What does it all mean?

What do embroidery designs mean? Well, sometimes I don’t think they mean anything much – we stitch a daisy, a mountain lake, a cat, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Tardis, because we like the picture. Sometimes there is a bit more to it; the Tardis might be more than just something from the tv series you enjoyed, it may remind you of watching that series with a loved one who is no longer with you; the daisy may have trumped the rose and the violet because your name happens to be Daisy; the cat may be the spitting (or hissing) image of your own pet.

You might think there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the design I did for my RSN Certificate course, because the subject is decided for you; everyone who does the crewel module stitches a Tree of Life. But that leaves plenty of room for personal input! So what are the reasons and stories behind the elements in my version of the Jacobean tree?

First there’s the tree itself. As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a Tree of Life design on and off for the past few years, and it has now turned itself into a SAL. That tree is not Jacobean, but it does share the stylised nature of the RSN design, albeit in a much simpler form. I love the idea of the Tree of Life, which for me is firmly rooted in the word picture painted of the New Jerusalem in the Bible, and so the opportunity of doing a second Tree was always going to be an attractive one.

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

Staying with the flora of the design for the moment, the most noticeable thing is probably the enormous flower at the top. I love the complete lack of proportions in Jacobean designs, they lead to some hilarious pictures – not just the historical squirrels-half-the-size-of-lions, but my poor Rabbit threatened by an enormous Carnation. Because I am Dutch, I thought a tulip would be a good flower to incorporate into my Certificate piece, and I found a particularly beautiful example in a design by Shelagh Amor in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery. Because of copyright I was going to change it fairly radically, but Angela assured me that as the Certificate piece is a) for my own use only and b) for educational purposes, I could actually use parts of existing designs. Even so, I changed the fillings and also added a frill as I wanted an area that would work for buttonhole stitch with a detached buttonhole edge. In the original tulip there is a lot of orange in the filling stitches; that didn’t quite work within my colour scheme, but the outlines and the fringe will be worked in the two shades of coral in my palette, which should be orange enough to emphasise the Dutch connection.

Carnation frightening a rabbit Shelagh Amor's tulip design The tulip in my RSN Certificate design

Originally I meant to base my large flower on the rather ancient carpet that adorns the children’s corner in the Coffee Shop room at our local Methodist Church, whose chapel we (the local Baptists) are sharing while we are rebuilding our own church. As part of the chapel into which we have been welcomed so warmly, to me it represents the unity of all Christians (I admit that is rather a lot to make an old carpet mean, but it does to me). But then the large tulip rather took over. Even so, I still wanted to use that carpet, and in the end I used the part indicated by the orange arrow as the inspiration for the small “flower” (for want of a better word) on the left of the design.

The carpet on which the small flower is based The small flower as it appears in the Certificate design

Many RSN Certificate Jacobean pieces (Google the phrase, you’ll find lots of pictures!) have some sort of hillock or hillocks at the bottom, and that’s where the design ends. Mine could easily have ended there too. But I wanted a river. Or some sort of water at least. I’ve written about the significance rivers have for me in a previous FoF, but the short version is that they remind me of my mother, who at the end of her life was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life. According to that description of the New Jerusalem I mentioned earlier, it is where the Tree of Life grows. How could I not have a river?

The river

As an added bonus it gives me the opportunity to use a stitch I first saw in an embroidery by my mother-in-law, fly stitch couching.

Fly stitch couching

Let’s move from flora and inanimate nature to fauna. The brief for the Certificate design says that it must contain at least one animal. Well, that was never going to be enough – I love adding animals to things. It’s only because I thought of it too late that there isn’t a web with a spider in it attached to the tree somewhere!

The first animal is based on a poem by A. A. Milne. It’s called “The Four Friends” and it’s in either When We Were Very Young or Now We Are Six. It contains my favourite line ever from children’s poetry: “James gave the huffle of a snail in danger, and nobody heard him at all”. Over the years, many leisurely moments have been pleasurably spent trying to imagine the sound of that huffle. James was going to be included. He needed a bit of tweaking, though. According to the poem he is “a very small snail”, something that doesn’t work very well in Jacobean embroidery. So James was bulked up a bit. He is also meant to be sitting on a brick, but any brick I tried to design was far too angular to fit in with the rest of the design. In the end I drew something that looked more like a stone, but it will be stitched in the orange shades to make it look a bit more brick-like.

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

And finally there is the cat. Of course there is a cat. A cat inspired by Lexi, our Bengal/tabby cross, in one of her less ladylike poses – you know the one, front legs stretched full-length, backside in the air and tail curled over her back. I saw her do it in the garden while doodling initial ideas for the Certificate design and I knew I simply had to have her in there, in that pose. I sketched a quick outline, which was just as well as despite numerous attempts to sneak up on her with a camera when she was doing her stretchy pose, I was never quick enough to catch her. Then came the question of colour. In my first colour scheme, I soon realised that the cat would have to be a ginger. Not in itself a problem (Lexi disagreed on this point), as our previous cat, the lovely Alfie, was a ginger, and in fact it would be rather nice to have them both in there, the pose of one with the colour of the other. But later colour schemes actually made it more suitable for the cat to be done in browns – they aren’t quite her colours, but I hope they are close enough to pacify her a bit.

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

So there you have it, a bit of background to the design I’ll be working on for the next seven or eight months. I hope I still like the various parts of it as much by the time I finish…

Persistent pounce, tremendous trestles and The First Stitch

Last Saturday was the third of my “contact days” for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. I hesitate to call them “classes” because they aren’t really, although we learn a lot; most of it seems to be done in a learning-through-doing sort of way. As ten students were expected we had two tutors this time, Helen Jones and Angela Bishop, but as it happens only six students turned up so we all got even more attention than usual smiley.

It was going to be an exciting day for me, as I would be transferring my pricked design to the fabric and actually Start Stitching! I’ve transferred designs using prick & pounce before, but only small ones like the little silverwork sheep, so this was going to be a bit of a challenge. Using grey pounce (simply a mixture of black pounce – charcoal – and white pounce – ground-up cuttlefish) I carefully went over all the holes, trying to stay away from the edges of the tracing paper. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in the latter. In fact, I got in a mild panic when I noticed that I’d rubbed a fair bit of pounce into the fabric at the bottom of the design (where the pricked lines actually didn’t get that close to the edge of the tracing paper; what on earth was I doing?), but Angela said not to worry, it would all come out just fine.

The pounced design

Except it didn’t. After giving the fabric a good beating from behind with a brush (apparently the accepted method of getting the pounce off while leaving the paint on; it looks a bit brutal but I’m willing to learn) there were two noticeable shadows below the hillocks. More beating, slightly less noticeable shadows but still definitely noticeable. More beating. Same result. Angela said she’d never known it to do this. The mild panic was beginning to grow into something less mild. Pounce can obviously be very persistent.

However, as there was no way I was going to start the whole thing again (prepare a new piece of fabric, dress the frame, prick & pounce, paint) I’d have to think of something. Helen said she thought the traces would actually disappear as I worked on it, and I decided with Angela that I would simply extend the water a bit. It was originally going to be a wavy line roughly parallel to the bottom of the hillocks, now it would be more of a circle segment, deeper in the middle.

My husband claims he can’t actually tell where the shadows are, and I must say I’m finding them hard to spot now unless I take my glasses off, so perhaps Helen is right and I can go back to plan A for the water, but it’s a reassuring thought that I have a plan B.

By the way, painting the design was an interesting experience in itself. It’s remarkable how, the moment you get the slightly thinned gouache on your fine brush and near the fabric, you stop breathing. Trying to draw steady lines, as thin as possible, while not leaning your hand on the not-yet-connected pounce dots requires nerves of steel and intense concentration. Not being in an old building with creaky floors that move when someone walks across the room would also help. As does remembering to breathe every now and then. Still, between moving floors and not breathing I managed to produce an acceptable transfer, with only one or two places where I may have to stitch slightly more heavily to cover the lines (though of course those places would be in one of the more open parts of the design…)

Joining the dots with thinned gouache paint The painted design

Now that the design was firmly on the fabric, we could roll it up slightly for easier access. As I am still getting to grips with the slate frame Angela helped me do this (remind me never to try and join the Boy Scouts; well, for obvious reasons, but in this case mostly because I simply cannot remember how to do a slip knot!) and before long I was finally ready to stitch.

Rolling up the fabric for better access Ready to stitch

My frame, unfortunately, is not quite flat so I had a little trouble keeping it stable on the trestles (this was also the reason I had been told to do my transferring on a table, with a heavy book on one corner of the frame, instead of on the trestles – try as we would, we couldn’t get it to sit right). Helen suggested hanging a heavy weight on the corner that was sticking up, but as we didn’t have any in the classroom I made do with slipping my camera strap over the offending slat; it’s a fairly lightweight camera but it did make a bit of difference.

We’d decided I’d start with the tree trunk, for one thing because in crewelwork (in fact, in most Western types of embroidery) you work a design from the back to the front, so elements that are in front of others get worked later, and the tree trunk is at the very back of the design. It was also one of the elements where I was absolutely sure what stitch I wanted to use, and in what colours. I’d done a stitch plan but there were still a few “To Be Decided” areas, so starting with one of the Definites felt nice and safe.

At this point I will admit I felt almost reluctant to actually put in the first stitch! But after a bit of lunch I really couldn’t put it off any longer, and fortunately I was beginning to feel quite excited about the whole thing. I started with Very Dark brown chain stitch. The die was cast. More lines of chain stitch, of staggered lengths to help with the shading. Even a little jump to the top half of the trunk. Then the realisation that there was too much Very Dark, and I should have made the last line shorter and switched to Dark. On to my first unpicking, and then to adding the second shade, and beginning to shape the triangular void at the foot of the tree which will be filled with Cretan stitch.

The very first stitches The first unpickings Two shades of brown

As it was getting on for 4 o’clock I went through my homework for next time with Helen, and packed up. No stitching time at home, unfortunately, but I did spend a little time getting my Home Stitching Set-Up just right. Two clamps to hold down the two springy corners (in the hope that over time they’ll give up fighting against the clamps and just lie flat), a stool to get me nice and close to my stitching, and the trestles put up several notches so I can stitch without bending my neck all the time.

The set-up at home The set-up at home

And talking of trestles, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Ikea ones actually work better for me than the RSN ones! Because I use the narrower frame, the trestles have to be pushed in quite close, and I kept hitting my left elbow on the upright bar; I also found I had to wriggle around the right-hand upright bar when I wanted to bring my right hand to the top of the fabric. The Ikea frames have no uprights, and my elbows enjoy perfect freedom. Win-win smiley.

Finally a picture of the complete design, with the work done so far. By the next meeting (late September) I hope to have finished at least the trunk, the vine, some of the large flower, and the left-hand hillock with the snail; I also need to decide on the remaining stitches. I have managed to come to a decision about the colour distribution: the cat is going to be a tabby rather than a ginger (Lexi will be pleased).

Where I've got to after the third class

Incidentally, I found it very encouraging to see a male stitcher at the class – Marcel was working on his Diploma Whitework module. I am definitely going to groom the imminent grandbaby to be a manbroiderer!

A slate frame day

Last Wednesday was my second class for the RSN Certificate. And did I get to stitch? Well, that rather depends on your definition of “stitch”…

I stitched on my doodle cloth – I’d done some homework stitching trying out battlement couching and padded buttonhole for my snail’s shell to show to Angela, and while there I tried some fillings for a leaf. Not very successfully, as I still don’t know what I want to use, but at least I stitched!

Battlement couching A snail's shell Doodling a leaf

Then there was a lot of stitching that was sewing rather than embroidering when we got on to dressing the slate frame (after cutting the fabric exactly on the grain). Sewing the fabric to the webbing, sewing herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and (using a positively lethal bracing needle) “sewing” the herringbone tape to the side bars. My hands got an awful lot of exercise!

The slate frame parts and my on-the-grain fabric The fabric pinned to the webbing, ready for stitching Lacing the fabric to the frame with a bracing needle Some very very tight fabric

I’d been working as fast as I could while still being accurate (I’d even curtailed my lunch break to 45 minutes instead of an hour, and didn’t have an afternoon cup of tea – quite unheard of, as I tend to live on intravenous tea) but by the time the fabric was taut on the frame there was no way I was going to get the design on. However, I did manage to get my tracing (or rather my cleaned-up version printed on tracing paper) pricked so that next time I can get started on transferring the drawing by pouncing (not an inappropriate term with that cat in the design) and then connecting the dots with paint (trying to keep the lines as fine as possible).

The printed tracing The design ready-pricked

In between getting the fabric on the frame I managed to discuss some of my questions with Angela, and have a look at the colour plans I’d done (two on the computer, one in pencil). Over the next month I’ll have to consolidate these into one which I’m sticking with, and I also need to work out a detailed stitch plan. There are some stitch ideas and indications in these colour plans, but not nearly precise enough.

Three colour plans with stitch indications

Several stitch ideas will have to be tried out first on a doodle cloth; the one I started with is not very big and will soon be full, but my fabric drawers yielded a larger piece of twill (you can doodle on calico or any other material, but I like the idea of seeing how it works on the right fabric with the actual threads I’ll be using) which I got some years ago and managed to scorch slightly when ironing it *oops*. This makes it unfit for a proper project, but perfect for a doodle cloth! So this one will probably see my attempts at curved burden stitch for the cat’s body, detached backstitch for the snail’s shell, various shapes filled with satin stitch, and block shading. I don’t particularly like the look of block shading but it’s one of the obligatory elements; I’ve been trying it out on the crewel rabbit & carnations project, which is proving to be quite a good practice piece for this course.

A larger doodle cloth Starting on block shading

So one month and two contact days into the Certificate, what have I got? I’ve got my fabric mounted on the slate frame, a pricked-but-not-pounced design, several colour plans and half a notebook full of questions, sketches and stitch ideas. It doesn’t sound much, does it? But it’s a start, and next time I am definitely going to get stitching on the real thing!

Alien fibres

Preparing for my second RSN Certificate class tomorrow I had another look through the Assessment form. It states the various criteria by which your work will be judged, and makes for interesting reading.

Especially the very first item on the list.

Assessment criterion #1

This could be tricky…

Lexi loves helping me with all sorts of embroidery; curled up on my lap she encourages me with loud purrs (fortunately she fits under pretty much all my stands – the Lowery, the Aristo lap stand, the Sonata seat stand, the table clamp, and even the lap tray I sometimes use when designing or winding threads), and she closely scrutinises materials, doodle cloths, progress and finished projects.

Lexi helps with goldwork... ...and with crewelwork... ...assesses the progress of projects
Lexi fits well underneath the Lowery... ...and the lap tray... ...and the Aristo lap stand
Lexi judges colour choices... ...works hard to encourage her mistress... ...and scrutinises doodles

Still, I was confident this would all be manageable with a good pair of tweezers and some strong glasses.

And then this happened.

Like her mistress, Lexi finds embroidery very relaxing

I’m doomed.

Colourful post

Well, not as colourful as some of the post I receive (like my Silk Mill silks), but quite exciting nonetheless – yes, the Appletons crewel wools for my Certificate piece have arrived!

The Appleton crewel wools needed for my Certificate piece

Although Angela, the tutor, had said that one skein of each colour would probably be enough, after some consideration I decided to go for the half-hank option offered by Cleopatra’s Needle; after all, I intend to do a lot of trial stitching, not only to determine which stitches work best where but also to see what different colour combinations look like in the various elements of the design, so being able to use the same wools I’ll be using for the final piece is obviously a good idea.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there are three shades of orange in the collection, rather than the two that I’m allowed as my accent colours. This is because Angela was concerned that the two shades I chose initially might be too similar – but the alternative shade is rather darker and also a bit brighter than what I had in mind. On the other hand, I will need some contrast between the two; otherwise they may not create distinctive stripes on the ginger cat.

Talking of which… I’m not sure Lexi likes the idea of being turned into a ginger cat. Having studied the threads she was giving me a look that definitely translated into something like “you’d better use some of those darker browns to represent me, it’s not ideal but at least it’s closer than orange!

Lexi inspects the colours and gives her opinion

I had originally intended to order skeins rather than half hanks of the three oranges; after all, they are my accent colours only, so I’m unlikely to need as much of them as of the others, even with trial stitching. Also, once I’ve decided which of the two darker shades I’ll use, the other one is automatically superfluous. Unfortunately, however, they don’t sell single skeins, and buying those three somewhere else would mean paying a second lot of postage. Anyway, whichever two I choose and however much I have left even of those two, I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with all the surplus orange. I’m Dutch, after all smiley.

So now it’s time to hoop up the doodle cloth, and get trialling!

Doodle cloth at the ready!

Is this a bad time to start thinking about a purple-and-green colour scheme…?

Working with a late frame

No, that’s not a typo – it’ll become clear in a bit smiley.

Yesterday was my unexpectedly soon first day of the RSN Certificate’s Jacobean module. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but went armed with colour schemes, scribbles, sketches and a head full of ideas, as well as a pencil case with the recommended tape measure, ruler, pencil and notebook plus a thin paintbrush added on my own initiative and a mellor and tweezers (I was using the goldwork pencil case which they live in and thought they might come in handy; as it happens, it would have been better if I’d left in the screwdriver I use to tighten hoops – I’d taken it out as it’s quite heavy and I wasn’t expecting to be using a hoop. I was mistaken.)

There were six of us in total, three in the final stages of the Jacobean module, one in the middle of silk shading, one coming towards the end of her stumpwork, and me. Tutor for the day was Angela Bishop. As everyone was setting up I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the work in progress. I was particularly taken with Yin’s nearly completed crewel piece, especially her owl, which used bullion knots for the toes gripping the branch on which he sat – a clever idea which she was happy for me to file away for future reference.

Yin's owl's toes

As Angela prepared to get me started we hit a snag. The 18″ slate frame which I’d ordered had not arrived. Time for Plan B, which involved getting on with the design process instead. We talked through the colour schemes I was considering and the elements I wanted to include, and she answered a few questions I’d noted down about the twill fabric and some stitches; then I was provided with several books about crewelwork, a photo album of previous Certificate projects, tracing paper and a box with samples of the complete range of Appleton’s crewel wool. Angela told me to collect the various elements of my design together, trace and/or draw them and then play with size and placement. I set about doing this, but couldn’t resist having a go at the wool first. There was only one suitable turquoise series (helpfully called Turquoise), but several possible browns and pinks.

Finding Appleton's colours to match my DMC choices

Eventually I settled for Turquoise, a muted brown series called Chocolate, and accent colours from the Coral series. Then some serious drawing began, and also a conversation about copyright. As you know I try to be extremely careful about copyright, and so I was a little surprised when, having shown Angela a tulip motif from a design in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery, I was told I needn’t actually change or adapt it, I could use the flower as it stood; in the final embroidery it would look different from the original because I’d be using different colours and stitches, and – the most important point – it would be used in a personal piece, stitched for educational purposes. I’m so used to looking at designs from the point of view of turning them into chart packs or workshops (i.e. using them commercially) that I hadn’t considered the different situation I am in as a Certificate student! So I traced the tulip to incorporate into the design, although one of my aims before my second class is to do an alternative version with an adapted “carpet flower” (from a carpet used in the church where we worship) just to see which I like best.

Sketch with wool colours

I put all the elements together, plus a few small additions, and then Angela came to have a look and commented on elements that were perhaps too small, or superfluous, or would be better placed slightly higher or lower. After taking in her comments and advice and making some alterations, it was time to produce a clean line drawing, done in drawing pen on tracing paper and reducing the detail in some of the elements to those lines that need to be transferred. This (apart from the possible change in flower) is the design I’ll be starting with – though not necessarily, as Angela warned me, what I will end up with!

The line drawing of my Jacobean design

What else did I do? Actually, it’s remarkable how long all this took, so there wasn’t a lot of time for other things. But we did look at a small crewel piece I started some time ago (the rabbit with carnations) so I could ask Angela’s opinion about some of the stitches; I was surprised to hear that not pre-outlining my fishbone leaf in split stitch was actually correct, and gratified that she thought most of the outline was very good (apart from one bumpy bit). We agreed that the shading was a bit too blocky and discussed ways of making the colour transitions gentler, as well as talking about the stitch direction in the leaf – she suggested using small “extra” stitches to smooth out the curve where necessary. I also learnt more about where to use a split stitch outline on long & short stitch and buttonhole shading, and equally importantly, where not to.

Crewel rabbit with carnations A fishbone leaf

We also went through the content of the bag that is part of the introductory kit – all the paperwork about the course, including the design brief and instructions on setting up the slate frame and mounting the finished work, and materials and tools needed for transferring and eventually mounting the design and preparing the frame (the bracing needle, that chunky curved piece of metal stuck in a cork, is stuck in a cork for a reason, as my husband found out when he took it out before I could say “be careful with that, it’s very sharp!” – it is used for taking the thick string with which the fabric is tensed through the webbing; I have as yet no idea what the extremely large piece of plastic is for, as I forgot to ask).

An intriguing purple bag Paperwork, some boring but important, some very interesting Materials for transferring the design, setting up the slate frame and mounting the work

My homework for next time (22nd May) is to produce two colour plans, a tonal plan (black & white, showing light and dark) and a stitch plan, and to try out trellis stitch and laid work on a doodle cloth. I’m also going to play with that large flower, possibly producing and alternative design (with its own colour plan etc.) and make changes to the rock the snail is sitting on (I’ll explain why in a future post). Angela assured me that I’m still on track – I’m just more or less reversing the first two classes, getting the design work done before learning how to set up the slate frame. So I’ve had fun playing with colours and ideas, and I’ve got a little longer to get used to the idea of using something that large to hold my fabric; I’m happy with that smiley.

Colours and scribbles

Thinking of my quickly approaching first day of the RSN Certificate I began to wonder what exactly I would be doing from 10am till 4pm. There is no set project to work on, everything you stitch for the various modules has to be your own design. So besides learning how to dress a slate frame, which I sincerely hoped wouldn’t take from 10 till 4, whatever else I’d be doing it seemed unlikely it would be stitching. Discussing design ideas with the tutor, perhaps?

I decided to ask on the Mary Corbet FB group what my first day of the Jacobean crewelwork module was going to be like, as I knew the group boasts quite an impressive number of people with RSN Certificate experience. Although a lot of the reactions were enlightening, they did at times seem a little contradictory, with one person saying she hadn’t stitched at all until after her first class, while another had her frame set up, her design prick-and-pounce transferred, and her first stitches worked, all during that first meeting. Hari the Helpful Education Manager had told me that the programme was very much tailored to each individual, so that presumably accounts for some of the differences.

One piece of advice that came from almost all those who replied was, “Go well-prepared”. This was slightly unnerving, as I had by then not received any information about what to bring to the class and what, if anything, to do beforehand. Partly my own fault for jumping at the chance to start a month early, and consequently leaving the Education Team about two days until my first tutorial day, but even so distinctly unsettling.

Fortunately an email entitled “Joining Instructions” arrived this morning, so I am now a little better-informed; I have added a tape measure, small ruler, notebook and several other useful items to my project box as suggested, and printed and studied the design brief. I soon realised that the main challenge was going to be the restriction on colours: five shades each of two colours, plus two shades of an accent colour. Studying other people’s Certificate pieces online made it all to clear that there is virtually no colour combination that hasn’t been tried yet, but my own instinctive preference (influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jacobean designs are generally plant/tree-based, albeit in quite a stylised way) clearly veered towards either green or brown as one of the main colours.

Unfortunately I do not have an Appleton shade card – well, only a digital one, and we all know how accurately colours are represented on a computer screen. So I decided to work by proxy, and choose a few colour combinations from my collection of DMC. I’d be unlikely to find exact equivalents in the Appleton range, but at least it would give my tutor (Angela Bishop, with whom I have taken several classes before) some idea of what I was aiming for. Having discarded green as too dominant (yes, I know there are subdued shades of green as well, but I felt it would still be in danger of taking over) I chose some muted browns, which I hope to combine either with not-too-bright turquoises or subdued pinks, with gingery/orangy shades for my accent colour.

Brown and turquoise colour scheme Brown and pink colour scheme

What many helpful group members mentioned as well, was to go furnished with plenty of ideas and sketches. Well, that wasn’t likely to be a problem – if anything I probably have too many ideas for a design that has to be less than A4 size. I’ve even been sketching ideas for canvaswork, a module I’m not planning on doing! So I’ve gathered all my sketches and photos and scribbles and will bring them all along. We’ll see which bits survive the weeding-out process.

Sketches and photographs

By the way, one of my sketches is of Lexi in her stretching-with-backside-and-tail-in-the-air pose, and I really want to include her. But the limitation on colours made me wonder whether that would be possible. Then my husband suggested I could use our previous cat, the lovely ginger Alfie, instead; it was partly this that led me to choose ginger/orange as my accent colour. I just hope it won’t put Lexi’s little pink nose out of joint!

Of slate frames and trestles

I have been known to say that embroidery is one of the most affordable hobbies known to woman. At the most basic level of supplies, all you need is an old pillowcase, some thread and a needle and you’re good to go. But, as we all know, you can spend a lot more…

When I wrote about signing up for parts of the Royal School of Needlework’s Certificate course, did I by any chance mention that they use slate frames? Now if you’ve never seen one you may wonder why that was even a consideration when coming to a decision about whether or not to sign up. Well, for one thing (as you may have gathered from the first paragraph), there is the price. Even the smallest frame costs more than a third as much again as my Millennium frame – quite an expense for something you may not use again when the course has finished. But although I didn’t actually ask, I sensed that the slate frame is non-negotiable. And I suppose that seen as a proportion of the cost of the whole Certificate (or even half a certificate) it’s not too frightening. So that cleared the price hurdle.

Then there is the size. I know I said “smallest frame” just now, but in spite of the innocuous-looking picture in the RSN’s web shop, all the slate frames I had ever seen (in pictures, documentaries etc.) were huge. I do not do huge.

A slate frame as sold by the RSN

Fortunately I was informed by Hari, the RSN’s extremely helpful Education Manager, that there were two sizes of frame to choose from, and I could go for the small frame, which measures a mere 18″ square. Oh well, my Millennium frame is 20″ wide (although it is only about a foot high when extended) so I dare say I’ll be able to handle that. That cleared the size hurdle. But have you ever seen what goes into dressing a slate frame?

Dressing a slate frame is putting your embroidery fabric on it and getting it ready to start stitching. As some of it seems rather reminiscent of lacing somebody into a corset, “dressing” is quite a good term, although I suspect linguistically/etymologically it is more closely related to dressing a chicken or a cooked crab. But unlike this culinary dressing, a slate frame can take many hours to set up properly. Here is Mary Corbet’s very informative if slightly off-putting picture tutorial. Off-putting because to anyone whose preparation, like mine, is to whack a piece of fabric in a hoop, give it a few good tugs and tighten the hoop’s screw, it looks like far too much of an undertaking, however good the result.

Sarah Homfray uses a scroll frame, not a slate frame, in her video demonstration, but the procedure is apparently identical apart from the fact that a slate frame is tightened vertically with pins in holes instead of wing nuts on roller bars. Her frame is smaller than Mary’s, and the video takes only 15 minutes, but that does include some time leaps following instructions like “now pin the other side in the same way”. This means that even for a small slate frame, setting-up time is going to be substantially longer than anything I’ve done before. On the other hand, I’m likely to be working on each project for quite some time, and once it’s set up that’s it, apart from occasional tightening of the side strings. Another hurdle that is not insurmountable.

In fact I’m clearing hurdles like an Olympic athlete! But never mind hurdles, what about trestles?

“Where do trestles come in?” I hear you ask. Well, they are what the slate frame rests on. Yes, I have a Lowery floor stand and an Aristo lap stand but I don’t think either of those is really going to cut the mustard with a frame of this size and weight. The RSN sells custom-made beechwood ones which are beautiful, but at £550 a pair they really make sense only if embroidery is going to be your full-time career and you’ll be using them all the time. Jo, my Certificate-encourager, sent me a link to instructions for a DIY version, but as unlike her I do not happen to have a clever wood-working father I don’t think that’s going to happen. And then there is Ikea.

Ikea? Yes, Ikea, as suggested by Hari in our extensive correspondence. Some of their trestles are even height-adjustable!

Trestles from Ikea Trestles from Ikea

These were very tempting – a tenth of the price, sturdy-looking and adjustable. Looking at the measurements, my husband and I could detect just one possible problem: as I said I’m going for the smallest available slate frame, which is 18″ wide. The base of the Ikea trestles is also about 18″ wide, which means that in order for the supporting tops to be no more than 18″ apart, the bases will have to meet; and that in turn means I won’t be able to get my legs between the trestles. There is obviously a good reason why both the RSN trestles and the DIY ones have straight legs!

There is, however, another option to explore before either emptying the bank account or finding a good handyman.

I can take up my husband’s suggestion and appropriate two of the trestles we use for our annual car trade show.

They are a little bit rough and ready, but as you can see in the pictures the width of their base is adjustable, so there is enough of a gap for me to wiggle my legs through and sit stitching quite confortably. Surprisingly comfortably, in fact – I hadn’t expected to like the flat position of the frame, as I like mine tilted towards me, but this didn’t feel bad at all. Obviously this was just a 30-second trial, and we’ll have to see how I like it after a few hours of serious stitching, but this may well be our budget-saving solution to the trestle problem. Clever husband!

Placing the Millennium frame on our trade show trestles Working with the Millennium frame resting on our trade show trestles

Incidentally, Rugby RSN had some earlier places available, so my slate frame adventure will start rather sooner than expected – this coming Saturday, in fact! If my first taste of the Certificate course is as good as previous Certificaters generally report, expect an exuberant post and lots of pictures. If, on the other hand, I come back as a tearful wreck, deciding that this is far too much of a challenge for me – erm, would anyone be interested in a second-hand slate frame…?

Half a C and no D

I really enjoy the Royal School of Needlework’s classes. Years ago I started out with some of their one-hour workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show (blackwork, silk shading, goldwork [twice] and crewelwork). I then did some day classes (goldwork [twice] and Shisha). Then a one-on-one goldwork tutorial. The Opus Anglicanum retreat sort of counts as well, as the tutors were both RSN-trained. And I’m signed up for a three-day goldwork class this summer (the only one of the pictures below that’s not my stitching, as I haven’t actually done it yet). Did I mention I enjoy their classes?

RSN workshop kits Finished workshop projects RSN day classes
RSN one-on-one tutorial Opus Anglicanum retreat RSN 3-day goldwork class - the tutor's stitched model, not mine!

It’s not surprising, therefore, that over the years I’ve considered (in a rather vague, unfocused sort of way) the RSN’s more formal teaching programmes. There have been some changes in the range they offer (the apprenticeship, for example, doesn’t exist any more) but there is still a fairly bewildering variety of options. The ones I looked at are the Certificate & Diploma, the Future Tutor Programme, and the Degree course, and I found it quite difficult to work out which was best for what. I decided to ask them.

They replied: The easiest way to explain the difference between our three distinct programmes is to look at where graduates can go when they’re finished. The Degree is a springboard to a creative career in fashion, interiors or textile art. The Certificate/Diploma enables you to develop solid skills and become part of a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards in hand embroidery. The Future Tutor Programme is your route into teaching for the RSN (on Day Classes, Degree and Certificate/Diploma Programmes) and into the commercial Studio, specialising in bespoke commissions, conservation and restoration of historic embroideries. Freelance business skills are also taught on this course, as we anticipate graduates will branch out in their own professional practice as well as becoming part of the RSN team.

Well, that made things a lot clearer as to what each course was for. But what exactly did I want? I worked out that I definitely did not want a career in fashion, interiors or textile art, so the Degree was out. And although I enjoy teaching, the Future Tutor programme is probably a little over the top for what I am likely to want to do; unless you’re going to make a career out of teaching and possibly studio work, three years of full-time study at a cost of a little under £35,000 is rather too much of an investment in both time and money. When my husband retires I would like to develop Mabel’s Fancies a bit more, but not to that extent. That left the C & D, which would give me a more solid grounding for any teaching I would like to do in the future – and also undoubtedly benefit my designing – without taking over three years of my life and requiring a second mortgage.

The Certificate consists of four modules, the Diploma of six; and in those modules you learn all about the various embroidery techniques. Surely that sounds ideal? Add to that the fact that my one-on-one goldwork tutor had suggested that the C & D might be just the thing for me and you may wonder why I didn’t immediately sign up. Well, two things kept me back. One was cost. When I first looked into this programme, it gave the overall cost as a little over £10,000 in tuition fees. Modest compared to the Future Tutor programme, perhaps, but still far beyond what funds I am willing to allocate to this. The other factor was the techniques taught in the various modules. I greatly admire blackwork and the stunning pieces of embroidery people produce with it – but I have no desire whatsoever to learn it in great detail myself. Likewise canvas work or appliqué. I’d be spending a lot of time on things I was greatly interested in, like goldwork, and things I was quite interested in, like Jacobean embroidery, but I’d also spend a lot of time, and money, on things that don’t really do it for me. And so I relegated the programme to the back of my mind and booked another day class.

Enter Jo.

I’ve known Jo for years through the Cross Stitch Forum, and she came to a few of my workshops (Hardanger and goldwork, I think). And one day she announced on the Forum that she had signed up for the Certificate, at the RSN satellite location in Rugby. Rugby. Three miles from where I live. And she mentioned that you could do the modules on a pay-as-you-go basis, per tuition day. It was the nudge I needed.

I contacted the RSN and asked whether it would be possible to do certain modules only, preferably the Certificate and Diploma in goldwork and possibly the Certificate in Jacobean embroidery. Hari Sparkes, the Education Manager, explained to me that I was quite at liberty to do only the modules I wanted, with a few provisos. Everyone starts with Jacobean crewelwork. And learns to work on a slate frame (something I would happily have omitted if possible). And although I could then go on to goldwork (which is usually the fourth module), I would not be able to do the Diploma goldwork module unless I completed the entire Certificate first. Also, if I decided to do the two modules only, I would not get a physical certificate to show I had successfully completed them, although I could still have my assignments officially assessed. Well, one module of goldwork is better than none; and a piece of paper is nice but not essential for my future activities – I’m happy to do without that.

So. I’ve done it. I’ve signed up for the Royal School of Needlework Certificate in Technical Hand Embroidery, which is as daunting as it sounds. My first tuition day will be on 22nd May.

I will enjoy it!

*gulp*