I’ve got the silk blues

I love silks, I do, really. But sometimes when working with them (or trying to work with them!) I hanker after the predictability of DMC stranded cotton. In my project box for Soli Deo Gloria there are some lovely Soie d’Alger silks in reds, purples, yellows, greens and, today’s topic, blues. Here are those blues on the Au Ver à Soie shade card:

The blues according to Au Ver a Soie's shade card

And here they are (four of them) in real life. DMC-wise they are similar to 791, 792, 340 and 809 – spot the odd one out.

The blues in real life

So I contacted Nelly at Hardanger Atelier and asked if she had a 4913 without the purple cast (and how Au Ver a Soie allowed that dye lot out I will never understand!) – she hadn’t, nor was there any other blue that would go with 4914 and 4916; but she promised to see if there was a series that was like DMC 797/798/799, which would work with my chosen reds and purples.

Meanwhile I considered that not all the silks in a project necessarily have to be the same brand. Rummaging through my collection of silk samples (well, they are full skeins but I mean where I have just a few of a particular brand) to see which were likely to have the same look as Soie d’Alger I realised most of them were hand-dyed and over-dyed silks, and therefore not the solid colours I was looking for. The only suitable solid silk was Caron’s Soie Cristale, which unfortunately I have only in an attractive but irrelevant series of five yellows and oranges. My digital Caron shade card did throw up a series of likely-looking blues, but at about £4.50 a skein it’s rather an expensive gamble.

A series of blues in Caron Soie Cristale

I went to Sew & So’s website to see whether their catalogue pictures were anything like the shade card I have (this sort of comparison can give valuable extra information about what colour the thread is likely to be when you actually get your hands on it) and would you believe it, they had a Soie Cristale sale on! Not quite half price but jolly nearly. Well, I couldn’t ignore a bit of luck like that could I? So four blue Caron silks (the series minus the lightest one on the shade card) should be on their way to me now. If they turn out not to be quite right for this particular project, they may well be perfect for a bird I have in mind. Or that modern floral design. Or the Celtic cross. Or something.

Soie Cristale blues on the Sew and So website

Trying to cover all my bases, I then remembered West End Embroidery. I’ve bought silks and other threads from them in the past and have always found them very helpful. An email, a very quick reply and a phone call later a non-purple 4913 has been ordered, and I am looking forward to seeing it snuggled up to 4914 and 4916 and hopefully looking like one of the family, as it should. In which case the Soie Cristale will have to be put to some other use. Oh dear smiley.

Incidentally, you may wonder why I didn’t just use the next lightest shade I already had, which as you can see from the picture above does fit in colour-wise with the two darker ones. Well, here’s why:

The Soie d'Alger blues stitched samples

The sample on the left is two rows each of 4916, 4914 and 4912; the middle sample is 4916, 4916/4914 blended and 4914; the final sample is 4914, 4914/4912 blended and 4912. As you can see, whenever it’s used the 4912 just stands out far too much – in the blended section on the right the two shades don’t really blend at all, they just happened to have been used in the same needle!

It’ll do at a pinch, but this project is rather close to my heart and I want it to be just right! Even if it means building up an impressive collection of blue silks (the sacrifices I make for my art…)

Binding a hoop – the finicky way

A little while ago I mentioned a tutor from the Royal School of Needlework demonstrating how to bind a hoop. It is a free video on their Online Classes page; you do need to “buy” it, but the price is £0, and once you’ve bought it you can then watch it for free.

In the video, Amy Burt uses very wide, fairly rough strips of calico, with a connecting seam right in the middle of the length, secures the beginning with double-sided sticky tape, and wraps the hoop at high speed without any apparent concerns about wrinkles. It takes about 5 seconds.

An RSN-bound hoop which undoubtedly works

I take a lot longer. And seeing that the RSN are happy for Amy Burt’s hoop-binding to be demonstrated under their aegis, I can only assume that my more time-consuming method is no more effective in keeping tension and protecting the fabric than her high-speed one.

And yet. And yet I stick with mine. Because I love the look of the regular wraps. Because it feels good when I run my fingers over the neat binding. Because it gives me a warm glow when I see it as I get ready to mount the fabric. Because in spite of everything it just feels more secure.

So for those of you who recognise themselves in the above description, here is how I bind my hoops. It is, as demonstrated by the RSN and countless other online videos, not the only way. It is not the quickest or easiest way. But, if I say so myself, boy does it produce neat hoops smiley!

What do you need? An unbound hoop, some tape (I use 20mm cotton twill/herringbone tape for anything over 8 inches, 14mm for smaller ones), two clothes pegs or other not-too-fierce, not-too-big clamping devices, some sewing thread and a short needle. Be aware that the method I’m showing here takes quite a lot of tape; the 14-inch hoop I showed in a previous post took well over 5 metres and I like to start out with at least a metre to spare, just in case.

Start by threading a short needle with sewing thread; knot it and put is aside for the moment. Folding over about half a centimetre of the tape, put it against the inside of the hoop and keep it in place with your thumb. Wrap the tape around the hoop, at a slight angle and overlapping the first bit by half. When you have room (it may take another wrap) replace your thumb with one of the clothes pegs. In the pictures below I have just completed the second complete wrap, and as both overlap by half this one is exactly one width on from the beginning of the tape.

Secure the first wrap with a clothes peg Secure the first wrap with a clothes peg

A quick word about overlapping. Some sources say that you should never overlap because it creates bulk and irregular thickness, others say you should overlap by anything up to half the width of the tape. I prefer overlapping, precisely because it creates bulk – that nice thick cushioning is what grips and protects the fabric – but if you do overlap, I would recommend you always do it by exactly half, so that the thickness of the binding is uniform along the entire hoop. In other words, either don’t overlap at all and abut your wraps exactly so that there is one layer of tape all the way around, or (my preferred method) overlap by half so that there is a double layer of tape all the way round.

By the way, the tape will twist while you’re wrapping. This means that, depending on the size of the hoop you’re binding and where you are in the process, you are trying to work with 6 or 7 metres of intractable twill spaghetti. I’ve not found an effective way to counteract this; I tried winding it beforehand, but it just uncoiled as I wrapped. So now I simply bunch up the remaining tape into a squashed handful, and manoeuvre it around the hoop that way.

Back to the binding. Keeping fairly strong tension on the tape, wrap on, overlapping by half the width of the tape both on the inside and on the outside of the ring. I like to give the tape an extra pull just before going over the top or turning under the bottom, to make sure there are no wrinkles. Because of the curve of the hoop, and winding the tape around it at a slight angle, you may find that sometimes a bit of tape simply will not lie flat, however much you pull. In that case, make sure the wrinkle is on the inside of the ring, and flatten it out as much as possible when you cover it with your next wrap. (If you bind the outer ring as well – which I don’t, because I bind for tension and grip rather than for fabric protection, and binding the inner ring only is sufficient for that – make sure any wrinkles are kept on the outside of the ring; in other words, you want wrinkles to be on the side where they don’t make contact with the fabric.)

Pull the tape just before going over the top Pull the tape again just before turning under the bottom

Incidentally, I am right-handed and therefore normally use my right hand for wrapping and pulling the tape; in the photographs above I am using my left hand only because my right hand was needed to operate the camera! If you are left-handed, you may find it more comfortable to wrap the hoop anti-clockwise.

If at any point you have to interrupt your binding (because you’ve got cramp in your fingers, or the phone rings, or the cat is trying to pounce on the remaining tape) secure the last wrap temporarily with the second clothes peg.

Use a second clothes peg if you have to interrupt your work

When you come to the end of your hoop (or rather, the beginning) and are either abutting or getting very close to your first wrap, cut the tape leaving a good-sized tail for the last wrap and securing. The one I left here was actually a little short; it’s better to cut it generously, as you will trim it more precisely before securing.

Getting back to the beginning Cutting a generous tail

When you have half-overlapped your first wrap, bring the tail to the inside of the hoop, trim so that you can fold over about half to three-quarters of a centimetre and end up well within the inside of the hoop. Hold it in place with your thumb, and pick up your needle with sewing thread. This is why you pre-threaded and pre-knotted it smiley.

Folding the end of the tape

Bring your needle up through the fold, so that the knot sits inside the fold, and secure the tape along the top with small stitches. Then go down the side, securing it for about 1 centimetre. Bring the needle back to the fold by going behind the fabric, go back along the top and secure the other side. Fasten off with a few knots, take the needle behind the tape for a few centimetres and pull taut, then cut.

Secure the fold of the tape with small stitches Work around the sides of the folded tape The secured end of the tape

And there is your bound inner ring, soon to be covered up by fabric and the outer ring and become invisible, but always there, neat and tidy and lovely.

The outside of the bound ring The inside of the bound ring The 12-inch and 14-inch hoops, bound

Perhaps a beautifully bound hoop is rather like the silk underwear worn by the actresses in Gone With the Wind. When one of them asked the costume mistress why they were wearing these expensive silk petticoats when no-one would ever see them, she replied “because you will know you are wearing them”.

A needling question

Last year I talked a little about needles, and whether the very expensive Tulip ones were worth the extra expense. I also mentioned some between/quilting needles by Clover which I’d picked up in the Netherlands and which I really enjoyed stitching with. In my quest to find some more, I came across Clover’s black-coated needles as well as their more economical gold-eye ones, and tried those too – but in the end I came to the conclusion that neither the Tulips nor the Clover blacks felt that much smoother or more accurate than the ones I’d picked up back in the old country.

But some mystery surrounded those Dutch-bought needles. For one thing, I’d bought them in sizes #7, #9 and #11 – but when trying to buy some spares I could not find Clover #7 needles anywhere. Unfortunately I’d decanted the needles into little lip seal bags (like the more recently bought #10s in the picture below, but marked with the size only) and got rid of the original packaging, so I had no information about the dimensions of each size or anything else.

Clover needles, decanted

Husband to the rescue: with his micrometer he measured all three sizes, I made a note of them and contacted Clover. Clover denied ever having made #7 needles of any kind. (Incidentally, I also asked them why their #12 needles are actually thicker than their #10s, when it is pretty universally true for all brands that higher numbers denote smaller – both thinner and shorter – needles; they replied, “Our Clover needles doesn’t match its rule. Basically we try to fit the rule but some item could not do so.” If this makes more sense to you than it did to me, do enlighten me!)

I settled for some #8 and #10 needles, which were the closest I could find to the ones I had. And then an additional mystery arose: nice though these new needles were, the ones I originally bought in the Netherlands seemed rather nicer. Was this the gloss of nostalgia that an ex-pat sometimes applies to anything connected with “home”? Surely Clover’s Japanese factories wouldn’t send different needles to different countries?

It took a while, and some serious Googling of needle sizes, but eventually I found the answer: the needles I bought in the Netherlands are actually the German brand Prym…

So now I can tell you definitely: my favourite, go-to needles are Prym gold-eye betweens, #7 for 2-3 strands, #9 for one strand, #11 for beading. I picked up some more from Minerva Crafts and am now probably all right for needles for the next five years or so. But I may get a few more packs just to be on the safe side.

Prym betweens in two sizes

After all, needles are the most frequently used tool or equipment in our stitching. And one of the nice things about these ones is that they are even more affordable than the ordinary (i.e. non-black-coated) Clovers; with postage they come in at about 10p a piece, and if you can pick them up at a show or a shop they come to less than 8p a needle. Which means that, unlike with £1 Tulip needles, you need have no scruples about using a new needle for every new project, or even several needles if the project is a large and long-term one. And the feeling of stitching with a fresh needle is so satisfying it is a treat in itself.

An 8p treat that enhances your stitching and puts a smile on your face. What’s not to like smiley?

The right hoop for the right project, and more binding

My RSN hoops arrived this week. I splashed out on three of them, to make the most of the flat rate postage (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it). To put the sizes in perspective, that tiddly one in the centre is actually 8 inches. As my husband remarked, “I thought you were a small project girl. What happened?!?”

Large, deep hoops

Well, what happened was the Tree of Life. Generally speaking it’s true: I’m a Small Project Girl. In Hardanger this means on the whole nothing larger than 220 stitches square (less than 9 inches on 25 count fabric) and usually much smaller; in freestyle embroidery this translates into a feeling of mild panic if the transfer pattern can’t be printed on a sheet of A4.

And just as I want my printed designs on a single A4, so I prefer my stitched designs to fit well within the boundaries of whatever hoop or frame I’m using (this also means I don’t feel guilty about leaving projects in the hoop for months on end, as any hoop marks will disappear in the framing/finishing anyway). The revamped Tree of Life, although it will just fit inside a 10-inch hoop, really needs at least a 12-inch and preferably a 14-inch hoop to meet that requirement. Either that, or it will have to go on the Millennium frame, where I may *gasp* need to scroll to reach every part. I know that’s what it’s designed for, but it feels uncomfortable. That’s purely my little idiosyncrasy, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t give in to it smiley.

Then I had a sudden flash of insight: I want to do two versions (because it is likely to become a SAL), one in crewel wool and one in silk & gold. Well, the silk one can be done smaller than the crewel one – so I could use a 14-inch hoop for the crewel version, and put the smaller silk one on the Millennium frame!

Now I have hoops in all… well, not all shapes obviously, as most of them are round (barring a couple of vaguely squarish ones), but certainly all sorts of sizes. But my largest wooden hoop pre-RSN-order was 12 inches – and it’s an ordinary, shallow wooden hoop. And having worked with the RSN’s 8-inch and 10-inch quilting hoops, I’ve come to prefer those deeper hoops (20mm wide) for the larger sizes anyway. So off I went to the RSN shop, to order a deep 14-inch hoop. Somehow the deep 12-inch and the standard 8-inch joined it, on the grounds that they were bound to Come In Handy some day, and, as I said before, to make the most of the postage.

So all that that remained was to bind them. And large hoops take large amounts of tape, so that to begin with the set-up looked rather like a pile of pasta or a tangle of tapeworms. It was up to me to transform this unpromising-looking collection into beautiful bound hoops.

Large hoops ready to be bound

Based on the carefully measured tape requirements for an 8-inch standard hoop, I had calculated that a deep 12-inch hoop would take about 6½ metres. Oddly enough, at the end of the process I had a little over 7 metres left, and I’d bought two 10-metre lengths of tape. Measuring the other 10-metre length showed it to be nearly 11½ metres, so I have no idea how much tape it took to bind the 12-inch hoop. But having pre-measured the second length I can tell you that the 14-inch deep hoop took 5¼ metres – rather less than I had expected.

Large hoops with their binding complete

In some ways, binding a larger hoop is easier than binding a smaller one, even though it takes longer – you’ve got more room to work in, and the curve of the hoop is more gradual, so getting the tape to lie flat is much less of a struggle. And when it comes to securely finishing off the end of the tape, a large hoop gives this near-sighted stitcher a much more convenient way of getting close to the sewing!

Finishing off a hoop if you're near-sighted

Incidentally, I’ve discovered why I find binding hoops such a hassle. Because I make things difficult for myself, that’s why! While having a look at some RSN online classes, I noticed a freebie video about binding hoops. And the stills illustrating it showed a bound hoop that took me rather aback – the tape looked positively wrinkled! Now I will admit that even in my own estimation I am a bit obsessive when binding a hoop; I want every wrap to overlap by exactly the same amount, and I want everything to lie absolutely flat, even though I realise neither of these things is essential. So has this made me think differently? Well, my mind did say “if the RSN is happy with a hoop like that, it’s bound to work” (ha ha). But I simply can’t get myself to do it like that. When I look at my very tidily bound hoops, I get a happy feeling, and I just know that a wrinkly hoop would annoy me whenever I look at it. So, as binding is a one-off process for each hoop anyway, I will stick with my time-consuming, finger-cramp-inducing method, and smile at the finished product.

An RSN-bound hoop which undoubtedly works Tidy hoop-binding

And now I’m off to stitch that tree!

The lure of more

“Once I’ve got my own craft room everything will be lovely and I won’t need any extra storage ever again!” Ha.

Don’t get me wrong, everything is lovely in my still relatively new craft room. It’s my optimistic ideas about storage which have turned out to be less than accurate. So something needed to be done. And before you ask, no, I didn’t start breeding my tall rainbow storage towers. But isn’t this dinky little matching set of drawers just the perfect find?

A little tower of drawers joins the large ones

As for the reason behind this purchase, let’s go to another I-spoke-too-soon remark I made to myself not so long ago.

“Now that I’ve got at least four shades of pretty much every colour of crewel wool on Pearsall’s website, I’m sorted and won’t need any other crewel wools ever again!” Ha.

Listening to Jessica Grimm on Fiber Talk (incidentally, if you missed Mabel’s last month it’s here) I was reminded that I bought loads of spangles from her last year, and paid another visit to her website. And there I found Heathway Milano wools in more colours than on the Pearsall’s website!

Surely this couldn’t be right – Pearsall’s are the original producers of this wool. So I contacted Carol (the helpful lady who went through the available starter packs with me over the phone when I first dipped my toes into the crewel waters) and she confirmed that these colours (including a true orange, a gorgeous turquoise and some beautifully bright purples) were indeed available, they just hadn’t made it onto the Pearsall’s website yet. “Just order as many blacks as you want colours and then let me know which ones you really want.” Well, how could I resist? And so a true orange, a gorgeous turquoise and some beautifully bright purples, as well as some daffodil yellows and various pinks, have been added to my ever-growing collection.

The latest additions to my crewel wool collection

And this is why the little storage tower joined the two big ones – I now have colour-coordinated crewel wool drawers! (Which are already beginning to feel a bit crowded. Oh dear…)

Colour-coordinated drawers with wool The Teal drawer

Binding hoops and bad habits

Some time ago – last August, in fact, just before the medieval embroidery retreat – I told you about binding my first ever hoop. (That is, it was my first ever binding of a hoop. Not my first ever hoop. That is probably lost in the mists of time.)

Preparing to bind a hoop Bound inner hoop Bound inner hoop, fitted inside the outer hoop

Having reported that I found it terribly fiddly (my verdict being “unless the effect is really really noticeable, never again!”) I promised to let you know after the retreat whether I would ever bind another hoop. And I didn’t. Didn’t let you know, I mean – but I did bind more hoops!

Does that mean I found it worth the hassle? Yes, though not quite for the reason that is often given, that you can get better tension with a bound hoop. My problem with wooden hoops (and one of the reasons for my love of flexi-hoops) is that they do not keep the tension. Setting up the project and getting it good and taut is one thing, but if you have to keep pulling the fabric taut again whenever you’ve been putting a bit of strain on it (for example by pulling through a very thick thread, or pulling a needle through a very densely stitched area) it’s not an encouragement to use that type of hoop.

I found that the deep hoops – also known as quilting hoops – which I got from the Royal School of Needlework held the tension better (more grip, as the hoops are about 2cm deep instead of the usual 1cm) but were still not ideal. The bound hoop I took to the embroidery retreat, however, behaved impeccably in that respect!

In fact it held its tension so well that it encouraged me in a Bad Habit: I do not take my project out of its hoop after every stitching session. Until fairly recently I was not aware that this was a bad habit. You put your fabric in a hoop, and when the project is completed you take it out again. Simple, right? But apparently there are two reasons for not doing this. The first is that it can leave permanent marks on the fabric, and the second is that it can stretch the fabric beyond its powers of springing back.

Warning: I am going to go against received embroidery wisdom!

They sound like compelling reasons – but I’m not convinced. The second one I can’t say I’ve noticed; yes, there is always a certain amount of give in a fabric, some more than others, and I can see how permanent stretching over a long period might leave it, well, permanently stretched. But as I have often thought my work looks best when it is still stretched in the hoop, and as I tightly lace any of my works that will be framed anyway, I’m not bothered by that.

As for the first, I ignore that for a purely personal reason, which is that all my projects are small enough to fit well within the confines of the hoop I’m using. Yes there are permanent hoop marks, but they get cut off when I prepare the work for framing or whatever finishing method I use. If your projects are larger than the hoop you’re working with, and you have to move the hoop around and sometimes have it cover previous stitches (something that makes me nervous simply contemplating it) then do take it out of the hoop every time you finish a stitching session.

So I have what is generally regarded as a Bad Stitching Habit, but at least it is now off-set by a Good Stitching Habit – I have bound all my wooden hoops, right down to the tiddly 3-inch one (which is probably overkill, but I got into the zone).

A three-inch hoop, bound

Incidentally, for those who like facts and figures, I use 14mm cotton twill tape for smaller hoops (up to 6 or 7 inches) and 20mm cotton herringbone tape for anything larger, and anything deep. Some people prefer to use bias binding. Having forgotten to measure how much I used on all the hoops I bound in one go, I did remember to make notes when I bound my new 8-inch hoop: 2.25 metres. I assume that a deep hoop of the same size would take twice that, and that you can work out the requirements for other sizes by comparing circumferences (diameter times π). That’s quite a lot, and it’s partly because I choose to overlap my binding by about half the width of the tape; some people abut it exactly, which would take considerably less. I hold the start with a clothes peg, and at the finish oversew the folded-over end several times, making sure it’s on the inside of the hoop. Definitely fiddly – I still think so after binding about eight hoops – but worth it.

Choosing colours and accommodating different materials

Winter in England can mean beautiful snowy vistas under an icy blue sky, but more often it’s just rather grey and damp. Yesterday edged towards the former, although the snow was just a sprinkling. But icy it definitely was, and I managed to slip on a treacherous little patch just outside our church. The ladies preparing for the mother & toddler group immediately treated the patch with salt, and offered to treat me with tea, but I didn’t think it was too bad so I just went home. And it isn’t too bad – no broken bones or torn ligaments or anything – just aching muscles in my leg and a stiff arm, probably from trying to break my fall. Unfortunately it’s my right arm. The one I stitch with.

It’s a good thing that my order of Milano Heathway crewel wools from Pearsall’s had arrived the day before; sorting through threads distracts the mind very effectively from both the muscle ache and the inability to stitch. And I had quite some sorting to do! You see, some of the Milano wools already in my stash have been set aside (for quite some time now…) in a box with my Tree of Life project, to stitch experimental leaves. And some I had picked earlier in the week for a crewel project based on parts of two designs from the two crewel embroidery books I bought last week. The remainder of my existing collection was in a third box. And now these new shades had arrived. It was time to get organised.

The wools and other materials for the Tree of Life Two new crewel books Materials for the crewel Rabbit and Carnations The wools in my latest Pearsall's order

One thing I had to do was decide how to store skeins that have been used; so far I’d put them back on the cards in two different ways, and that just looked messy. As one method could fairly easily be transformed into the other but not vice versa, the choice was easy. That done, I got all the shades together and organised them on binder rings. The Tree of Life project is definitely on the back burner at the moment, so I will re-pick the shades for that as and when I get into my experimental leaves again. For now I needed the shades for my Rabbit & Carnations (above), and my wool version of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. I deliberately do not call it a crewel version, as it will be in split stitch only and I have a feeling that doesn’t quite qualify!

Whatever it is called, the change from silk to wool brought with it the need for a little change to Hengest. A leopard may not be able to change its spots, but I would have to change Hengest’s – even in my original version they are already a little bigger than on the medieval cope by which he was inspired, but crewel wool being rather thicker than a strand of silk there would simply not be enough room (especially in the smaller spots) to comfortable work a dense spiral of stitches, and show off the texture and colour of the thread. Fewer, larger spots were what was needed.

Hengest for silk with small spots Hengest for wool with big spots

In addition, I printed him a bit larger than I would for the silk version, once at 9cm high and once at 10cm. The fabric I intended to use was Normandie, a cotton/linen mix, probably in the “natural” shade, which is a bit beige-y. I got out the fabric to see whether it would work with the white and greys I’d picked.

Will the fabric and threads go together?

I was happy with that combination, and cut the Normandie to sit comfortably in a 7″ hoop. I cut some calico backing and ironed both pieces of fabric. I then realised that if I wanted to use the 10cm version (and I did) it would really need an 8″ hoop. Fortunately I had cut rather generously, and found that it was just about big enough for the larger hoop. Phew. Now all I had to do was get an 8″ hoop. My deep hoop is already in use for Soli Deo Gloria, and it turns out I have no other wooden hoop (which I prefer for this sort of work) of that size. Fortunately Barnyarns stock them and so one is on its way to me as I write this; when it arrives I’ll bind it, and then Hengest is good to go!

Hengest transferred and the threads chosen

By the way, I love split stitch in wool – compared to a single strand of silk there is so much more thread to aim for!

“It is not good that the man should be alone”

Remember Ethelnute on his box?

Ethelnute mounted on his satin box

Well, look what I found in my drawer of boxes smiley:

A companion box to Ethelnute's

A second box, the same size but emerald green – Ethelnute obviously needs a wife! But what is she to be called? Æthelflæd? Gunhild? Alfgifu? Hadewich?

We have a little 1930s car called Hilda (which is a good medieval name) so my husband suggested combining it with Mabel (also medieval, although it tended to be spelled Amabel) and making Mabelhild. Nope. I know Ethelnute’s name was a bit of a hybrid as well, but this just sounds silly. But it did remind me of the name Mechthild (the Germanic version of Mathilda), which retains the M and the Hild(a) and is a proper medieval name, so that’s who she’ll be!

Having decided on the important matter of her name, she needed to be designed. I collected various images of ladies and queens from medieval manuscripts and embroideries (which, being many centuries old, have long since entered the public domain) and combined several of them into a sort of amalgam queen – although I hope Mechthild shows plenty of individuality in spite of that! The colours in the image below are by no means definitive (I’ll decide on that when I start putting the materials together) and it doesn’t show which bits will be gold or gems or beads rather than embroidery, but it should give you an impression of what she’ll look like.

Queen Mechthild

She will be stitched using pretty much the same materials as Ethelnute (Silk Mill silks, pearls, beads, gold twist) but there is one element in the King that won’t be used in the Queen, and that’s the glass gems; I haven’t been able to find any in the right size, colour and type. However, I did find some glass beads in interesting shapes which I think may work: Miyuki drop beads (like seed beads only drop shaped) and Czech pip beads (which look squashed, as though someone has sat on them, and are rather larger). I got some in a selection of suitably “medieval” shades and look forward to using them.

Queen Mechthild with beads

And then there was that medieval unicorn I wanted to design, based on the quirky horse on the Steeple Aston cope. The main changes were easy enough – he needed a horn and a goatee beard. I also enlarged his spots to show off the “coloured whites” I’m hoping to use for them. And as with the medieval queen, I found him a name: meet Hengest (Old English for horse).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn

I was slightly worried about the horse’s bridle and various leather bits, because I rather wanted to keep them (they offer a great opportunity for the use of bling, whether gold or beads or any other type) but they didn’t strike me as proper unicorn accessories. However, a bit of quick online research showed that fortunately there are medieval tapestries showing unicorns with chest bands. My bling was saved! I repositioned and redrew the original chest band to make room for dangly pip beads, and moved his eyes so there was room for bling on the bridle as well. Hengest is ready to roll! Er, gallop.

Hengest with experimental beads

P.S. An important thing about using images in the public domain: even when the original image/embroidery/manuscript is in the public domain, photographs of it are not (or not necessarily). So although you can use the original (in my case medieval) image to base your artwork on, you are not allowed to reproduce modern photographs of it without permission of the copyright holder (which is why I removed the image from my Silk Mill Sale post and gave a link to the V&A’s image of the Steeple Aston cope instead).

A Sale dilemma

When a shop has a really good sale on and you were going to place an order with them anyway, what do you do? Buy what you were going to buy and spend less, or spend what you were going to spend and buy more?

This is not an idle question. Today and tomorrow The Silk Mill offers 25% off everything. I’d decided last week that I would treat myself to 50 of their silks, and fortunately *phew* didn’t actually place the order because I ran out of time. As they have 700 shades to choose from, it’s been taking me some time to put together a sensible selection of useful colours in four or five shades each. And then there was “Whiter Shade of Pale”.

“Whiter Shade of Pale” is one of their themed sets and consists of 14 shades of not-quite-white – the very palest shades of pink, grey, green, flesh, so pale that they are, you might say, coloured whites. It’s a beautiful set, I’ve fallen in love with it, and I don’t need it.

Silk Mill's Whiter Shade of Pale set

Or do I?

Ethelnute has left me with a taste for Opus Anglicanum, and I’ve been looking for another project. At the Coombe Abbey retreat Angela Bishop had with her a small split stitch embroidery of a horse based on a medieval cope. It was a horse that made you giggle. It had character. I looked up the Steeple Aston cope online and found it had a companion horse, equally eccentric. I drew outlines of both, put in some colour suggestions, altered the reins and bridles and tucked them away in a folder somewhere.

Then I saw the not-quite-whites and thought Unicorn. Not sure why, but I did. And I wondered whether one of the horses, probably the one Angela used as well, could become a medieval unicorn (which means that besides a horn he’d also have a goatee; or should that be a unicornee?). For now, he is just an ordinary polka-dotted horse with mad eyes – but he could be transformed!

Drawing of the Steeple Aston horse

He’ll probably have to lose his bridle and jewels (unless I make him a tamed unicorn), and of course a horn will be added (not too long; I want to keep the design squarish) as well as the chin hair – but I can just see him split stitched in grey with all his polka dots worked in some of those lovely coloured whites.

So will I buy the set? I’ll let you know…

An unsuccessful attempt at alchemy

Earlier this month I wrote about historian Ruth Goodman making gold thread in Secrets of the Castle, and how it inspired me to have a go, using gold leaf (which I have in stock) instead of gold foil (which I haven’t), even though it is much thinner and can’t ordinarily be picked up to be cut into strips. Well, the time has come to reveal whether Ethelnute, my medieval king, will have his gold collar enhanced with home-made gold passing thread!

No.

Oh all right then, I’ll give you the longer version. The first thing was to choose my materials. I have both gold and silver leaf at my disposal, but the original project made gold thread and moreover only my gold leaf comes on a tissue paper backing – the silver leaf is just that: very very thin silver that flutters at the slightest breath. No need to make things unnecessarily complicated for myself, so the choice for gold leaf was quickly made. Because of the tissue backing, you can cut this with scissors, and the pictures shows a thin strip cut ready for applying to a silk core.

Gold leaf on backing paper, with one strip cut

For that silk core I chose Kreinik’s yellow silk couching thread. It is a good idea to have a core that is similar in colour to the metal surrounding it for the same reason that it is a good idea to use padding felt of a similar colour when doing chipwork: if there are any inadvertent gaps, they won’t show up so badly!

Golden yellow silk couching thread

Now to detach the gold from its tissue paper and attach it to the silk thread. The first part turned out to be much easier than the second… I tried rolling it as shown in the documentary; it clung only to my fingers. I tried wrapping it around the core; this produced the same result as for Ruth and Eve Goodman – untidy tinsel.

Silk thread and gold leaf, detaching itself from the paper

I had one trick left: heavy breathing. When applying gold leaf in calligraphy, on illuminated initials etc. you first apply a ground, both to provide something for the gold to stick to and to give it lift – like felt padding for gold leaf. Traditionally this is done with gesso but very good results can be obtained with common white PVC glue. The point is that the ground is allowed to dry completely, going non-sticky (this bit is rather counter-intuitive). You then huff on it to make it slightly sticky again with the condensing moisture from your breath. Now I wasn’t going to coat my silk in PVC glue (although by this time I was sorely tempted) but I had a vague hope that even without a coating my breath might produce just that little bit of moisture that would coax the gold leaf off its backing and onto the silk, and that once it was on the silk it would stay there. So I huffed and I puffed and it didn’t.

By the end of the experiment the gold leaf had attached itself to my fingers, to the dining table, and (in a much smaller proportion and rather untidily) to the silk thread. It soon became clear that the attachment was much more successful in the first two cases than in the last one – whereas the fingers took quite some scrubbing, and the table needed a judicially applied fingernail to dislodge every last bit of 23-and-a-half carat glitter (there is still some left several days after the event), the gold precariously clinging to the silk thread needed a mere puff of breath to fall off (and attach itself much more firmly to the table).

Gold leaf on table, finger and thread

So was it a wasted afternoon? A needless squandering of time and precious metal? No, I don’t think so. For one thing, I tried, and so now I know for a fact that gold leaf is too thin for making gold thread. For another, it was rather fun to try! It used about 1/16 of one sheet of gold leaf from a 25-sheet pack which I bought well over two decades ago for 80 guilders (less than £30); a considerable expense back then, but given that I still have about half of it left after all that time, using some of it for an enjoyable learning experience seems a sound plan. And finally, think of the strain on my self-control if, having seen the documentary and having these materials in the house, I hadn’t tried – I’m sure it was much better for my health and happiness to allow myself this indulgence smiley.