“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.

Glowing inspiration

A few days ago a fellow member of Mary Corbet’s Facebook group posted a link to the documentary Secrets of the Castle, in which historian Ruth Goodman attempts to make goldwork thread (having dyed her own silk threads earlier in the programme) for a small Opus Anglicanum project.

Ruth Goodman and her daughter Eve doing medieval embroidery The gold thread used in underside couching

And this was proper gold thread! None of your .5% or even 2%, this is the stuff of Exodus 39: “They hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut strands to be worked into the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen – the work of skilled hands”. True, Ruth and her daughter Eve did not do the actual hammering; they wisely started with gold foil that someone else had prepared earlier. But in the clip (the link above will take you to the start of the embroidery segment) you can see them do the cutting and “working into”. What I found fascinating was that what seemed the most obvious method (wrapping the gold around a silk core) actually produced an expensive and unusable bit of untidy tinsel; what was needed was to gently roll the thread across the gold strips, a bit, I suppose, like rolling a cigar.

An untidy bit of tinsel Rolling the gold thread

That made me think. Ruth Goodman pointed out that the foil they were working with (which was apparently originally made by flattening gold coins between sheets of leather) was thicker than your usual gold leaf – but apart from that it’s the same thing. And I have some gold (and silver) leaf left over from the days when I did calligraphy and illuminated initials. And plenty of silk threads to use for the core.

Gold leaf used in illumination Gold leaf used in illumination Gold and silver leaf

Now gold leaf is incredibly fragile and very difficult to handle; at the slightest provocation (or none at all) it will stick to your fingers and disintegrate into a fine gold dust covering your finger tips and anything else it touches. Cutting it with a knife as shown in the clip would normally be out of the question, but fortunately I had the foresight to buy my gold leaf attached to backing paper, which means that you can actually cut it with scissors. Unfortunately it is taken off its backing by pressing it, together with its backing, on to the slightly sticky ground that you first apply to your paper (or vellum or parchment if your budget runs to it) – and there is no stickiness applied to the silk core. Even so, wouldn’t you agree that it’s impossible not to try, now that I’ve seen this documentary smiley? Watch this space!

Unexpected goldwork and unexpected gold

As I mentioned last time, we’ve been sorting through things at my parents-in-law’s house. And as anyone who has done this will know, you invariably come across surprising things when sorting out a house – a packet of stock cubes for saffron rice with a best before date of November 1997 being one of the more unexpected.

But even more unexpected, and a lot more interesting, were two pieces of fabric carefully wrapped in tissue paper: a dark pink rectangle and a yellow square, backed with silk (some of it rather worn), and on the front…

A goldwork table centre A goldwork table centre

I can’t quite work out whether this is heavily tarnished goldwork, or whether it started out as silverwork; in real life the metal is a bit yellower than in the pictures. The metalwork on the pink piece is mostly made up of wire chips – wire or bright check, and smooth or rough purl (after all this time it is difficult to tell whether it’s the shiny or the matt version) – and very fine passing applied over what is probably cardboard, as well as some spangles. The wire chips are sometimes attached straight (possibly over padding) and sometimes arched over other chips; the spangles are attached with small chips of wire check.

wire chips and padded passing

The yellow piece likewise has a great amount of wire chips (some of it used to create outlines), but also passing couched in bundles in a sort of weaving pattern, and a very fine metal thread (also passing?) used for chain stitch filling. The chain stitch filling forms the background for free-standing wire loops; there are no spangles.

chain stitch, couched weaving and wire loops

My mother-in-law unfortunately couldn’t remember where they came from – at first she thought they might have come from her grandparents’ house, but then she wasn’t sure. She did remember, however, that they used to be the centre pieces on the dining table at Christmas. They must have looked gorgeous in candlelight when they were in their prime; even when we found them after all those years they showed a good bit of sparkle in the sunlight.

And that wasn’t the only gold: while looking through my mother-in-law’s thread chest (one of the pieces of furniture she’s taken with her, and a veritable treasure trove of threads, beads, ribbons and embellishments) I came across a reel of Jap, a hank of very fine passing, and some more Jap in what very likely started life as a hank, but was now a tangle. Yes, she said, she’d bought those once, probably for a workshop or class, but (sounding slightly deprecating) they weren’t real gold; actually it would have been surprising if they were, as even the “purest” goldwork threads that are readily available contain only 2% gold, most don’t get beyond .5% and Jap often contains no gold at all. But they are lovely and shiny, and these were definitely “proper” goldwork threads. I gratefully accepted them, bundled together in a plastic sandwich bag.

Goldwork materials from my mother-in-law

Incidentally, did you notice the difference in colour between the various golds? Although the two Japs turned out to look more similar once I’d wound the tangle onto an empty reel. Which, by the way, was quite a job!

A tangle being reeled The full reel

It’s a good thing Jap is one of the more resilient goldwork threads; even so, it got slightly damaged here and there in the untangling process. Fortunately, however, there is plenty left that is perfectly usable. Perhaps I’ll try some of it on a small silk flower I’m stitching at the moment – it’s a bit of an experiment anyway, and few projects aren’t enhanced by a bit of extra bling smiley. A good opportunity to try out the translucent couching thread I got at the Knitting & Stitching Show as well; I’ll let you know how I get on with both.

The show is over

The Knitting & Stitching Show, that is. There was a lot to see, but in between workshops I managed to get round most of it (and quite a bit of London as well – I can recommend Golders Hill Park and the London Wetland Centre!)

There was a wide variety of exhibitions this year, and it was interesting to see the different things people create; some of it I really liked, some of it was not my cup of tea, and some of it I liked in spite of not expecting to, but all of it served to show that there is no “typical embroiderer/knitter/crocheter/quilter”. The pictures below show Toft Alpacas’ crochet display, a beautiful pictorial quilt, a box with a goldwork lid and pompom sushi made by a RSN (Royal School of Needlework) Future Tutor, one from a series of embroideries recording the artist’s mother’s life, including her last years with dementia, and a circular piece of knitting.

Toft's crochet display A pictorial quilt An embroidered sushi box Circular knitting

This year I taught three workshops: Hardanger, Shisha and freestyle. I got some good and helpful feedback, and pictures of finished projects from several participants. Two ladies actually completed their Shisha flower duing the class, including mounting it into a card, and a Dutch lady doing the RSN certificate (or diploma, I’m not sure which) and taking in the K&S Show as an extra stitch-related activity soon posted pictures of her Hardanger needle book.

A Shisha card finished at the workshop A Shisha card finished at the workshop Marlous C's Hardanger needle book

Another lady who came to the Shisha workshop bought the companion kit (the Shisha Tile), finished both at home and then used the techniques she’d learnt to embellish a Christmas quilt, creating a diamond-shaped variation of the stitch used in the Tile kit.

Barbara E's Shisha flower card Barbara E's Shisha tile Barbara E's Shisha tile variation Barbara E's Shisha tile variation on a quilt

And finally, did I buy any new and interesting fabrics, threads, designs? With so many stands selling all manner of goodies, could I possibly resist? Well, not entirely. After enjoying a walk-in demonstration by Sarah from Golden Hinde I bought some of the translucent couching thread she recommended, at a grand total of £2.20 smiley

Translucent couching thread

Could you use…?

When you are known to be a needleworker, sooner or later you will be asked the question “Could you use…?” The item in question may be a great aunt’s collection of half-finished canvases, threads once bought but never used, inherited patterns, or fabrics, needles, hoops or beads which the owner can’t use anymore because of deteriorating eyesight or increasing arthritis. It often includes a great many things which frankly you will never be able to (or want to) use, but there are gems, too. And knowing other needleworkers means that it is rare for these donations not to find a good home eventually.

Recently a gentleman who came to our house to purchase parts for his pre-war Austin Seven (Mr Figworthy’s main line of business, when he is not assisting Ms Figworthy in attaining world domination in embroidery) noticed the various bits of stitching dotted around the house, and asked The Question. In this case it was what he described as “a bag of designs” that once belonged to his grandmother. Last week he dropped them off, and it turned out to be parts 1 to 34 of a series called Embroidery Magic, complete with all the iron-on patterns and two ring binders. Judging by the style they date back to the 1980s, and I’m going to have fun looking through them and picking things which I may want to stitch before taking them to my various embroidery groups for the ladies there to fight over smiley.

Embroidery Magic

Rather longer ago my mother-in-law gave me a box of unidentified silks on cardboard tubes. So far I haven’t done anything with them, but from the start the colours suggested peacocks to me. I’m now thinking of using them for a split stitch version of the miniature cross stitch peacock I designed for a pendant (the picture shows the anonymous silks at the top, followed by discontinued Eterna silks, Piper silks with a couple of discontinued Filofloss, and Threadworx hand-dyed Vineyard silks).

A box of unknown silks A peacock in silk

Or perhaps it could become a miniature-stitching-on-silk-gauze workshop? I have acquired a few inexpensive pendants which I hope will be perfect for that. Now to convince the Knitting & Stitching show that silk gauze embroidery is just what they need on next year’s workshop programme!

The mini peacock in my own silver locket The original pendant and the possible workshop ones The miniature peacock fits the new pendant

Needles

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out different needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends) and although some of them are definitely a lot more expensive than ordinary needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends smiley), because they are small items the actual cost is still affordable as a treat (unlike being a racing car fanatic and deciding to try out different engines, for example). But are these fancy needles really necessary, and do they live up to expectations?

We all know the needle book belonging to grandma or great-aunt which contains the needles with which she sewed her entire life, apparently with no detrimental effect on either herself or her sewing. On the other hand, it is possible to be too thrifty and to practice the false economy of trying to do fine embroidery with needles that have long lost their plating and are tarnished and rough and doing unmentionable things to your threads (especially silks). Don’t wait until the needle gets so weakened with use that the eye breaks and becomes a health hazard (yes, voice of experience).

But when you change your needle, does it matter what you change it to? If the size and the point (blunt or sharp) are correct for your work, does it make a difference whether it’s from a bargain basement box-of-25-for-50p or whether it is a Tulip branded one costing a frankly eye-watering £1 per needle?

I decided to find out. Normally I use John James needles bought in envelopes of 25 for all forms of freestyle embroidery, and gold-plated tapestry needles bought in bulk from Busy Lizzie (who no longer sells them) for Hardanger. These are probably a little more expensive than an unbranded assorted pack from the local haberdasher’s, but because I buy them in fairly large numbers they are still a relatively economical choice. And they have served me well over many years, doing the job they were designed to do. But various people (experienced stitchers all) singing the praises of Tulip needles from Japan made me decide to give them a try.

The first thing you notice when they arrive is the packaging; you have to do a lot of unwrapping to get at the needles! A well-presented (and colour-coded) cardboard box closed with a decorative tassle holds a glass tube with a cork stopper, which in turn contains the needles. It’s beautifully done, and unfortunately immediately made me wonder how much less expensive the needles could have been with less fancy packaging… Still, you’d expect a Cartier jewel to come in a velvet-lined, gold-stamped box, not an anonymous cloth bag, so perhaps it’s just all a sign of the quality and attention to detail.

Tulip embroidery needles come in a nice cardboard box Tulip embroidery needles in a tube with cork stopper Tulip embroidery needles

And how do they work? Very well. They are nice and smooth, and very sharp so they pierce the fabric accurately. But I’m afraid I didn’t notice the enormous difference in stitching comfort that some stitchers report (saying they can now stitch for much longer because the smooth needles put less strain on the hand), or that much of a difference in accuracy. Do I enjoy using them? Yes. Will I continue to use them? Yes, until I run out. But I won’t buy them again. The difference between the Tulip needles and my ordinary ones is simply not great enough to justify the difference in price.

Next up were Clover needles (incidentally also from Japan). I picked up some gold-eye between needles in the Netherlands some years ago, and have found them very useful; this was partly because they were the first between/quilting needles I’d ever used. I’m a bit hazy as to the exact difference between betweens and quilting needles, but they are both shorter than ordinary embroidery needles and therefore easier to use when you’re trying to manoeuvre in a small space (for example at the back of the work near the edge of the hoop). For smoothness the Clover ones compare favourably with the Tulip betweens, and at less than 15p each there is really no contest there.

Clover embroidery needles in their packages A Clover #12 needle on my fingertip

The black & gold ones are rather more expensive; they come in at about 23 of the Tulip needles. The black polish, which according to the description is grooved along the length of the needle, is meant to make it glide through the fabric more smoothly.

I tried some of them out on King Ethelnute (my nickname for the split stitch & gold project started at the medieval embroidery retreat) using two of the black & gold needles, a #9 quilting needle and a #10 between, both with a single strand of Silk Mill silk, doing split stitch. Oddly enough the #10 was more difficult to pull through even though it is significantly thinner than the #9. The #9 was very smooth to use, and pierced the fabric very accurately. I’ve got a whole pack of the #10 betweens so will try one of the others to see whether it was just this one needle being difficult! On the whole, however, I’m not sure the black & gold needles are significantly more pleasant to use than the standard gold-eye Clover needles, so unless further use changes my mind I will stick with the standard ones, which are very good indeed.

And what’s next? Well, I would like to try Bohin needles, made in France, which have also been praised for their smoothness, and possibly Piecemakers (from America). But for now I’m happy with the John James needles for everyday use, and the gold-eye Clover betweens/quilting needles for fine and accurate work.

PS On one of the online embroidery groups I’m a member of, someone asked (having seen the picture of the #12 needle on my fingertip) how you thread a needle that thin. Well, there are needle threaders (although for a needle that size you’d have to use a micro-threader) but so far I’ve managed with the method I was taught at one of the RSN day classes I attended: “bring the needle to the thread” instead of the other way round. Hold the very end of the thread between thumb and index finger, open up so that the end of the thread is just visible, then bring the needle’s eye towards the thread between your fingers, so that the eye of the needle is the only place that the thread can go when you open up your fingers further. It’s not easy to describe in words only but I hope it gives you the general idea. If you decide to give it a try do let me know how you get on with it!

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