What does it all mean?

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

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

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

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

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

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

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

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

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

The river

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

Fly stitch couching

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

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

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

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

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

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

What do I want a SAL to do?

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

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

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

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

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

Sneak peeks at the SAL

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

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

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

Getting it wrong and starting again – the joy of designing

Designing can occasionally feel like the famous procession at Echternach, going three steps forward and two steps back. Take Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. No, I’m not talking about the spot debacle – that was just me not paying attention. It’s when something in the design just doesn’t work.

In the case of Hengest it was (among other things) his chest band. In my original design, meant to be worked in silk with a bit of goldwork and gem embellishments, the chest band is bright golden yellow with colourful pip beads all along its length. But then the spots are meant to be “coloured white” – the very lightest shades of various colours. Wool Hengest’s spots are rather more colourful than that, so giving him such gaudy tack simply wouldn’t look right.

Very well then, we need a different chest band. Leather? Gold and leather? That sounds quite good – an outline in golden yellow with brown for the main body of the band; perhaps with a few honey-gold pip beads.

A changed chest band

But as I was working on it, I liked it less and less. Too little golden yellow (it was hardly noticeable once I started adding the brown) and the brown itself was much too dark. Unfortunately the next shade of this brown in my stash is rather light, and I wasn’t at all sure that would look any better.

The dark brown doesn't work But will the light brown be any better?

Still, this darker brown was definitely not working, so out it came, and soon it was reduced to a pile of rejected fluff.

Cutting out the dark brown A pile of rejected fluff

It was getting rather late, but as I was on a roll, I added the extra rows of golden yellow.

Extra gold

And at my next embroidery group meeting I filled in with the lighter brown.

Light brown leather

It is rather a light shade for leather, but with the rest of Hengest being so pale and pastel it does look better on him. However, without the coloured pip beads the effect is a bit more solid than I’d like, and even the honey-gold pip beads don’t really look the part with the wool. Let’s try adding a little swirly pattern in a slightly lighter gold:

A swirly gold pattern saves the day

And that is why Wool Hengest’s chest band looks the way it does. Is it too much to hope that his bridle and mane will work first time round…?

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!