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!

In defence of multiple projects

Wherever stitchers meet, sooner or later the discussion comes up – one project or many? And I’d be perfectly happy to let everyone enter that discussion for themselves, if it weren’t for something I’ve noticed: that it often starts with a remark like “I really shouldn’t start another project, I’ve got two on the go already” or “Do you think it’s all right to start a new project when I haven’t finished the one I’m working on?” or something equally apologetic.

Now if you happen to be the sort of person who likes finishing one thing before starting another, even if that one thing takes three years, then that’s all well and good. But if you’d like to work on more than one project at a time, why on earth shouldn’t you?

About a week ago, that discussion came up in one of the embroidery groups I’m a member of. At that time (the situation is slightly different now) I had three works actually in progress (the Wedding Umbrellas, a small pansy, and Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird), four more hooped up and ready to go (a Quatrefoil in Madeira Lana, a willow tree based on a Dutch pop-up restaurant’s logo [don’t worry, I asked their permission smiley], a Hardanger design on hand-dyed fabric, and a silk & gold flower called Soli Deo Gloria), three in the design stage (Tree of Life, Mechthild the Medieval Queen and Hengest the Medieval Unicorn), and two kits (Helen Stevens goldwork and Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly).

Projects in progress Projects hooped up Projects in the design stage Kits

I will admit that a dozen projects is probably as much as I would like to have in one or other stage of progress at any given time; even I don’t usually have that many. But my point is that there is no need to apologise for this, or to feel guilty about it. Unless the multitude of projects stops you from finishing any of them, this variety can actually work quite beneficially! For example, yesterday I’d reached a part of the crewel bird which I didn’t want to do until I’d watched Sarah Homfray’s video about it, as mentioned in the kit instructions. Unfortunately, the video is not actually on her site; so I’ve emailed her, and in the meantime worked on the pansy.

Another instance: having finished the wedding project, my next big piece (not size-wise – I don’t really do big – but in complexity and time to complete) will be Soli Deo Gloria. But the bit it starts with (the French knots filling the centre) has thrown up the first dilemma of this design. This silk and gold flower is based on one I did some time ago, where I took a Kelly Fletcher freebie and worked it in completely different colours, stitches and threads (more about that in a later FoF). For that one, I used slightly variegated Gloriana silks; for this present one I’m using solid-coloured Soie d’Alger. The centre will be worked in two shades of golden yellow, but how? Blended, to reproduce to some extent the original variegation? In two distinct regions, with the darker of the two providing shading? Randomly dotted throughout the circle (as suggested in my coloured-in outline)? If I had just that one project on the go, I’d be stuck for something to stitch until this matter has been solved to my satisfaction. But as it is, I can ponder this question at leisure while doing some Hardanger, or crewel work, or freestyle embroidery. What’s not to like?

The variegated centre of the Kelly Fletcher flower in silk and gold The centre of the new flower - blended, shaded or dotted?

Having several (though not necessarily a dozen) projects ready to go gives me a sense of freedom; I can pick up whichever I feel like stitching – colourful or muted, big or small, counted or freestyle, simple or complex. If occasionally the range of choices on offer makes me indecisive, leading to an evening of no stitching at all, on the whole I think for me the benefits outweigh any disadvantages. After all, on evenings when I simply can’t decide what to stitch, I can always rearrange my fabrics or stroke my silks, or even write a FoF smiley.

An interruption

I have an aunt whom I love very much. She lived with my mother and me for two years from the time I was three (which must have been quite crowded, two grown-up sisters and a child in a two-bedroom flat – but you don’t think of that when you’re little), and after that had a flat three floors up in the same tower block. When she lived with us she made up a series of bed-time stories featuring my favourite stuffed toy Haasje (Little Hare), detailing his adventures in Australia where he travelled around in the pouch of a friendly kangaroo. She took me on my first trip to London when I was thirteen. I ring her or she rings me about once a week, when we talk for 40 minutes or so to catch up on things. Did I mention I love her very much?

And then, today, she called me just as I was trying to make the most of what miserable light we get at this time of year, for the delicate operation of unpicking and restitching two letters in my big Wedding Project. Well!

You will be relieved to hear that my better self won, I was a Good Niece and we had a nice 50-minute chat smiley. But it did make me wonder whether we stitchers are perhaps not as mild and friendly as people might expect us to be… (Mind you, they may not be deceived anyway; a friend recently posted a cross stitch on my FB timeline that read “This is proof that I have the patience to stab something 1000 times”.)

It also reminded me of something I said yesterday to Gary Parr of Fiber Talk as he interviewed me for a podcast (to be published Sunday after next, by the way); that I enjoyed going to stitching classes and retreats so much at least partly because they offer an opportunity to stitch without any interruptions whatsoever. Ah, bliss!

But in everyday life we have to deal with interruptions, and I am pleased to say that the Wedding Project (also known as the Wedding Umbrellas, even though one of them is a parasol) got finished nonetheless – yay! It just needs to be laced, which I hope to do tomorrow.

And what was all the unpicking about? Well, the names of the groom (our eldest) and his bride are on the umbrella and parasol, and I was unhappy with the last two letters of Andreea’s name; they were a bit too small, and too low. I’d been hemming and hawing about whether to unpick or not, and had been putting off the decision by doing everything else on the project first, but today I finally bit the bullet and unpicked.

As it happens I couldn’t change the letters very much or they would no longer have fitted in with the other letters (and I was definitely not going to unpick the entire name), but I hope the small change has made enough of a difference in the overall look. There are still some things I’d probably do differently if I did this again, but as I won’t be doing it again I won’t worry about those!

The Wedding Project, finished

PS Should this project remind you of Come Rain and Come Shine in the Planned section of the website, you are absolutely right – it was shamelessly copied from those two designs, conceived as full-blown goldwork and silverwork projects but as yet unstitched. After all, if you can’t plagiarise your own work, whose work can you plagiarise!

A newly furnished stitching spot and unrelated ponderings

It’s possible to stitch practically anywhere. I have stitched on trains, in a field, and various waiting rooms, for example. But it’s really nice to have a comfy permanent stitching spot, one where it is not just possible, but a great pleasure to stitch. At home, I have two such spots, and one of them has just had a make-over.

That’s the armchair in our sitting room (the other spot is at the dining table by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden). My Lowery embroidery stand and Serious Reader light stood with one of our pair of big blue wing armchairs which had a small side table and a standard lamp between them, and which were in dire need of being both re-upholstered and resprung. Now we’ve been clearing out my mother-in-law’s bungalow as she has moved into sheltered accommodation, and my husband and his sisters have been choosing bits and pieces from the house, paintings, family papers, mementoes, and also bits of furniture. Last Tuesday my eldest sister-in-law and her husband dropped off, among other things, two pretty armchairs and a side table with shelf and drawer.

The chairs have relatively recently been overhauled, and they are of a rather more moderate size than our two blue giants (they also fit much better into the overall colour scheme of our sitting room). And because they are narrower than the old chairs and a bit lower

  1. I can have the really useful wider side table with drawer and shelf to put all my stitching on and in;
  2. my Lowery stand actually reaches the middle of the chair so it’s much more comfortable to stitch; and
  3. there is more room for a cat underneath the stitching smiley
The new set-up of chairs and wider table The new set-up in action, with cat

I have to admit that since that picture was taken I have adjusted the Lowery a bit, as with me sitting lower the stitching was rather too close to my eyes – a little less space for Lexi, but still considerably more than in the original set-up, so we’re both happy.

The project I’ve been working on in my new stitching chair is Sarah Homfray’s crewel bird Turaco, and I’m really enjoying it. But it did bring home to me how often we stitchers judge our work from the wrong distance, and in doing so are far more harsh on ourselves than we need be. We tend to look at our work from, well, a working distance, and sometimes forget that we are very probably the only people ever to look at it like that. Literally standing back from our work can be very beneficial; while working on it the stitching looks uneven, lumpy, not neat – but take a step back and hey presto, it suddenly looks much better! In my case it was the bird’s tail feathers. I just could not get them to look even and tidy, and after a while I decided to give it a rest and see if I could do better in daylight. I swung the Lowery stand away from me, got up to stretch my legs, caught sight of the embroidery while standing a little way away, and realised that they don’t look so bad after all!

The tail feathers on Sarah Homfray's crewel bird

Do you change things when you stitch other people’s designs? I often do. Not, I hasten to assure you, from an arrogant conviction that I know better than the designer, but just because we all have different tastes, and even when I like an overall design I might tweak a bit here or change a colour there to make it just the way I like it. For example, in the Turaco kit the branch on which the bird sits has “empty lines” among the stem stitch; but I happen to love the look of closely fitting stem stitch, so my branch is fully stitched. I also adjusted the printed line of the bird’s head (but as in this case it was to make it more like Sarah’s own stitched model that doesn’t really count).

You may remember I also played about a lot with several of Kelly Fletcher’s designs. I hope she and Sarah don’t mind (and as Kelly Fletcher posted some of my pics on her FB page I assume she at least doesn’t!) – I certainly don’t, and actually find it rather satisfying when people take a design of mine and make it their own. Your stitching project is yours, to stitch as you want it to be. If you stitch a Mabel design but want to do it in pink instead of blue, or use different threads, or stitch only part of it, or stitch it lots of times to make a big project, then go ahead – and please send me a picture of it for the Stitchers’ Gallery where it can join such personalised projects as a BonBon in purple instead of pink, Blackthorn worked in poppy colours, and an extended Flodgarry.

purple BonBon poppy-coloured Blackthorn enlarged Flodgarry

Playing with other people’s designs

Designing your own projects is very satisfying of course, but it can be quite relaxing to work on someone else’s – especially as there are so many embroiderers out there with great ideas! Recently I’ve been finding a proper treasure trove of designs on the Needle ‘n Thread Community FB group, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with them.

First there was the video containing a little four-petalled flowers to which I added leaves and some gold. I called it the Quatrefoil and it is now on the Freebie page with some notes on stitches and number of strands used and so on. It’s a lovely little design to use up odds and ends of threads, or to try out new ones; so far I’ve stitched three in silks (Rainbow Gallery Splendor, Madeira and Chameleon Shades of Africa) and one in wool (Heathway Milano crewel wool), using Jap, passing and twist for the gold couching. As I was stitching all these different versions I realised that I had originally drawn the inner circle too big – in the third picture you can see the gaps around the French knots – so the final drawing has had that amended.

The first Quatrefoil; Rainbow Gallery Splendor and Jap The first Quatrefoil; Madeira stranded silk and Jap The first Quatrefoil; Chameleon Shades of Africa and double passing The first Quatrefoil; Heathway Milano crewel wool and gold twist

I want to try out several more, one using silks in slightly different colours on a new fabric I got recently, a Higgs & Higgs linen-look cotton (recommended by a Cross Stitch Forum friend), and one using Madeira Lana (a thin wool/acrylic thread).

Then there was a woven picot poinsettia originally conceived by Sarah Fragale Roberts in tapestry wool. Not having any tapestry wool, I used some yarn I bought to use for crochet. Finishing it as a brooch was a bit fraught – I didn’t think it through in advance!

A picot poinsettia Making a brooch - buttonhole stitch Finishing a brooch - cutting around the flower Finishing a brooch - where to put the pin

What I should have done, and will do next time if there is a next time, is what I’ve tried to capture in this diagram:

Finishing the poinsettia brooch, ideally

Catherine Kinsey showed her brown felt Christmas bunny ornament, and I knew it was exactly the right thing to make for my daughter-in-law who had just had to say goodbye to her pet rabbit, Harry. Only Harry was grey, so grey felt it was. From the pictures I couldn’t quite tell whether it was meant to be double-sided, but as it was to be an ornament I thought I’d better make it look good on both sides! I’m not really used to this sort of embroidery so some of it was a bit challenging (not to mention fiddly!) but the end result was definitely appreciated – sigh of relief.

The Christmas bunny, front The Christmas bunny, back

And finally there was a Christmas tree embroidered freehand on paper by Sandy McGrath. It looked simple, and elegant, and quick, and just the no-deadline-no-stress sort of project I could really do with. I’d forgotten to ask Sandy the size of hers, but judging by the size of the beads in her picture and assuming they were seed beads, I went for 10cm high (hers, it turns out, was 9cm). I used red beads instead of her rose gold ones. And rather more of them. Otherwise it was identical smiley. Then my husband suggested candles instead of baubles. I played around with some bugle beads to put on a second tree, and then decided that you could actually have baubles and candles on one tree! So there it is, a baubly candly tree that you can stitch in an evening. The only change I’ll make to future trees (something which both Sandy herself and my husband mentioned) is to lengthen the trunk a bit at the bottom.

Quick Christmas tree - guidelines Quick Christmas tree, stitched but bare Quick Christmas tree with baubles Quick Christmas tree with baubles and candles

Besides giving me lots of enjoyable stitching projects, this has also reminded me once again what a generous lot stitchers are: when asked, all these people were perfectly happy for me to take their original ideas and play around with them, and the Christmas tree will even become one of my Church Building Fund workshops (if everything goes to plan) – watch out for it on the Workshop page towards the end of 2019!

The Holly and the Napkin

Late last month I wrote about a napkin I was embroidering with a rather wonky Kelly Fletcher monogram. Well, it got finished, wonkiness and all, and in time will no doubt be used and get stained with tomato soup or something; some people say that’s a shame, and it’s far too nice to be used (like the tea towel I embroidered recently), but the alternative is to put them in a drawer and forget about them, so I’m in the “use it” camp.

A Kelly Fletcher monogram on a Clever Baggers napkin

That, however, was not what I meant to write about today. The fact is that I enjoyed stitching that napkin, and it gave me an idea for a small Christmas present for a friendly couple. The wife is a fellow stitcher (she also quilts) and often presents us with a stitched present at our annual pre-Christmas dinner, and in return so far I’ve been rather unimaginatively sticking with cards. Well, what about Christmas napkins? I drew a simple holly wreath and the plan is to stitch a napkin each, with their initial in the holly wreath.

For this I needed two things: more napkins, and a plan on how to stitch the holly leaves. The napkin I had in my stash was one made of a cotton/linen mix, and was bought from The Clever Baggers. Unfortunately their postage is rather high for small orders (the original napkin had hitched along with a larger order of cotton bags), so I looked elsewhere. I found a modestly-priced pack of eight napkins, slightly smaller than the CB one and 100% cotton.

A quick comparison with my first napkin showed that they are quite different: the cotton/linen napkin is softer and has a more open weave, while the cotton napkins are much more densely woven. The latter is perhaps not a bad thing for surface embroidery where you can’t use a backing fabric, as it makes it less likely that any threads carried at the back will show at the front.

A corner of the Clever Baggers napkin A corner of the eBay napkin

One thing to bear in mind when buying napkins (or any fabric really), especially when they arrive folded up in a pack like these ones did, is that they may well need ironing before you can use them. These had obviously been in their pack for quite some time; they were so creased that I decided to wash them first, and iron them while still damp. While ironing the first one I had to iron some parts of it so much that I managed to scorch it slightly (just about visible in the picture), and even then the creases were still very much in evidence. The only thing to do was to find the smoothest corners on the two least creased ones and use those. Oh, and by the way, how did a cat hair make its way onto the new napkins already!?!?

A creased and scorched cotton napkin ...with a cat hair

On to the holly. I wanted to keep the wreath quite plain, although I did draw a slightly denser one with a double ring of holly leaves as well, but that won’t get used this time.

Plain holly wreath Denser holly wreath

But with either design, the important decision is how to stitch the holly leaves. Solidly filled? Outlined? If the former, satin stitch, long & short, fly, fishbone? If the latter, backstitch (whipped or plain), split stitch, running stitch? Or even fly stitch as well? Having used fishbone stitch on the leaves in the Kelly Fletcher napkin, I rather liked that idea, but I had to see whether I could make it work for the spiky holly shape. Roll on a doodle cloth, on which I stitched two fishbone holly leaves (the second a bit less successfully spiky than the first), one using fly stitch as a filling and one-and-a-half using fly stitch as an outline, with the holding stitches forming the spikes.

Trying out holly leaves The back of the stitched holly leaves

All in all I like the fishbone look best, and the back is quite neat too. The fly stitch outline I’ll keep in mind for the denser holly wreath, where it could be used alternatingly with fishbone stitch so that it wouldn’t get too dense. Now to decide how to stitch the initials – it shouldn’t be too solid (or it would overpower the wreath), but not too wispy either (or it would get overwhelmed itself). An outline in whipped chain stitch seemed to fit the bill best; a red initial for her and a green one for him, both whipped in golden yellow. Unfortunately the coton à broder #16 I wanted to use comes in a fairly limited range, and nothing from DMC’s golden yellow range is available in that thickness, so I resorted to the thinner #25 for the whipping. It works quite well!

A start on the wreath The wreath with berries A chain stitch initial The initial whipped

Should you like to try these holly wreaths for yourself, you can now find them on the Freebies page; the PDF contains notes about stitches and threads, and both wreath in two sizes. Enjoy smiley!

What next for a neck?

Ethelnute the medieval king had a full head of hair (with a crown on it) framing a fully stitched face. He also had a collar with some serious bling on it. What he didn’t have yet, was a neck to connect the two parts; this was because there was a bit of a challenge about that part of his anatomy, and it took me some time to decide which of the various options to go with.

When doing split stitch in one shade, indicating a dividing line can really only be done with a change of stitch direction. Instinctively I would have stitched the neck in curved horizontals, as it is done in most medieval embroidery, but because of the way his chin was stitched (lack of foresight there) that wouldn’t show up. The tutors at the Coombe Abbey retreat solved a similar problem in one of their stitched models by adding a line of a darker pink, which you can also see in some genuine medieval examples of this type of work. Even so, it wasn’t my preferred solution.

Stitching the neck in curved horizontals

Another option was to stitch the neck in verticals; although this doesn’t show the roundness and curve of the neck, I thought it would actually make for a rather regal look, giving the neck a proud, erect attitude. However, as far as I can tell necks are hardly ever (if at all) stitched this way in the genuine article, so it wouldn’t have the authentic look. I hadn’t convinced myself that it would work in the tout-ensemble, so that one was stored away as a possible-if-nothing-better-turns-up.

Stitching the neck in verticals

My third idea was to go horizontal, but straighter, so there would be some contrast in direction. The very tip of the chin would still be in the same direction as the neck (indicated by the blue arrow), but the rest should show a clear line.

Stitching the neck in straight horizontals

All in all I was leaning towards the third option, but then I shared the neck pictures on an embroidery Facebook group and several people said they preferred the vertical version! One voiced concerns that horizontal lines (whether curved or straight) would give poor Ethelnute a turkey neck, and another pointed out that verticals, if they are slightly curved outward at the bottom, actually follow the lines of the large muscles in the neck and might look rather more naturalistic.

I was still hesitating when one member suggested manipulating the vertical lines to give him an Adam’s apple. For some reason that really appealed to me, and I also saw how curving the lines outward to follow the neck outlines would almost automatically create that little hollow at the base of the neck, between the collar bones. That was it, I was sold. It was a while before I could schedule a good chunk of uninterrupted stitching time, but when that came round, I was on to Ethelnute like a shot.

The first thing was to put in some guide lines; nothing too precise, just a little indication where the Adam’s apple was to go, and the stitch direction.

Pencil guide lines

I decided to start on the right, which was going to be the largest block of uninterrupted curved vertical lines as Ethelnute is facing away from us to the left (his right). The first few lines were slightly too widely spaced (not very easy to see with the light-coloured silk and the bad lighting, but it’s where the blue arrows point to) so I filled the gaps in later. When I’d got to the point where the curve would have to change direction, I started from the other end, putting in a line with the outline of the Adam’s apple as a guide.

The right side of the neck The left side of the neck with Adam's apple

So did it work the way I intended? Yes, mostly. The division between chin and neck is clear without the need for an additional stitched line in a darker shade. The hollow at the bottom of the neck is not as noticeable as I thought it would be, but there is some change in texture there. And the Adam’s apple definitely shows up, albeit that it is extremely difficult to show the full effect in photographs; this is undoubtedly at least partly because I’m not a very good photographer, but also because the play of light on silk (and therefore the effect of the stitch direction) is best seen when either the embroidery or the viewer moves. Perhaps I need to do a video…

Shading of the neck The effect of the stitch direction

Now the king needed only a finishing touch: a bit more gold underside couching along his jewelled collar. I added a line of green silk as well, to balance the red, but that turned out to be far too prominent, so I took it out again – the gold will have to do on its own. It would have been brilliant to have been able to use my very own hand-rolled gold thread, but alas, that was not to be. Never mind, the gold twist from the kit creates a very satisfactory blingy border, too – and so Ethelnute’s portrait is complete. And if he lasts even one-tenth as long as some of those medieval vestments and wall hangings, I’ll be well pleased!

A far too prominent line of green silk Some last-minute unpicking Ethelnute finished

P.S. The class kit came with an oval flexi-hoop to frame the embroidery in; but I thought King Ethelnute might look rather regal mounted on the lid of one of my satin boxes, and I had a vague feeling there was a burgundy red one among them. There was – but it was tiny! I took some measurements and found that he would just fit. Snugly, but definitely a fit. I went for it and do you know what, I really think his tight-fitting frame makes him pop smiley.

A frame and a box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box