Autojumble stitching, and I’m still weak

You know what usually happens to my travel projects – they get packed, stay in the suitcase/overnight bag/handbag, and come back home again in the same state as they left. And there really was no reason to think it would be any different this time. After all, the Beaulieu International Autojumble is not the first place you think of when considering ideal stitching locations. On the other hand, when the stand has been set up, the tea made, and there is temporarily no scrum of customers waiting to be served, you might as well do a bit of embroidery!

Stitching at the Beaulieu autojumble

Remember I said this project would have to be do-able with my ordinary glasses? Well, it was – just. It did slow me down rather, and occasionally I had to take off my glasses to place a stitch more accurately (after unpicking the inaccurate one…) but when we got home I’d managed almost all of the green stems and leaves:

The stitching I got done at the Autojumble

The day after we came back my stitching group met again for the first time after the summer break, and I decided to take the strawberries to finish. Which I did, with about 2 minutes to spare. Incidentally, although I knew my stitching glasses make a difference to the degree of comfort and ease of stitching, I found it quite astonishing just how much easier it was! Working on the same project with both pairs of glasses within a short time made the difference crystal clear. Even so, some of the stem stitch in the flower petals could have been a little smaller and more delicate; I was obviously rushing a bit towards the end.

The finished strawberries...

Still, it’s quite an attractive little project, and back home I mounted the finished work in an aperture card, ready to be sent to a dear elderly friend in The Netherlands who does not do email or computers, with some printed pictures of our new grandson.

...mounted in a card

As for my continued weakness, a fellow member of the Mary Corbet Facebook group showed some of the kits she had done recently. They looked like they would make rather relaxing and attractive travel projects (although possibly slightly on the large side), so I foolishly asked where she’d got them from. The answer was Oh Sew Bootiful, and as I browsed the site I found this satisfyingly curvaceous wave design. Most of her designs come not only as full hoop art kits (including the hoop as well as the threads etc.) but also as “fabric pattern packs”, which have the printed fabric and the instructions only, obviously a good option for those of us who are well-endowed with stash already. I liked the shape. I liked the fish. I liked the foamy French-knotted wave tops. I gave in. Perhaps it can be my travel project for London when I go to the Knitting & Stitching Show in October.

The foamy wave pattern pack from Oh Sew Bootiful

OK, I’m weak

Well, yes, of course I am still determined to focus on the SAL and the Certificate project, definitely, no other WIPs for me for the time being, but, uhm…

…we’re off to a trade fair soon (vintage cars, not embroidery, in case you’re wondering) and neither project is really suitable to take with me when travelling; not even the accompanying doodle cloths. Both projects need notes taking while I’m stitching and working things out, and they need a lot of concentration. And the slate frame is hardly the most portable of options anyway. And I need a card for a dear friend and none of the pre-made ones I’ve got in stock is really suitable. And, and, well, I’m just weak, that’s all.

And so I started looking for a suitable project. It needs to be easily transportable in my handbag; it should be simple to do, preferably just stem stitch outlines with the odd French knot or seed stitch; it must make a pretty card; and it shouldn’t be too fine or detailed because ideally I would like to be able to stitch it wearing my everyday glasses (grabbing five minutes of stitching time when there is a temporary lull in the number of customers is so much easier when you don’t have to get your special glasses out of their case and swap them with your normal ones).

A design that I stitched four years ago sprang to mind: this lovely strawberry motif from an out-of-copyright book which Mary Corbet wrote about.

Strawberries in Gumnuts, Gloriana and Dinky Dyes silks

Back then I used various stranded silks – Gumnut, Gloriana and Dinky Dyes. But to keep things simple I thought I’d better use an indivisible thread for this travel version, and I decided to go with DMC coton à broder #16; it’s a bit chunkier than the more common #25, and although it doesn’t come in as many colours there’s just about enough choice for this design (I would have liked a slightly darker green than that very light one, but it will do just fine).

Strawberries as a travel project using coton à broder

Chances are, of course, that I won’t get a stitch done (as usual), in which case I may just have to sneak it into the stitching rota when we’re back home; but it’s such a quick little project that it won’t distract me from the main ones for too long. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

PS A change from the original set-up: I’ve put the project in a smaller hoop. It may be a little bit awkward fastening off near the edges (although as I use quilting/between needles that is less of a problem than it would be with regular needles) but it does make it more portable. And mindful of the excellent piece of advice Gary Parr has often passed on in his Fiber Talk podcast, I’ve threaded up with the first colour and worked a few stitches, so that when I get a minute or so to stitch, I can just pick it up and go. Thanks Gary smiley.

Strawberries in a smaller hoop, and wih a few stitches done

Focus, woman!

You may have noticed, in the course of eight years (eight years?!? How did that happen?) of Flights of Fancy that I have a tendency to spread myself. Having just one project on the go is just not something that seems to happen to me. But with both my next Certificate class (21st September) and the first significant SAL date (posting the materials list on 1st November) sneaking up on me at a rather alarming speed, it was time to grab myself by the metaphorical lapels and give myself a good talking-to. Focus. Time to put away all projects except the SAL, the Certificate, and any relevant doodle cloths (the stitches on which may or may not end up being used – no guarantees smiley).

Far too little stitching A doodle cloth Experimenting on a cat Trying out stitches which may (or may not) be used in the SAL Trying out threads and other materials

So it’s goodbye to WIPs Queen’s Silks, Llandrindod and wool Hengest…

The RSN metalwork course project Llandrindod Hengest with his mane as yet undone

…and to not-even-started-but-waiting-in-the-wings projects Soli Deo Gloria, Helen Stevens’ 30s Revisited kit, and silverwork Come Rain (and its goldwork counterpart Come Shine).

Soli Deo Gloria Helen Stevens 30s Revisited kit Come Rain

And that’s without including silk Hengest and Mechthild the Medieval Queen which are in the design stage!

Even so I have almost decided, in consultation with Angela, to cancel my next Certificate class and give myself a bit more breathing space, picking it up again at the next date I’ve got booked at the end of October. I want to do the Certificate, but I don’t want it to become a chore or a burden.

More haste, less speed; and distracting vestments

We’re back from our holiday in Kent, where we had a lovely time and I did no stitching at all on one of the projects I’d brought, and only a little stitching on the other. (Yes, I took two projects with me. Just in case, you know, that I’d do so much stitching that one project wasn’t enough. Ha.) I did see some lovely stitching, though – none at Chatham Dockyard, not surprisingly, but Ightham Mote, Hever Castle and Penshurst Place all had their fair share of tapestries, garments, fire screens, stumpwork caskets and mirror frames and so on.

Some of it I could get close enough to to be able to look at it without my glasses (as I’m very short-sighted that’s the best way for me to see small details), but most items were frustratingly just too far behind the glass to allow a naked-eye, close-up look. I did ask at one place whether they ever allowed people to study the pieces up close, and they did, but it was obvious from the way she phrased it that this was for serious academic researchers only, not for just anyone who happened to be interested in embroidery. Oh well.

Gold and silk embroidery at Hever Castle Various embroideries at Hever Castle

The last full day of our holiday was Sunday, so we started with early morning Communion at the local church – of which more later – then visited a nearby wildlife reserve which used to be gravel pits, had a picnic in a field, and returned for a quiet afternoon and evening before the journey home on Monday. Just the opportunity to get out my stitching! Well, after I finished the detective novel I had with me… By the time I’d finished that it was not quite so hot outside, so I put a chair out on the lawn, gathered my project and threads and scissors and glasses, sat down, and found the inquisitive wet nose of the resident Alaskan Malamute alarmingly close to my fabric. Fortunately Blade, though enormous and very solid, was extremely friendly; and anyway, he soon decided that my embroidery was not edible and that I wasn’t about to scritch him behind the ears, so he ambled off to find a shady spot.

This left me to do some work on Llandrindod: I was about to put in the surrounding facets on the first jewel. This is done in split stitch, wih all sections worked in a clockwise direction, three of them in the medium shade and three in the light shade (the large centre facets were worked in the dark shade). Unfortunately the medium red doesn’t show up quite as different from the dark red as I’d expected, but I hope that with the light shade and the accents in pearlescent thread which I will add later the overall effect will still be that of a jewel with light playing on it.

Split stitch is slow work, so by the time I’d finished the three medium facets it was nearly time to start cooking dinner (i.e. put the pies we bought at the local deli in the oven). But I really wanted to see what the effect of adding the third shade would be. Now there is a tiny facet right at the bottom of each gemstone which is worked in the light shade, and surely that wouldn’t take long. I’d just quickly put that in and then pack everything away. I did. I looked at the effect of the third shade. And then I realised I’d stitched it in the wrong direction – anticlockwise instead of clockwise.

Facets added to the ruby in Llandrindod

I could have left it, I suppose. It’s a very, very small section indeed. Would anyone notice in the grand scheme of things? Possibly not. But I would. And it would annoy me. So out it came. As you may remember from Hengest, unless it’s confined to the last one or two stitches it’s practically impossible to unpick split stitch; you have to cut the stitches and pick out all the little bits of fluffed-up thread. Fortunately the linen I’m using stands up well to this sort of abuse, so there’ll be no problem when I get round to doing the section again, clockwise this time!

Unpicking, or rather, uncutting A fresh start

I mentioned that we visited the local church on Sunday morning – an 11th-century building rejoicing in the name of St Edmund King and Martyr, a mere three minutes’ walk from us. It turned out to be fairly high church, and the priest’s vestments had a rather interesting design in gold on them. It intrigued me, because I couldn’t see how it was done. For the first part of the service my brain was chewing over this conundrum in the background until I realised that this was not the right preparation for Communion, and cast the matter aside for the moment. Oddly enough, it was while receiving Communion that I found the answer to the problem.

So what was the problem? Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me so I couldn’t ask the priest afterwards if I could take a picture of the vestments, but when we got back to our AirBnB I quickly did a sketch from memory. It looked somewhat like this:

Sketch based on the West Kingsdown vestment

The parts that particularly caught my eye were the thin concentric circles within the wide circle, and the way in which the sides of the outer circle were part of the vertical borders. I was trying to interpret the design in couched pairs of Jap or possibly twist, and the circles looked like a fairly solid outer circle of several pairs of Jap, with a gap the width of one pair followed by a thin circle consisting of one pair, and this gap-and-circle then repeated. In other words, the gaps and the thin circles were the same width. This same effect was also used in the top and bottom parts of the design (the parts with straight sides, concave outer edge and convex inner edge). There was also an interesting weave effect in those top and bottom parts, consisting of short lengths of gold-gap-gold.

There were several things which I couldn’t work out by looking at it from a distance. For one thing, I couldn’t tell where the thin circles were plunged. They seemed perfectly continuous, with no break anywhere in their sheen and sparkle. And talking of plunging, all those short length making up the weave would have to be plunged individually – that’s a lot of plunging and a lot of bulky gold to get rid of at the back of the work! And then there were the parts where the wide circle intersected wit the vertical borders; there should be a change of reflection there, as the curved lines of Jap met the straight vertical ones, but there wasn’t. There should also be a noticeable break, unless the embroiderer working on this garment had attained such a degree of perfection in her plunging that you literally couldn’t see the joins.

A problem if you couch the design

It was as I received Communion and looked up at the priest and saw the vestment close-up that I realised my problem was caused by an incorrect assumption. I had assumed that the design was made up of lines of couched gold thread, but it wasn’t – it was cut from solid gold fabric and presumably appliquéd on. Cutting and applying the thin circles and other thin lines must have been quite a fiddly job, but not nearly so fiddly as trying to do it this neatly in couched Jap. (Incidentally, I didn’t work all this out while taking the bread and wine – I just stored the information away for later contemplation. Important as embroidery is, one has to get one’s priorities right!)

So there it is, a lovely design but probably not really suitable for working in couched threads, which is the way I would want to do it. I will probably try the wide-circle-with-voids-and-thin-circles motif some day, just to see if it is possible to make the plunging practically invisible. Perhaps as part of the RSN goldwork module…?

Quirks of photography and remedial wing work

Although stumpwork has never really appealed to me – I admire what other people do with it, but on the whole don’t feel a great inclination to have a go myself – somehow I managed to end up with a stumpwork kit: Sarah Homfray’s holly blue butterfly. I bought it because it was a beautiful butterfly, and because it was small enough not to seem too much of a challenge. Also, there were no big wooden beads. Don’t ask me why, but any stumpwork design with big wooden beads in it (to represent hips and haws and berries, generally) puts me off immediately. This one had some florist’s wire, but otherwise it was mostly standard embroidery with standard stranded cottons, the only difference with a needle painting kit being the fact that the butterfly would be cut out; well, I’ve cut around a buttonhole edge before, albeit on counted fabric and not quite so fine, but it’s the same sort of thing. The shading on the wings was likely to be more of a problem!

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit

And so it turned out to be. When I’d completed the bottom wings I couldn’t help but notice that my butterfly had very distinct banding, which the picture in the kit did not have. As usual I had taken some photographs of my progress, and it was then that I discovered an odd quirk of photography. No, I don’t mean the fact that close-up photographs will show up irregularities in your stitching that you never noticed even when working on it with strong magnifying glasses (all stitchers have to learn not to judge their own work on the basis of close-up photos). Let me show you.

Have a look at the two pictures below. They were taken about 10 seconds apart. Neither of them has been edited or Photoshopped in any way – the only difference is that the first one was taken with the butterfly’s head pointing towards the window, and the second with its bottom towards the window. And yet the second one looks much more blended than the first. I suppose it must have something to do with the direction of the stitches and the way they catch the light, but it’s odd that the effect is not nearly so noticeable with the naked eye. What makes it show up so much more in photographs?

The butterfly photographed with the top towards the window The butterfly photographed with the bottom towards the window

Whatever the reason, the second photograph looked decidedly better than the first, and so that was the one I posted on the Cross Stitch Forum and the Mary Corbet Facebook group; like most people I prefer to show my stitching in the most flattering light. But even though I could photograph it to look not too bad, whenever I looked at it directly I saw the banding, even more so after I’d done the top wings (and was rather pleased with them!) Now I was definitely not going to unpick the entire lower wings (I’m not that much of a pefectionist) so it was time for a little cosmetic work.

The banding on the bottom wings stands out against the blended top wings

It turns out (as various tutors have told me – and they must know smiley) that long and short stitch, or silk shading, is quite a forgiving technique; especially so when done in crewel wool, but even in stranded cotton it is possible to sneak in some extra stitches to create a more blended look. After a few minutes with three needles threaded with three different colours, the bottom wings were much more in tune with the top wings. Even when the butterfly was photographed with its head towards the window.

The bottom wings with their additional blending

Do you recognise this? The happier you are with the way a project is progressing, the more you want to finish it. (Although not feeling up to more challenging and demanding projects may have had something to do with it as well…) The moment the two baptism bookmarks were completed, I got back to the butterfly. My first ever attempt at turkey rug stitch produced a nice fluffy body – not quite so evenly trimmed as I might have liked perhaps, but perfectly serviceable; then it was just a matter of cutting around the buttonhole edge and shaping and attaching the antennae, and here I present what is likely to be my one and only stumpwork finish, on a plain background and in more natural surroundings.

The finished butterfly The butterfly in more natural surroundings

I’d rather hoped one of the many butterflies currently treating our garden as their home would sit down beside him, but alas, they wouldn’t oblige. Perhaps just as well, as God’s handiwork is much more exquisite than mine could ever be smiley.

Thoroughbred goldwork

Months before I decided to do the RSN Certificate, my husband gave me an early birthday present in the form of a three-day goldwork class at Hampton Court Palace. As you may know, I take my Certificate classes at the Rugby branch, which is decidedly less glamorous. On the whole I don’t mind, as it’s a lot easier to get to from where we live, and most of the time you’re looking at your embroidery, not the view. Even so, there is something a bit special about doing your needlework in such grand surroundings. Just to give you an idea, here is the view from one of the classroom windows, and a view from the Palace Gardens up to our classroom. Impressive, huh smiley?

View from one of the windows Our classroom seen from the Palace Gardens

Strictly speaking the class wasn’t goldwork but metal thread embroidery, as the design includes silver, copper and several coloured metallics. The kit was presented in this rather stylish purple bag, and there were seat frames to use for the duration of the course. Unfortunately, this was the week of the heatwave, so we were all very grateful that several fans were also provided!

The course kit

The seat frame proved a bit of a problem; as I have mentioned before, the tilt on the RSN seat frames does not really suit me when wearing a skirt or dress – and on this occasion I was not only wearing a dress, but a calf-length one at that. Fortunately we were all girls together, so I hitched up my skirts as much as was necessary and managed to use the frame fairly successfully.

The title of the class was “Queen’s Silks”, and the subject a stylised racehorse with its jockey wearing the Queen’s colours. I had worked out from the picture on the RSN website that I was familiar with most of the techniques used, so I would mainly use the class for improving in those, but there was one which I had not used before and had been wanting to try: S-ing. That wouldn’t be tackled until day three, however. Day one started with soft string padding. First we waxed an enormous length of yellow soft cotton, then cut enough lengths to fill the shape that would be worked in raised cutwork (part of the tail). In order to get the shape, you start couching down in the middle and work towards the end, cutting threads as you go (always from the bottom of the bundle) and keeping the cut tapered by pointing the scissors towards the tip of the shape.

Soft string padding Bending back the threads you want to keep The underlying threads are cut to a taper

You might think that, having completed the padding, we would now cover it, but no – that too would have to wait until day three. First we moved on to couched Jap. Normally you would couch this in a thread as close to the colour of the metal as possible, to keep it almost invisible, but in this design we used coloured couching threads to add shading. I think Helen McCook, the tutor (who actually wrote the RSN goldwork book!) called this Italian shading, but I’m not absolutely sure. It is slightly different from or nué in that the couching stitches are placed in a regular bricking pattern, and the shading is done with the colours only, not with the density or openness of the couching. We used three shades of brown (the first two aren’t easy to distinguish in the pictures) and a golden yellow may be added when I complete the shape.

Couched Jap - the first couching colour Couched Jap - the second couching colour is added Couched Jap - working with the third couching colour

I am always fascinated by the back of goldwork projects. Normally I don’t look at back of my own or anyone else’s work; I’m happy if the front looks respectable, and the back is just neat enough not to impinge on the front (by means of bulky knots or travelling threads visibly shining through). But goldwork is, I think, unique (except perhaps for stumpwork) in that the back gives very little indication of what the front looks like – a fact which once made a friend use one of my embroideries as a Sunday school illustration smiley.

The back of the work

The next few steps were small and relatively quick: bits of metallic kid leather (the picture shows one of the four hooves and in later pictures you’ll notice the jockey’s cap has been worked in kid as well), two spangles to indicate the pivoting points of the legs (not quite the right word, but I’m sure you know what I mean), and a diamanté gem to give the horse a slightly scary eye. Spangles can be attached in several ways, some more elaborate than others, but here we went for two simple straight stitches. The gem was in a metal claw setting with holes, so it could be attached much like a button.

A kid hoof is added Some spangles, a gem and rococo

In the second picture above you’ll have noticed some wavy copper threads in one of the tail sections, couched but not yet plunged. This is rococo, and depending on which supplier’s website you visit or what goldwork book you read is can be spelled with what looks like a random number of “c”s, randomly distributed (roccoco, rococco, roccocco). I’ve decided to go with rococo on the grounds that it saves key presses, looks less complicated, and is the recognised spelling for the period after which it is presumably named.

As day two was drawing to a close, Helen asked us to make sure we had completed the gold pearl purl outline of one of the tail sections, so that the next morning we could start on the chipping straight away. I was finishing plunging my copper rococo, but decided that as couching pearl purl is one of the quicker goldwork techniques (although “quick” will always be a relative term in goldwork) I could probably squeeze in the outline before we had to pack up for the day. Bad move. It was nearly four o’clock, we’d been going since 10am, and it was about 33 degrees in the shade. About three-quarters into the outline, I pulled the couching thread with too little control and kinked the metal.

Pearl purl with a kink

It was just a little kink. A tiny kink even. Could I just leave it? Helen had a look and advised me to leave it until I’d completed the chipwork (filling the shape with small bits of hollow metal attached like beads) to see whether that would draw the eye away from it. The next morning I came in fairly early, looked at the pearl purl and realised it would forever nag me if I left it, no matter what the effect of the chipping was going to be. I took out the outline and redid it, and felt much happier. On to the chips!

The pearl purl outline redone Chipwork

After the chipping it was time to start on the cutwork. This was going to cover the soft string padding in the tail. It’s a tricky technique because the purl (in this case a smooth purl, which is round and shiny; it also comes in rough, which is round and matt – bright check, which is angular and shiny – and wire check, which is angular and matt) has to be cut into pieces (or chips) of exactly the right length to cover the padding, and as the padded shape is not the same size throughout, the chips have to vary in length as well. If the chips are not the right length, you will either have padding showing at the edges (if they are too short), or the metal will buckle and distort (if they are too long). It requires tongue-sticking-out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth concentration, the patience of Job, and the willingness to cut three or four lengths to get it just right (until such time as you develop an eye for it and get them right first time).

Starting the cutwork

Helen said I’d managed a nice crisp edge and good coverage, which was a more positive assessment than I’d feared – towards the tip I noticed a few slight gaps where I’d gradually changed the angle of the chips as instructed, but I was encouraged when I looked at the RSN Goldwork Guide later and saw similar minute gaps in one of the stitched models pictured there. And thinking about it I can see that unless all the chips are parallel, you’re bound to get a little room between them at one end. Even so, I’ll see if I can keep them just a little closer when working along the other half of the padded bit of tail.

Half a tail covered

The last technique we were shown was the one I’d never tried before, called S-ing (pronounced “essing”). It looks like stem stitch in metal purls, but because you can’t take the purls through the fabric you can’t work it as you would stem stitch. Instead, you cut lots of identical chips of purl (and I can tell you that cutting identical lengths is not that much easier than cutting graded lengths; fortunately “almost identical” seems to work reasonably well) and work each little curved bit separately.

The chips should be a little longer than your stitch length, to give them room to accomodate the chips on either side. Having attached the first one, you come up about half a stitch length ahead of the previous stitch, thread on a chip, and angle the needle half-way underneath the previous chip so you go down into the fabric where the last-but-one chip ends (this is what creates the impression of a continuous metal stem stitch). Pull the working thread through very carefully until the chip gently snuggles underneath the previous chip. Half chips at the beginning and end make the line look even. I really like the look of this stitch and will definitely use it again!

S-ing; lots of identical cut lengths Taking the needle down underneath the previous piece of purl The new piece of purl lies flat Pull, and the new piece of purl curls under the previous piece

And that was as far as we got. When I showed it to my sister-in-law, with whom I was staying, she was a little surprised and asked “that’s three days’ work?” – but when I explained some of the techniques and what was involved in getting them just right I think she was probably surprised that I’d got as much as this done smiley. When I got home I re-hooped the work – in class we were working in a 10″ hoop, but I found that I could just fit the fabric into a 12″ one, which gives a little bit more wiggle room at the edges. I have no idea when I’ll manage to finish it, what with the Certificate and getting the SAL ready, but it’ll be a very enjoyable project to do bits of work on in between all the other things.

The state of things at the end of the three days

What do I want a SAL to do?

And, also a pertinent question, what do I not want a SAL to do, especially this particular SAL? Well, for one thing I don’t want it to give the wrong impression, and it might, in view of recent FoFs. So let’s get that out of the way first!

For the first module of the RSN Certificate I am required to stitch a Tree of Life in the Jacobean style, in crewel wool on twill. Although I haven’t quite decided on the final colours (well, I know which colours, but not necessarily where and in what stitch) the design is pretty much done. It’s got a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters.

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

As you can read on the SAL information page, the design for this stitch-along is a Tree of Life, and it is described as a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters. This might just lead people to think that the SAL is based on the Certificate course, and from there it might easily lead to some rather too high expectations – let’s make it quite clear, I’m not aiming to get you to RSN Certificate level in 10 easy instalments!

In fact the SAL Tree of Life came into being long, long before I even thought of the Certificate as something I might possibly one day do. It was initially inspired by a tree I saw in a picture of some Indian embroidery which had a sinuous stem and seven leaves. I took it from there, and my Tree does still have a sinuous stem and seven leaves but otherwise doesn’t resemble the Indian tree in the slightest. But – and this is important – nor does it resemble what I might call a Certificate tree. It is not Jacobean (although it could certainly be stitched in crewel wools on twill), and although it will contain many different stitches, it is not nearly as complex and detailed as a Certificate piece is expected to be; a relatively small number of colours is suggested (partly to keep the costs down – see below) but unlike with the limited palette of the Certificate tree, here there are no rules and you can stitch the whole things as a rainbow of leaves if you like.

Sneak peeks at the SAL

So what does the SAL aim to do? Does it have an aim at all? Does it have to? You may know that I am a great believer in never asking of a piece of needlework: “What is it for?” As far as I’m concerned stitching is for enjoying, that’s what it’s for. Even so, when one of the kind friends who gave their opinions and advice about the SAL information page asked me a similar question, it made me take a good look at the whole project. Why did I decide to publish this design as a SAL-with-variations, with all the time and effort that goes into writing the instructions for the extra stitches and 10 blog posts with detailed photographs of the stitching process and so on? And when I put it like that, I realised that my motivation for the SAL was not that much different from the motivation for my taster sessions and workshops. Here is what I replied:

“As with the Hardanger SALs it’s definitely intended for people who want to Have A Go. I hope that those who are more experienced will be kept interested by the variety and choice of stitches, but my ‘target audience’ is those who have never tried freestyle embroidery, or perhaps just dabbled a bit, and would like to see if it’s for them.
If you have been cross stitching for some time you’re likely to have all the threads you need in your stash (if you choose the stranded cotton route) so just add a piece of fabric and some sequins and beads (which you may also already have) and you’re good to go with not much of a financial outlay (another of my main concerns).”

In other words, I’d love people to try something new, or to enjoy something familiar in a slightly different way; to be challenged but not frightened off; to create something decorative; and to be able to do so without having to take out a mortgage smiley. If that appeals to you, do join in!

The pros and cons of versatility

A friend just posted something on Facebook about Constance Howard, who set up a Department of Embroidery at the Goldsmiths College of Art. The video picked up on her opinion that “you don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well!”

There is a lot of sense in that. My mother-in-law, who does probably know hundreds of stitches, in recent years has said that she prefers to embroider using only about a handful of them – stem stitch, fly stitch, chain stitch, buttonhole, French knot – because with them she can make whatever she wants. As this pretty-much-exclusively-chain-stitched tea cosy demonstrates.

Tea cosy embroidered in chain stitch

On the other hand, I do think that my willingness to try all sorts of techniques has been helpful to my development as an embroiderer, if only because it showed me which things I liked and wanted to learn more about (hello goldwork!) and which things were just not for me (I’m looking at you, stumpwork). If I’d never ventured beyond my first steps in stitching I would be doing only cross stitch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m glad I did try other things! So I’m not sure I agree with her belief that “a desire to try everything can actually have a detrimental effect on your work as a textile artist”.

When I mentioned this to a friend who knew Constance Howard (through his grandmother, an accomplished needle artist), he said “‘Know (about) and have decided not to use’ is a perfectly valid state for any stitch – if you don’t learn/try them you don’t know whether you want to use them.” And I would agree with that. I get what CH says about versatility being a possible enemy of artistic development, because you can get bogged down in adding lots of variety for the sake of it, or feel unable to decide which of the umpteen techniques and stitches in your repertoire to use (although I have found that often a design suggests its own technique); and there is always the danger of being a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, and master (or mistress) of none. Still, on the whole I feel you need to know things in order to make an informed decision as to whether they are appropriate for the design you’re working on.

Of course the easiest way of avoiding that decision is to get a kit and follow the instructions, and sometimes it’s really enjoyable to do just that. Did I mention that stumpwork was just not my thing? I wonder how that little stumpwork butterfly made its way into my Sarah Homfray shopping basket a while ago… I’ve even made a start on it! It’s challenging because I’m trying things I haven’t done before, reassuring because it also includes stitches and techniques I’m already familiar with, and relaxing because someone else has made all the decisions for me smiley.

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit The butterfly attached and wire couched

PS With regards to the Jack-of-all-trades thing – is it really such a bad thing to be moderately good at lots of things? I will never be as good at goldwork or crewel embroidery as some of the frighteningly talented stitchers out there; but I enjoy my projects, I produce quite decorative results, and I am creating something that is as good as I am capable of creating. You don’t have to achieve Grade 8 in order to enjoy playing the piano, after all!

Getting it wrong and starting again – the joy of designing

Designing can occasionally feel like the famous procession at Echternach, going three steps forward and two steps back. Take Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. No, I’m not talking about the spot debacle – that was just me not paying attention. It’s when something in the design just doesn’t work.

In the case of Hengest it was (among other things) his chest band. In my original design, meant to be worked in silk with a bit of goldwork and gem embellishments, the chest band is bright golden yellow with colourful pip beads all along its length. But then the spots are meant to be “coloured white” – the very lightest shades of various colours. Wool Hengest’s spots are rather more colourful than that, so giving him such gaudy tack simply wouldn’t look right.

Very well then, we need a different chest band. Leather? Gold and leather? That sounds quite good – an outline in golden yellow with brown for the main body of the band; perhaps with a few honey-gold pip beads.

A changed chest band

But as I was working on it, I liked it less and less. Too little golden yellow (it was hardly noticeable once I started adding the brown) and the brown itself was much too dark. Unfortunately the next shade of this brown in my stash is rather light, and I wasn’t at all sure that would look any better.

The dark brown doesn't work But will the light brown be any better?

Still, this darker brown was definitely not working, so out it came, and soon it was reduced to a pile of rejected fluff.

Cutting out the dark brown A pile of rejected fluff

It was getting rather late, but as I was on a roll, I added the extra rows of golden yellow.

Extra gold

And at my next embroidery group meeting I filled in with the lighter brown.

Light brown leather

It is rather a light shade for leather, but with the rest of Hengest being so pale and pastel it does look better on him. However, without the coloured pip beads the effect is a bit more solid than I’d like, and even the honey-gold pip beads don’t really look the part with the wool. Let’s try adding a little swirly pattern in a slightly lighter gold:

A swirly gold pattern saves the day

And that is why Wool Hengest’s chest band looks the way it does. Is it too much to hope that his bridle and mane will work first time round…?

A patchy rabbit excuse (or a patchy excuse for a rabbit)

Long, long before I was even beginning to consider doing the RSN Certificate (well, several months ago, anyway) I started a crewel project cobbled together from two designs taken from two different books, to give my Heathway Milano crewel wools a nice work-out and get some practice in crewel work. Little did I know back in January that I’d be getting plenty of crewel practice this year!

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Because of various other projects, and the fact that I am a fickle stitcher and will pick up and ditch projects at the slightest provocation, it wasn’t until March that I actually started stitching this, and even then it stalled for a long time after I’d stitched the larger of the two stems. But as I started the Certificate’s crewel module, I found that my little rabbit project was a perfect doodle cloth! Bayeux stitch, burden stitch, detached buttonhole, they all got practiced, and all the while I was building up a decorative picture rather than scattered stitch samples.

I said this last time, and I’ll say it again: I do not much like the look of block shading (even when done a lot better than my ragged first attempt). But as it is one of the required elements in the Certificate piece, I’ll have to learn to love it, or at least learn to do it correctly. Left to my own devices, the hillock on which the rabbit sits would have been done in long and short stitch, but as it’s the right sort of shape for block shading I thought I might as well have a go. Did I mention that my first attempt came out rather ragged? Stitch direction and edges definitely leaving something to be desired.

Starting on block shading

Oh well, we all have to start somewhere. For the water I could have used the stitch I’m considering for the Certificate piece (fly stitch couching), but I didn’t; I liked the chain stitch water I did on my little willow tree project, and anyway, I may use fly stitch couching for one of the hillocks, in which case the water may well be done in these flowing chain stitch lines.

Chain stitch water

Having thought of this as my rabbit project from the start, it was nice to finally get round to stitching the rabbit! In the picture above you can see the split stitch outline, and a satin-stitched ear. The instructions to the original design call for long and short stitch, but that one ear actually looks satin-stitched in the photograph, so I went with that. And then I hit a snag.

The rabbit is meant to be stitched in three browns plus off-white or ecru. Now the colour families in Heathway Milano wool all consist of nine shades from very very light to very very dark, but not having an endlessly elastic budget I opted to buy only numbers 2 4 6 and 8 of the colours I wanted, on the assumption that that would give me quite a nice range for shading. And so it does. Until you want to shade a rabbit.

The colour family I chose for the rabbit is Drab, which is a lot nicer-looking than it sounds. My darkest shade, #8, was far too dark to be usable, so I was left with the other three from that range plus off-white from a separate group. I filled in the furthest front paw in shade #6, which looked a bit dark but then it’s sort of in shadow, so it will do. Then the off-white chest and inside-of-ear. Then the outer part of the ear in the lightest of the Drabs. And this is where things went a bit pear-shaped. Drab #2 is simply not that much darker than off-white, and there wasn’t enough contrast. But using #4 would upset the shading pattern – I needed #4 to be my medium shade, a bridge between the very light #2 and the rather dark #6.

As Drab is not dissimilar to Appletons Chocolate, which I’m using in the Certificate piece, I put them together to see if I could pinch one of the Appletons threads to work as an in-between shade. I found one that was a bit darker than #2, and did the second ear in it. But was there enough difference between this borrowed shade and #4? I decided to use the Appletons in addition to the three Drabs, with Drab #2 used for the face and not much else.

Juggling browns to create a rabbit

The face, when finished, made the rabbit look as though pale with shock at meeting a fox (or perhaps with fear of that rather threatening carnation hanging over him). So I used the Appletons to add a bit of not-quite-so-pale shading to the contours of the face, and then as the lightest shade in the body, followed by Drab #4 with Drab #6 creating the shaded area of his belly.

A finished rabbit Close-up of the rabbit's shading

So there it is, the finished project. And on the whole I’m quite happy with it. But the shading is simply not subtle enough, and not just because of deficiencies in my long & short stitch.

You know what this means, don’t you?

I will have to buy all those in-between shades.

Oh dear…