Trying out fabrics

Although choosing threads (both the type and the colours) is, to me at least, by far the most enjoyable part of getting materials together for a design, the fabric is also very important – not just because of its contribution to the final look of the piece, but also because the pleasure I get from working on a project can be seriously marred or enhanced by the fabric I’m stitching on. I have a few favourites (like that lovely dense linen I’m doing one of the SAL models on) but I’m always on the lookout for nice fabrics to add to my collection.

A week or two ago I contacted Empress Mills about the weight (gsm) of their lightweight and heavyweight Mountmellick fabrics and they very generously sent me a couple of samples. It’s a cotton sateen, and that type of weave means it looks different back and front, because the weft goes over several warp threads in one leap instead of going over one, under one. The picture shows one side of the heavyweight and the other of the lightweight.

Two weights of Mountmellick fabric

The samples were just big enough to fit into a 3″ hoop, so I decided to try them with my little Quatrefoil flower to see what they are like to work on.

Quatrefoils transferred to the Mountmellick fabric

Both allowed for a well-lit-window transfer (I couldn’t easily get at my lightbox) and both of them have a nice “feel”, but from first impressions I thought the heavyweight would be more suitable for use in kits as it’s nice and sturdy; and would the two weights stand up differently to the goldwork threads being plunged, I wondered?

Using a well-lit window as a lightbox Holding the design and the fabric in place

The lightweight, which I tried first, took it quite well, although the strain put on it by plunging the Jap threads did seem to distort it a bit. It was absolutely fine for the crewel part. It’s quite a dense weave so it’s easy to place the needle just where you want it, and in fact it would be perfectly good fabric for any kits bar the goldwork one, especially with the light calico backing I usually include.

One down, one to go

The heavyweight was next. As they are both Mountmellick fabric/cotton sateen I’d rather expected them to look exactly alike with the only difference being the weight, but the heavyweight somehow looks a little more even and this sample at least is also somewhat straighter on the grain. But would the difference be noticeable in practice?

Yes it was, but really only the difference in weight. The weave on both samples is more or less equally dense, and placing the needle was therefore equally easy. The weight of this sample, however, did sometimes make it slightly more difficult to pull the needle through, especially where there was a lot of previous stitching to get through. On the other hand, it stood up much better to plunging and having the gold threads secured at the back without distorting the front. I think this fabric would work particularly well if you’ve got a project that needs a solid ground but for whatever reason you’d prefer not to use an extra backing fabric. I’d have to try it on a bigger design, but I’d expect it to work just fine with a moderate amount of goldwork, and certainly with anything lighter.

The Quatrefoil on heavyweight Mountmellick

So I ordered some of the heavyweight, as well as half a metre of another fabric they do which is simply called “cotton sateen”, and which is available in all sorts of interesting colours. As Mountmellick is a type of cotton sateen I wondered what the difference was, and when I rang Empress Mills the lady told me it was mostly the weight. The fabrics arrived last week (I showed a picture of them in the previous FoF) and the cotton sateen does indeed feel much like the lightweight Mountmellick fabric. I may get a few more colours, as it looks like a useful kit fabric!

Certificate decisions

Last week I wrote about a significant set of four RSN Stitch Guides and ideas for the Canvaswork module of the RSN Certificate and this means, doesn’t it, surely it must, that I’ve decided to do The Whole Thing after all. As you may remember I set out on this course with the clear intention of doing the Jacobean and Goldwork modules, and then stopping. Several people (including tutors, my very supportive husband and a fellow student) have since encouraged me to do the whole Certificate, and I’ve been keeping this in the back of my mind throughout the first module. The ideas are there – my canvas scribbles and pictures-for-inspiration are fairly obvious indications of that. And yet.

Various ideas for the Canvaswork module

Having stitched for quite a few hours now using the trestle-and-slate-frame combination, I think I can confidently say it is simply not my cup of tea. I find the stitching position uncomfortable and the nearly horizontal orientation of the frame (even after putting the rear of the trestles up another notch to give it extra tilt) puts a strain on my eyes – with my ordinary glasses I can see the further end of the embroidery, but I can’t see the details nearby, while with my stitching glasses I can’t see far enough without things going blurry. When stitching the tree trunk, which covers quite a bit of the height of the design, neither of my glasses allowed me to work an entire row of chain stitch in focus while keeping a comfortable (and healthy!) posture.

The trestles at maximum tilt

But the slate frame is obligatory when doing the Certificate (and the other “big” RSN courses like the Diploma and the Future Tutor programme), and I don’t think it is negotiable. Not for the Canvaswork and Goldwork modules, with A5-sized projects, and not even for the Silk Shading module, where the brief specifies that “overall the piece should be no bigger than 8×8 centimeters (3in x 3in)”. Leaving aside for the moment that 3 inches is even less than 8 centimetres, does this really need a slate frame, even my “small” 18-inch one? I fear that it probably does if it’s part of the Certificate, and that no amount of coin-bouncing off my laced Millennium frame will convince them otherwise. But just possibly the Bling SAL Tree may sneak into my frame bag, come to my February class and show off its drum-taut tension, and then who knows?

Laced Millennium frame

PS Depending on the outcome, would anyone be interested in taking over a hardly-used slate frame in a year or so? With trestles?

How absent-minded ordering leads to another project

As you may know I’ve got seven or eight projects on hold, patiently waiting in my craft room in various stages of WIP-ness, and have only allowed myself the Ottoman Tulip because I need something that I can just use as a sort of paint-by-numbers exercise in between the Certificate and the SAL – and then my lovely Heathway Milano wools arrived.

Heathway Milano wool for the SAL

I ordered them as back-up for the SAL threads, with a few spares thrown in for good measure. But as I sorted through them I realised that for two of the greens I’d ordered as spares, I already had a spare. And because Steve at Catkin Crown had very kindly pointed out to me that if I ordered one more skein I’d qualify for free postage I had also ordered another “neutral”; always useful, but I now have perhaps slightly more than I strictly speaking need. And then there was a brown for which I ordered a spare and of which I had a bit left from a previous skein. And they went so beautifully together, and I happened to have a spare bit of twill…

To cut a long story short, this is another Oh Sew Bootiful design; it is meant to be done in purple and yellow stranded cotton and contains French knots as well as stem stitch and satin stitch, but I’m ditching the knots – I want some really relaxing embroidery to do when I’m tired and just want to enjoy the rhythm of the needle, and the soothing colours and the soft feel of the threads.

The transfer on this is quite wobbly (all right, I admit, I rushed it) and the two circles I’ve stitched so far are, to say the least, rustic. But oh my goodness I enjoyed stitching them! It was the most relaxing bit of embroidery I’ve done in a long time, and I don’t care what it looks like when I’ve finished – this is just the perfect bit of therapy smiley.

Oh Sew Bootiful kaleidoscopic design

Can you tell I’ve waxed?

Commenting on a previous FoF about the Tree of Life SAL, Louise asked about Thread Heaven as a conditioner and we got onto the subject of using beeswax. I use it in goldwork to wax the threads used for couching or otherwise attaching the gold threads and wires, but I have never used it to smooth or tame wayward embroidery threads – I’ve always been slightly nervous of making the thread lose its sheen or look, well, waxy. However, I know of stitchers who have used it and they tell me it makes the thread more manageable without affecting the look.

Then a fellow-member of the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked about Silk Mill silks and when I mentioned how springy they are (I may have used the technical term “boingy”…) she expressed concern that they would not lie flat. Now I’ve only used the silk for split stitch and a bit of underside couching, where this is not a great issue. But in satin stitch, for example, it would be. I could feel an experiment coming up.

Earlier that day I had been re-arranging boxes and folders of designs, and in one of them there was a 3″ flexihoop and a piece of Normandy fabric which I’m sure had a purpose at one time, but as I couldn’t remember what it was I decided it would do very well for this experiment (which I wanted to be fairly quick). In one of the folders I also found a Mary Corbet freebie, the inner part of which was just right for trying out both line and filling stitches. I would work the lines in stem stitch and the shapes in satin stitch, half of the project with waxed threads and half with unwaxed (and unsteamed) threads.

Notes for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I transferred the design standing at an awkward angle over my lightbox wearing the wrong glasses, which is why the lines are not the cleanest, but it’ll do. The experiment could have been done in one colour, but I chose two for a bit of interest, and also to see whether different colours would stitch up differently when waxed. I will readily admit that the combination is not very subtle, but the green is a colour of which I was sent a duplicate in error so I’ve got plenty of it, and the pink (which I chose based on the Silk Mill website rather than on their real-life samples) turned out to be much more shockingly pink then I had expected, so I’m unlikely to use it in any “proper” project.

Materials for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I started with the outermost circle in unwaxed pink stem stitch. And I’d got about half-way round the circle when something I knew in the back of my mind suddenly came rushing to the fore: Silk Mill silk is Z-twisted! What does this mean? Well, almost all cotton and wool embroidery threads and most silks are plied in an S-twist, that is to say the direction of the thread’s twist is like the slanting middle part of an S, top left to bottom right. But rayons and some silks, including Silk Mill, are plied in a Z-twist, with the slant of the thread going bottom left to top right like the diagonal line of a Z.

At this point a polite non-stitching friend might say “ah”, displaying a mild interest and wondering whether the knowledge could come in handy in a pub quiz some time; a less polite one might opt for “so what?” And it is true that the difference is not always important. As I said, so far I’ve only used this particular silk for split stitch and underside couching, neither of which involves a great amount of twist (in fact underside couching involves no twist at all, as most of the thread lies flat of the surface with bits of it pulled through to the back at regular intervals by the couching thread). This means that the twist of the working thread doesn’t make much difference to the look of these stitches. But when working stitches that do incorporate a certain amount of twist, such as stem stitch or French knots, S-twisted threads and Z-twisted threads behave differently.

Take stem stitch. When working from left to right, the loop of working thread is always kept underneath the line of stitching. This results in that lovely rope-like texture which makes such nice crisp outlines. Were you to keep the loop of working thread above the line of stitching, you would technically be producing outline stitch – and the effect is quite distinct, especially when worked in a thread with a noticeable twist like perle cotton. This is because stem stitch twists the working thread in the direction of its natural twist, causing it to tighten up, whereas outline stitch twists it in the opposite direction, making the twist looser and the line of stitches much less textured.

Stem stitch (top) versus outline stitch (bottom) Outline stitch (left) versus stem stitch (right)

At least it does when the thread is S-twisted; but if you have a Z-twisted thread, the effect is the opposite! So when the stitch instructions for a design say “stem stitch” but you’re using a Z-twisted thread, you need to work outline stitch, and vice versa. You’ll also have to twist the thread around the needle in the opposite direction when doing French knots or bullions, and it will make a difference to whipped stitches as well. You can see this effect in the picture below; you’d expect the green to be stem stitch and the pink to be outline stitch, but in fact it’s the other way round as they are worked in Z-twisted Silk Mill silk.

Outline stitch (green) and stem stitch (pink) in a Z-twisted thread

I’m rather pleased to think that my choice of silk is going to add another learning experience to the SAL: I’ll be able to point out in the blog which stitches need to be worked in mirror image to the usual instructions to get the same effect!

But back to waxing. The finished experiment shows stem stitch, unwaxed (pink circle), outline stitch, unwaxed (green circle), stem stitch, waxed (pink quatrefoil), outline stitch, waxed (green quatrefoil), satin stitch, unwaxed (outer pink) and satin stitch, waxed (green and central pink).

The experiment complete

And the first thing that struck me was how much darker the waxed quatrefoil lines look than the unwaxed circle ones. Whether the coating of wax does actually make them darker or whether it’s because they reflect less light (or reflect it differently; there definitely seems to be less of a sheen), the effect is quite noticeable and would have to be borne in mind when choosing whether to wax. A second difference between the unwaxed and waxed threads shows up more clearly in the satin stitch sections: when waxed the threads look much more cord-like and separate – they don’t blend into one smooth surface nearly so well as the unwaxed threads.

The experiment complete

That’s how wax influences the thread’s look; but does it make a difference to how it handles? Well, waxed it was a little more manageable with less bounce to it, although I was actually surprised how well the unwaxed thread behaved when I was doing satin stitch, especially considering that I hadn’t steamed them. On the whole I don’t think the slight improvement in handling is worth the loss of sheen and the loss of “spread” in the satin stitch areas. Yes, I can tell where I’ve waxed – and I won’t be doing it again.

All framed up

All right, I can’t resist. I’m so ridiculously pleased with the lacing I’ve done on the Millennium frame and the good tension I managed to get on my 14″ hoop that I just want to show them off! A bit of work in my photo editing programme to blur the transferred designs, and now I can share my framed and hooped SAL fabrics without spoiling the mystery smiley.

I photographed them both with the threads and other bits and bobs around them to give some sense of the size (the cat in the hoop picture is not there for scale, just for her decorative value). For a stitcher who until relatively recently thought of a 7″ hoop as quite large, this 14″ whopper comes as a bit of a shock whenever I see it. The bigger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get good tension on the fabric, but as I mentioned before the bound inner hoop helps, as does the fact that it is a 20mm deep quilting hoop; a few more judicious tugs at the fabric yesterday and some persuasive wingnut action and the tension is now equal to what I would expect from a much smaller hoop.

Hooped fabric and materials for the plain Tree of Life

The Millennium frame has superb tension when used as it comes, even side to side – in fact surprisingly so for a frame which (like pretty much all scroll frames) holds the fabric top and bottom only. The top-to-bottom tension is incredible, and must, I assume, be so much better than on any scroll frame I’ve tried because it is achieved by lengthening the side bars (they each have a thick wooden screw inside them which screws up and down), in effect pushing the roller bars apart, rather than by trying to roll the fabric tightly onto the bars. You can apply so much more force that way. The Millennium frame’s side-to-side tension is derived purely from the scroll bars – because the fabric is held firmly along its entire width by an ingenious groove-and-rod combination, it is almost as taut at the edges as it is in the centre, something that is practically unheard of with other scroll frames.

Orpheus mounted on the Millennium frame

So why lace the fabric? Two reasons. Firstly, I said “almost as taut”. You can bounce a penny off the centre of the fabric, but there is a little bit of give right at the edges. Secondly, because of the very strong top-to-bottom tension the fabric will stretch vertically, albeit only slightly; this will be more noticeable the longer the fabric is on the frame, and this project will likely be there some time. You can slacken off the tension between sessions, but I prefer to keep the fabric taut so the tension remains more or less the same throughout my work on the piece.

Neither of these is an insurmountable problem, and I have happily used the frame without any further fabric preparation, as you can see from the picture above. But because this time I’m working with two layers of fabric, and there are goldwork elements in the piece, I thought I’d apply some of my newly-gained knowledge of dressing a slate frame to this smaller frame for even better tension. Attaching the fabric to the top and bottom bar is done as usual – there is no canvas to sew it on it to, and I’m very pleased there isn’t as the rod-and-groove system is a lot quicker – and after that I extended the side bars enough to make the fabric sit flat, without sagging, but not so much that it was stretched.

Next, sew herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and use that lethal bracing needle I showed last time to lace them to the side bars. Slightly more fiddly than with a slate frame because the Millennium side bars are not uniformly shaped from top to bottom, and part of what I’m lacing around is the exposed wooden screw. But with a bit of string manipulation it works perfectly well, so on to the final stage of gradually increasing the tension in both directions by extending the side bars and tightening the lacing. At the end of all that I’ve got a piece of fabric you could play an impressive drum solo on, and it’s much more portable and manoeuvrable than the slate frame, sitting quite happily on my Aristo lapstand rather than needing trestles. Win!

Framed fabric and materials for the bling Tree of Life

I might sneak in a few SAL stitches later this week during my RSN Certificate Homework Time…

A Jacobean trunk – lots of brown

You may remember that I wasn’t at all sure whether I ought to go to my September Certificate class, as I had been able to do very little work on the project over the summer. If you cancel within a week of the date, you don’t get a refund, so I had to decide by Friday 13th at the latest. This is when my husband, who still has delusions of Mabel achieving world domination in embroidery, stepped in and made me schedule an hour and a half off work to stitch on as many days as we could manage leading up to the class.

We run our business from home and my desk is actually in the same room as my slate frame set-up, so logistically there wasn’t a problem. And I agreed that I would have to do some serious stitching if the class was to be more than just an expensive way of buying stitching time. Well, with four 90-minute sessions (with restful cat in the background), a fair bit of stitching over the weekend, and sampling in the evenings I did manage to get enough done to make the class worth while. In fact it was a very fruitful day – but more of that in a later FoF.

Stitching session with cat

Today I’d like to talk about the trunk, and what I’ve learnt from stitching lots and lots of brown chain stitch smiley.

The first thing I learnt (during my previous class) was to work the stitch slightly differently from how I would normally do it. Picture the usual process: bring the needle up, go down in the same hole, leave a loop at the front, come up one stitch length away, catch the loop, pull through. Yes?


Apparently this puts too much strain on the thread. I can’t say I’ve noticed it in other projects, but wool is notoriously shreddy (especially Appleton’s) so the less unnecessary friction the better. And I will admit the noise that the twill and wool produce when doing chain stitch the usual way did make me feel the tutors had a point! The solution is to add a step to the process: after “catching the loop” you don’t just pull through from to the top by pulling the needle, you pull the loop through from the back with your fingers (bit of fumbling until you get into the rhythm) so that the chain stitch looks like a finished chain stitch, then pull the thread through to the front by pulling the needle. In this way, the thread is only ever pulled straight through the fabric (i.e. not at an angle), minimising the amount of friction. It worked so well that I inserted the same extra step when it came to stitching the stem stitch vine.

Because the extra step makes every stitch take just that little bit longer, and because the tree trunk contains a lot of chain stitches, and because I’m trying to keep my stitches as evenly-sized as possible, and because I am not a natural at the slate frame (more about that in a later post too), progress was not particularly quick, and at the end of the third class this was where I’d got to:

After the third class

So far so good, now just keep stitching chain stitches in five shades of brown and Bob’s your uncle. Except there was another lesson to be learnt – the fact that sometimes you can’t tell whether something looks right until you’ve done it. I’d finished the second shade of brown and started the third, when I realised there was too much of shade two in the top part of the trunk. If I left it in, the other three shades would be crowded. I decided to unpick. At the same time I noticed that I could have done with a little more of the first shade where the top half of the trunk meets the side branch. Unfortunately that would mean having to unpick the whole second shade in that top section, and I’m not that dedicated to achieving a perfect result! Technically, the stitching there was fine – my only niggle was that colour-wise it would have looked better with just a bit more of the darkest brown. I will note this in my log, and explain why I didn’t change it.

A bit too much of shade two Unpicked, ready for re-stitching with shade three

The log is an intriguing thing; it can be used to explain all sorts of things you have or haven’t done, especially in conjunction with the samplings. I like my log!

I also learnt… well, no, I had it confirmed (and believe me, this will be a recurring theme) that Appleton’s wool is, shall we say, less than consistent in its quality. In fact, one of the threads I fastened on against my better judgment looked so fluffed up and puffy after only one stitch that I promptly took it out again and discarded it. Because I don’t like throwing thread away I use some of these discards for my samplings, but it’s not ideal – after all, the samplings are meant to give an idea of how a stitch will look in the actual design!

A fluffy puffy thread

One of the things I get a little paranoid about (besides worrying whether my chain stitches are all approximately the same length, and whether my voiding is precise enough) is design lines. The brief specifies that none of the painted design lines must be visible in the finished piece. But with something like chain stitch, which is relatively wide, it often leads to a difficult decision. In the picture below, a bit of design line is definitely still visible (orange arrow). But an extra line of chain stitch will take the stitched area well across the design line, making the branch thicker than it was originally intended to be. Of course, when I say “well across” I need to remind myself that we’re talking millimetres here. So possibly I’m just being a bit too pernickety. Anyway, I added the extra line.

The blue arrow in the second picture above shows yet another learning process. In order to blend in lines that aren’t full-length, a little creativity is needed now and then. Here I am starting the line that will go up the trunk from inside a stitch on the line that curves into the side branch; that way, there will be no very obvious starting point in the middle of the bark.

That isn’t always possible, but however you work it, lines that don’t go all the way must not noticeably end. The easiest way of decreasing the width of a shape like this trunk is to make each line as long as it can be, stopping each one when you hit the design line. If you do it that way, the longest lines will be in the centre of the trunk, and the closer towards the design line you get, the shorter the lines become. The disadvantage of doing it this way is that the outline can look a bit stepped. For this reason I decided to “hide” some of my shorter lines on the inside of the trunk (green arrows) rather than having them on the outside. I try to end each shortened line by tucking it under the previous line or at least having the little holding stitch as close to the previous line as possible. Because chain stitch tends to spread a bit, especially when done in wool, this effectively hides most of the endings.

Can I just get back to Appleton’s for a moment? Most of their colour families come in anything from five to nine shades; the higher the number of a shade, the darker it is, so in a series of nine xx1 will be very very light, xx5 somewhere in the middle, and xx9 very very dark. Now I would expect the difference between each pair of shades to be more or less the same, so that 4 is as much different from 3 as 3 is from 2. But it isn’t. My five shades of brown are 182, 183, 184, 185 and 187 – one number missing between my darkest and my next darkest shade, so you expect a bit of a gap there, and so there is. But whereas you can see a fairly clear difference between the middle three shades, unless you look very carefully the very lightest one is almost indistinguishable from the next one up, making the right-hand side of the tree a rather uniform beige. A bit late now to swap 182 for 181, and anyway the tutors advised me against choosing that shade early on in the course because they said it would be too close to the colour of the fabric. So it’ll have to be what it is now.

The five shades of brown in the trunk

I may be a bit unfair to Appleton’s here; even with my very favourite crewel wool, Heathway’s Milano, the nine gradations within a colour family aren’t always evenly spaced. But even the tutors remarked on the fact that Appleton’s 4, 5 and 6 shades are often so close that they advise students to use no more than two out of the three. Perhaps if Heathway expand their colour range, they might be able to convince the RSN to change over…

But that’s well into the future, if it ever happens, and my Jacobean Certificate piece is now. And Appleton’s or not, I’m quite pleased with how that trunk has turned out!

The finished trunk

Mugs half full and awkward envelopes

Is there a word that means “doing something that needs doing, but not urgently, so that you have an excuse not to do something that is much more urgent”? I’m sure we’ve all done it in one way or another (I wonder how many houses/sheds/garages get a thorough clean when the income tax returns are due) and “procrastination” doesn’t quite fit the bill because you are in fact doing something useful.

Why this little linguistic aside? Because hurray! I’ve got all my kits ready for the Knitting & Stitching Show, but, well, they aren’t needed until the second week of October and I should really have been working on either the SAL or the RSN Certificate, and preferable both.

Kits for the K&S workshops in October

Still, they’re done and safely stored away, and there was actually a good reason for not leaving them to the last moment (or so I tell myself): two of the designs, No Place Like Home and The Mug That Cheers, have never been kitted up before, so there are generally little bumps in the process that need sorting out. Additionally, when kits are being made up for a workshop rather than for a straightforward sale, there are extra things to be done. If the design is a non-counted one, as these are, it needs to be transferred onto the fabric beforehand; K&S workshops are usually 90 minutes long, and you want the students to get stitching straight away – quite apart from the logistics problem of providing twelve light boxes for tracing!

The little house was by far the easier of the two to kit up; for one thing, it uses only one type of thread (Madeira Lana) and one needle, and transferring the design was the only extra thing that needed doing for the workshop version. The mug was quite another matter. At one point the entire dining table was covered in the various bits and pieces needed for it: organza ribbon, metallic ribbon, floral gems, sequins, beads, quilting cotton, Bondaweb, plain and variegated perles and plain and variegated stranded cottons were sitting in small and large piles, waiting to be put together.

And then there was another thing. The top and bottom of the mug are worked in appliqué; to do that, you first trace the parts onto Bondaweb, iron that onto the bits of coloured fabric, cut out the parts, remove the paper backing and sew the parts onto the ground fabric. This is fine if a) you have half a day or so and b) you have an iron. The latter could probably be arranged, but the process would eat heavily into the hour and a half we have available. The only workable solution was to iron and cut both the mug parts myself and pre-attach one of them. And because there were twelve kits to prepare, and because Bondaweb is double-sided, I decided to iron rather than sew on the bottom parts. And here they are (well, one of each colour):

Pre-attaching part of the mug

Afterwards I thought that actually this could be turned into a teaching moment – for although some people may enjoy the process of sewing on the appliqué parts with small invisible stitches, others may just want to get on with the decorative embroidery and the embellishments. This shows the students both options when doing this sort of stitching: hand-sew the entire thing, or iron on the coloured fabric for a quicker finish.

So far so good. The ground fabric for the workshop kits had to be cut rather larger than I would normally have done because the K&S people will provide 4″ hoops or 8″ hoops but not 6″ hoops, so I decided to transport the twelve fabric squares with their attached half mugs separately rather than having to do a lot of folding to fit them into the kit bags, but otherwise I could start putting everything together. Almost.

Here is one of the Mug kits. Like all my kits, except for the goldwork one (which comes in a sturdy cardboard box), it comes in a roughly A5-sized grip seal bag. This works because the chart packs are printed on A4 paper which, folded double, is A5. Folded instrcutions, fabric, threads, any other bits and bobs, needles, finishing materials – it all fits beautifully in my standard bags.

The appliqué Mug kit

Except for the envelope that goes with the card that is used to finish the appliqué mug. The card itself will fit, just. But the envelope won’t.

The contents of the kit, minus envelope

For the workshop that’s not a problem; I’ll just keep both the ground fabric and the envelopes separate from the kits, and hand them out at the start of the class. But what if I want to put the Mug kit on general sale? For that it’s over to you!

When buying a kit like this, would you prefer it to come in a slightly larger grip seal bag which would be a little, erm, baggy, but which would have all the parts of the kit in it? Or would you prefer a snug bag with the envelope sent separately (not separately as in two separate parcels, obviously, but outside the kit bag)? Your feedback, either in the comments or by email, would be really helpful to decide on the best way forward with the Mug.

A needle mystery

If you follow my Facebook page, you may have read that I had some trouble ordering needles for kits. The John James website would not recognise my password, would not let me reset it because my username didn’t exist, and would not let me re-register because my username did already exist. In the end I rang them and a kind lady took my order over the phone. Sorted!

JJ sell their needles in various quantities – the usual blister packs you find in the shops, envelopes of 25 (more economical) and bulk buys of 1000 (more economical still, but for now definitely overkill for my scale of kit production). I tend to go for the envelopes. My immediate reason for ordering was the fact that right in the middle of putting kits together I’d run out of the one size needed for pretty much every non-Hardanger kit I produce (#7), so I ordered plenty of those, plus a few envelopes of other sizes (#3 and #10) to make the most of the postage.

Today they arrived. General rejoicing! And then I noticed that one of the envelopes said “002”.

An order of needles

Fortunately the #3 needles had very much been a “padding” order; I would definitely be using them, but I didn’t need them for the present run of kits. Even so, I thought I’d better ring JJ about it. The phone was answered by the same lady who had taken my order. I said the needles had arrived, and thanked her for sending them out so promptly, and then mentioned that one of the packets was the wrong size. “The number 2s?” she asked. It turns out the writing on the order had got smudged before she could put it together, and she couldn’t read the last size. She couldn’t get me on the phone and as I’d said the order was urgent she’d decided to send it out with her closest guess, which unfortunately turned out to be the wrong one. She promised she’d send out a packet of 3s to replace them, and told me not to worry about sending the 2s back, but just to pass them on to someone else if I couldn’t use them.

Very good service, you’ll agree. But then I thought I might as well check how different size #2 was from #3; after all, if they were’t too much bigger they would probably work. I took out a needle and held it next to one of my #3. It looked exactly the same. I remembered there was a size guide on the JJ website, and that some sizes of needles were actually identical – perhaps this was the case for #2 and #3? But no, it wasn’t; #2 should be the same as #1, distinctly larger than #3 and #4.

Needle sizes

And yet they looked the same. Unless I borrowed my husband’s micrometer I couldn’t be sure of the needles’ diameters, but I could easily measure their lengths. They were both 45mm long. Somehow the packet of size #2 I was sent by mistake for a size #3, actually contained size #3 needles. Perhaps sometimes two wrongs do make a right! I rang JJ to tell them not to send me the replacement packet, turned the 2 into a 3 on the envelope and tucked it into my needle box with the other size #3 packets. I love a happy ending smiley.

Needlepoint coasters

When Mabel’s Fancies first branched out into selling what you might call physical items, I decided that I would only offer things which I enjoyed using myself. No wonder then that first on the list were my trusty titanium squissors, but they were soon followed by the acrylic coasters which I must by now have used to mount several hundred pieces of Hardanger and cross stitch (most of them for charity or as gifts, I hasten to add, just in case you are now picturing my house groaning under a load of embroidered coasters).

Hardanger coasters, variations on the kit design Cross stitch kitten coasters Cross stitch initial coasters Hardanger coasters, variations on the kit design

Last week I was contacted by a lady who wanted to know whether they were suitable for needlepoint. Now Hardanger is relatively chunky, and although the coasters aren’t deep enough for anything with beads I have successfully mounted designs that use sequins – but I had to admit that I’d never actually tried them with needlepoint. However, you may remember that some time ago I stitched some small needlepoint experiments, so I promised her I’d try them out and let her know.

I unearthed the needlepoint pieces, and found a coaster which I’d set aside because it had a slight blemish so I couldn’t sell it. I was ready to go!

Two pieces of needlepoint and a coaster

I started with what was likely to be the less challenging one to fit into the coaster, stranded silk on Congress cloth. Because of the stiffness and openness of the canvas, I could trim it simply by cutting along the edges of the coaster’s backing plate.

Trimming the canvas to size

Having pulled the canvas a bit to get it properly square, I popped it into the coaster and snapped the backing in place without a problem. One down, one to go.

The finished coaster

The second piece was worked in crewel wool on 18 mesh canvas, and is much chunkier than the black version. In particular the Rhodes stitch in the centre looked like it might cause trouble, especially because it is almost as high on the back of the canvas as it is on the front. Double trouble! I wasn’t very hopeful, but I cut it to size and fitted it into the coaster recess.

A chunky Rhodes stitch may cause problems Rhodes stitches are chunky both sides

Now for the backing. I pushed in one end. I pushed in the other. The first end popped out again. I applied pressure to the whole back at the same time, spreading fingers to push in all four edges simultaneously. It stayed put. Hurray! Not a complete success, as the Rhodes stitch looks decidedly flattened (and that’s without any added backing fabric or Vilene), but it does fit.

A slightly squashed coaster

Much will depend on the type of needlepoint this lady does, so I sent her photographs of the two finished coasters plus information about the materials used in the stitching, to help her decide whether the coasters might work for her. But whether or not they will, it was an interesting exercise – and as I can’t sell the coaster or use it for kits anyway, I put the black canvas needlepoint back in so that I’ve got another decorative coaster to use.

Changing suppliers

I don’t like change. This may sound odd coming from someone who changed country, job and marital status in one fell swoop some 14 years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Even the knowledge that quite a lot of change in my life has been for the better, and that I am fully enjoying the new (but by now familiar) situation, does not make me embrace change as it happens. And recently I’ve been faced with three disconcerting changes in suppliers. But is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel(s)?

Well, let’s start with the first tunnel: Sew & So. Anyone in this country (and many abroad) who does needlework will at least have heard of Sew & So, even if they’ve never bought anything from them. They are the go-to place for all basic supplies and quite a few not-so-basic ones; just to illustrate this, they stock both a wide range of standard Zweigart fabrics and a good selection of hand-dyed and silk threads. So to see the following notice after I’d just put some things in my shopping basket the day before (you can still see them there, but I can’t access them any more) came as rather a shock:

Sew and So has closed

In a way it was a shock-in-stages – last year they completely changed their website, making it much less user-friendly, and although there were plenty of comments and suggestions from customers on their Facebook page none of these seemed to be taken any notice of. Last month they suddenly closed temporarily for a “change of ownership”, opening again a few days later, so all seemed well. Then, looking for the RSN’s online courses (which they offer in partnership with Sew & So) after a conversation with a lady in America, I found they were no longer listed. I should perhaps have twigged it might be something to do with the Sew & So side of things, but I didn’t. Not until that notice! On their website and Facebook page they say that they are “securing a new home for you”, but no-one seems sure what that means. Tunnel #1 is very dark indeed.

Now for the second tunnel. In quite a few of the kits I offer, the projects are finished by mounting them in aperture cards. The freestyle Wildflower Garden, the two Shisha designs, the raised Christmas Wreath, the embellished Butterfly Wreath, the goldwork Flowers & Bee, plus a couple of workshop projects that aren’t for sale on the website yet – all made into cards. I like that way of finishing because it is relatively quick and you end up with something you can use.

As I have neither a suitable die-cutter nor the time or inclination to produce the cards myself, I buy them in. And for the past few years I’ve been getting all my cards from Craft Creations, who had an enormous range as well as the option to buy as few or as many as you needed of any size, cut and colour. Ideal.

Aperture cards from Craft Creations Craft Creations' value range

And then I got an email announcing that Craft Creations had been taken over by a new owner. With slight trepidation I checked the website. There was hardly anything there.

At this point I rushed into the craft room to check my stock of aperture cards, and found to my relief that there was a fairly good selection in my stash to tide me over, if the tiding-over period wasn’t going to be too long. I contacted the company and a kind lady told me that she was fairly sure all the card types I was looking for would be back in stock in time, as they would be adding more and more of the previous range to the website again, but that it might take time because they were trying to source materials themselves. Fair enough, I would exercise patience and have another look in a few months’ time. I did. Most of the cards I needed are still not there; the one cut and size that is there, is available in limited colours; and only in packs of twelve. Clearly it was time for another email.

This time I was told that they were still sourcing materials, but that in any case they would no longer be selling individual cards. That in itself need not be an insurmountable problem; it merely means that I will have to limit the number of colours I use for the various kits. Some come in a limited range already – the Wildflower Garden in red, blue and cream, the Christmas Wreath in red and green, the No Place Like Home workshop in red, green and blue. I’ll have to have a good look at the thread colours I use in the other kits and pick the two or three card colours that will work with most thread combinations.

Another possibility is to source the cards elsewhere, but unfortunately I have not found any other company with the range that Craft Creations used to do. There is a company who cut cards to order; they don’t offer all the exact sizes and colours I’m using now, they are more expensive, and they too require a minimum order, in their case at least nine of every different size/cut/colour combination. Still, they may be a useful option to fall back on if Craft Creations doesn’t come up with the goods.

So yes, there is a little light at the end of Tunnel #2, but I hope it grows brighter quickly as I’m beginning to run out of some of the cards!

As for the third tunnel, you may remember the picture below – Pearsall’s crewel wool starter pack. I found out about their lovely Heathway Milano crewel wool while trying to find the silks I used to buy from them, only to be told that they no longer did them (see what I mean? change everywhere! even though in this case it had a positive spin). Carol was absolutely lovely and looked through several available starter packs for me to see which would best suit my requirements, and I have bought a fair few skeins of wool from her since.

Wool from Pearsall's starter pack

Unfortunately my crewel Rabbit & Carnations piece showed that there were lamentable gaps in my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool, so when a bit of website maintenance (I’m nothing if not versatile) brought in a little extra cash, I was off to the Pearsall’s website with whoops of delight before you could say HTML. Mabel may be pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to stash, but if any of my non-needlework activities can lend a helping hand, I’m all for it!

Once on the website I was so engrossed in the delightful problem of deciding which colours to pick as definites and which as possibles that I initially missed a narrow red banner at the top; it bore the ominous message “Pearsalls Embroidery is closing down. Purchase of goods is disabled. Click here for more information.” Clicking as instructed brought up a message to the effect that the business was being taken over by Catkin Crown Textile Studio, with an email address.

Now I knew that Carol was thinking of selling the business, but I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. And I was worried whether Catkin Crown would carry on with the lovely wools. Time for yet another email.

And hurray, light! Steve & Hazel, who are Catkin Crown, turned out to be extremely helpful people. They assured me that although they will be adding all sorts of exciting products to the shop’s range of supplies, they are very keen on keeping the Heathway line going, and in fact it (and twill fabric) will be their core product range to begin with. They also said that although the new website was taking a bit longer than expected, if I could send them a list of the colours I wanted they’d see which ones they had in stock, and they’d be happy to do a special order for me.

So I did, and they did, and look:

A parcel from Catkin Crown Twill and Heathway Milano wool The new wools sorted by colour

Tunnel #3 is going to be just fine smiley.