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…

Further excursions into needlepoint

I blame Fiber Talk. There I was, perfectly content doing just Hardanger, freestyle embroidery, goldwork, Shisha, crewelwork, embellished embroidery and chunky stuff (not a technical term, but I don’t think the Christmas Wreath counts as stumpwork and I don’t know what else to call it), and they get me interested in canvaswork, or needlepoint as they call it. You may remember that I indulged in a little needlepoint recently, and I had rather hoped that had got it out of my system. And then, in my chronological trawl through the Fiber Talk archives, I came to this Midweek Chat. And I was lost. Because one of the pictures shown with the podcast was this:

Carole Lake's Bali Ha'i

It’s a Carole Lake freebie called Bali Ha’i. It uses Caron threads in the shade called Tahiti, which I’ve always loved. And in the middle of the design there is a double fan doubled, which I think is a perfectly irresistible name, like pearl purl. Until recently, I had never even heard of double fan doubleds, if that is the correct plural. But I love the name, I love the look, and here was one in one of my favourite Caron colours, in a project small enough to be doable in between all the other projects I should really be getting on with. What could I do? I downloaded it.

However, looking at the list of materials needed I realised two things: firstly, that even though the list was quite short, I had only one of the five required threads (and I wasn’t going to buy £15 worth of Caron threads just for this small project), and secondly, that the threads were chosen to work on 18ct canvas, and I had intended to do it on 24ct Congress cloth. And then there was a third consideration, which was that you can’t put Congress cloth in a hoop, and unlike my earlier small experiments this project couldn’t easily be worked in hand. It looked like the Figworthy Bali Ha’i was scuppered before it had even started. Or was it?

Looking at the picture of the design, it seemed fairly “open”, so working it on 24ct instead of 18ct would probably just result in a slightly denser look. I remembered once having bought some cheap stretcher bars, and after some rummaging found them in the back of my hoop drawer. And a quick trawl through my box of Caron threads yielded a rather pleasing green-and-yellow combination of Lemon & Lime Watercolours (3-ply cotton) and Waterlilies (variegated stranded silk), Jade Impressions (wool/silk mix) and an anonymous green Soie Cristale (solid stranded silk). Together with a not-quite-gold-not-quite-silver Kreinik #4 braid, which I decided would do as a stand-in for the required Kreinik #8 on my finer canvas, it made quite a pretty picture against the background of my black Congress cloth.

Black Congress cloth on 6 inch stretcher bars Green and yellow threads for Bali Ha'i

I was all set to go. But then I had a session of thread-rearranging, as some of my boxes were getting terribly crowded and threads don’t like to be cramped, and although the box of Caron variegated threads was one of the few that didn’t actually need rearranging, I did come across some orange Soie Cristale in one of my silk boxes which turned out to go very nicely with Caron Tequila, which I happened to have in both Watercolours and Waterlilies; I didn’t have an orange Impressions, but I did have a Wildflowers (an indivisible cotton about the weight of a perle #8). It’s not as matt or as soft as Impressions, but unless you knew the original design specified Impressions, you wouldn’t notice.

Orange/yellow/pink threads for Bali Ha'i

So now I had two possible colourways. It was beginning to look as if I’d have to do two versions!

Green or Orange?

After some consideration I decided to use the Tequila one first, on the grounds that it was brighter and therefore more like the original. I clamped the stretcher bars to my seat frame, and set about stitching my very first double fan doubled. It was a new thing for me to be allowed, nay told to work with a very long thread (72″ in fact) – I tend to use longish lengths of thread but every tutor at every workshop or day class or retreat always tells you to use short ones. Obviously needlepoint is different! I did figure, though, that 72″ on 18ct meant that 54″ should be ample on my 24ct. If not, I’d just have to start again smiley.

Now the instructions described the first few rounds of stitching in detail, noting exactly which previous stitches to weave over and under, but then it just said “continue to weave over and under”. Unfortunately it was clear from the first two rounds that it wasn’t a simple over-and-under, as you sometimes went over or under two previous stitches. I tried to work out the pattern, then decided to see if I could find a video. I found two, one without any comment or sound at all which was oddly disconcerting, and one by Debbie Rowley of Debbee’s Designs.

Now I know her from Fiber Talk (Gary must be her biggest fan) and I remember Christine mentioning in one of the podcasts that Debbie Rowley had said not to count but to feel the rhythm of the stitch. Hoping I’d be able to work out the rhythm from the video, I started watching. And right where my written instructions left off, she gave me the vital clue: over and under, yes, but over and under groups of threads, which (especially as she worked the stitch in two colours) were actually relatively easy to identify (even though she did work them opposite to my written instructions – over/under where mine said under/over). I watched the rest of the video, activated my sense of rhythm, and produced a… well, not perfect but perfectly acceptable double fan doubled. Yay me!

My first double fan doubled

The Kreinik #4 feels a little thin for the motif; I’m working at 3/4 scale (and yes, the 54″ length of Caron was plenty long enough), but Kreinik #4 is, as far as I know, half the thickness of #8, so the effect is understandably a little less pronounced. Still, it gives a nice bit of sparkle. At this point I wasn’t very happy with the threads showing through from the back – I worked them exactly as instructed, so the travelling threads are presumably where they are meant to be; perhaps it’s just that canvas is more open than the fabrics I’m used to. Fortunately most of the empty canvas around the central motif is actually covered as the project progresses, so I was hopeful it would turn out all right. But just to make sure the stranded threads filled as much space as possible, I even used my stiletto as a laying tool!

Using a laying tool

Then, as I’d done several bits of the Soie Cristale but had not yet used the Impressions (the two solid colours in the design) I realised that in the original these are a dark and a light red. In my green colour scheme the two solids did happen to be a dark and a light (albeit the other way around from the original) as those were the only greens I had in these threads, but for the bright colour scheme I had for some reason picked a dark orange silk that was very similar to the solid cotton Wildflowers thread I was using – and I did actually have two lighter oranges! However, there was no way I was going to unpick the silk stitches I had already done, so I looked for Wildflowers that might offer some contrast with the orange silk. In the end, I decided on the variegated yellow/orange; the variegation on it is gradual and mild enough to work as a replacement for the solid colour.

A change of colour

One of the things I really like about this design is that it looks complete at the various intermediate stages; the center with its mosaic stitch border works perfectly well on its own, and again when the Scottish stitch border is added, and again after the half Rhodes border (the outer one in the picture below). That one, by the way, was tricky to start and finish. On embroidery fabric like Lugana I would have used a waste knot running underneath the length of the border, but because of the open nature of canvas (even a 24ct canvas) that was simply not an option here. I’m getting quite creative in finding ways of fastening on and off! That did give me an idea, however. In time I want to work the green combination as well, so why not try that on 25ct Lugana or 22ct Hardanger fabric? It may turn out that fabric isn’t sturdy or stiff or solid enough to stand up to the needlepoint stitches, but then I’ll just find out, won’t I? And it will certainly make starting and finishing easier! I’ve even got ideas running through my head of a double fan doubled as the central motif in a Hardanger design…

Looking complete after the half Rhodes border

But let’s not get carried away, and get back to stitching on canvas. Two more borders to go, both very relaxing once I got into the rhythm (as were the half Rhodes and Scottish borders; it’s quite meditative, this needlepoint thing!) and Bali Ha’i was finished – my first proper needlepoint project (not counting the teeny weeny experiment). I’m quite proud! And I’ll let you know how the fabric version turns out.

Bali Ha'i finished

Incidentally, if you Google “Carole Lake Bali Ha’i” you’ll as likely as not find a link to the Caron site, where she was once a Featured Designer, and where you can also find the chart. This reminded me that once, at the dawn of Mabel’s career, I too featured on Caron’s website. I’ve not re-read it, so I can’t tell you whether it is by now horribly embarrassing, but it does have a link to a freebie design smiley.

RTFI – Read The Flipping Instructions

Some people will read the manual only as a last resort, when everything else has failed. You might think this doesn’t apply to embroidery, and I agree that the last resort mindset is probably not very prevalent among stitchers. But as for reading the instructions rather later than would have been wise – well, I will admit to having opened a kit and, entranced by the lovely fabric and the prospect of starting an exciting new project, said “let’s get you hooped up, you beauty!” only to find out subsequently that the instructions start “before you mount your fabric in the hoop…” Ah.

But you’d think, wouldn’t you, that that couldn’t possibly happen if the instructions were your own. Think again – it nearly did.

Remember this one? It’s Hengest with his wrongly-positioned pink spot. The second arrow in the picture points to where the pink should have been: two spots to the right. So when I had unpicked the spot, and quite some time afterwards (other things having got in the way for a few weeks) finally got round to re-stitching it in the right place, I knew exactly where it needed to be.

Hengest's spot in in The Wrong Place

In spite of my certainty, and my eagerness to finally get that spot done, some slight niggle deep down persuaded me to just cast a quick glance at the numbered diagram showing which spot is to be stitched in which colour.

The pink spot actually goes one spot to the right of the wrongly placed one.

It won’t surprise you that from now on I will compulsively read any instructions and notes that come with a project, whether someone else’s or my own. In this case it saved me from having to unpick all over again, muttering under my breath “out, damned spot”. It got me right back into Hengest, who now has not only his pink spots, but his orange ones as well!

Hengest with correctly placed blue, pink and orange spots

Incidentally, I’ve been playing with my new Silk Mill silks – how are these for Silk Hengest’s spots?

Silks for Hengest's spots

Excursions into needlepoint

I’ve been binge listening to Fiber Talk podcasts recently, and one of the types of needlework that is often discussed (at least in part because both Gary and Christine are into it) is needlepoint. Now I understand from their discussions that American needlepoint is somewhat different from English/Continental needlepoint, and uses many more types of stitches and threads. As they were talking about Jessica stitches with Debbie Rowley I thought, “I’ve done Jessica stitches! I’ve been doing needlepoint and I didn’t know it!”

Of course many stitches are what you might call cross-over (I feel I ought to insert a cross stitch pun here) or multi-purpose, in that they can be used in several styles or techniques of needlework. French knots for example crop up in freestyle, ribbon and counted embroidery, and probably some other styles as well. And so with the Jessica, although I would say that you’re unlikely to see it outside counted work. Mine were used in the Hardanger piece Treasure Trove, framing padded circles of metallic kid leather.

Needlepoint, however, seems to be defined by its ground fabric, which is canvas. Years ago I inherited some 18 point canvas (i.e. 18 holes to the inch), and I must have intended to do something with it because one square piece has been cut from it and the edges bound (well, stuck) with masking tape. I have no idea what happened to the project I meant it for. At more or less the same time I bought some Congress cloth, which is a 24 count canvas; that’s the one I used for the Necessities Sampler which now adorns one of my stash boxes, and I also tried out some Hardanger on it.

Necessities Sampler on Congress cloth

Now as I was looking for something in the many needlework folders on my computer, I came across a small design I must have saved to my Inspirations/One-Day-I-Will-Get-Round-To-This folder years ago.

Now where did I find this design?

As you can see it is actually stitched on fabric, not canvas, but I thought it would be the perfect little thing to refresh my acquaintance with canvas work. I dug out the 18 point canvas and the Congress cloth (in cream and black) and picked some Appleton’s crewel wool for the former, and Carrie’s Creations overdyed stranded cotton for the latter.

Trying out threads and canvases

I decided to start with the canvas, as it would be a bit easier on the eyes and they are giving me a little trouble at the moment. Unfortunately I decided against starting in the middle with the Rhodes stitch, which would have “anchored” the various parts to each other, and having done one of the Amadeus stitches (the blue fan-like shape in the corner) I then got so carried away with the rhythm of the double herringbone that I took it too far. Equally unfortunately I carried the threads to continue from the left-hand row of herringbone to the right-hand one, which will therefore also have to be unpicked. I couldn’t quite face that, so switched to stranded cotton on black Congress cloth.

Appleton's crewel wool on 18-count canvas

Yes. Black. Which is not easy on the eyes. But it does make those bright colours pop smiley. And having learnt from my canvas experience and started with the central Rhodes stitch, I then managed a fair bit of work in the doctor’s waiting room!

Waiting room progress

It was finished at home, and inspected by the resident feline. I think she approved. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

The finished project inspected by a feline Lexi approves. I think.

The next day I finished the canvas version as well, and it’s interesting to see how different the two are, when (apart from a little variation in the herringbone stitch) they are identical and stitched in very similar colours. Perhaps it’s my preference for smaller things, perhaps it’s that striking contrast of the jewel colours on black, but I definitely like the Congress cloth one best.

On 18 point canvas On Congress cloth The same motif on 18 point canvas and Congress cloth

Even though I don’t think I’ll ever get into needlepoint to the extent of doing a large project, I enjoyed these small snippets; there is something almost mesmerising about the rhythm and repetition-with-variation of these stitches – quite meditative, really. Some of the needlepoint stitches I’m discovering may well find their way into future counted designs, but even if they don’t, I’m just having fun with these! Well, apart from unpicking several rows of double herringbone stitch with the Appleton’s getting thinner and flakier all the time… in fact in the end I cut my losses and started over again on a fresh bit of canvas (shh, don’t tell anyone).

Stitching setbacks – a spot and a SAL

In which one of Hengest’s pink spots is in The Wrong Place, and a SAL hits a snag.

They say we show our character by how we respond to adversity. Well, I didn’t throw either a tantrum or my embroidery, so I suppose I’m doing reasonably well. But I can’t say I enjoyed it when two of my pet projects suffered a setback this week.

At least one of them is going to be relatively simple to put right. Time-consuming and annoying, but simple. It involves unpicking the pink spot at Hengest’s bottom left, getting the skein of Tudor Rose 2 out again, and applying it two spots to the right.

Hengest's spot in in The Wrong Place

And I was so proud of that spot, too! The white surrounding it was a little irregular (a small portion of the outline was straight rather than curved) so I set out to correct that with the coloured spiral filling it in, and I was pleased to see that it worked quite well. Then, as I fastened off, put on my regular glasses, and prepared to contemplate my work with a happy and satisfied sigh, I noticed it was straight underneath the other pink spot. And it shouldn’t have been. Why I didn’t see this throughout the time it took me to stitch the second spot I will never know. I have said before that sometimes we are too close to our own work (literally) and need to step back to see the project as a whole, and I suppose that’s what was needed here. Oh well. Today I will take my nice sharp scissors to Hengest once again, and stitch the correct spot.

The other problem may take a bit longer to solve. It involves the mechanics of a mystery Stitch-A-Long, thwarted (for the time being) by the mechanics of using a backing fabric.

This was not the way I had hoped to announce this SAL. It will be my first since 2016, and it will be my first non-Hardanger one, and it will be my first non-year-long one, and all of that I felt deserved a bit of a fanfare when I was ready to spring it on the world, and the needleworking part of the world in particular.

Of course I could have waited for this issue to be solved (if it ever is) and then done the fanfare unveiling and not mention the rocky road that lead to it. But then I thought some of you might be interested in the process of developing a SAL, and all – or at least some of – the things that are involved.

So here is the snag I ran into. The SAL is going to be a Mystery SAL, which means you don’t know at the start what the finished article will look like. In a sense this was always somewhat compromised in my Hardanger SALs, in that they consisted of 12 individual little projects, so that each month you would see exactly what that small individual project would look like when finished – the remaining mystery being what the following months would be like and how they fitted in with the general theme. This one, being one big freestyle embroidery picture built up in the course of 10 instalments, is much more of a traditional Mystery.

And it is the combination of the phrases “one big picture” and “freestyle embroidery” that caused the problem. Freestyle designs are generally worked with the pattern transferred to the fabric; this can be done in more or less detail, but there is always some transferring to be done. And in a home environment that generally means drawing the pattern onto the fabric by means of a lightbox or a well-lit window. Then you add a backing fabric and hoop it up and start stitching.

So far so good. But for the Big Picture to remain a mystery, the various parts will have to be added after stitching has already commenced. My idea was that whenever a new instalment came out, people would take their project out of the hoop, add the new element, re-hoop and start stitching the new bit. What I hadn’t thought about was that what comes out of the hoop is not just the original fabric, but the fabric-and-backing-fabric sandwich. And they will be firmly attached to each other by means of the stitching done so far.

An embroidered project with backing fabric The backing fabric is attached by the embroidery The embroidery goes through the backing fabric

So how do you transfer the new bits? Transferring through one layer of fabric can be tricky enough – transferring through a double layer of fabric is challenging to say the least, and I feared it might prove to be downright impossible. Because of the way the design is laid out, you could just about cut out new bits of the design and carefully slip them between the layers where they are not attached, but that’s not ideal, especially when using a window rather than a lightbox.

My husband, who is an engineer and therefore wants to (and often does) solve things, suggested using the prick & pounce method. (Slight digression to include a “proud wife” moment – how many husbands of stitchers would suggest this, or even know what it is smiley?) But not everyone feels comfortable with this method of transferring, and moreover it needs additional equipment, which I’m trying to keep to a minimum.

But it did make me think of a possible variation on that method. What if you traced the new bit of the design onto tracing paper, then pricked holes in it as for prick & pounce, only a spaced a little wider apart, place it on the fabric and then go through each hole with a pencil to make a dot? Then after removing the tracing paper you could connect the dots for a complete transfer. Again, the nature of the design makes this feasible as there aren’t many very detailed parts to transfer. But would it work? Time to try Prick & Pencil!

On the matter of additional equipment, in the pictures I’m using a cheap children’s pricking mat and pen, but if that is difficult to get hold of or simply an expense you’re not willing to incur, then a folded-up towel and a pin with a reasonably large head will do just as well. The pencil I’m using is a propelling one so it stays sharp, and it’s fairly soft so it makes a good mark. As you can see on the right-hand petal I spaced the holes further apart to see if that would be enough of a guide for drawing the complete design.

Equipment used to try the prick and pencil method Pricking the transferred design The pricked design
Using a pencil to draw dots through the holes The design shown in dots Connecting the dots The finished transfer

And just because I happened to have them handy, I also tried the pricked transfer with some drawing pens, green and black; these are Sakura Micron pens (I transferred only the flower centre in black, not the petals).

Using a Sakura Micron pen A green and a black transfer

So does it work? On the whole, yes. I did find I needed the tracing there to refer to when connecting the dots, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It also takes a bit of experimenting with how close together you want the holes to be, and the light green pen wasn’t as easy to see as the black or the pencil (although it was clearer than it looks in the photograph) so you have to choose your writing implement wisely. But it’s definitely a viable alternative to transferring on a lightbox.

Is it a good enough alternative to SOS (Save Our SAL), though? I’m not sure yet. But it’s a glimmer of hope! And as I was playing with my lightbox, I found another – although transferring through two layers of fabric isn’t ideal, it’s not impossible as long as there isn’t a great amount of detail. The first picture shows a design seen through light blue cotton with no light behind it; the second shows it on the lightbox, and the third on the lightbox with backing fabric. Although the dots in the design aren’t easy to see, the simpler outlines are visible even in the third picture.

Design behind cotton fabric, no light Design behind cotton fabric, with light Design behind cotton fabric and backing, with light

Even when using cotton duck, a heavier fabric, the design lines show up both without and with backing fabric, though again details are lost. Unexpectedly, the most difficult fabric was a natural-coloured Normandie, a cotton/linen mix which is not particularly heavy. The picture shows it with backing fabric, and whether it is the texture or the not-quite-plain colour it would definitely be more of a challenge to transfer new parts to it.

Design behind cotton duck, with light Design behind cotton duck and backing, with light Design behind Normandie fabric and backing, with light

Still, there are possibilities, so for now the SAL is alive! But I’ll keep trying to find better and easier ways to deal with transferring parts 2 to 10 before the real fanfare announcement.

A stained unicorn and the benefit of hindsight

Wool Hengest is coming on well, but he is eating wool at a rate of knots. I haven’t done that much stitching in crewel wool, and nothing that was completely covered in split stitch, so I didn’t really have a realistic idea of how much wool would be needed. I got two skeins of Arctic White but hardly expected I’d need the second skein. Well, I do. Here is Hengest after one complete skein has gone into him.

Hengest after one skein of white

I was all set to start the second skein, when disaster struck! No, don’t worry – no-one’s injured, our house is still standing, the cat’s fine. It was a disaster in stitching terms only. And it was one of my own making.

The hoop I bought for this project is a simple 8″ wooden hoop. It works just fine, but there were some rough patches on the outside of the outer ring which occasionally caught the wool and fluffed it up. So I asked my husband for some sandpaper to rub it smooth, he got me some of the finer paper in his collection, and I set to. Carefully pulling the fabric out of the way I sanded the offending bits, which took only a few rubs – the roughness really wasn’t very bad, only occasionally just annoying enough for me to want to do something about it. I made sure I wasn’t accidentally sanding the fabric, but otherwise I was more concerned with keeping any sawdust away from my nose and mouth, as I’m allergic to the stuff.

After a while I could rub my finger along the hoop without encountering any noticeable roughness, so I put the sandpaper down on the kitchen table and took the hoop back into the sitting room. It was only then that I looked at the fabric. And gasped.

Hengest feels blue

The picture above actually shows the stain after I had already brushed some of it off the fabric – it originally showed a bright azure spot where there is only a smudge in the photograph. What had happened? Well, the piece of sandpaper, which was fairly long and narrow, had some sort of blue powdery residue on one side of one of its shorter edges which neither my husband or I had noticed, and this had flopped over while I was sanding and deposited some of its powdery blueness on Hengest.

Of course I was extremely wise after the event, and told myself that what I should have done was take the fabric out of the hoop before sanding, but I’ve got it so nicely hooped up, all snug and at just the tension I like, that I didn’t want to disturb it, so I left it in and there it was. I was by now feeling more blue than the unicorn, but there was very little to be gained by What Ifs, so I got on with seeing whether the thing could be salvaged. A good brushing removed all the blue from the fabric, but the wool proved to be more resistant to my ministrations. Having brushed it to within an inch of its life, it looked decidedly more fluffy but still faintly blue.

Remnants of blue

There was no help for it, some of the stitching would have to come out. As it happens the worst affected stitches were actually at the start of a new thread, so I unpicked the two rows of split stitch nearest the edge. And I can tell you now that unpicking split stitch is not something I would recommend as relaxation therapy. Because the threads are split, you can’t unpick it all from the front – it has to be done half a stitch at a time, and as I occasionally put in random stitches to fill in gaps where the rows aren’t quite close enough together some of it was rather like unravelling a mystery looking for clues (which word, incidentally, comes from “clewe” meaning ball of thread; rather appropriate).

Having unpicked those two rows I wasn’t completely happy with the previous couple of rows; depending on the light they varied from white to probably OK to definitely blueish. And part of the idea behind Hengest is that the whiteness of his body contrasts with the pale pastels of his spots; having part of his body (a small part, but a part nonetheless) pale blue would rather defeat that aim. To be on the safe side, I took those rows out as well.

Blue or not? A clean start

While I was at it I then upicked a small section right at the top of his neck where I didn’t like the stitch direction; I replaced it with satin stitch because with the new stitch direction it was a bit narrow to fit in more than one split stitch per row.

The stitch direction I didn't like New satin stitch

And so after all that, and a day on which I had hoped to get through half the second skein and finish Hengest’s body or perhaps even his head, here is where I am: pretty much back where I started. But – with no blue! And tomorrow it’s my weekly embroidery group, where in between chat and tea I’ll had a stab (pun intended) at getting that body finished; all the time reminding myself that this is a project purely for my own enjoyment, so that it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t get finished until next year. Relax smiley.

Progress...

Choosing colours and accommodating different materials

Winter in England can mean beautiful snowy vistas under an icy blue sky, but more often it’s just rather grey and damp. Yesterday edged towards the former, although the snow was just a sprinkling. But icy it definitely was, and I managed to slip on a treacherous little patch just outside our church. The ladies preparing for the mother & toddler group immediately treated the patch with salt, and offered to treat me with tea, but I didn’t think it was too bad so I just went home. And it isn’t too bad – no broken bones or torn ligaments or anything – just aching muscles in my leg and a stiff arm, probably from trying to break my fall. Unfortunately it’s my right arm. The one I stitch with.

It’s a good thing that my order of Milano Heathway crewel wools from Pearsall’s had arrived the day before; sorting through threads distracts the mind very effectively from both the muscle ache and the inability to stitch. And I had quite some sorting to do! You see, some of the Milano wools already in my stash have been set aside (for quite some time now…) in a box with my Tree of Life project, to stitch experimental leaves. And some I had picked earlier in the week for a crewel project based on parts of two designs from the two crewel embroidery books I bought last week. The remainder of my existing collection was in a third box. And now these new shades had arrived. It was time to get organised.

The wools and other materials for the Tree of Life Two new crewel books Materials for the crewel Rabbit and Carnations The wools in my latest Pearsall's order

One thing I had to do was decide how to store skeins that have been used; so far I’d put them back on the cards in two different ways, and that just looked messy. As one method could fairly easily be transformed into the other but not vice versa, the choice was easy. That done, I got all the shades together and organised them on binder rings. The Tree of Life project is definitely on the back burner at the moment, so I will re-pick the shades for that as and when I get into my experimental leaves again. For now I needed the shades for my Rabbit & Carnations (above), and my wool version of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. I deliberately do not call it a crewel version, as it will be in split stitch only and I have a feeling that doesn’t quite qualify!

Whatever it is called, the change from silk to wool brought with it the need for a little change to Hengest. A leopard may not be able to change its spots, but I would have to change Hengest’s – even in my original version they are already a little bigger than on the medieval cope by which he was inspired, but crewel wool being rather thicker than a strand of silk there would simply not be enough room (especially in the smaller spots) to comfortable work a dense spiral of stitches, and show off the texture and colour of the thread. Fewer, larger spots were what was needed.

Hengest for silk with small spots Hengest for wool with big spots

In addition, I printed him a bit larger than I would for the silk version, once at 9cm high and once at 10cm. The fabric I intended to use was Normandie, a cotton/linen mix, probably in the “natural” shade, which is a bit beige-y. I got out the fabric to see whether it would work with the white and greys I’d picked.

Will the fabric and threads go together?

I was happy with that combination, and cut the Normandie to sit comfortably in a 7″ hoop. I cut some calico backing and ironed both pieces of fabric. I then realised that if I wanted to use the 10cm version (and I did) it would really need an 8″ hoop. Fortunately I had cut rather generously, and found that it was just about big enough for the larger hoop. Phew. Now all I had to do was get an 8″ hoop. My deep hoop is already in use for Soli Deo Gloria, and it turns out I have no other wooden hoop (which I prefer for this sort of work) of that size. Fortunately Barnyarns stock them and so one is on its way to me as I write this; when it arrives I’ll bind it, and then Hengest is good to go!

Hengest transferred and the threads chosen

By the way, I love split stitch in wool – compared to a single strand of silk there is so much more thread to aim for!