Remembering Elizabeth

I have written recently about my mother-in-law Elizabeth. On Good Friday my husband and I went down to Devon to look after her for a week, which we had been doing alternately with my sisters-in-law for the past couple of months; we returned home last Friday, and yesterday afternoon we received the news that she had passed away. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.

As this is a blog about embroidery, I want to remember her here as the outstanding needlewoman she was – but also as a wonderful mother-in-law, who (apart from perhaps not always being the most tactful person in the world) couldn’t be further away from the usual stereotype. She and I enjoyed many a joint stitching session whenever we visited.

Stitching with Elizabeth

Elizabeth would try anything that involved thread and fabric and some sort of needle or hooked implement. She knitted me a fabulous dress – when I asked if I could have it in beige she said “you’re not old enough to wear beige!” and only budged when I explained that a beige dress could be worn with all sorts of brightly coloured and patterned tights smiley. She crocheted as well, and was a whizz with a sewing machine: when she and her husband moved to the States for three years in the 1970s she sewed their outfits for the square dancing classes they joined.

I don’t have pictures of some of her more experimental embroideries (including an abstract piece with various appliquéd arches in different materials, and a Monet-style waterlily garden), but here are a few of her projects: a Suffolk puff Christmas tree, a canvaswork piece called The Garden of Jersies, a tea cosy with shisha work which she made for one of her daughters, and the quilted patchwork bedspread she made for my husband and me (the back is all in shades of green).

a Suffolk puff Christmas tree A Garden of Jersies canvaswork An embroidered tea cosy A patchwork quilt

For decades she was happy to experiment and try new things, but a few years ago she said to me, “I’ve found that I can embroider anything I want using just a few simple stitches, so I don’t bother with the fancy ones anymore”. Seeing what she could do with stem stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch and French knots, I didn’t argue!

Speedy triplets

Well, a baby in triplicate. Last week we had the lovely news that a baby had arrived safely into the world: little Evelyn. Both the new parents and all three grandparents are church friends of ours (I actually taught the baby’s mum in Sunday school, which makes me feel terribly old), so three cards were needed. I had to find a nice baby motif, and also decide whether to embroidery the name on each card.

Now many years ago in one of the many cross stitch magazines that I used to pick up at car boot sales I found a very pretty pattern of a baby-on-a-frilly-blanket, and I stitched it for a friend’s daughter’s first Christmas. Some years later I stitched it again (with darker hair, to match the baby in question) for the newborn son of friends of ours. That was quite an interesting card to make as there was a power cut halfway through, and as I was going to see the family the next day I finished stitching it by the light of an Aladdin lamp.

Stitching during a power cut Card for baby Rakan

I felt this would be a good motif to use for the three cards needed this time, but doing it in the original cross stitch version would take far too long. Fortunately it wasn’t difficult to turn it into a line drawing and transfer it to three bits of fabric. For the threads I decided on floche with possibly some Blomstergarn (Danish flower threads) – I have a sum total of five skeins of it and tend not to use it much because cream, two yellows and two greens don’t give a lot of scope beyond the odd buttercup or dandelion. But I wanted to make the romper suits different colours so they don’t look like a job lot, and the yellow and green would make a nice bright splash of colour.

The materials for the baby cards

Baby #1 was soon finished and I was particularly pleased with the frilly blanket, but a few tweaks were needed. The eye was too dark, so I took it out and re-did it in a lighter brown after this picture was taken. I also decided that in the other two I would work the face outline in whipped backstitch instead of split stitch – it makes a cleaner line – and use a slightly darker pink. As for the name, the embroidery would have to be very fine and fiddly and take rather a lot of time, so I settled for writing it on the fabric in silver or gold gel pen when mounting them in the cards.

Baby number 1

Baby #2 had the tweaks incorporated, and I did like the face outline better this way. In my quest to make them all different I left out the detailing in the hair and stitched the romper suit in two shades of green with the darker one used at the tummy and the far sleeve; I also added some petite beads.

Baby number 2

Baby #3 was given a yellow romper suit and darker hair; I couldn’t tell from the few photos I’d seen what Evelyn’s actual hair colour is, but her mother is a fair ginger and her father quite dark, so it’s anybody’s guess. This time I added tiny sequins, which I wanted to put in the same arrangement as the beads. Unfortunately I miscounted when getting them out of the bag and I found I was one short, but by that time the bag had been put away in the craft room and Lexi was comfortably curled up on my lap with no intention of moving. Explaining to Mr Figworthy exactly where in the craft room to find a small bag of 2mm sequins was just too complicated, so I re-spaced the sequins I had.

Baby number 3

Now all that remained was to turn all three into cards. I found three aperture cards in colours roughly matching each of the romper suits, but that looked a bit dull so I mixed them up. I added the baby’s name making sure the whole thing still fitted inside the aperture, and then had a think about what to write on the card. “Congratulations” would be the usual thing but for some reason I didn’t like that; you sometimes see “A new baby!” or “It’s a girl!” but that sounded a bit obvious. And then I remembered the baby’s middle name – perfect smiley.

Three babies made into cards

A passing resemblance

Do you find that you have certain favourite materials and stitches for the various types of embroidery? I’ve been doing quite a bit of goldwork recently (you may have noticed…) and certain metals and threads have been steadily emerging as favourites whereas others are on the avoid-if-possible list. The larger sizes of rococco, for example, definitely fall into the latter category (I much prefer the also wavy but finer check thread); and passing thread in its various weights is one I reach for with much more enthusiasm than Jap, with which it shares certain characteristics. It’s a shame that Jap and rococco are required in my Certificate piece, whereas check thread and passing are not allowed.

Rococco and check thread

So what is passing, and how does it differ from Jap? Well, they both have a thread core (silk or cotton); the difference lies in what is wrapped around the outside. In Jap this is a relatively wide strip of metal foil paper, whereas in passing it is a metal wire or a thin strip of metal. This makes passing slightly stiffer, but also more suitable to take around sharp bends – Jap’s foil wrapping sometimes comes away from its thread core if the bend falls right in the middle of a wrap.

Passing and Jap Passing and Jap, close-up

A few weeks ago someone on the Needle ‘n Thread Facebook Group mentioned a shop called Tied to History which, they said, had some great bargains on discontinued threads, among them fine passing. This sounded interesting! I had a quick look, and before long several shades of fine passing had made it into my shopping basket, including a lovely rose gold which you may remember I thought might work for adding wavy highlights to Mechtild’s hair. When they arrived, I was not disappointed – lovely fine threads, much finer than any of the passing I had in my stash.

Passing threads from Tied to History

In fact what it most resembled was an unidentified metal thread I was given by my mother-in-law a few years ago. And like that thread, it seemed to be a bit betwixt and between: relative to the thread’s thickness, the wraps around the core are much narrower than in Jap, but rather wider than in passing. When I asked the seller about this, she said that she wasn’t an embroiderer herself but a maker of historic costumes; she hadn’t been able to find a thin enough metallic in the US, so had begun to source them herself, and eventually found these in India. She said she might well not be using the correct technical term for them. Be that as it may, they are lovely fine threads, and I look forward to using them!

Different weights of passing

But to do that, I need to undo the skeins. I started with one of the silver ones, partly because I bought two of them so if something went wrong I’d still have the other skein. Call me a pessimist, but metallic threads can be unruly and challenging, as I knew only to well after tackling the Jap that came in the bundle of gold threads my mother-in-law passed on to me.

Goldwork materials from my mother-in-law

And yes, before too long I ended up with an almighty tangle. Sigh. I contacted the seller, who said yes, the threads could be challenging to store; she usually popped them around a jam jar and took off as much as she needed, straightening the thread as she went. I can’t quite visualise the jam jar, but over the Christmas period, when the light is rather too bad for any serious goldwork stitching, I hope to take a leisurely afternoon or so to create shiny order out of metallic chaos. Wish me luck!

A passing tangle

A gold surprise, gold spaghetti and gold waste

As I got back from my Certificate class last Wednesday there was a padded envelope waiting for me among the Christmas cards. I opened it to find that it contained… a Christmas card! But there was a reason for the protective wrapping, which became apparent when I looked inside the very pretty stitched card – three little glassine bags containing three shades of gold bright check. What a lovely surprise to have some sparkle added to a dark December afternoon. Unfortunately the Certificate brief means I can’t use any of these kind gifts in Bruce the Kangaroo, but I’m sure I will find a good purpose for them.

A Christmas card and a lovely surprise

One thing the bright check won’t cause is the sort of gold spaghetti I ended up with at the back of my work after plunging the mixed couching on Bruce’s back. I’ll tell you more about the front of the work in a later FoF, but I thought I’d show you the slightly dispiriting sight that greets me at the moment when I turn over a frame whose front looks quite neat and tidy.

Goldwork spaghetti

The curved needles that come with the Certificate starter kit are fairly chunky which makes it difficult to pick up only the backing calico, and oversewing some earlier plunged threads I’d managed to catch the silk as well as the backing so that the sewing thread was visible at the front. This had to be unpicked (fortunately the silk wasn’t damaged) and re-done. I ditched the kit needle and used a curved beading needle I acquired a while ago. Well, I acquired two, but they are rather fragile and I broke one a few weeks ago. Now at the class Becky, the tutor, mentioned that a quilting shop near Hampton Court Palace did curved needles that were thinner and more flexible than the RSN ones, but sturdier than beading needles, so I rang them and ordered a couple of pairs. When they arrive I’ll get all those ends secured, and then Bruce and Haasje will go into hibernation over Christmas.

When I posted the spaghetti picture in a stitching forum, a fellow member asked about the wastage rate of goldwork threads, seeing that they are not the cheapest of materials to buy. Thinking it over, I found that actually it’s not too bad. Wastage in goldwork comes mainly in the couched threads where the ends of the thread get pulled through to the back (plunged) for the purpose of finishing off. The hollow wires that you treat like beads have (in theory at least) no waste at all because you cut them exactly to size; I say “in theory” as this takes a lot of practice, but even when you’re not yet very good at estimating the right length relatively little is thrown away – bits that are a little too long or short can usually be used elsewhere in the project. The same goes for pearl purl which is the only one of the couched materials to be cut to size and not plunged (because it doesn’t have a thread core). In fact, if you restrict your materials to pearl purl and the various flexible hollow purls and checks (and spangles), you won’t see any gold at the back of your work at all!

The back of this goldwork shows no gold at all All the gold is on the front

Anything with a thread core gets plunged, so you leave at least an inch on both sides; I actually tend to leave a little more when I pre-cut lengths, as I did for Bruce’s back where the lines are relatively short. The shorter the couched length, the greater the wastage as a percentage of the length used. But in Bruce’s hind leg, for example, where for the central part I’ll just be going round and round and round, the plunged bits will be a relatively small percentage.

Different lengths of couching

And even then I can’t really think of the plunged ends as “wastage” because, well, you need to finish off! In much the same way that you weave the thread end in when doing cross stitch or Hardanger you need to secure these gold threads. You only oversew about 10 to 15mm but you do need a bit more to pull to the back so you do tend to cut off a few centimetres each time after securing, and those offcuts can’t be used for anything else. Still, on the whole it’s fairly economical with the materials (depending to some extent on the design) – most of the gold is definitely on the front where it is seen!

Goodbye, Ally Pally

Do you remember early March? When the news from abroad was worrying but the UK seemed to be carrying on much as usual for the time being? On 10th March, four months ago today, I got the usual email from the organisers of the Knitting & Stitching Show to submit workshop proposals for the October show at Alexandra Palace (they have to start planning in good time). I sent them a selection of seven or eight workshops four days later, and on 8th April I was sent the workshop schedule with the request to proofread my four entries.

I can’t tell you how odd it felt. Only the week before I had celebrated my 50th birthday in strict lockdown with my husband and the cat instead of looking forward to a big family party in the Netherlands, and proofreading workshops seemed strangely incongruous. Still, the show was six months away and it’s good to be optimistic, so I looked through the text and corrected or amended a few things. I was quite pleased with the workshops they’d chosen: it was a nice combination of the familiar (the Hardanger needle book has been a stalwart in the programme ever since my first workshop in 2013) and the new (this would be the first time the Christmas Wreath was included), and of counted (all of the Hardanger, and the foundation of the Christmas Wreath) and freestyle (No Place Like Home and the Butterfly Wreath).

The four workshops that are not to be

And then I rather forgot about the whole thing as lockdown really took hold, and it didn’t seem likely anything like the Knitting & Stitching Show would be allowed to go on. But a week or so ago I got an email from Wendy, who organises the workshop programme, to say they were planning a show with a difference. Booked tickets only, fewer stands, fewer but longer workshops to minimise traffic from one to the next, sanitising everything that doesn’t move and asking everything that does move (like tutors) to sanitise themselves… I don’t envy them the task because it will be a Herculean effort. And as she pointed out when I wrote back with some questions, they don’t even know yet whether come October they will be allowed to go ahead, but if they don’t start planning now they won’t have a show even if they were allowed to!

Unfortunately that meant that tutors like myself had to decide this week whether we would teach or not. It took a lot of thought and talking it over with my husband and close friends, but in the end I came to the conclusion that I would opt not to teach this year.

For those of you who love the workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show, especially those of you who have attended one or more of my workshops in the past and perhaps were planning to come to another one this year, I’d like to explain why I made that choice. There is the obvious fact that none of us knows what the situation will be like in October, and making a decision now which involves a fair amount of travel on public transport to attend a show with people coming from all over the country in three months’ time was, I felt, too much of a risk. Although neither myself nor my husband is in a vulnerable or extremely vulnerable (shielding) group, several people I come into contact with are, and I want to be careful.

The other major consideration is the way I teach. As most of my workshops are aimed at beginners, if not of needlework in general then at least of whatever technique I’m teaching there, a lot of my time is spent showing students (either individually or in little clusters) how to work a particular stitch, what the next stage of the design is, or where to bring the needle up to make the next stitch easier; and of course helping them if something has gone wrong. All this would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, while maintaining social distancing, even if the distance has been reduced somewhat by then. I would in effect be offering them a kit with some extra verbal explanation, and that is not the workshop experience I want to give students.

It was a difficult decision, because I will miss teaching and meeting the stitchers there very much. But in the end I think it was the right thing to do this year, and I will just have to look forward to being back next year. And who knows, perhaps we can think of an alternative! If you would normally have come to a workshop but for whatever reason decide not to visit the show in person this year, would a one-on-one kit-and-Zoom-workshop be something you’d consider as an option? Let me know whether the idea appeals to you, and if enough people like it I’ll get my thinking cap on…

Happy Easter

This Easter I would like to share with you the story behind my Hardanger dragonfly, and why it is called Resurrection:

In a pond there live little underwater creatures who are very sad whenever one of them climbs a stalk up to the surface, because they know it is the end and they will never see him again. One little creature decides to climb up himself, look around, and come back to tell everyone what happens when you get there. But when he gets to the surface he falls asleep, and wakes up to find himself the beautiful dragonfly he was always meant to be. Full of joy he wants to rush back to tell his friends not to fear or grieve about the journey to the surface, but his new dragonfly body can’t go down into the water. One day, though, they will join him and know for themselves the joy of this new life.

An Easter blessing

Special birthday offer

Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, which also happens to be Mabel’s birthday (I’m sure this is not at all significant…) – her 50th, in this case. And Mabel’s Fancies has an anniversary coming up: on Easter Monday it’s nine years ago that she first opened her virtual doors. (I tend to remember it by the occasion rather than the actual date; Easter is a time of new beginnings, and Mabel’s Fancies was definitely a new beginning for me!)

What better way to celebrate birthdays and anniversary than by stitching something? So with any order placed between 1st and 13th April, we’ll throw in 1-2-3, our Hardanger set of numbers.

90 18

But what, you might say, if you don’t do Hardanger? Or if you do, but you’ve already got this design in your stash? Well, if you’re not a Hardanger stitcher, and have no desire to try it (this could be a great opportunity, you know smiley), you can contact us to request Spring Flowers (anniversary version) instead; and if we see from our records that you have already bought 1-2-3, we’ll send you A-B-C (our Hardanger alphabet) instead.

Enjoy your birthday or anniversary stitching!

A two-stage transfer

Last Monday at our weekly embroidery group a friend brought a kit which she’d been given for Christmas; it was a Quaker Tapestry kit. She’d got everything hooped up and was about to start, and she explained the first thing was to do stem stitch on the back of the work so that there would be backstitch on the front. We were all a bit puzzled about this, and I asked why she didn’t simply work backstitch on the front of the work. She wasn’t absolutely sure herself but said she was just following the Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide which came with the kit. Several of us had a look at it and after a while we worked out why this was the first step: it was part of the Quaker Tapestry transfer method. I was intrigued and that afternoon bought a copy of the Stitch Guide myself (which fortunately could be obtained without having to buy a kit).

The Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide

The trouble with the Quaker Tapestry and its kit offspring from a transfer point of view is that pretty much none of the usual methods work on the specially-woven woollen fabric they use. It’s too thick for a lightbox transfer, too textured for prick & pounce (even if the variegated colour didn’t make it difficult to work out what shade of pounce to use in the first place) – tacking the design on through a layer of tissue paper would probably work, but pulling every last bit of tissue paper out from under the tacking without damaging or at least fluffing the fabric would be challenging. So the Quaker Tapestry people came up with a method that as far as I know is unique to them. And it so happens that it looks to me like a jolly good method for transferring designs onto other “difficult” fabrics – dark, thick, textured or a combination of the three. I decided to have a go myself to see whether I liked it.

I didn’t want to use anything too big, so I fell back on my trusted little Quatrefoil. Wouldn’t it look rather rich and luxurious done on burgundy dupion? As this fabric is both dark and textured, it would make the perfect trial piece for this transfer method.

The not-easy-to-transfer-on fabric

The first step is to transfer the design to your backing fabric, which you then hoop up with your main fabric. A few things things to bear in mind: firstly, as you’re working on the back of the fabric the transfer needs to be a mirror image of the design. Not a problem here as the Quatrefoil is pretty much symmetrical, but especially important to remember if there is any lettering in the design! Secondly, when you hoop up do so with the backing fabric facing you, to make sure you get the transferred design centred in the hoop. And thirdly, make sure the backing fabric is relatively densely woven, for example a medium-weight calico. I used a very open Egyptian muslin and regretted it because it makes it difficult to place your stitches accurately. (By the way, I am using these terms in the British sense; British calico is American muslin, and British muslin I think is American mousseline.)

The design transferred to the backing Mounting the two pieces of fabric, centring the back The front of the fabric, without transfer

The Stitch Guide tells you to fasten on with a knot at the front of the work (that is to say, the side you are working on as you transfer the design, which is actually the back), taking the needle down right at the beginning of a design line. You then come up a stitch length further along the line – this in effect makes your first backstitch on the right side of the fabric. You then go down a stitch length further, and come up again where you came up the first time. This makes the second backstitch on the right side of the fabric, but also sets you up for your line of stem stitch on the backing side.

You need to remember this “extra” stitch at the beginning of every new line, but you soon get used to that. I found it helpful to think not of how neat (or not) my stem stitch was looking, but of what the backstitch on the other side of the fabric was doing. Sometimes, especially on corners, the stem stitch will look quite ragged, and the thing is not to get hung up on that as long as the backstitch on the other side is correct. Keeping your mind on the unseen backstitch (quite apart from providing some good mental exercise) helps when you need to move from one design line to another, to make sure the whole line is covered on the right side of the fabric.

Work stem stitch on the back The backstitch outline on the front

As I was going to stitch this little flower in Splendor silks, I used a single strand of the lightest colour for this transfer. The Quaker Tapestry Stitch Guide says you should use whatever colour will be used on the front, so that the transferred design shows the correct colours; mainly, I assume, so that the design lines are more easily hidden in the finished embroidery – if a little does peep through it won’t be so noticeable – but as an added bonus it would help the stitcher pick the right colour for the various parts without having to refer to the instructions every time. Still, I felt that would be overkill in a design as small and simple as this, and anyway as I was just quickly trying out the method I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.

The silks I picked for the design; the lightest colour only would be used for the outline An outline in the correct colours

Looking at the emerging design lines, however, I wondered what would happen on the parts that were going to be outlined in split stitch. It might be rather difficult to work a nice even line of split stitch on top of the backstitch. Ideally what my transfer produced would be as close to paint or ink lines as possible, and as unintrusive to the stitching. An unattainable ideal from the very nature of things – thread is never going to be as flat as paint – but would a finer thread be the answer? I switched to Gütermann sewing thread and it definitely does make a difference: the teal arrow shows the outline done in one strand of silk, the orange arrow points to a part done in sewing thread. (The lilac arrow points to one of a couple of places where there is room for improvement in my stitch placement; a denser backing fabric – see above – would help.)

Gütermann sewing thread for thinner lines Thinner and thicker lines, and a few irregularities

I can see myself using this method for goldwork on a silk dupion background, using the sewing threads normally used for couching the metal threads and wires: dark yellow where there is going to be gold, light grey for silver, dark orange for copper. Or perhaps for stitching on velvet or other difficult-to-transfer-onto fabrics. A useful addition to my stitching arsenal!