Pretties in the post (I): Bling

Having stitched with pearls and gems at the Medieval Embroidery retreat I’ve developed a bit of a taste for them and yesterday the postman brought me some to have a play with when my Opus Anglicanum project is finished. The freshwater pearls on the string are like the ones in the medieval king, only ever so slightly larger; it’s very difficult to find them any smaller than this!

A string of small freshwater pearls The string of pearls with my medieval king

I’m keeping a look out for coloured glass gems – Sarah Homfray told me that the ones they used in the kits were from a discontinued line, and she’d bought them all. But when I saw this mix of white acrylic ones in a sale for a rather ridiculous price I thought they were worth a try, especially as I also found some genuine glass shisha mirrors and an interesting black version of my coloured floral gems in that same sale.

A bag of mixed sew-on gems Different sizes of gems Glass shisha mirrors Black floral gems

Then as I was putting away the gems and the flowers, and looking up some black beads which might go with them (not plain black, but sort of oil-on-water) I remembered a large black canvas shopping bag I got some time ago – surely the perfect combination!

Black and transparent gems on a black shopper Black and transparent gems against the black fabric

My first thought was to attach the flowers and gems in a random swirly pattern, but unfortunately I’m not very good at random. Could I perhaps arrange them in letters? I showed this (very provisional) arrangement to my husband, who felt the contrast between the two letters was too high. Yes, I can see what he means. Well, how about letters in black flowers attached with the oily beads, with swirls of gems around them? Watch this space – I may even go properly random after all!

Mabel's initials in gems

Any hoop will do?

Some people stitch anything from card-sized designs to enormous tablecloths or sheets without any hoop or frame. I have long since learnt that unless a project is less than 2 inches or so across, I simply can’t do it, and even then I prefer to have it hooped up. This might be seen as rather wasteful of fabric, since a small project requires relatively more spare fabric in order to fit into a hoop, but it does make my stitching so much more comfortable that this is one extravagance I am willing to indulge in. (Incidentally, my preference for using hoops combined with my dislike of placing a hoop over areas already stitched may well explain why very few of my designs are larger than will fit comfortably inside a 12″ hoop. For any that are I use my Millennium frame.)

So a hoop I must have, whatever the project. But what sort of hoop? There is a bewildering variety out there! Quite apart from the size, which in my case is more or less dictated by the size of the design, there is a choice of materials, shapes and thicknesses. Hoops come in wood, stiff plastic, flexible rubber, bamboo, and several other materials; they are usually round, but can also be oval or square; and they can be narrow or deep.

All sorts of hoops

I’m not aiming for completeness here, so there will be types of hoop I don’t mention in detail, or indeed at all. For example, I have occasionally used spring tension hoops, which consist of a very springy metal inner ring that squeezes into a plastic grooved outer ring and are often used for machine embroidery; I may even have one lurking in a drawer somewhere. But I would never choose them now, because I found the tension so high that it sometimes distorted the fabric, and the background almost always puckered when I took the project out of the hoop after completing the stitching. Then there are Q-snaps, which some people swear by; more of a frame really, but generally held in hand like a hoop, and made from chunky plastic tubes to which the fabric is attached with plastic clips that look like tubes with a bit missing. As I say, some people love them, but I found them too heavy, and too chunky to hold comfortably. I will leave detailed descriptions of these types of hoop to people who enjoy using them and have therefore used them a lot more than I have.

The most usual hoop, the one which many embroiderers start their first needlework with, and which many of us remember from the workboxes of grandmothers and great aunts, is the wooden hoop. They have a tightening screw on the outer ring (the one with the gap at the top), which can be done up by hand, or with a screwdriver for serious tightness. I have found most wooden hoops to be prone to “sagging” after a while, so you have to keep pulling the fabric, but this may of course be because I didn’t tighten the outer ring enough; I’m still experimenting with that. Binding the inner hoop apparently helps with tension; I have not yet tried this (but see below). And some people prefer their fabric slightly slack, so they can use the sewing method of stitching, where the needle goes in and out of the fabric in a single motion, and isn’t taken right through to the back. Wooden hoops work well for this.

Wooden hoop

Two variations on the wooden hoop are the square and the deep hoop. The former is square-ish rather than square, for perfectly understandable practical reasons. I find them useful mainly for square designs (and many of my designs are square) as you can get away with a smaller hoop (and therefore less fabric) compared to fitting a square design in a round hoop.

Two square hoops

Standard hoops tend to be about 1cm deep, give or take a millimetre. You can get deeper ones, ranging from 5/8″ (a little over 1½cm) to 7/8″ (about 2¼cm). The two I bought from the RSN shop are exactly 2cm. The advantage of the deeper rings is that they grip more of the fabric, so that once you’ve got the tension you want, it’s more likely to stay like that.

A deep 8-inch hoop Comparing the deep hoop with a standard hoop

My collection of hoops tends to have several sizes of each type, but I have only one of the type shown below, and I think it came in a collection of embroidery materials donated to me by a lady whose elderly relative could no longer stitch because of arthritis. It is a stiff plastic hoop with a lip on the inner ring, intended to grip the fabric more firmly and prevent slipping. It works just fine, but because of the lip any adjustment to the fabric by a quick and gentle tug is impossible, which means it languishes in my hoop drawer unloved and unused. I really should pass it on to someone who does like it!

Plastic hoop

The type of hoop I use most of all is the flexi-hoop. These consist of a stiff inner ring and a flexible rubber continuous outer ring – no gap at the top. They usually come provided with a decorative metal hanging loop (which sometimes tricks people into trying to use it for tightening); flexi-hoops are meant as much for display as for use in the stitching process. Because the outer ring is continuous, it cannot be tightened; but because it is made of flexible but fairly tight rubber, it generally doesn’t need tightening. To me they are invaluable for small to medium projects where I want the fabric good and taut. As with all hoops, the bigger the hoop the more easily the fabric loses tension, and when you get to the 8″ hoops the fabric is slightly looser, but I find it still compares favourably with the tension on wooden hoops. Although they seem to be made to be used once as a stitching hoop and then as a display frame for that particular project, you can actually use them again and again as a working hoop without the tension becoming noticeably less over time. Some of mine have been in use for at least five or six years and are still going strong.

Flexi-hoop Flexi-hoop with hanging loop

One type of hoop which I first met only recently is the bamboo hoop; it came with a Kelly Fletcher kit, and I like it very much. It holds the tension well (even when pulling a needle with four strands through top and backing fabric, which can take a bit of tugging) and it is incredibly light, which is nice and easy on the hand that holds it. I liked it so much that I got a set of 12 small ones to use in workshops besides my usual flexi-hoops.

Bamboo hoop Bamboo hoops for workshops

Like a lot of things in needlework, the choice of hoop comes down to personal preference. If weight (or rather, lack of weight) is important, bamboo is a good choice. Flexi-hoops keep fabric nice and taut, but can’t really be slackened off if you temporarily want less tension on the fabric, for example when doing bullion knots or any other stitch where the stabbing method of stitching is impossible or less suitable. Deep hoops grab more of the fabric and are therefore less prone to sagging, but I find them a bit less comfortable to hold, and so use them only when tension is really important, for example in goldwork. Even then I prefer to use them with a stand or clamp rather than in hand. Standard (narrow) wooden hoops are easy to find and good value, and allow for both tautness and slackening off. My advice would be to buy or borrow several types of hoop (preferably all the same size) and work on a single project for a bit using each one of them in turn. That will tell you more about the right hoop for you than any number of reviews can (useful and informative though they may be).

And finally a slight digression; it’s still hoop-related, though, so I’ll allow it smiley. Recently I received an email about the Medieval Embroidery retreat I’ll be attending at Coombe Abbey. It gave details about when to be there, lunches and tea breaks (very important!) and a list of things to bring. Among them was a hoop, which they recommended should be bound. Until now I have never bound a hoop in my life, but many very experienced embroiderers say it is A Good Thing and worth the effort, so this was the perfect time to give it a try. I got some cotton twill tape and set to. And after a long time and some (moderately) bad language, all I can say is: unless the effect is really really noticeable, never again! I know that once a hoop is bound it stays bound for years, if done well, but my goodness what a fiddly job. I may of course have been doing it wrong (despite watching Sarah Homfray’s instruction video and reading Mary Corbet’s blog post on the subject) but I found it impossible to get the tape to lie completely flat. Still, here it is – I’ll let you know after the retreat whether I will ever bind another hoop…

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

Any tool will do?

While at my mother-in-law’s last Sunday I was in need of A Thing That Makes Holes. As a travel project I’d brought some kit preparations instead of embroidery, and I was cutting threads for the tassels used in the Felt Bookmark kits (which, incidentally, will need re-thinking as the shop from which I get the felt shapes have annoyingly discontinued them. Grrr).

The felt bookmarks with their tassels

To attach the tassels I thread a bundle of white and variegated perle threads through the felt, then knot it. But even with a size 18 chenille needle this was proving very difficult, and the strong pull needed to get them through caused a rather unsightly kink in the threads. The obvious answer was to pre-pierce the felt with something rather thicker than the needle I was using. I couldn’t remember the word for the tool I wanted so asked my mother-in-law if she had an awl. She asked if I meant a stiletto. Of course that was exactly what I meant; she produced one, and I produced the necessary holes, and all was well.

Back at home I started thinking of getting my own Thing That Makes Holes; I’d heard that some people use the pointy end of their mellor (a curiously shaped object used in goldwork to push metal wires into shape) but I wasn’t at all sure whether the pointy end was really pointy enough for my purpose. It is apparently very good for gently pushing fabric threads apart rather than piercing and possibly damaging the threads, so the hole will close again, but on trying it out I found that pushing it through the fabric (especially a non-woven fabric such as felt) took a lot of force because the point is in fact relatively blunt.

A goldwork mellor

I then drooled for a while over a rosewood stiletto available from the London Embroidery School. It was beautiful, but unfortunately also rather expensive, especially with the postage, and quite apart from that I was a bit concerned about the sharpness and strength of the point. Although wooden stilettos have been used for yonks I felt a metal version would be more reliable.

A rosewood stiletto

eBay offered me a great variety of pointy hole-making things under various names, most of them impossibly cheap and coming from China or Hong Kong. Eliminating any items from outside the EU I found a UK-based basic awl. I seriously considered this one – cheap, nicely tapered and sharp but, well, not very inspiring.

A basic awl

A bit more searching and my workbox is now enhanced with this rather pretty compromise: an inexpensive antique stiletto (advertised as a bodkin) with a mother-of-pearl handle. Not as cheap as the basic awl, but a lot less than the rosewood stiletto. The metal is a little stained, but the tip is sharp and a little rubbing with nothing harsher than paper left it feeling nice and smooth.

An antique bodkin

And does it make proper holes? Yes it does, and you can control the size of the hole by how far you push the tool in. The four holes along the top of the fabric were all made with the stiletto, and range from sizeable to practically non-existent; the one on the right was made with the mellor, and I think all holes made with it would be about this size. The second picture shows that even when making the biggest hole the fabric isn’t damaged very much, and can be stroked or rubbed back into shape should that be necessary. The fabric around the mellor-made hole by contrast still looks rather dented. So hurray for my new tool!

Holes made with the stiletto The holes closed up after rubbing the fabric

On a different topic, I promised to let you know if Kelly Fletcher got back to me. She did, saying, “sorry to hear you had trouble with the threads. You assumed correctly that I have no control over the packaging of the kits. But I will pass on your experience and the links to your two posts to my publisher.” In fact she did more than that – she looked at the colour numbers I mentioned in FoF, and with her publisher worked out that the Amazon seller had sent me a replacement set of threads for a different kit, her Boho Chic one. The publisher offered to send me the proper threads, but considering the amount of thread I’ve got that seemed rather silly; I asked her, however, to pass on my thanks for their customer service as it would no doubt be greatly appreciated by any beginner who had the same thing happen.

Modes of transport

Do you have the ideal stitching spot at home? Comfy chair, the right stand if needed, little table by the side to hold your beverage of choice, lots of natural light – the perfect spot for some relaxed and relaxing embroidery. If your house is anything like mine, the stitching spot in question could do with a little work to become ideal, and perhaps the ideal spot doesn’t actually exist. But whether yours is close to perfection or still has a long way to go, there are likely to be times when you do your stitching away from home.

On holiday, for example, or at your stitching group, if you are lucky enough to have one, or even in a waiting room or on the train. And one of the questions is always “how do I transport my project safely and conveniently?” (Other questions tend to be of the “is there any way of taking my Lowery floor stand” variety. The answer to most of those questions is “no”.)

It partly depends, of course, on the amount of room you’ve got. I have transported teeny-weeny projects in grip seal bags in my handbag (it helps that I use scissors with a protective cover smiley), and that worked just fine, as longs as I remembered to secure the needles as closely to the hoop as possible. But if you have a little more room to play with, it’s nice to go for something a bit sturdier.

Now I didn’t set out to do a comparison of project transport methods, but for various reasons I happen to have acquired over the past month or so three different storage/transport solutions (are all manner of products still called “solutions”? I don’t like the term, but it actually seemed to fit here), alike in some respects – all three are a similar size, roughly A4 – and unlike in others, e.g. what they are made of. A good opportunity see whether there is an overall winner or whether, as with the embroidery stands, each one does something else well.

So who are the candidates? There is the Clever Baggers’ cotton tablet case, Tiger’s flexible plastic Slim Box File and the Slim Tuff Box, also by Tiger.

Clever Baggers tablet case Tiger Slim Box File Tiger Tuff Box

The first one I got was the Clever Baggers’ tablet case, which from the start I’ve thought of as a “project pouch”. It has one very noticeable advantage over the other two: you can stitch on it! And although it isn’t as stiff as the two boxes, being made of fabric, it does have added protective padding inside which stiffens it – it was, after all, made to protect a tablet, so just fabric wouldn’t have worked. This padding is attached only at the zip end so that you can fold it back and get at the back of the fabric should you need to. Actually I’ve not found it necessary so far; stitching using a sewing motion and fastening on and off at the front of the fabric means everything can be done from the outside of the pouch.

Tablet case padding Inside of the tablet case

The outside measurements are slightly larger than A4, but because of the padding the largest hoop it will accommodate is 7″. Although it was clearly made to contain something flat, the fact that is is made of fabric means that you could put thicker items in it (like balls of perle cotton) and it will simply bulge around it. In spite of the padding you can fairly easily bend it double (paper charts may end up a bit crumpled if kept in there for a long time), and if you put something on top of it it will squash the contents, so it isn’t suitable for anything fragile (I don’t think I’d put any squashable goldwork materials in it, for example), but it’s fine for threads, hoop, scissors and so on. The friction with the fabric lining means things don’t slide about too much, which is a bonus.

The Slim Box is a box file made from thin, flexible plastic, and is 1cm deep. It’s made to take A4 paper, and will hold an 8″ hoop. If you put things in it that are thicker than 1cm the plastic is flexible enough to take it, although a ball of perle cotton would probably stop the flap from closing properly. It’s slightly stiffer than the tablet case, especially at the edges; in the middle of the case, however, the contents would still get squashed if you put anything heavy on it. It keeps any charts nice and flat, though. You can also store them upright, as you would books, which you can’t do with the tablet case (too floppy in spite of the padding).

Side view of the Slim Box File

And finally there is the Tuff Box. Don’t blame me for the spelling, please. This too was made to take A4 paper, and it will easily accommodate an 8″ hoop. It is unsquashable – no, that was not meant as a challenge; I meant in normal circumstances – so will keep more fragile materials safe from outside pressure. It is true that they may still get damaged by other objects in the case sliding about, but unless you keep heavy-duty fabric shears in there that seems a smaller risk than people accidentally putting something on top of your project storage. In spite of its toughness it’s light enough to carry around, and even better: you can stack them flat! If like me you often have several projects on the go, being able to store them in a pile without having to worry about the contents getting flattened is a great plus.

Tuff Box, opened

The Slim Tuff Box is 2cm deep; a bit more space than the other two in their normal state, although unlike them this one has no give whatsoever. That is its strength in that it protects your project better, but it also means that it simply will not close if you put anything too bulky in. It will not, for example, take my deep hoop. I have therefore ordered its sibling the Deep Tuff Box (4cm deep) as well, and will probably take that to the Medieval Embroidery workshop, for which I will use my 8″ deep hoop. Unfortunately even the Deep Tuff Box won’t take the Sonata seat stand – that will just have to travel separately!

Side view of the Tuff Box, with deep hoop

So there they are, three modes of transport for travel projects. I’ll very likely use each one of them at some time or another, but they definitely do each have their individual strengths. And none of them will take even the smallest of my usual thread boxes, so threads will either have to be put in loose, or in grip seal bags; or I’ll have to take the thread box in addition to the project pouch or box, but that seems to defeat the purpose rather. So sturdy threads like perles or stranded cottons I’ll very likely just chuck in loose, while silks and hand-dyeds will get bagged up before being put in.

Boxes holding the threads for various projects

Taking a stand

How many stands does a stitcher need? If we define need in the strictest sense, the answer is of course “none”. Unlikely as it may seem when browsing manufacturers’ websites, a rich and fulfilling life is possible without any embroidery stands at all. But if we take the term fairly loosely and rephrase the question as “how many stands could a stitcher use?” then the answer is probably more like my husband’s on the subject of pre-war Austin Seven cars: “one for every purpose”. In the case of the cars that means one for pottering around the lanes and going to the pub in, one for long-distance touring, one for competitions… In the case of embroidery stands it likewise depends on the use you intend to make of it.

Until last week, I owned two embroidery stands: a Lowery floor stand, and an Aristo lap stand. The Lowery is a dependable workhorse that will deal with any hoop or frame you care to throw at it (or rather, clamp in it); true, with the heavy-ish Millennium frame it needs a bit of Meccano support, but that is a minor quibble.

Lowery stand The Meccano prop in place

“So why”, I hear you say, “do you need any other stand? If this Lowery will do it all, what else do you need?” Well, the Lowery will hold anything, but it will do so in one spot. Not that it is nailed into place or set into a concrete base, but it isn’t exactly portable.

Now most of my travel projects are smallish ones in hoops that are easily held in the hand. But if I want to take a project mounted on the Millennium frame (or any other scroll frame, for that matter) to my weekly stitching group I’m stuck. Enter the Aristo lap stand, which is portable, comfortable, surprisingly stable for something that’s perched on your lap, and roomy enough to accommodate a cat.

The Aristo lap stand, with cat

Right, so I’ve got one stand that will hold anything, in its own semi-permanent place, and one stand that will travel. Unfortunately, although it’s perfect for scroll frames, the Aristo isn’t particularly easy to use with a hoop. True, you can just about perch a hoop on the arms if you put them quite wide apart, but the hoop is then so low and so close to the stitcher that you have to put the stand on a table to have the embroidery in a workable position.

And it so happens that I will be taking an 8″ hoop to the Medieval Embroidery retreat at Coombe Abbey later this summer, and simply holding it (a bit of a challenge anyway with hoops that size) is not really an option as there will be rather a lot of two-handed stitching. Taking the Lowery is not practical either. Cue the seat stand.

I’ve come across these at RSN workshops and day classes, where you can usually borrow one for the duration of the class. They have a wooden paddle that you sit on, and from it a post sticks up to which the hoop is attached. There is only one problem with them. In order for the hoop to tilt towards you, you have to sit astride the paddle. Inelegant and a bit undignified at the best of times, I feel, but completely out of the question when you tend to wear longish skirts. Theoretically it is possible to insert the paddle underneath both legs from the side (as demonstrated in this Sew & So video), but the trouble is that the hoop then tilts away to the right rather than towards you. The only other option is to have the hoop completely level with the floor, not tilting in any direction at all, but I find that an uncomfortable way of working.

Some time ago I did find the Stitchmaster Seatstand (demonstrated in the video as well and looking quite good there), which has arms like the Aristo on which to rest your work, and yes, it does tilt towards you. So far so good. But when I tried it out, I found it to be unusably flimsy for anything with a bit of weight to it, and with an unadjustable tilt that was far too steep. It definitely didn’t work for me; more research was needed.

Cue the Sonata Seat Stand, which I found on Barnyarns’ website, and which looked as though it might tilt the way I wanted. I rang their customer service department and spoke to a very helpful gentleman who got one out of its box and tried to visualise the various directions of tilt I was describing over the phone, to see if their seat stand would fit the bill. He came to the conclusion that it almost certainly would, but said I was very welcome to order one and try it out, and they would pay the return postage if it didn’t do what I’d described. Now that’s what I call customer service!

Well, here it is in what I’d describe as its Ikea stage (lots of separate bits, nuts, bolts and an Allen key); and even unassembled, the various pieces looked promising – there were definitely several tilting bits there!

The Sonata Seat Frame, unassembled

It took a bit of doing (and my husband to get the last bit of Allen key bolt into the base of the frame; I simply could not get it to budge any further) but I got it together, and although the bolts still needed knocking into the wood (which sounded rather brutal and possibly damaging but which my husband assured me is perfectly normal procedure) I managed to clamp a hoop in it to Test For Tilt. Success!

The Sonata Seat Frame; bolts still sticking out, but the tilt test is successful

And now it is fully assembled, heads of bolts flush with the wood to prevent joints from drooping when tightened, and ready for use with whatever type of skirt I care to wear smiley.

The Sonata Seat Frame, fully assembled The Sonata Seat Frame with hoop The Sonata Seat Frame in action The Sonata Seat Frame in action

Roll on the Medieval Embroidery retreat – I’m all set!

Vintage goldwork materials and a blingy sheep

An apology is due: I have been sadly remiss in providing FoFs recently. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about (there are several half-written posts lurking on my computer), it’s getting round to editing pictures and putting together a coherent tale and so on – what with workshops and some health hiccups it’s been so much easier to just bung a few lines on Facebook (do have a look when you haven’t got any other pressing matters needing your attenttion). However, before we close for our family holiday, a FoF (or at least a mini FoF-let) there must be!

You may remember that a few months ago I was given a collection of vintage goldwork materials. They were lovely, and some, like the gold and silver kid, could be used as they were. Most of the threads and wires, however, were rather tarnished. Is there any way of getting the tarnish off goldwork materials? If they are already part of an embroidery the answer appears to be a resounding No. Tarnish is part of the nature of goldwork, and we might as well embrace it. But what about pre-embroidery? I couldn’t find any suggestions on the internet, either because I looked for the wrong thing or because there simply aren’t any, so I had to come up with something myself. My answer? Silver dip.

My husband swears by the stuff for any silver that needs cleaning, and it is very effective. It just smells awful. As my husband doesn’t mind the smell, he got the task of dipping the vintage wires (I didn’t think it would do the wrapped threads any good, because of their cotton or silk core).

Silver dipping vintage goldwork wires

They were rinsed, and as they lay drying they looked pretty spiffing!

The vintage wires after dipping

But after a short while, they seemed to re-tarnish, especially the silver pearl purl, which I’d been hoping to use for my goldwork snowman.

Pearl purl re-tarnished

Meanwhile, however, we’d picked up a metal plate which cleans silver (and other metals) electrolytically with the help of hot water and soda crystals. (No, I don’t understand how it works, but it does.) I decided to try it on the silver pearl purl.

And it did come out cleaner! This may not last either, but it is definitely less yellow. Unfortunately comparison with newly-purchased pearl purl shows that there is still a considerable colour difference. Nevertheless, its rather mellowed silver glow is very attractive in its own right. It won’t do for stitched models which need to be photographed for kits or chart packs, but I will keep it for “private” projects, in which it will look just fine.

A comparison between vintage and new pearl purl after cleaning

And changing the subject somewhat but sticking with goldwork, I’d like to show you the serendipitous frame I found for my little silverwork sheep! A friend sent me a parcel for my birthday which included a Pakistani bangle. It was far too large for me (someone has since told me that it is probably an ankle bracelet) and I couldn’t think what to do with it. Then I noticed there were rims on both sides of the inner surface and thought it might do as a frame for something small, possible Shisha work. And then I noticed the little sheep lying on my desk, waiting to be Finished Properly. There was a fair amount of sparkle and bling on the bracelet – would it be too much when combined with a sparkly sheep? I tried. It wasn’t. They suited each other perfectly!

Silverwork sheep mounted in a bracelet

A friend who saw the framed sheep suggested I find more bangles to use as frames, but I don’t think I will. This was a felicitous combination, but part of its charm to me is that I was able to use a friend’s gift in an unexpected way. The sheep bangle will be a one-off.

Making velvet boards

Remember this little chap? He’s the one I’d dearly like a dozen of for the goldwork embroidery workshops. However, as that is not a feasible option I set out to make something simple but usable myself.

A mini velvet board

It is perfectly possible to make a velvet board just like that one, but it is a lot of work, and they are quite chunky; if I’m going to carry twelve of them around I’d like them to be as light and compact as possible! And as long as the velvet holds the bits of cut gold wire, the board doesn’t need to be fancy. So here is my distinctly non-fancy approach to velvet board making.

On a piece of stiff cardboard (I used the back of an old writing pad) draw the rectangles you need. Mine eventually ended up 9cm x 5cm because I had some double-sided sticky sheets that were 9cm wide.

Mark out the boards on stiff cardboard

Cut the boards out. This would have been easier if I’d drawn them along the straight edges, but I didn’t find out about the width of the sticky tape until I’d already drawn them wider.

Cut the boards

Stick the double-sided sheets to the cardboard, trim, peel off the backing and place them sticky side down onto the back of the velvet.

Place the sticky boards on the back of the velvet

Roughly cut around the boards, then trim the velvet close to the cardboard.

Roughly cut around the boards

And there you have them, a pile of light-weight, compact little velvet boards!

A stack of mini velvet boards

Trying prick and pounce

So far I’ve managed to transfer whatever I wanted to stitch without having to resort to the pounce powder in my goldwork materials box. I’ve got all the bits and bobs needed for prick & pounce; I’ve seen video tutorials and asked RSN tutors about it; but besides being quite a laborious process, it also scares me. What if I get it wrong and ruin the fabric?

But then I got the little doeskin samples, and there was no way I could get a design on there using the lightbox, and I didn’t want to risk spoiling the fabric by using an iron-on transfer pen, so out came the pricking pad, the pricking pen, the felt pad stuck on a wooden handle, the pounce powder, the gouache and the 5/0 paint brush. Oh, and a teeny-weeny paint dish I once got as part of a Chinese calligraphy set. (Did I mention it is a laborious process?)

First step: transfer the design to tracing paper and place it on a pricking mat. As Sarah Homfray points out, a rolled-up towel works as well, but I managed to find this mat-and-pricking-pen combination in a children’s book shop; they are nice and compact and I can keep them in the craft room ready to hand.

Transfer the design to tracing paper and put on a pricking mat

Prick along all the lines. This is where, in the days of my youth, you’d proceed to tear out the image along the perforated lines. I can’t quite remember what we did with the pricked-out images afterwards; I think we may have used them to make dioramas out of shoe boxes (although judging by what Google shows me when I do a search for that term, English dioramas are a bit different from the Dutch ones, which literally translated are known as “looking boxes” and are viewed through a hole cut in the front).

Pricking all round the design

But I digress – back to prick & pounce. Well, having done the pricking, we predictably come to the pouncing. And no, I don’t mean the sort of pouncing our cat does (occasionally on her own tail, if it twitches unconsciously). Pounce is a fine powder made from things like ground cuttlefish bone or chalk (white) and charcoal (black). To apply the pounce you can use a tightly rolled up piece of felt, or a piece of felt or other fabric tied around a wodge of cotton wool, or, as I am doing here, an adhesive felt pad for protecting floors from chair legs stuck to a wooden tool handle.

A felt pad on a wooden handle and some pounce powder

Carefully rub a little pounce (and I do mean a little – I used rather too much which just makes a mess) into the holes of the design, making sure the whole design is covered. This one was so small I didn’t bother pinning it, but for larger designs it’s a good idea to pin it in place so it doesn’t move while rubbing the pounce in. Here the holes are still easily visible; after the rubbing they are all filled with white powder.

Rubbing in the pounce powder

Lift the tracing paper and ta-da! You have a dotted outline on your fabric.

The pounce has rubbed through the holes onto the fabric

The next step is connecting the dots. Traditionally this is done with a very fine brush and some thinned paint, so that’s what I did. When I explained the process to my husband he suggested that instead of making things difficult for myself I could be untraditional and use a gel pen. And I may well try that some time, but I like to learn things the traditional way, even if I choose not to use that method later. Even so, doeskin was possibly not the best material to try this out for the first time… It’s a wool fabric with a slightly “felted” surface, and it wasn’t easy to get the paint on evenly; fortunately all the lines will be covered, so if they are a bit thicker it doesn’t really matter.

The dots have been connected with thinned gouache

Here is the little sheep, ready to be hooped up and covered in silver chips! I may turn him into a mascot when he is completed – after all, he helped me conquer my nervousness about prick & pounce smiley

ready to hoop up

Alternative uses for flannel?

Some time ago I bought a piece of light blue flannel (well, what I grew up knowing as “flanel” – only one “n” in Dutch – here in the UK it sometimes seems to be referred to as brushed cotton), thinking its slightly fluffy texture might make a nice background for the Little Wildflower Garden. But transferring designs on to it turned out to be a pain, and so the stack of flannel squares was put aside in a drawer somewhere.

Blue flannel or brushed cotton

There they cluttered the place up until I decided that I wasn’t ever going to use them for anything, and threw them away. My husband was about to go out to work on a car at a friend’s garage and asked if he could use them for oily rags, mopping up spills and wiping bits of car. Sure, I said. Have fun!

That afternoon I was doing some work on the goldwork embroidery workshop, and contemplating a mini velvet board that is part of my larger velvet board. Its size, about 10cm x 5cm, would be ideal for the workshops. There were two problems: they aren’t available separately, only as part of the larger boards; and even if they were, they’d be far too expensive to buy 12 of just for the workshops. Could I make them myself, just simple ones of cardboard with some slightly fluffy fabric on it…?

A mini velvet board

The blue flannel!

On my husband’s return he assured me that only a few of the squares had been turned into oily rags as yet, and he’d bring some back for me next time he went down there. And he did. Only by that time I’d found a large remnant of luxurious dark green velvet for a couple of pounds at our local fabric shop, which is obviously a more suitable fabric for making velvet boards than flannel. The blue squares have since made their third journey, to join the other oily rags.

A remnant of green velvet

While doing some research into fabrics that might work for making goldwork boards I had a look at Ultrasuede (not convinced it would work, and I couldn’t get small quantities) and – following the Stitch in Time programme – doeskin. Hainsworth very kindly sent me some small samples in a variety of colours. It is beautiful! Could it perhaps be used as a background for goldwork? Then the lady I’d spoken to on the phone sent me their catalogue-with-prices. Oof. That would have to be for very, very special projects only! But first I’ll do some experimenting with the samples.

Doeskin samples

A glowing surprise

Yesterday the friend who helps out in our main business one day a week arrived with a bag from his wife Gill, who is a fellow stitcher. “For you,” he announced, and went on to explain that a lady who had helped embroider their church’s altar cloth “three vicars ago” now couldn’t embroider anymore because of illness, and had asked Gill to find a good home for some of her stitching materials. “It all looks like scraps to me,” he said, “but Gill said you’d like it.” I cast a curious glance into the bag’s interior.

“Scraps” indeed!

Off two cardboard rolls came two good-sized pieces of kid, one a sturdy silver, the other a beautifully soft textured gold.

Gold and silver kid leather

A variety of plastic and paper bags yielded two sizes of silver pearl purl and one of gold; silver bright check; silver smooth purl; gold smooth passing, quite fine; and a chunky gold rococco.

Gold and silver threads and wires

Over the years (I presume these threads date back to the altar cloth three vicars ago) some of the silver has become a little dull, and the gold has tarnished into a warm coppery colour – but they are still perfectly usable, and how lovely to work with metals and threads that have such a history!

Incidentally my husband, who is an engineer and therefore approaches all problems from the “how can I fix it” angle, suggested trying silver dip. Just on a little bit at first, he hastened to reassure me (I think I looked rather aghast at the thought). Well, I suppose we could sacrifice a chip or two to see if it works – after all, if it does it would be marvellous to use them in their original splendour, and if it doesn’t there’s plenty left. Watch this space!