Is it all right if I…?

Have you ever wondered/had a stitching friend ask you/asked a designer or tutor: “Is it all right if I…” (stitch this in green instead of yellow; use only part of the design; turn the dog into a rabbit; work it in wool on canvas, not in silk on linen; turn the design 90 degrees)? If so, you are not alone. It’s a question that often crops up on forums, and it’s a question that I, undoubtedly like many designers and tutors, have been asked more than once. The answer?


Yes, it’s fine. This is your project, and you decide what it’s going to look like. I feel quite strongly about this, and yet when I do it myself, I feel a little diffident. That doesn’t stop me from changing things, though smiley.

As an example let’s look at Oh Sew Bootiful’s “Splashing in the Waves”. I wrote a bit about this in an earlier FoF, but as the project is now finished I can show the effect of all the changes together. First, the original: two Japanese-looking waves with light blue foam and green fish.

The original design, with blue wave tips and green fish

Now not all of the changes I made were the same type of changes, and I’m fairly sure this holds for most stitchers who change designs – there is a variety of reasons. One reason is that a particular part of the design doesn’t appeal to you, or is not appropriate for the project’s purpose – substituting a stylised cat for a stylised dog in an old-style sampler because you prefer cats, for example, or changing the length of the bride’s dress in a piece to commemorate a wedding so that it matches that of the bride for whom it was stitched. Another reason might be that you only want to use one motif or section from a larger design, either because you don’t like the rest of the design, or because it needs to fit a pre-chosen framing option (card, box lid, footstool).

I’ve done both of these, but not in this Waves design, although I did shrink the design so that it would fit a satin-covered box I had in my stash.

Then there is the material. In a counted design, that could affect the size as well; in a freestyle design such as this, it affects mainly the look of the background and the stitching experience. Instead of a relatively thin cotton, which I would have had to back, I chose a sturdy cotton duck (a light canvas) that I could use on its own. I also like the rather solid look of it. My favourite fabric at the moment is a lovely densely-woven German linen, but I have a limited quantity of that so it gets used only for special projects, like the Llandrindod jewelled cross and one of the SAL versions. Some changes, in other words, may be motivated at least to some extent by what you happen to have in your stash (and what you are willing to use).

Stem stitch on cotton duck

The picture above also shows another change: the outlines of the waves were charted in backstitch, but I chose to do them in stem stitch, for no better reason than that I prefer stem stitch and find it relaxing. So there you have a fourth reason for change: personal stitching preference.

Two further changes which can occur separately but sometimes influence each other are colour and thread. For this particular project I wanted to use a hand-dyed, mildly variegated stranded cotton, because it was just the sort of project in which they work well – very few colours, and no need for three or four matching shades of any of them. The perfect opportunity to give them an airing, in fact. But my choice of thread then affected my choice of colour, as none of my chosen hand-dyed cottons exactly matched the colours of the original (nor would I expect them to). A separate colour decision was made because from the start I envisaged the green fish in orange, startling goldfish unexpectedly tumbling in the waves – a matter of personal taste (the green fish were a bit too “camouflaged” for my liking), and of personal observation (the incongruous goldfish I enjoy watching in a nearby wood pond).

Colour and thread changes

The shading of the foamy wave tips was given a whole FoF all to itself so I will just post the picture here side by side with the original to show the change.

The original wave A shaded wave

What else? Oh, a digression. I stitched the circle outline in split stitch as per the instructions (makes a nice change smiley) in three strands of cotton. Now I like split stitch; Ethelnute the Medieval King was practically nothing but split stitch, and so is Hengest the as yet unfinished woollen Medieval Unicorn. But until now I have always worked split stitch using a single thread, whether crewel wool or one strand of silk. This means that you know exactly what to split, because there is only one thread available. But what do you do with multiple strands? Split one of them? Go in between the strands, especially when working with an even number? I found the whole process rather confusing, and partly because I was working with an odd number of strands I ended up with something closer to the former method than the latter. But I don’t find it ideal, and another time I would probably choose a thicker single thread (for example a perle cotton) rather than using multiple strands, although that has unintended side effects as well – the look of the circle outline would be quite different from the rest of the project. Note to self: try split stitch with four strands, splitting them two and two, and see whether that looks better.

Messy split stitch

And finally, the fish. I kept them right till the end, as my reward for stitching three million colonial knots. The instructions in the chart pack did not mention outlining the fish before satin stitching, so I tried one that way, but I found it almost impossible to keep the outline neat – not for the fins and tail, they were fine, but for the body. I wanted my fish to be just right, so the body was soon unpicked (I’m afraid I forgot to take a picture of the first version), outlined in split stitch and re-satin-stitched. And I am so pleased with them! They pop just like I’d hoped they would, and the split stitch outline gives the satin stitch a bit more lift as well, making the fish more 3D.

Goldfish that pop

There was just one more thing to do, mount it in the box I’d set aside for it. And here it is, ready to be filled with stitching bits and bobs.

A wave on a box The box, open

PS I don’t know whether the designer minded my changes; I emailed her a picture of the finished project but didn’t get a reply. Nevertheless I hope she enjoyed seeing a different take on her design, and hearing how much enjoyment it gave me.

Workshops, a squirrel, a medieval tulip and some kits

Well, the Knitting & Stitching Show is over for another year, and I am back home (in spite of rail upheaval at Euston Station on Saturday), nursing slightly sore feet from all the walking I did outside Show hours (London is full of interesting green spaces!) and being on my feet throughout the four workshops. They all went well, with lots of positive feedback which is always tremendously encouraging. I usually try and take pictures of some of the students’ work, but I’m afraid I forgot most of the time; here are a few pictures just to give you an impression, including the rather colourful demonstration cloth I ended up with.

Appliqué Mug workshop Wildflower Garden workshop Wildflower Garden workshop No Place Like Home workshop
No Place Like Home workshop A participant's project A participant's project A colourful doodle cloth

One thing I will mention to the organisers in my own feedback is the lighting; you would have thought that at something called the Knitting & Stitching Show the setter-uppers (or at least the people deciding on the set-up) would realise the importance of good, bright and even lighting. Instead there were usually two extremely bright lights shining down from the middle of the left and right sides of the workshop booth, which meant that about four seats had splendid light but the further you got from those the dimmer it got. Dim, I mean, by stitching standards. Still, we managed, and most of the students got a fair way with their projects (the pictures above were taken some time before the end of the class).

Of course I had a good look around the show as well, and I saw some lovely kits, silk threads and goldwork stuff but restrained myself from adding either to my already tottering pile of WIPs or to my bulging thread containers. I contented myself with a spool of Madeira Lana in a variegated light green and a bobbin of Golden Hinde’s translucent couching thread in a muted gold (shown in the picture beneath two shades I already had), and felt very virtuous.

2019 Knitting & Stitching Show purchases

As I said I did a lot of walking when I wasn’t at the show, and besides coming across a man walking backwards in Highgate Wood (no, I didn’t ask him why) there was the excitement of being mugged by a squirrel in Holland Park. I’m not sure whether it could smell that I had chocolates in my bag, but it was definitely intending to have a look!

Mugged by a squirrel Bag check

On that same day I also visited Leighton House, where I unexpectedly learnt a bit more about my travel project.

Some time ago I came across a medieval Islamic tile in a museum. It was a bit of a chance find, because it was in one of the drawers underneath the display cases and I only opened a few of those. It was blue and white and it had a tulip on it – irresistible, even though it wasn’t from Delft smiley! As a friend later reminded me, tulips hadn’t made it to Western Europe at that time, but they were known in Persia and neighbouring areas. Well, wherever it was from, it was a very decorative design that just cried out to be stitched. The blobs and dots surrounding the circle in which the tulip sat were a bit irregular, so I evened them out, and also changed the white circles within the blue areas a bit. And because it’s small and only takes three colours, I thought it would make an ideal travel project to take with me to London. I even managed to do some work on it!

The tulip design based on a medieval ceramic tile Progress on the Ottoman Tulip

But what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with Leighton House? Well, in its collection there are quite a few tiles and plates and dishes that were described as Ottoman ceramics, or more particularly as Iznik pottery. And on many of them there were tulips remarkably similar to the one on “my” tile – that same rather elongated, narrow shape and the same sort of overlapping in the petals. I was intrigued, but unfortunately the museum does not allow photography, so I had to memorise them as best I could and make do with what images they have on their website to refresh my memory. With hindsight I should have asked them if I could trace one or two, or even just sketch them (because they may well not want visitors to handle the plates), but I didn’t think of that. Anyway, design-wise I’m happy with the one I’ve got – but following my visit to Leighton House I’ve renamed it from not-very-exciting Medieval Tulip to the more exotic-sounding Ottoman Tulip (Iznik Tulip would have sounded even more exotic, but is probably a bit too obscure).

And finally, a Special Offer smiley. After teaching workshops I usually have a few kits left, but because of their purpose they are a little different from the ones sold on my website. This year, in fact, I have some left that are not on the website at all (or at least not yet).

They are:

  • 1 Wildflower Garden freestyle card kit with the design transferred onto the fabric
  • 1 No Place Like Home (Little House) freestyle card kit with the design transferred onto the fabric
  • 3 Mug That Cheers appliqué embroidery card kits with the design transferred, the appliqué elements backed with Bondaweb and cut out, and one of the elements attached to the ground fabric (see picture below)

The Mug That Cheers appliqué embroidery kit

The appliqué kit will eventually be on the website for £10 including UK postage, but because of the above, and because the envelopes for the cards are missing, they will go for the same price as the other two, £7.50 including UK postage (postage to other destinations on request). If you would like one or more of these kits, email me at

Shading a wave

Remember my weak moment, in which I bought Oh Sew Bootiful’s wave design? I’d initially ordered the fabric pattern pack (instructions plus printed fabric) but then found out via the Mary Corbet Facebook group that they do PDF-only versions as well – I hadn’t spotted those because I ordered through their website and the PDFs are only available in their Etsy shop. I emailed them and they very kindly cancelled my order for the fabric pack so that I could buy the PDF instead (and of course there is absolutely no truth to the rumour that two other designs ended up in my shopping basket at the same time…)

I like design-only options; my craft room is stuffed to the gills with fabrics and threads, and I’m happy to do a bit of transferring myself. As it happens, I wanted the design a little smaller than the original so that it would fit a satin box I’ve got; extracting the design from the PDF and printing it a little smaller took care of that. Next, threads. According to the instructions the design is worked in stranded cotton but (probably just because I could) I picked the appropriate shades from my collection of coton à broder.

So far so good; but when I looked at them I realised that although the original green fish work well enough, what I really wanted was bright orange goldfish, like the ones that inexplicably mingle with the minnows in a pond in a small wood near us. And another thought came to me: this is just the sort of design that works well with mildly variegated hand-dyed threads. So I rummaged through my box of Carrie’s Creations stranded cotton and found a deep teal, a lighter one, and a satisyingly goldfishy orange. The next things was the foamy tips of the waves. In the original, they are the same light blue as the running stitch lines inside the waves. But foam is white, right? They aren’t called “white horses” for nothing! So a slightly off-white white was added (well, the foam is rarely truly white after all). I was ready to go!

Colour schemes

But of course I couldn’t possibly leave it at that. The dark parts of the waves are meant to be worked in backstitch, but I’m not overly fond of backstitch. Stem stitch, on the other hand, I find really relaxing! So stem stitch it was going to be. And it didn’t have to wait until my trip to London either – a weekend at my mother-in-law’s was the perfect occasion.

Changing stitches

This was also where I found out that I shouldn’t have transferred the running stitch lines as dashes; it’s very difficult to draw those perfectly regularly, and so my running stitches had to be a bit uneven to cover the transfer lines. Next time I will just put in dots.

When it was time to start on the French knot wave tips, I was beginning to feel a bit hesitant about my plan to stitch them completely in white. Would they stand out enough? I decided to work them in four stages from water to tip: three strands of light teal, two of light teal with one of white, one of light teal with two of white, and three of white. (I also changed the French knots to colonial knots, for no particular reason).

Shading a wave

And I like the effect! It did surprise me a little how alike the two “mixed” sections look; it’s hard to tell where the two-teal-one-white changes to one-teal-two-white, whereas the other changes (from solid teal to mixed and from mixed to solid white) are much clearer. If anyone can think of an explanation, I’d be very interested.

One more wave tip to go (those knots are hard on the fingers so it’s rather slow going) and then I get my reward: the goldfish. I’ve really enjoyed the whole project, but they are going to be the (very orange) icing on the cake!

PS A thought about the shading that came to me after I’d posted this – when you’re working a stitch with a twist (such as any type of knot) not every strand is going to be equally visible in the finished stitch. When all strands are the same colour this doesn’t, of course, make any difference to the look of the thing. But it’s a different story with blended threads: a knot made with AAB may show hardly any B at all, or have B very prominent on top of the two As. The blended knots are part AAB and part ABB, but AAB-with-prominent-B may well look almost identical to ABB-with-prominent-A. My guess is that that is why the middle part of the foam is less banded than I’d expected.

Autojumble stitching, and I’m still weak

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

Stitching at the Beaulieu autojumble

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

The stitching I got done at the Autojumble

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

The finished strawberries...

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

...mounted in a card

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

The foamy wave pattern pack from Oh Sew Bootiful

OK, I’m weak

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

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

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

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

Strawberries in Gumnuts, Gloriana and Dinky Dyes silks

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

Strawberries as a travel project using coton à broder

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

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

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

Focus, woman!

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria Helen Stevens 30s Revisited kit Come Rain

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

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

More haste, less speed; and distracting vestments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facets added to the ruby in Llandrindod

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

Unpicking, or rather, uncutting A fresh start

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

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

Sketch based on the West Kingsdown vestment

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

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

A problem if you couch the design

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

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

Quirks of photography and remedial wing work

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

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bottom wings with their additional blending

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

The finished butterfly The butterfly in more natural surroundings

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

Thoroughbred goldwork

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

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

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

The course kit

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

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

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

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

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

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

The back of the work

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

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

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

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

Pearl purl with a kink

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

The pearl purl outline redone Chipwork

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

Starting the cutwork

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

Half a tail covered

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

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

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

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

The state of things at the end of the three days

What do I want a SAL to do?

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

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

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

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

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

Sneak peeks at the SAL

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

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

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