A different focus (or two)

Last Saturday, when I was in Rugby anyway for my Certificate class, I killed two birds with one stone and picked up my new glasses. Not the everyday ones, I got those a few weeks ago – these are bi-focals. When stitching in the evening (my usual time for non-Certificate stitching) my usual stitching glasses have a disadvantage: I can see my embroidery, but very little else. Which means that when I look up to say something to my husband, or to watch something on the telly, both husband and telly are so blurred I might as well not look up. This is not very sociable.

Cue bi-focals – one bit for stitching, one bit for being sociable. I looked into getting extra-wide inserts (the bit for embroidery) but they turned out to be so eye-wateringly expensive that I went for the standard width. The lady at the optician’s very helpfully drew an outline of the inserts on the plain lenses in the frame I’d chosen, so I could see where they were in relation to my eyes, and I felt that would very likely work. Well, it does – they do! They take some getting used to (you have to learn to ignore the blurry line between to two bits of lens) and they need a little tweaking still (one lens needs to be higher, so a bit of frame-bending is required), but otherwise they are a great success.

New bifocals

In the picture you see them with a project I’ve just started, which is a Melbury Hill kit. After all those rainbows I wanted something less (excuse the pun) focused, with no need for taking notes, writing instructions or keeping track of how much thread I use. Just plain, straightforward stitching. As I’m working this upside down (I think it looks much better that way) interpreting the instructions involves a little mental gymnastics, but not too much. Even so, I found myself very carefully measuring the placement of stitches on the strawberry’s laid work (remember the Dutch “geometry triangle” I used for the battlement couching in my RSN Jacobean piece?); however, as soon as I realised what I was doing I chucked the triangle and went for a more rustic approach with slightly irregular pips; relax, woman smiley!

A relaxing kit Rustic pips

Rainbow choices and a mystery

My rainbow is growing apace! Apart from a couple of evenings this week when we have other things on, I’ve been stitching a band a night, and I like how it’s developing. There have been a few decisions to take along the way, though – not quite the relaxed just-get-on-and-stitch project I first had in mind – but that is part of any project that will eventually become a chart pack or kit. And in a way it makes me concentrate more on the design and how I want it to look.

I wrote earlier about backstitch versus cable stitch in the red band; and for the orange band I had to choose between plain and reverse chain stitch (I went for the latter – easier to start a new thread mid-line). The yellow band threw up another decision; in my provisional notes I’d put it down as diagonal satin stitch, which would mean gradually changing the stitch direction to compensate for the curve. Not impossible of course, but not very relaxed either, and I did want to try and keep it relatively simple. Straight satin stitch then? You’d still need to adjust the stitch direction, but it’s definitely easier than in the diagonal version. Unfortunately that wasn’t the effect I wanted, and anyway I suspected that both diagonal and straight satin stitch throughout would look too solid, with too little texture. In the end I went for blocks of diagonal satin stitch alternating in direction. But would it need a split stitch outline? I started one just in case.

A provisional split stitch edge

The split stitch looked rather messy – I don’t really like doing split stitch in more than a single strand – so I started from the other end of the band without split stitch, tucking the ends under the previous band on one side, and knowing they’d be covered on the other side by the next band. And it looked just fine. Good, I’m all for simplifying things! The incipient line of split stitch was unpicked and the whole band worked without it; split stitch may make an appearance as a proper filling stitch in the smaller version worked in an indivisible thread, but here it isn’t needed.

Alternating satin stitch without a split stitch edge The yellow band finished

The green band, in stem stitch, posed no problem. The blue band, to compensate for this, threw up two.

First dilemma: fly stitch or Cretan? To begin with I was almost certain I’d go for fly stitch, then I doodled both and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. They both looked rather fun!

Fly stitch versus Cretan stitch

After discussing both options with my husband I decided to stick with fly stitch after all; much though I like Cretan stitch, I felt that (in contrast to the original satin stitch band idea) it has too much texture – a bit too fussy for this project. OK, fly stitch. But…

… in which blue? From a practical point of view it makes sense to stick with one brand of silk throughout, but the Splendor blue was a bit lighter than I’d like and the only darker blue of the right sort came from my collection of Caron Soie Cristale.

Which blue to choose

Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk is a 12-stranded silk in a slightly unusual distribution: it consists of three “bundles” of four strands. There are other silks on the market which use the same distribution (Crescent Colours Belle Soie, Gloriana Silk Floss and Thread Gatherer Silk ‘n Colors) and their weight too is pretty much identical, so I’ve long suspected they are really exactly the same silk marketed by four different companies. Ideally, then, I’d find a darker blue in my stash of these brands, but I have a fairly limited selection and moreover they are all overdyed or variegated threads rather than the solid blue I was looking for.

Caron Soie Cristale seemed a good alternative as it is also a 12-stranded thread, although not of the 3×4 type, and the individual strands are of a similar weight to Splendor and its doppelgangers. I cut a length of the darker blue, stripped four strands from it, got ready to thread them, and realised that the four strands together were noticeably thinner then the four strands of Splendor I’d been using. On closer inspection, the thread turned out to consist of 16 thinner strands. Had I misremembered the strand count and weight of Soie Cristale? I checked four or five other bobbins and this is the only Soie Cristale I have which has 16 thinner strands. I am puzzled.

The rogue thread, standard Soie Cristale and Splendor

Oh well, we work with what we have. Six strands of this rogue blue looked to have about the same bulk as four strands of the Splendor, so I got to work with that. Having struggled with six rather wayward strands for several hours I am happy with the look of the stitch, but the colour seems rather dark. Perhaps with hindsight my original Splendor blue would have been better. Unpick it all? That’s a bit drastic. I’ll see if it’s grown on me by the time my next stitching session comes around…

The blue band finished

By the way, exciting news – I’ve got a Certificate class booked at Rugby! Next Wednesday I hope to make a start on mounting the Jacobean tree, and going over my paperwork with Angela.

Light and hope

I may have mentioned once or twice that I have more than enough projects to keep me going for a long, long time. Works actually in progress (like Llandrindod and Hengest), works ready to go with the design transferred and the materials chosen (like Soli Deo Gloria and Come Rain), and several still in the exciting design stage (like Mechthild, Pickled Garden and the nameless Russian piece). And that’s without the kits and designs by other people that I have on the go or on my shelves!

But sometimes something needs to be stitched.

I’ve been having trouble with my eyes for some time now. Partly the usual thing of getting older and needing longer arms to read things, partly the fact that because of lockdown I haven’t seen an optician for some time and probably need new glasses, and partly because of a progressive condition which causes cloudiness in my left eye. For now that last part is an annoyance rather than seriously getting in the way – it’s a bit like having smudged glasses all the time (and in fact I do keep trying to polish them when I’m not thinking about it). But I have no idea how bad it will get, or how quickly. And that worries me. But (as our minister reminded us in last Sunday’s sermon) worrying is a very ineffective thing to do. And a couple of weeks ago, as I was worrying about the light going out of my eyes I suddenly thought of the Light of the World. And it comforted me. So I grabbed a bit of fabric and a 3-inch hoop and stitched the words in a style which is not really usual for me at all, with gel pen additions. If it speaks to you, feel free to copy it (I’ll keep the pop-up picture a bit larger than usual).

Light of the World

The other design that has elbowed its way to the front of the queue I’ve called Hope. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, a Dutch organisation called Agapè ran a campaign to encourage people to think and talk about faith. Its logo was a rainbow (and I’ve only just now realised it has a reddish purple on the outside instead of pure red) with the words “er is hoop” (“there is hope”).

The 'Er is hoop' logo

I’ve always loved rainbows and they’ve been rather prominent lately; even so, until a week or so ago I hadn’t felt any urge to stitch one. But when I did, and after a few sketches that weren’t what I wanted, I decided that I wanted the rainbow to be based on a circle. Some years ago, when flying to the Netherlands, I saw the shadow of the aeroplane inside what looked like a completely circular rainbow. It is apparently known as a “glory”; to me it looked like a sign of protection and security, and it always stayed with me. The photograph I took isn’t particularly clear but I hope it gives you an idea. With that starting point I sketched what became pretty much the final version of the design, a circular rainbow partly covered by a cloud containing the words “there is Hope”.

Glory around the shadow of a plane The design sketch for Hope Hope transferred onto blue cotton

Now I had to decide on stitches and colours. I wanted each of the colours to be in a different stitch, some line stitches following the arc of the rainbow, some with a different stitch direction or texture. And for the threads, silk. Chunky silk, in bold colours. I went for Rainbow Gallery Splendor, which is 12-stranded arranged in 3 clusters of 4 strands; each cluster should provide good coverage in a design that I chose to stitch a little larger than I would normally go for. Most of the colours were easy to pick, but I had a bit of a dilemma over the green. The one that seemed to fit in best was a very vibrant green, rather brighter than I ideally wanted (I’m not quite sure why I bought that shade in the first place!) But the only other green that would fit was on the dull side. After some comparisons I decided to go with the bright option – hope, after all, is a bright thing!

Splendor silk colours for the rainbow, with two greens

As I was about to start stitching the order of the various stitches from red to purple needed a bit of work, but eventually I was reasonably sure that I’d got them arranged the way I wanted them and it was safe to put the first stitch in.

The stitch plan for Hope

Now this project struck me as something nice and relaxing to do – pretty colourful bands that just need filling in, a whole band in stitch A, then a whole band in stitch B, hardly needs any thought at all. Hmm. This is what I got done the first evening:

First stitches

There were several reasons for my lack of productivity. The red band was planned in backstitch as a bricked filling, so with the backstitch in one line offset compared to the next line, like a brick wall. I started a line of backstitch, with stitches that were far too small. I’m simply not used to producing stitches this large and chunky! So that line was unpicked, and I started again, trying to remember to make the stitches larger while keeping them even.

But then there was the fact that backstitch is quite a wasteful stitch, producing a slightly messy stem stitch on the back of the fabric (blue arrow). How about using cable stitch? This produces the same effect but with less thread waste on the back of the fabric (orange arrow).

Backstitch and cable stitch seen from the back

I unpicked my backstitch and started again in cable stitch. Bad move, as I found it impossible to produce an even arch this way. Unpick again, work the very first line in backstitch (that’s where I got to on that first evening), then cable stitch from there on with the backstitch line as a guide. This worked much better.

First line of backstitch Starting a double line of cable stitch Cable stitch continued

Another option I considered (and tried out on a doodle cloth) was cable stem stitch (yellow arrow), which is quicker to work than cable stitch because you don’t have to gauge the width of your thread every time you place a stitch – like ordinary stem stitch, cable stem stitch is worked along a single line. But the effect lacks the straight lines I wanted in this first band, so I stuck with the combination of backstitch and cable stitch.

Doodling for Hope

And this is where I’ve got to so far. I like the texture of this band, and I look forward to seeing the contrast with the next bands, both in texture and colour.

Hope so far

Later this month we are hoping to visit my mother-in-law and I need a travel project; she is a very talented embroiderer and we like to stitch together, but as we also chat while doing this I need something straightforward. I could, of course, take the Ottoman Tulip, but I think I’ll set up a smaller version of this design, to be worked in only a few different stitches, none of which need a lot of attention (perhaps alternating bands of stem and chain stitch), and using an indivisible thread – either coton à broder (right) or perhaps floche (left), which comes in fewer colours but is lovely to work with. I’ll keep you posted!

Coton à broder and floche

Holiday finds and shades of black

Last week we had the opportunity to stay at the seaside flat of friends of ours in Norfolk and despite some changeable weather – including the tail end of storm Francis – we had a very relaxing and enjoyable time. Flat countryside, windmills and the North Sea, what more could a Dutch girl wish for smiley.

I even managed to pick up a few stitch-related goodies! The local charity shop provided me with a book about blackwork for a mere 50p, and at a nearby art & craft centre I found a very pretty ceramic magnet and a little jewellery dish made by Wilton Road Ceramics. Sue, the lady who is Wilton Road Ceramics, was working on some story stones while we were there, which was interesting to watch. The magnet is now serving as a needle minder on my Lowery stand; the little tray could be used for odds and ends while stitching, I suppose, but has instead been designated my tea bag dish – an almost equally important task.

A blackwork book for 50p A needle minder and a tea bag dish

While on holiday I did some work on the Ottoman Tulip. I had hoped to bring a different travel project, one which I’d done some sketches for, but unfortunately I ran out of time to finish drawing the design properly, let alone choose the threads, iron the fabric, transfer the design and hoop up. The Ottoman Tulip sits undisturbed in one of my document boxes most of the time, but there is no denying it comes into its own when the need for a travel project arises: it’s small, uses only a few colours, and is made up of areas to be filled in using mainly split stitch and stem stitch, so I hardly need to look at my notes.

In the course of stitching this design (which I started in October last year) there have been a few dilemmas about colour. I’m using Carrie’s Creation overdyed stranded cotton, which with hindsight was not ideal as I’ve since found out they have been discontinued. Still, the slight variegation in them does work very well in capturing the not-quite-solid shades of the original medieval tile, and unless I decide to turn this design into a chart pack it doesn’t matter that my stitched model can’t be replicated exactly.

The tulip design based on a medieval ceramic tile

The original tile uses only two blues, but I realised a bit too late that the darker of my blues was going to make the whole piece look very dark indeed if I used it for the two outer areas as well as for the main tulip. I decided to bring in a third blue, which does not go with the other two quite as well as I’d hoped, but at least will contrast better with the surrounding black lines. Which brings me to the other change.

For the black lines I’d picked Raven, which lives up to its name being a very deep black. But the black in the original tile is not actually a pure black – it is slightly washed out. I looked through my box of Carrie’s Creation to see if there was anything else that might work. There were two: Double Shot and Soot. Double Shot, as the name suggests, is a very very dark coffee colour; practically black, but a warm black. Soot is a purer grey but looking at it on the bobbin I felt it might be too light.

Raven and Double Shot Raven and Soot

In the end I decided I’d try them both, working each of the two thin black leaves on either side of the flower in a different shade. For some reason I’d brought only Double Shot with me to Norfolk, so I started with that. And I liked it so much that I won’t bother with Soot! (It’s difficult to get it to show up in the photograph, but it is a rich, dark colour that is not quite black.)

And that’s where I leave the Ottoman Tulip until I next need a travel project – which under the current circumstances may well be a while… Meanwhile I have plenty of other projects to occupy myself with; not just the existing bunch (which is quite large enough) but a few new ones as well. Watch out for Hope, and a Russian inspired design which has yet to find a name.

Horsey decisions

One of the exciting things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. One of the scary things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. Both statements can be equally true, but they tend to apply to either your own design or at least a chart rather than a kit. When purchasing a kit (or attending a workshop, which tends to come with a kit) most of the choices are made for you: what to stitch, which stitch to use, and what materials in which colours – it’s all been mapped out in advance.

Even the order in which you work the elements is only free to some extent; very often it is determined by either the order of teaching, the design, or what is considered the usual progression of techniques and materials. Left to my own devices with the metalwork racehorse I started at the RSN 3-day class last summer, for example, I would probably have left the padded cutwork in the tail till last, purely because it minimises the risk of damage to that very prominent domed golden curve while working on the rest of the design; but it was taught on the second day of the class and so at least half a padded gold tail has been courting danger for the past year.

Pretty much the only decision I expected to be fully my own in this particular project was whether to plunge as I go or leave it all until the end. (Plunge as I go, definitely. I dislike plunging and there is a lot of it in this design which I don’t want to be left with when all the stitching at the front of the work is done and I should be celebrating.) And that is not a decision which affects the way the finished piece looks.

The jockey's jacket with ends waiting to be plunged

Even so, the end result will never be quite like the model, for a variety of reasons. Here is Helen McCook’s original stitched model, of which we were given an enlarged photograph for reference. You will notice that the background colour is different from mine – when she first started teaching this class she offered both the olive green of the model and the darker green I’m working on, but when absolutely no-one chose the olive green she abandoned that colour. Other tutor-made changes are the change from purple to blue for the body of the jockey’s jacket, and a different metal thread used for the red sleeve. Originally this was intended to be worked in a red version of the blue of the jacket and the black of the boot, a couching thread known as 371 thread (no, I have no idea why) which is similar to a smooth passing thread but coloured and without any precious metal content. I can’t quite remember why the change was made to a six-stranded metallic thread but I’m sure there was a good reason for it.

Helen McCook's stitched model The jockey's arm in red 6-stranded metallic thread

Sometimes differences are unintentional – the one shown below occurred because, on a roll couching silver pearl purl, I failed to pay attention to the stitched model and couched the jockey’s hand with the same sort of angle as his face. That line abutting the sleeve should not have been there. I am definitely not unpicking it, though! Unless I show people the picture of the stitched model side by side with my version, no-one will know. (Yes, I realise that you know now, but I’m sure you won’t tell.)

A different hand

Other differences are, in a sense, originated by the tutor but the stitcher has some choice in interpreting them. In the instances shown below, I couldn’t work the line as shown in the stitched model because the design lines pre-drawn on the kit fabric would have been visible if I had. The horse’s jaw is a single curve in the model, followed by a gap and then the curve of the muzzle. The design line showed a shorter jaw curve, a gap closer to the front of the muzzle, and a line between them. I chose to couch that element separately in pearl purl. The jockey’s elbow is quite rounded in the stitched model (which would be a lot easier to stitch) but the design lines give him a very pointy elbow. I have tried to adjust the couching to these pointy lines, but you may just be able to see that a little of them is still visible; I had to decide whether it was worth the effort unpicking the whole sleeve and working it afresh starting from the pointy elbow (with no guarantee that it would look any neater). I decided it wasn’t – I know the lines are there, but they are fairly faint and won’t be very noticeable when viewing the finished piece from a normal distance.

A different jaw A different elbow

And finally even with a workshop kit there are some things the stitcher can decide all by herself – especially if she happens to have a reasonably abundant stash of goldwork materials… Some of these you know about already, like the horse’s eye (originally a gem in a squarish mount, now a silver cup sequin with a black bead) and some of the gold pearl purl in his head and neck. You may remember I didn’t like the bright yellow gold of the pearl purl that came with the kit and used a slightly finer one from my stash which was a rather mellower colour. This brought with it another dilemma, however. There is quite a bit of gold pearl purl in the design; did I really want to use up my nice, fine, mellow pearl purl and be left with a goodly amount of bright yellow pearl purl that I would be unlikely to want to use in future projects? No. So I used up the remains of the length I’d snipped off my stash purl in the jaw and in a small V-shape inside the rear leg, and I’ll use the kit purl for the other lines. In fact I rather like the effect of the two colours and thicknesses combined in the leg – an unintended bonus smiley.

A mixture of gold pearl purls

And that’s where the racehorse is now. There are several projects clamouring for attention at the moment but I may just get him finished first; I’ve just received an email to say RSN classes in Rugby will be starting again in the not too distant future, and after mounting my Jacobean piece the next module will be goldwork, so any practice I can get in before then is a good thing!

The racehorse at the moment

An eventful flower and a mounted rabbit

Half of August has gone and Flights of Fancy have been thin on the ground. So has stitching. And if you ask me why I’m not altogether sure, except that the days seem to fly past rather more quickly than I would like. Still, some embroidery-related things have been happening in the Figworthy household, so I thought I’d fill you in.

One thing you already know about is the Nurge semi-deep hoops; they are now all bound and I’ve been using the 13cm one a couple of times. So is the “grip” better than on a bound shallow hoop? For this size there probably isn’t that much in it – the shallow hoop keeps the fabric about as taut as you can get it without tearing it, so it’s hard to improve on that. But the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get and above all to keep the tension, so it will be interesting to see whether I notice the difference on, say, the 19cm hoop. On this smaller one I do find it’s easier to hold in my non-stitching hand if I’m not using a clamp or stand; the fact that it’s got just that bit more body to it makes it more comfortable on the fingers.

My semi-deep Nurge hoops bound

I used my smallest semi-deep hoop for yet another last-minute card, this time for a niece who, besides being a whizz with accounts, is a linocut artist (you can see her designs in her Etsy shop Woah There Pickle). Some time ago she gave me permission to use one of her lino designs to turn into an embroidery. So far it hasn’t made it onto fabric, but I decided to use one flower from it to stitch for her as a birthday card. I chose a blue and white chambray linen for the background, which has a slightly mottled effect (not really visible in the picture) caused by being woven with a white weft and a coloured warp; I thought this would make a nice contrast with the deliberately flat colours of the flower. From a stitching point of view this turned out to be a bad idea as the not-solid colour made my eyes go funny after a while! Still, it does look good so on the whole it was worth it (but it did slow me down).

Starting on Vicky's daisy

The picture above shows my progress at the end of day one, a Thursday. The card had to be sent on Saturday morning at the latest, and normally I’d have expected to complete the thing in a fairly leisurely fashion on Friday evening, but that evening we were going to Meet Friends In A Pub Garden, a red-letter event that hadn’t happened since lockdown started way back in March. “I’ll finish the stitching off when we get back”, I said to Mr Mabel, “and then I can put it in a card tomorrow morning before going on my Ladies’ Walk and you can take it to the Post Office” (he goes every day to send off the business parcels, and on Saturday the cut-off point is quarter to eleven, just when our walking group’s walk tends to end).

Do you know that saying about “best laid plans”? The meeting at the pub garden was very pleasant, but on the way back a road closure signposted at the very last moment got us swept off onto the motorway. Not a problem normally, but we were in a 90-year-old Austin Seven, and the motorway at that point is on a slight incline. Modern cars don’t even notice it, but the Austin gets slowed down to about 30 mph, with lighting that isn’t nearly so bright as in modern cars, and lorries thundering past at 60mph. Mr Mabel decided it was not safe, so we pulled into a lay-by and contacted the Highway Authorities, who eventually sent a well-lit vehicle that escorted us to the nearest exit. We got home safe and sound. At a quarter to midnight. No, I wasn’t going to finish the card then smiley. But with some intense stitching early the next morning I fortunately did manage to get it sent off in time. Phew.

The finished flower The flower mounted in a card

Another bit of stitched nature was a lot less eventful, but it was instructive. Remember the crewelwork Rabbit With Carnations I did some time ago?

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Well, I decided to use it for a bit of an experiment. My two SAL Trees of Life are still in a hoop (the wool version) and on a frame (the silk/gold version), waiting to be laced and then framed. Now I usually lace over foam core board, but as the RSN Certificate pieces have to be laced over mount board I thought this might be a good opportunity to practice. I contacted Fosse House Gallery, our local framer who did such a great (and quick!) job on my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present, and they very kindly gave me some offcuts to have a go with. The lady mentioned that she used T-pins when lacing over mount board so I looked those up online and lo and behold, they were available from Toft Alpacas, who like the framer are within walking distance from where I live!

Mount board and T-pins, both local!

One of the things I like about foam core board is that at 5mm thick it gives you plenty of edge to stick your pins into! Standard mount board or mat board tends to be about 2mm thick, so it’s all a bit more cramped and your aim has to be rather more precise. It’s also a lot easier on the fingers to push pins into foam core board because, well, it’s foam instead of solid cardboard smiley. There is one drawback of foam core board which is very visible in the second picture: its corners and edges get squashed much more easily that mount board, so you have to be careful when storing it or be prepared to trim edges before cutting the board to size.

Mount or mat board and foam core board Mount or mat board and foam core board

There’s definitely no such problem with the mount board which in spite of being an offcut was in perfect condition. The sample of board was cut to the right size for the rabbit embroidery and I set to work. As I expected, it was quite fiddly getting the pins to go centrally into the edge of the board, and several times I was definitely just underneath the outer layer so you could see the contours of the pin. It is interesting that for the RSN mounting process you are instructed to glue together two layers of standard mount board to end up with a thicker piece of board which is then covered in calico – I haven’t got to that part of the module yet, but I can’t help thinking the pins will all end up in the glue layer. I’ll find out when classes start again in Rugby!

The mount board being more solid in texture than the foam core board I predictably found it difficult to push the pins right in, but that may have been at least in part because the T-pins I got were quite long. I’ll see if I can find some shorter, thinner ones. As I was lacing, the board seemed to bend and flex a little more than the foam core I tend to use, and this was on a relatively small piece of about 5½” square – I wonder how much it would flex if I was lacing something the size of the Trees.

The end result looks respectable enough, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the two Trees will be laced over foam core. I contacted Fosse House Gallery and they say they may have some in stock, so time to walk over there and support the local economy. Once they’re laced I’m hoping to get the two Trees framed together in a single tall frame with two circular apertures in the mount. Now for a colour that will work with both…

The Rabbit laced onto mount board

A horse of a different colour

My embroidery has been distinctly equine recently, and I’d like to show you some of my progress (and regress; that is to say, unpicking…) on two horsey creatures.

The first is the goldwork racehorse I started at Helen McCook’s three-day class last year. I’d been doing some couching and plunging but a week or so ago I decided that before I did anything more, something needed seeing to first – his eye. The centre of the eye is a gem, and in the stitched model it is round and makes a good iris. But the gem that was in the kit, although a round cut as well, was set in such a way that it looked quite square. It was also rather larger than in the model (at least partly because of the setting), and quite apart from the fact that it just didn’t look right, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to work the surrounding couching properly with the setting extending beyond the design line in places.

Two different eyes

Time to rummage through my stash and see if I could find an alternative. I remembered some tiny oval flat-backed gems I bought last year – might they work? But alas, even the tiniest was too large. How about a sequin? The 3mm flat ones I have would be too small, but what about a facetted cup sequin held on with a black bead? Would that look like an iris with a pupil? And it would still have some of the facetted look of the original gem.

A slightly too large oval gem A cup sequin-and-bead combination that looks promising

I unpicked the original eye, attached the sequin and bead, and gave a sigh of relief. The eye operation was a success!

A much better-looking eye

Next was a decision about the pearl purl curving around the eye and down the horse’s neck. This was a very fine pearl purl which had also been used in the tail, and I’d noticed there that the gold was very yellow. I didn’t think this would work very well against the copper that outlines the eye, and another rummage produced a much mellower-coloured pearl purl of roughly the same thickness. None of the photographs I took quite picked up on how different the colours were, but it should give you an idea.

Very yellow pearl purl

Since last time I also completed both the colour-graded couching and the plunging on the horse’s backside, and here it is as it looks at the moment (you can see the very yellow purl outlining the chipped section at the top of the tail).

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

On to a horse of a different colour, or rather of many different colours – although the bits I’ve been working on have been mostly grey smiley. For some time now I’d been itching to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn; I hadn’t worked on him since June last year! To ease myself back into it I started with his nose band. Once I’d stitched it I realised that if I stitched the rest of the bridle (if that’s the correct term) in the same light golden yellow (Old Gold #4) as I had planned, it wouldn’t look quite right next to the light yellow spot high up his neck. But I didn’t want to use the darker #6 because that was going to be used in his horn (together with darkest #8) and I needed the contrast. Fortunately I remembered that I also had shade #7 in my stash, so the rest of the bridle will be done in #6, and the horn in #7 and #8. One problem sorted, although putting the solution into practice would have to wait as I wanted to get on with his mane first.

And as I stitched the first two locks, another problem emerged. They were far too dark.

Hengest's mane is too dark

I’d worked it out so carefully, too. Because Hengest is quite cartoonish in look, I didn’t want the shading in the mane to be too subtle. All the rest of him is areas of flat colour, with the only “shading” coming from the direction of the split stitch. The mane would have dark locks and light locks, and each would be done in two shades which I wanted to be visibly different, with the light and dark locks also having to be different enough from each other. The design drawing has black outlines, but the stitched version doesn’t, so the locks had to be delineated by colour difference.

I had therefore decided to have no colour overlap between light and dark locks: for the light locks I chose Silver Grey #1 and #3, and for the dark locks #5 and #6 (the difference between two consecutive shades is not always equally large). But #6 was very obviously too dark compared to the pastel tints of the rest of Hengest. And so I ended up doing something I had strenuously resisted for this project so far – I started a doodle cloth. Five combinations of two greys would be tried out, and I started with the darker one in each of the combinations, then added the lighter shade. #5 plus #3, #4 plus #3 and #4 plus #2 were all options for the darker locks, while #3 plus #1 and #2 plus #1 were possible pairs for the lighter ones. Having studied all the combinations I opted for an overlap after all: #5 with #3 and #3 with #1.

Different shades of grey A doodle cloth with five combinations Starting with the darker shades The lighter shades have been added

Hurray! As tress after tress was added the new shades turned out to work very well together, the individual locks perfectly distinct in spite of the fact that they share shade #3. I’d completely forgotten that the direction of the split stitch would set them apart even if the colour didn’t.

The old mane is unpicked Starting the first locks The new mane is growing The locks are perfectly distinct

And that’s the state of the Figworthy stable to date. I love both its occupants, but I will admit to a soft spot for Hengest. He will never be a racing champion (his inspiration on the Steeple Aston cope is decidedly duck-footed) and he will never be decked out in the Queen’s colours, but I think he holds his own against any racehorse in his polka-dotted eccentricity smiley.

All of a flutter for stumpwork

A week or so ago I was in sudden need of a butterfly. (What? Have you never needed an urgent butterfly?) For various reasons I wanted it to be a stand-alone butterfly, if possible modelled on the painted lady. It seemed that stumpwork was going to be called for…

Now if you are a regular reader of these stitchy outpourings of mine you will know that stumpwork is one of only a few needlework techniques which do not appeal to me. Like blackwork and whitework the results can be stunning and I admire what people do with them, but I rarely feel the slightest inclination to try any of them myself. So I’m still not quite sure how I ended up with Sarah Homfray’s Holly Blue stumpwork kit last summer. But I did, and I completed the butterfly (described at the time as “what is likely to be my one and only stumpwork finish”), and I knew that somewhere in my craft room there was the box with the instructions and some left-over wire. My second stumpwork venture was about to begin.

My first-ever stumpwork project

As this is not a technique I have a great deal of experience with, I wanted to do a bit of planning first – and that involved making a sketch with colour notes for the silk shading that was to turn a piece of stiff interfacing into a recognisable butterfly. Interestingly, I had come across an article some months ago with the intriguing title “Stop drawing dead butterflies”, which pointed out that what we think of as a typical butterfly shape with the tips of the top wings perkily pointing upwards (like the holly blue above, in fact) is only ever achieved by dead butterflies pinned onto a board – a live butterfly will hold its top wings so that their top edge is much nearer to horizontal, with the tips pointing outwards not upwards. Although I felt that I was possibly taking on a bit too much in trying to change the shape to a more naturalistic one, I attempted to at least include it in my sketch.

A painted lady butterfly The initial sketch

The next step was to cut the butterfly shape from heavy-weight interfacing, and as you can see I wasn’t brave enough to diverge dramatically from Sarah’s shape, apart from elongating the top wings a little (which seemed more suitable to a painted lady) and pushing the wing tips down ever so slightly. It’s a start, but on a report card it would definitely get a Must Do Better! More fun than wrestling with the butterfly shape was choosing the threads; I went for some overdyed stranded cottons by Carrie’s Creation. The company unfortunately seems to have ceased trading, which is a shame as they had some lovely threads (silks as well). The threads are not variegated but they are very subtly shaded, and I figured every little helps when you’re trying to shade a butterfly. You can see the shading of the thread quite nicely in the brown on the wing tip.

Cutting the butterfly shape and choosing the colours Shaded brown

The picture above also shows the first, preparatory stages of the stitching: attaching the interfacing to a calico background, shaping paper-covered wire (this is a 28 gauge) very closely all around the interfacing, and attaching it with small couching stitches. At this point the stitches can be relatively widely spaced – you’re just holding the wire in place until it’s going to be completely covered in closely-stitched buttonhole stitch.

Because I am by no means an expert in needlepainting or silk shading, I decided that I wouldn’t even try to go for taxonomic accuracy; my aim was a recognisable approximation. So I limited the palette to a dark brown, a not-too-bright white, orange and beige; I also picked a mid-brown that would come into play in the body. For the top wings I wanted some white spots in the dark brown, and some dark brown markings in the orange. These were all worked in silk shading or long & short stitch, which meant working with two threaded needles at a time for those mixed areas; the only stitches worked on top of others were the long thin brown veins on the orange. The bottom wings had a swirly bit where the orange and beige intertwined, which I worked in long & short, but I also wanted to put in some very small brown dots, and doing those as part of the silk shading was a bit too much of a challenge for now (I’ll keep that sort of detail for my RSN Silk Shading module, if I ever get to that) so they were worked over the top of the orange stitching.

A simplified wing Not including needlepainted spots Spots added on top of the orange stitching

When all the wings had been stitched, and I was satisfied that they were reasonably symmetrical (“perfectly symmetrical” was never going to happen, but then nature isn’t like that, is it? If it is, please don’t tell me) it was time for the buttonhole surround. This secures the wire outline to the calico, so that the butterfly can be cut out once the stitching is complete. Now one of the things I was least happy with in the holly blue was that very noticeable white line all around it. I have since found out that holly blues do in fact have a white edge to their wings so it is actually quite naturalistic, but I didn’t want it for this butterfly. Too attention-grabbing. As you can tell from the photograph, painted ladies do have some white touches around the side edges of the top wings and even more so to the edges of the bottom wings, so I had to get white in there, but especially along the top edge of the wing it seemed more realistic to follow the wing colours.

The buttonholing follows the colours of the wing

For the sides of the top wings I decided on a sort of checkerboard effect, or perhaps zebra crossing effect would be more accurate: alternating chunks of dark brown and white. The bottom wing would ideally have something similar, but after stitching three bits of white within the brown the complexity of changing colours, buttonholing with two needles in play, and making sure there were no gaps when I changed colour – and knowing I’d have to do it all again for the top wing on the other side – made me wonder whether there might not be an alternative method. As the black/dark brown bits in the white edge along the bottom wings are quite tiny in the original butterfly, I decided to work some spaced-out brown couching stitches along the wire which would then be incorporated into the white buttonhole stitch as I came across them. This worked quite well. The top and bottom outlines of the body were done in beige and mid-brown as I intended to shade the body from one colour to the other along its length.

Zebra crossing pattern Brown couching stitches incorporated into the buttonholing The buttonhole edge complete

Although it was not an immediate concern, I started thinking about the antennae. Sarah Homfray’s stumpwork kit had some black wire for the antennae (I asked her about it later and she said it was beading wire) but unlike the paper-covered wire there was none of it left. I considered using the thin wire from a sandwich bag tie, but fearing that would be too thin and bendy in the end I went with the remnant of paper-covered wire, coloured black with a Sharpie. The next step was applying thinned PVA glue to the back of the buttonhole outline; once dried, this would help stabilise the fabric when cutting out the butterfly.

Antennae from Sharpie-blackened wire Applying glue to the back of the buttonhole outline

When I started the butterfly I’d decided not to do the body in turkey rug stitch, which is very fiddly and time-consuming. But having got to this stage I realised I wanted the butterfly to look its very best, and turkey rug stitch would look much much better than just covering the body in long & short stitch. So turkey rug stitch it was, starting with beige at the bottom and gradually shading into mid-brown. At this point the butterfly also gained some French knot eyes. The holly blue had beads for eyes but I found those a bit too prominent; the French knots were just noticeable enough. As for the body, I may have made some of the loops rather longer than they really needed to be… still, it meant I had plenty of thread to play with.

Mostly beige turkey rug stitch with a bit of mid-brown Shading the turkey rug stitch into solid mid-brown

The first cut was a very rough one, just to open up the loops and get the threads to a manageable length. Then came the more precise trimming. This is the bit I dread – as with lockdown haircuts, if you take off too much there is no way to put it back; and unlike lockdown haircuts, these stitches won’t grow back however long you wait!

The first stage of the body haircut A side view of turkey rug stitch after the initial cut The body has its final shape

Next: more cutting. It was time to release the butterfly from the fabric surrounding it. As with the body, first a very rough and ready cut with plenty of margin, after which I got closer and closer to the buttonhole-covered wire. The final cutting was done from the back, where I could get really close to the stitching. My trusty 4″ scissors once again proved invaluable in this process, reliably sharp and with pointy tips to get into the tightest corners.

Cutting roughly around the butterfly Getting closer The closest trim

Then all that was left to do was to attach the antennae, and to photograph it in some appropriate places. I had hoped to place it on one of the blue geranium flowers, but being rather heavier than a real-life butterfly it proved to be too big a burden for the poor flower, so it had to be photographed on the leaves instead.

Attaching the antennae The finished butterfly The finished butterfly on a leaf The finished butterfly by some blue geranium flowers

So am I a convert to stumpwork now? Well, I think you could definitely call me a convert to stumpwork butterflies, as long as they don’t get too complicated smiley – recently on the Needle ‘n Thread FB group there have been some extremely lifelike butterflies made up of separate wings, bodies, heads… I don’t see myself doing anything like that, nor any of the stumpwork that requires big wooden beads to cover or lots of detached stitches or too much ironmongery. But this idea of outlining a simple shape with wire, filling it in with stitching, buttonholing round it and cutting it out – yes, that may well become a more regular part of the repertoire from now on!

Another trial fabric to use with another book

Some time ago now I got Thread Painting and Silk Shading by Margaret Dier (from the same series as the Lizzy Pye and Becky Quine books). It’s got lots of interesting information and some pretty projects (must try felt padded stitching some time – I’ve used it in goldwork of course, under metallic kid, chipping and cutwork but never under other types of embroidery).

A thread painting book

One of them, a small part-padded Japanese flower (there are also some interesting Chinese ones) struck me as perfect to try out two new Empress Mills samples: their Egyptian cotton. They sent me white and natural, and I tried one without and one with backing fabric. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the samples when they arrived, so I can only show them with the stitching!

These two little projects also offered a nice opportunity to use different types of silk: a spun silk, overdyed Soie d’Alger (Chameleon Threads’ Shades of Africa), for the un-backed version on natural cotton, and a discontinued flat reeled silk called Eterna on the backed version on white. Spun silk is generally easier to work with than reeled silk, which is made from the continuous silk filament as it comes off the silk worm’s cocoon (and is therefore also known as filament silk); filament silk, especially when it’s a flat silk, will snag on thin air but it has an incredible sheen, whereas the lustre of spun silk is a little more muted.

Chameleon Threads' Shades of Africa overdyed Soie d'Alger Eterna flat filament silk

The version without any backing stood up remarkably well to some serious stitching, especially the padding which is worked with 6 strands in the needle, which means that where it doubles up around the eye I was pulling 12 strands through the fabric. In spite of this rough treatment, there were no obvious holes or distortions in the fabric. Thumbs up!

The design drawn onto the natural cotton Padding for the petals The first row of long and short stitch The finished flower

On the version with backing I decided I could try an extra layer of padding, as the petals weren’t quite as rounded as I’d hoped and expected with a single layer. Even though the unbacked fabric had taken the full six strands for the padding surprisingly well, I felt that two layers of six strands might be inflicting a bit too much of a challenge on the fabric in spite of the strengthening layer of muslin behind it; on the other hand, adding an extra layer of padding but making both layers less voluminous would rather defeat the purpose. I compromised by using three strands doubled in the needle – I’d still be stitching with six strands, but there wouldn’t be the extra bulk of the tail going through the eye.

Six strands in the needle, twelve strands by the eye Three doubles dtrands in the needle, six strands by the eye

The extra padding definitely worked to make the outside of the petals more curvaceous and the difference in height towards the centre more noticeable, and with the sheen of the flat silk that shows up even more (although unfortunately it seems to be impossible to capture the effect satisfactorily in a photograph if you’re an amateur). And the fabric behaved beautifully – not surprisingly, as apart from the colour it is exactly the same as the one used for the other flower and it had the added advantage of a backing fabric. The pure white is a bit stark for my taste, so I would probably have the natural-coloured cotton as my default choice.

A double layer of padding The first row of long and short stitch in shiny flat silk The finished flower

A successful experiment then, both because I enjoyed trying out this part-padded embroidery and seeing how it gave a more subtle lift to the petals than complete padding, and because I’ve got another fabric to add to my list of Useful Embroidery Fabrics!

A little bit of progress

So did I manage to get any work done on Queen’s Silks, the goldwork racehorse started last summer at Hampton Court Palace during a heatwave? Yes, I did; not a great deal, but at least I’m getting into the goldwork routine again.

And some of my first foray back into metalwork was routine indeed – plunging! There is an awful lot of couched Jap and passing in this project, and consequently an awful lot of plunging. Not my favourite part of goldwork, and therefore best undertaken in small doses. Here I could have finished filling the complete shape first, but it looked like such a jumble that I felt I’d like to get the ends out of the way first. I also finished the chipping on a nearby shape. The first picture shows the state of play in this area of the design when I got the racehorse home last July, the second what it looks like now.

Where I left off in July last year Some chipping and plunging

Before I started the plunging there was one thing I did need to do; I noticed that part of the design line was still visible on the right-hand side of the lower end of the couched area, and this would have to be covered. Fortunately I had cut the Jap fairly generously at that end, so I could continue to couch a single thread to cover the design line and still have enough left (albeit only just) to plunge and finish off.

A visible design line A single line of couching

And that’s where we are now! It’ll clearly be a while before this horse passes the post smiley but that’s fine – I’m in no hurry. Just very pleased to be working on something shiny again!

Shiny