bauble in a card

Incidentally, this is not the card I would choose for the workshop – it’s all a bit too circular – but it’s what I happened to have in my card stash. If the workshop does materialise (and it seems likely that it will, as somehow I seem to have mysteriously acquired some new fabrics that are just right for this project) I’ll probably go for a card with a square aperture of the same width. This would also accommodate… but wait, I am getting ahead of myself!

Considering this new workshop, I naturally thought of ways in which to use it again after the initial Building Fund run, and the obvious candidate for that is the Knitting & Stitching Show. Although four workshops is as much as I want to teach at any one show, I like to offer the organisers as wide a range as possible from which to pick what they feel will best fit into their programme. Unfortunately, as I found when I offered the chunky Christmas Wreath, the workshop organiser is not fond of Christmas projects in October. Personally I think October is just about the right time to start stitching for Christmas, but heigh-ho, if that’s the situation then offering another Christmas project is not going to be enthusiastically welcomed.

But I still thought the technique would make a great K&S workshop, and I particularly liked the band of gems and sequins edged with couched metallic ribbon. Could I incorporate this into a non-festive-seasonal design? Something that would appeal to a mostly British audience? Of course – a mug of tea!

Sketch for an appliqué mug

The steam rising from the mug (which could also contain coffee, of course, or hot chocolate – the beverage isn’t visible so whatever appeals to the stitcher!) could be worked in twisted couched organza ribbon extending beyond the aperture, or for a simpler project simply be left out. There was just one slight drawback. The mug as I drew it to incorporate a central band the same size as the bauble came out rather big; it would need a larger card with a special envelope which would make the kits more expensive. It’s easy enough to make the design smaller, but would it still be able to accommodate the gem/sequin band?

Two sizes of mug with gems

Well, it looks just about OK on paper. I will just have to try them both out on fabric to see whether it works in practice. And talking of fabric… (watch this space).

Applying appliqué lessons

You may remember that my first appliqué bauble suffered from a few flaws, most notably visible attaching stitches. A second bauble was called for, with two changes: the thread used to attach the patterned fabric would match that fabric, not the calico it was being attached to; and the embroidery stitch covering the edges (in this case heavy chain stitch) would be worked in perle #5, not perle #8. Together these measures should make the stitches pretty much invisible. So I set to work.

The patterned fabric attached with coordinating thread

So far so good; the thread I’m using is variegated so it doesn’t match the fabric everywhere, but as the fabric is patterned it doesn’t matter too much. Yes, definitely pleased with that.

The next bit is unchanged from the first bauble, because I quite liked it as it was – two lines of Kreinik 1/8″ silver ribbon couched with the same variegated stranded cotton I used to attach the coloured fabric.

The central band is bordered by silver ribbon

Now for the second change, working the border stitch in perle #5. Well, the stitched circle itself looked fine (it is my firm belief that very few things stitched in Anchor’s Blue Hawaii shade could ever look bad) but I noticed something that had occurred in the previous bauble as well: the appliquéd fabric seemed to pucker as I covered the edges.

I held it up to the light at different angles; I pulled the calico tighter in the hoop; I squinted at it. None of it was any good. There was no doubt about it, it puckered.

The fabric puckers after working the heavy chain stitch

So there we are. Using a matching thread to attach the coloured fabric and a thicker perle for the border did solve the problem I’d set out to solve, but the problem I hadn’t really thought much about was, if anything, worse. When I noticed it in the first bauble I rather thought it was just one of those inexplicable things that sometimes happen in embroidery and it would be fine in subsequent projects – after all, there had been no puckering in the appliqué Christmas tree. It now seems that it may be a direct consequence of the border stitch I chose. The Christmas tree was worked in raised chain stitch, most of which is on the surface; only the foundation stitches go through the fabrics, and there isn’t much strain on them, whereas the heavy chain stitch pulls quite strongly at the fabric.

The finished tree, embellished

So it seems there will have to be a third bauble, bordered in perle #5 raised chain stitch! One advantage of that stitch is that it takes corners better than heavy chain stitch; not crucial in the bauble design, which is perfectly circular (or as perfectly circular as I can make it), but I have other ideas…

Twin butterflies (continued)

A few months ago I wrote about a butterfly sketch which I intended to turn into two versions, Beginner and Intermediate, possibly to be used in workshops. My first stitched version showed up a few things that needed attention, and so I decided to stitch two models of each of the versions – one each at the original size I printed it at, using special threads (respectively silks and variegated perles), and one each at a slightly smaller size, using coton à broder #16 (slightly thicker than the more usual #25).

And here they are! The Beginner butterfly had its body stitch changed from the initial sketch, but as that was done before I stitched the first model they both use the interlocking buttonhole/blanket stitch. The stitch for the head was changed between models; the buttonhole stitches in the first model simply wouldn’t behave and make a nice, neat oval. I changed it to a “spoked” arrangement consisting of straight stitches only. The wings are whipped running stitch in both models, but in the second model the running stitches are shorter and closer together, to give a smoother line. I could have used whipped backstitch for an even smoother effect, but decided to keep that for the Intermediate butterfly.

The first version of the beginner's butterfly The second version of the beginner's butterfly

I really like the look of the interlocking buttonhole stitch, but I resisted the temptation to re-use it in the Intermediate butterfly and instead used what I had envisaged in my original sketch, buttonhole stitch closed into segments by straight stitches, each segment decorated with a French knot (there were one or two segments that had come out too small to accommodate a knot, so they were left empty; as they were fairly symmetrically spaced – at the ends of both models and in the middle of the second – it doesn’t look too odd). Incidentally, I did wonder whether to call it buttonhole stitch or blanket stitch as many books and other sources seem to use the terms interchangeably. My personal understanding is that it’s buttonhole stitch when it is very densely worked (as you would around a buttonhole), and blanket stitch when the teeth are more widely spaced as they are in these butterflies. But I must admit to being a bit slap-dash in deciding what I call it in any given design.

The two lines of Mountmellick stitch in the top wing were meant to have their pointy bits together at the body end, but in the first model I started from the wrong side. It looks fine that way too, it’s just not the effect I had in mind smiley. The second model shows the stitches worked the way I intended them to be. I like the look of the communal starting point, and am using something similar (but with the two lines back to back along their entire length) in some of the experimental leaves for the Tree of Life.

Finally a note about the antennae. They are couched pistil stitches, and I added the couching as an afterthought because I wanted a nice elegant curve to the antennae, and pistil stitches don’t curve. But I’m not sure I like the look of the couching. No, that’s not true. I’m sure I don’t like the look of the couching, it just looks clumsy. So the final version of the Intermediate butterfly will have straight antennae, unless I (or any of you) can think of a different way of introducing the desired elegant curve.

The first version of the intermediate butterfly The second version of the intermediate butterfly

And that’s it as far as the butterflies are concerned for the time being. I haven’t got any firm plans for Butterfly workshops at the moment, as there are four K&S ones plus probably some more Church Building Fund ones to prepare for first. The Beginner and Intermediate butterflies will hibernate in my project folder until the time is ripe for them to stretch their wings and become a stitch sampler for some Beginning and Intermediate stitchers!

Goldwork hide-and-seek and picking threads

I keep most of my goldwork materials in small glassine envelopes – little greaseproof paper bags which are translucent so you get an inkling of what’s inside (and how pretty it looks). The envelopes are in turn kept in a storage box, where they are stacked in shallow rows: a stack of different pearl purls, a stack of spangles, a stack of milliary wires and so on.

Goldwork threads in their glassine envelopes

It works very well, and I can lay my hands on whatever I want with ease. Generally. Recently, however, I could not find an envelope of gold Elizabethan twist, and one of silver smooth passing. I knew I had them (I keep a record of all my stash), I could visualise them, but although I went through every compartment of the storage box half a dozen times, they would not turn up.

This puzzled me especially because I remembered quite clearly that the Elizabethan twist was a relatively large roll of metallic thread which had only just fitted inside the envelope. Surely that couldn’t hide anywhere so successfully? The solution to the mystery turned out to be twofold: a) bad memory – my stock of Elizabethan twist wasn’t nearly as big as I though, it was the gold smooth passing (which was not missing) that rather stretched its envelope, and b) an annoying tendency for glassine envelopes to form close bonds with each other, especially when not very full. The gold twist and the silver passing were both where they were meant to be, just hiding inside the flaps of their neighbours…

How glassine envelopes hide

So now that I had all threads and wires present and correct I could finally do what I had actually got the storage box out for: choosing the golds for the silk version of the Tree of Life. These will be used for the bird sitting on one of the leaves, for a small detail in the top leaf, and for or nué (a type of couching) on the final leaf. After some consideration I’ve chosen smooth passing, pearl purl and wire check, as well as some gold kid which isn’t shown here. I’m looking forward to showing you my golden bird and leaves!

Gold threads for the Tree of Life

Doodles and the start of a leaf project

In trying to decide which stitches I want to use for the Tree of Life my doodle cloths are invaluable. Not only are doodles great for showing the texture of stitches in a way diagrams never can, they also give me an idea of how easy or difficult it will be to adapt a stitch to the leaf shape. Accordingly I worked some doodles for Ceylon stitch, and to be complete I did some detached buttonhole stitch filling as well, even though I had pretty much dismissed that one from the possibles list already. And then it turned out that actually I liked the latter better after all! Ceylon stitch has quite an attractive knitted look, but unless I choose to stitch it quite densely it may be difficult to get it to look even. The buttonhole filling looks nice even when worked (as it is here) with quite an open texture.

Ceylon doodle detached buttonhole filling doodle The two doodles compared

While checking my stitch book for another stitch, I came across Vandyke stitch. I thought it might work as an edging stitch for one of my appliqué projects, but as I tried it on my doodle cloth it struck me that, if stitched a bit more neatly than I had here, it looked quite leaf-like! The loops form a nice central vein, and if the arms are angled they will work as the minor veins. In order to make neatness easier while experimenting with this stitch, I tried it on my counted doodle cloth as well, in both perle #8 and perle #5; with the latter I tried to get the arms to slant more, but it’s not easy – the stitch seems to have a tendency to straighten itself out. Still, there is a bit of a slant there.

Vandyke doodle Vandyke doodle on counted fabric Vandyke doodle with slanted arms

As I was on a roll with all these doodles, I thought I’d give loop stitch another go, if not for the Tree then it might do for one of the appliqué baubles. But I couldn’t quite remember how it went, and in fact on the internet you can find at least two different descriptions of this stitch – one where the working thread is simply hooked around the previous stitch, and one where it it looped around.

The needle hooks around the first stitch The stitch continues The completed line of simple loop stitches
The needle loops around the first stitch The stitch continues The completed line of loop stitches

What I eventually ended up with appears to be a cross between coral stitch and loop stitch which, for want of a better term, I’ll call knotted loop stitch. It looks quite effective and with shorter arms would make a good border stitch, while with longer arms it would fill a leaf and create a vein. Because of the way it is worked, however, it’s not possible to slant the arms. Be that as it may, it’s another possible filling to consider. I may have to work a veritable forest of leaves before I actually start on the tree proper!

The needle knots around the first stitch The stitch continues The completed line of knotted loop stitches in perle #5

And here is the first leaf project ready to go – the outline has been traced together with a very faint inner line (to indicate the length of the up-and-down buttonhole stitch), and the crewel wools have been chosen. Originally the leaves of the autumnal tree were designed to be yellow, orange and green, but as I’ll be using some yellow to stand in for gold on the green leaves, and I won’t be stitching the trunk and stems, I decided to use the warm browns originally intended for the trunk to work what would have been the two yellow leaves. After all, as long as it shows the effect and texture of the stitches, it doesn’t really matter what colour I use, and the browns are rather attractive.

A leaf project ready to go

Change in progress (III) – Twin butterflies

While I was on a roll with the tulip-and-some-other-flower designs last month I took the opportunity to tidy up a drawing I did some time ago; it’s not dated but from the surrounding scribbles it seems to have been intended as a freestyle project for beginners.

Sketch for a butterfly project for beginners

But not just for beginners – there are stitch suggestions for what might be called an intermediate version as well. So when I edited the sketch on the computer I created two versions, one with basic stitches as a project for people with little embroidery experience, and one with slightly more advanced stitches for those who are familiar with the basics and would like to branch out.

Two butterfly variations

Having tidied up the two butterflies I was looking forward to trying them both, especially the second version which promised to be quite interesting texturally. But I decided to take them in order and begin with the basic butterfly. I’d printed both butterflies at a little under 9cm high, transferred them to Rowandean’s embroidery cotton and picked some lovely Splendor silk threads (the same ones I used for my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present). True, if this ever makes it into a workshop I won’t of course be using silk threads, but why not give myself a treat while model stitching? Well, the threads were indeed a treat but as I was stitching I soon found that even a basic butterfly may need to go through quite a few changes during the design process!

The first thing to become obvious was that the butterfly’s size meant I’d have to work with four strands to make the stitches stand out and fill the space sufficiently. This worked all right in most cases but combined with the very soft nature of Splendor silks it didn’t look very good in the chain stitch part; the stitches just blended into each other, the loops didn’t show their open centres, and the whole thing lacked definition. So my next version will smaller, worked in standard cottons, and use a maximum of three strands.

Silk chain stitch lacking definition

The buttonhole wheel I had planned for its head turned out lumpy and awkward. That will have to be changed in the new model, probably to backstitch with straight stitch “spokes” for the Beginner version, and whipped backstitch for the Intermediate one.

A lumpy buttonhole wheel

For the wings I’d chosen whipped running stitch, and I will keep that, but I will definitely have to make the stitches smaller – my rather hasty ¼” version doesn’t make for a nice smooth outline…

Spiky whipped running stitch

And finally there was the butterfly’s body. It was charted in both versions as buttonhole stitch with a line of backstitch to close the teeth end, and each of the sections adorned with a French knot. But then I though it would be nicer to have two different types of body for the two different butterflies, and I also decided to leave French knots for the Intermediate version. So the Beginner body got changed to two opposing lines of buttonhole stitch, with the teeth interlocking. I like the effect of it and will keep that in the final design, but I must remember that for the teeth on the second line to be centred between the teeth of the first line, it is important not to bring the needle up centrally – because of the way buttonhole stitch works, this actually pushes the teeth off-centre.

Spiky whipped running stitch

It sounds like not a lot is left of the original idea, doesn’t it? But I do like this butterfly, and most of it will actually be as originally planned. When I’ve stitched the revised version you’ll see it hasn’t changed that much from the first try – well, except for the difference between soft shiny silks and thinner, sharper cotton threads, of course!

The first butterfly

And talking of threads, as the butterfly is meant to be usable for a beginners’ workshop I felt it might better not to use a stranded thread at all, but something indivisible. Perle #8 is one option, and I’ve got quite a collection of it, so I will probably try it on one of the smaller butterflies. It can be quite twisty, however, which might be a problem. The other I will work in coton à broder #16 – a little thinner, but easy to work with. Unfortunately I only had two of those in my stash, so I treated myself to a small collection of useful colours. Don’t they look inviting?

Coton a broder no. 16 Coton a broder wound on bobbins in a project box

Change in progress (II) – beads

In the first part of Change In Progress showed you some changes that had been made to the three wooden pendant designs as I was stitching them; added stitches, added shading, changes in colour. But sometimes changes in a design are more in the nature of an extra, alternative design. The Old & New pair was designed to be stitched in double cross stitch using Petite Treasure Braid, but having stitched both designs I thought it might be fun to try the smaller of the two in beads as well. This was partly because some years ago I saw 18th-century bead work in an exhibition and I was blown away by how vibrant it looked compared to silk embroideries of the same period, which had faded to the beigey shades we’ve become used to in old embroidery. Well, it definitely worked smiley – the colours absolutely popped!

Old & New 1 worked in beads

If the Christmassy one on black worked so well, would the one on opalescent fabric work equally well? I simply had to find out. However, whereas finding suitable red, gold and green beads had been quite easy, finding usable silver, blue and purple beads turned out to be much harder! For one things there don’t seem to be quite so many shades of purple Mill Hill beads; a fair few lilac ones, and several bluey-purples and reddish-purples but not many “pure” purples. Then I wanted the beads to be shiny, not matt; and of course the blue and purple (and the silver) needed to go together. And silver! Mill Hill’s silver beads, though shiny, are actually rather dark and grey.

Perhaps some sort of white was the answer? I picked a shiny blue and a shimmery lilac, both rather lighter than I had originally envisaged, and combined them with an opalescent white. They looked good together! But white isn’t silver, and I did want to try and stay as close to the original as I could. What silver beads did I have? Well, there was Mill Hill silver, which as I said before is more gun metal than precious metal; some very silvery beads which unfortunately are unbranded, and therefore not suitable for a published design which needs “repeatable” materials; and Mill Hill’s Frosted Ice, somewhere between white and silver, a little subdued in its lustre but a definite possibility.

Blue, lilac and shimmery white beads for Old & New 2 Various silver beads

To make the final decision I compared the opalescent white and the frosted silver on the sparkly fabric I would be using, and although both worked quite well, I decided to go for the latter to keep that touch of silver in the design.

Opalescent white versus frosted silver

And here it is! Now all I need to do is write up the chart pack, and Old & New should be available on the website soon.

Old & New 2 worked in beads

A revitalised bug and an impossible daffodil

Well, whether or not I finish the 90th birthday tulip in time, it has certainly re-ignited my stitching bug! I know, I know – mixed metaphor; only very nasty people ignite bugs smiley. But last night I definitely picked up my stitching with more enthusiasm than I have for some time.

The 90th birthday tulip in progress

I’m tackling this project in rather an ad hoc manner; mostly stem stitch, some straight stitch and seed stitch filling, probably something knotty for the mouth of the daffodil’s trumpet (is it called a trumpet in English or am I translating literally from Dutch?) – pretty much what feels right for whichever bit I’m doing at the time.

The “90” takes a bit more consideration, however. The numbers need to stand out, but I don’t want to fill them in completely (for example with satin stitch); that would be too solid. Stem stitch wouldn’t stand out enough what with all the other stem stitch used; even with twice the number of strands it would look too samey for my taste. I was tempted to use raised chain stitch, but that would work better for a number that consists of a single line. Simple chain stitch won’t make a solid enough line. Perhaps a chain stitch variation? So for now the choice is between heavy chain stitch (easy and solid but not very textural) or Hungarian braided chain stitch (lovely texture but more complicated to work, and slower – a definite drawback in this case!)

Incidentally, even as I was sketching the daffodil design I had a nagging feeling something wasn’t quite right about it, and as I tidied it up I realised what it was – the petal behind the stem is bisected in a way which makes it extremely fiddly to work in metal thread. The bit indicated by the pink arrow would have to be cut and couched separately; not absolutely impossible, but not something I would like to include in a design for other people to stitch. Fortunately it’s not a problem in the project I’m working on at the moment as it’s easy enough to do in stem stitch, but the goldwork version will need a little bit more work.

Fine in freestyle, but not in goldwork