How a kangaroo ousted a seahorse…

…and was in turn endangered by a miniature gecko. The story of how a goldwork design can be influenced by fabric, bedtime stories, and a Baptist minister.

Once upon a time, in 2015 to be exact, I sketched a whole series of ideas for goldwork designs, among them a toadstool, a sort-of-daisy and a seahorse. Forward a year, and on a visit to the Viking Loom I bought some scrumptious hand-painted silk dupion in turquoise, blue and purple shades. Forward another four years, and I’m starting the goldwork module for my RSN Certificate. For which I need to stitch my goldwork design on silk dupion. Well!

Sketch for a goldwork toadstool Sketches for a goldwork daisy and seahorse Hand-painted silk dupion

No-brainer, right? Sea-coloured dupion, seahorse – done! Hmm, not quite. All these sketches were for designs without any rules other than what I liked. But the goldwork module comes with a brief; there are only certain materials you are allowed to use (no kid leather, no smooth passing, no rough purl or wire check, no silver or copper let alone any other colours) and there are certain techniques you have to use (bricked Jap, mixed couching, cutwork over soft string padding), sometimes with a specified minimum area. The seahorse couldn’t quite fit all that in, and I’d have to get rid of some of the materials I’d originally included. No worries (keep that expression in mind…), we can add to it. How about a treasure chest? I worked out that that could be made to include several of the required techniques, so I did some sketching to work out the proportions and positions of seahorse and chest to make them into a coherent design.

Adding a treasure chest to the seahorse

And then, in my pile of sketches, I came across an undated, very basic sketch of a sitting kangaroo with the scribbled note “find good pose. check eye shape” and an indication of padded cutwork along the tail, and some chipping on the haunch/hip joint. (It also had a small sketch of a hot air balloon, but I ignored that.) A kangaroo… well, it would be unusual; I’d found plenty of sea creatures when looking at previous Certificate goldwork pieces, but no kangaroo (although there was a koala). It wouldn’t work with the hand-painted silk dupion, of course – I’d need to buy some more shades to have a good range of options (oh the hardship). As I talked to Hilary at the Silk Route about this I mentioned that it was now between a seahorse and a kangaroo and she immediately plumped for the kangaroo, simply because it was so unusual; and Angela, my tutor, had also greeted my simple sketch with some enthusiasm, not surprising perhaps as she is Australian smiley.

A basic kangaroo

Anyway, I figured there was no harm in finding some more kangaroo pics and deciding on a suitable position, and what about a pouch and possibly a Joey? And then it hit me. Haasje!

Haasje (“little hare” in Dutch) is the cuddly toy my grandmother bought for me before I was born. For various reasons it was a very special welcome into the world, and Haasje became my constant companion. He was also my champion: when an older cousin told me that “earworms” (Dutch for earwigs) would creep into your ears at night and nibble your brains (I had no older brothers, but my cousins obviously did a great job as substitutes), I looked for a solution to keep me safe. One ear was protected by the pillow, but what about the other? Haasje, of course! For several years I slept with him snugly held against my ear; my mother didn’t find out why until I was a grown-up.

Haasje, my constant companion

Now when my favourite aunt lived with us for two years and told me bedtime stories every night, she chose Haasje as the protagonist, and in one particularly memorable series of tales he travelled all the way to Australia, where a passing kangaroo gave him a lift in her pouch. He wasn’t used to hopping that fast and high, so he clung on for dear life while nervously looking down at the ground. That was it. The seahorse was forgotten. I had a design!

Haasje in the kangaroo's pouch

As is always the case the design went through several changes before it was finalised – it gained some grass, and a cloud with the sun behind it – but the basis for me was a panicky Haasje travelling by kangaroo (I hope to convey his wide-eyed look of fear by means of a big round spangle). In class I did some more work on what materials to put where, where to have padding, and which bits to leave open to contrast with the solid gold parts; the cutwork for the tail remained, as did the chipwork haunch, and other techniques and materials were added in, making sure all the requirements of the brief were covered. When I got home I did a mock-up (not easy for goldwork) to give myself a better idea of the balance between open and solid, and I think I’ve got it about right. I also printed the cleaned-up design on tracing paper to make the pricking needed for the prick & pounce transfer process.

The colour mock-up The tracing for prick and pounce

Then in the middle of this whole process, after Haasje had been added but before my class, our minister shared a holiday snap during the Sunday service’s all-age talk of this teeny-weeny little chap (that giant white thing is a teaspoon), almost changing my mind a second time, but although I did find some lovely pictures of miniature geckos in beautifully sinuous positions perfect for goldwork, I decided to stick with Bruce (as I have called the kangaroo) and Haasje.

The miniature gecko shared by our minister

Remember I mentioned getting some more colours of silk dupion? Here is the selection I got, with the two at the top bought specifically for Bruce. The olive shade was not at all what I was looking for, so that became my doodle cloth, but I absolutely loved the shade called Ether. It was a bit of a surprise as the picture on the Silk Route website was rather brighter, but actually this less saturated look was just what I wanted.

A collection of dupion shades

Unfortunately, although the 28cm x 33cm cut was fine as regards size, it had the grain running the wrong way. Well, “wrong” for this particular design. In order to accommodate the design I’d have to use the fabric in portrait orientation, but in that case the grain (which is very visible in silk dupion) runs vertically, and Angela and I both agreed that that would look all wrong. So this piece of fabric will become a second doodle cloth, and I’ve bought a fat quarter of the Ether dupion which is easily big enough to cut a piece of the right size with the grain running horizontally.

This does mean I won’t be able to fully frame up until my next class, as I would much prefer to attach the silk to the calico with a tutor to hand. On the few occasions I’ve attached a piece of silk to backing fabric I’ve ended up with puckers in the silk at the end of the project, so I want to get this absolutely right. Apparently the secret is to baste the two layers together on the design lines when the whole sandwich is under tension.

However, we could get the calico framed up. Angela had never worked with a slate frame this small so it was a new experience for her as well! But apart from everything being rather smaller, the rest of the process is pretty much the same: sew the top and bottom of the fabric to the webbing, sew herringbone tape to the sides, and lace up using the lethal bracing needle (I won’t show you the wounds…)

Sewing the calico to the webbing Lacing the side tapes to the bars

By the way, do you remember the four protective flaps I made for the big slate frame? True, they overlapped quite a bit, but it will give you some idea of the size difference when you see the effect of a single flap attached to the new frame.

Four flaps covering the large slate frame One protective flap is enough

And that’s it so far! I’ve got my homework – getting the silk ironed, sampling some couching and s-ing, creating a tonal plan, pricking the transfer, cutting the layers of felt padding; Angela is definitely keeping me busy smiley. After the next class I hope I’ll be able to show you the silk all framed up and with the design painted on, and who knows even a bit of gold (although all the padding needs to go on first, so it may be a while before I get to play with the bling bits – but there’s always the doodle cloth).

Ready for my homework!

And now we wait…

Those of you who follow Mabel’s Facebook page will know that last week I finished mounting my Jacobean Certificate piece and handed it in for assessment. Definitely a Proud Picture moment, and Angela kindly obliged. Yay me! And now we wait for the assessment to come back, probably some time in January. Patience is a virtue, they say, and I will be getting a lot of practice…

Posing with the now fully finished Jacobean piece

But how did we get to that point? You may remember that at the start of my last Jacobean class I had the twill all herringbone-stitched to the calico, and the sateen cut to size and ironed. As it happens I’d misunderstood Angela and cut a 10cm excess all around, instead of 10cm in total (5cm all around) so some cropping was needed, but then the sateen could be folded to the right size and pinned to the twill in the four corners.

The sateen backing pinned at the corners

Then it was a matter of slip stitching the twill and sateen together. It’s a bit like a ladder stitch really, except with ladder stitch you have two folds that need sewing together and you scoop a bit of both folds alternately. Here the sateen got scooped in the fold, but the twill just got picked up as close to the sateen as possible. Boy do you need a curved needle for this! I hate them with a vengeance because they have a will of their own and are a pain to work with, but I will admit that this sewing would be well-nigh impossible without one.

A slip stitch in the twill A slip stitch in the sateen

You work several slip stitches before firmly pulling the thread (a sturdy buttonhole) to make the stitches disappear into the fabric. In the picture I’m getting near to a corner and am about to pull, so the stitches further away are already neatly tightened away but the ones near the corner are still visible. Which brings me to the invisible even stitches mentioned in the brief – I asked Angela and she explained that although if properly done the actual stitches are invisible, the tension on the fabric shows where they are so you can see whether they are evenly done even if you can’t see the stitches themselves! What do you think, in the second picture – are they even?

Getting to a corner The sateen all attached, pins still to be removed

The final step was to take out all the pins, and then get rid of 140 or so pin holes. Quite a satisfying task, it was rather fun to see them disappear when gently rubbing the edge of the fabric.

getting rid of pin holes

And here it is, fully mounted, front and back view.

The mounted piece, front The mounted piece, back

Irrelevant picture: while pinning I found these two entangled pins in the box. I thought they looked rather sweet smiley.

Entangled pins

Tomorrow will be my first proper class for the Goldwork module, and I’m hoping to frame up the new, small slate frame and finalise the design. Yes, I have a design – not either of the ones I started out with as ideas, but that’s what happens. It’ll change a bit more over the next few weeks I don’t wonder, but I’ve got the general idea plus a personal twist, which I think is very important to have in a project you’ll be working on for many months. I’ve also got my doodle cloth hooped up: one of the silk dupions I got from the Silk Route turned out to be an olive green I am unlikely ever to use for a proper project, so it may as well be put to work in this way.

Sample cloth for goldwork

Incidentally, I finally unlaced the SAL Tree on my Millennium frame – quite a difference in tension, isn’t it! Perhaps slate frames do have the right idea after all smiley.

The Millennium frame all laced up for the SAL Unlacing the Millennium frame at completion of the SAL

The home stretch

Early last February, Wednesday 5th to be precise, I attended my 6th class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. My next class was originally going to be 14th March, but for reasons I can’t quite remember now I changed that to Wednesday 22nd April, with the 8th and final class on 25th April. Both those classes were going to be mostly dedicated to getting my completed project mounted, always assuming that it was completed by 22nd April.

Well, you saw what was coming the moment I mentioned April, didn’t you? Yes, if I hadn’t changed dates I might just have snuck that 7th class in, but it was not to be. At that point no-one had any idea how long this was going to go on for, but even so I decided to try and finish the stitching by the date the class would have been. And I did. The mounting, which I was not going to attempt by means of a Zoom tutorial, would have to wait.

The finished tree

It had to wait until late last month, when the Rugby satellite location opened its doors once again to the Certificate & Diploma students. I was lucky enough to have Angela as a tutor again, both for this class and for the next one I booked at the same time for 7th October. There were four students in total, and everything had been so well arranged that it felt completely safe, while at the same time being very familiar in that we all had a good chat, and even managed to see each other’s work by being careful to switch places with plenty of distance between us.

Angela had asked me to bring my threads in case of any tweaking necessary, so before I could get on with the mounting process she scrutinised my poor tree from all sides (including the back) before handing it back to me saying that was fine, no need for tweaks. I was very pleased about that – I hadn’t touched the embroidery since I finished the stitching last April, and I hadn’t relished the thought of having to get back into it.

Now I could really get started. To begin with I had to decide what size the mounted work was going to be. I was handed two right-angled “half mats” to play with, and after a bit of indecision I worked out what I thought looked best.

Working out the size for mounting

Next was cutting two pieces of mount board to size (measuring them very carefully first, at least twice). These were then glued together and left under a pile of books to set.

Cutting the mount board

While waiting for the glue to set, it was time to take the embroidery off the slate frame. Before cutting the mount board, while the work was still under tension, I had put tacking stitches in the fabric exactly where the centres of the four sides were going to be. Now I took out the lacing threads which provide the horizontal tension and the split pins which provide the vertical tension, and cut the fabric off the bars.

Tacking stitches in, lacing threads out Split pins removed The embroidery is set free

The two glued pieces of mount board were then covered with calico by glueing round the edge of the back board and pulling the calico tight before sticking the edges down; the glue was not quite on the edge because a “channel” of unglued calico is needed for the twill to be attached. Here is the covered board and the upside down embroidery (giving you a rare look at the back of the work) ready to be folded around it.

Ready to start pinning (and a glimpse of the back)

Next, pins. Lots of pins. Far more pins than I’d expected. At a guess, approximately 140 of them by the time I’d pinned as far towards the corners as I could get. The tricky bit was making sure I pinned exactly on the grain; this was definitely a glasses-off close-up job.

The first few pins More pins

I’d been quite prepared to do a second round, as I’d been told at the beginning of the course that it was rarely tight enough after the first pinning, and generally needed another round of pull-and-pin to get it properly stretched, but Angela had a good look at the result of round one, and said I could go straight on to sewing the twill to the calico and mitring the corners. With hindsight, I think I would have preferred a second round after all, but not enough to undo all the sewing I’ve done since!

Angela checks my pinning

The twill is attached to the calico using herringbone stitch, pulling the fabric taut while stitching. What with pushing in 140 or so pins, stretching the fabric and pulling the buttonhole sewing thread tightly at every stitch, after a while my fingers were becoming quite sore (I’d been warned about this). By the end of the class, this is how far I’d got, with Angela having demonstrated how to ladder stitch the corner when moving from one side to the next. Homework: finish the herringbone stitching and the mitred corners, and cut and iron the cotton sateen which will be the final backing.

The state of things at the end of my class

I definitely improved with practice: my first ladder stitch was not quite parallel (although fortunately the corner came out quite nicely even so), but the second definitely looked more even.

Ladder stitch in a mitred corner The corner pulled close More parallel ladder stitch

And here it is, ready for my 8th Jacobean class this coming Wednesday, when I hope to finish the process by attaching the cotton sateen with, as the brief phrases it, “even slip stitches” which are “not visible”. How they assess whether my slip stitches are even or uneven if they’re not visible I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps you get marked down less if your slip stitches are visible but even smiley?

The herringbone and mitring finished The front, still with pins

Shortly after this class I booked another for 14th October (also with Angela), on the grounds that it would keep the momentum going and get me started on that goldwork project – I figured that as long as I could get framed up and with a bit of luck even get the design transferred (this is a teeny weeny bit ambitious as I have yet to decide what exactly the design is going to be…) I would be willing to try some online classes for this particular module. But since then they’ve opened up the November and December classes for booking, and I’ve added two November face-to-face dates – fingers crossed they’ll actually happen!

Horsey decisions

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

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

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

The jockey's jacket with ends waiting to be plunged

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

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

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

A different hand

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

A different jaw A different elbow

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

A mixture of gold pearl purls

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

The racehorse at the moment

A horse of a different colour

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

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

Two different eyes

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

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

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

A much better-looking eye

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

Very yellow pearl purl

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

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

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

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

Hengest's mane is too dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little bit of progress

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

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

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

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

A visible design line A single line of couching

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

Shiny

A significant finish – or is it?

If you follow Mabel on Facebook you will have noticed (it would have been hard to miss…) that I have finished the stitching on my crewel piece for the RSN Certificate Jacobean module. And by the original deadline, too – a very significant finish, you’ll agree.

The finished tree

So why the doubt in the title? Because although the stitching is finished, the piece is not yet ready for assessment; for that it needs to be mounted, and the requirements are very specific and very demanding. The RSN offers one-on-one online tutorials for Certificate & Diploma students during the lockdown but even one-on-one I am not going to attempt mounting for the very first time unless I have the tutor right there with me in the room. You can lose plenty of points on your mounting!

So for now my Tree of Life is in limbo, which in practice means the large quilted bag I use to transport the work to classes, where it will sit, still stretched on its slate frame, until the next proper class.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate! I didn’t quite break open the prosecco, but I have been eyeing a few silk shading kits (purely to get some practice for future modules, of course) which would make a suitable reward. And part of the celebration is to show you the final stages of the stitching – embroidery is so much more enjoyable when we can share it with like-minded people.

All that was left, you may remember, was the cat. How much work can that possibly be? As it turned out, quite a lot! I started with what I will call the background legs, that is to say the ones furthest towards the back. Originally I thought satin stitch would be best for that, to contrast with the long & short stitch in the rest of the cat, but a trial run on the doodle cat showed that to be almost impossible to keep neat, so they were done in long & short as well.

A satin-stitched leg Background legs finished

At this point the background legs looked alarmingly prominent, but I hoped that would change when the foreground legs went in.

That would come later, though – first the tummy: lines of split stitch in the lightest brown. I’d have liked it to be lighter still, and with hindsight I should probably have gone one lighter for my fifth shade of brown as there isn’t that much difference between “lightest” and “light” (noticeable in the tree trunk), but the tutors were concerned that it might blend in with the background too much. Heigh-ho, I wasn’t going to start all over again at this point smiley so wool-Lexi’s tummy is beige.

Tummy finished

On to the outline, worked in the usual single-thread split stitch for most of the cat, but using a double thread where the foreground legs touch the background legs, plus what I tend to think of as the cat’s hip but which anatomically may well be her knee.

An outlined cat

Next were the foreground legs, and the tricky bit was going to be blending the back leg into the rest of the body towards where her backside sticks up. I’d studied Lexi’s stripe pattern which turned out to be surprisingly different from what I’d always thought.

A sketch of Lexi's stripe pattern

I decided that wasn’t going to be easy to replicate in long & short stitch, and as Jacobean Lexi isn’t meant to be particularly naturalistic I decided I’d make up my own pattern to suit the stitching.

The foreground legs

The one thing I was certain of was that I would use the hip/knee outline to create a clear dividing line by stitching closely over the split stitch. But that would have to wait until I’d stitched the body right up to that line, so it was time to start on the head. I’d studied the direction of Lexi’s fur quite closely for my doodle cat so I could work without the model this time. The model turned up anyway, but because she is a cat she chose to pose the wrong way round.

Starting on the head The model, facing the wrong way

After the head came stripes and more stripes, until I reached the hip/knee line. Then it was time to take up the back leg again and join the bits, moving on to the tail. There I diverged from reality even more by giving wool-Lexi a light tip of the tail. I haven’t dared show this to real Lexi yet…

Stripes on the body The tail gets a light tip

I am quite pleased with how she’s turned out: the line between her stripes and the beige tummy isn’t too stark, and the raised line of her hip/knee stands out quite well. Her outlines are nice and smooth, which wasn’t easy to get right with all those curves. There is (did you notice?) a little fluff on her bottom (the brown shades of Appletons seemed to produce more of it than the other colours), but I got rid of that later.

Was that it then? No, there was one last element to do: the wool wrapped around her body, one couched thread of turquoise linking the cat to the ball of wool. The first challenge was to find a nice, even length of wool which was roughly the same thickness all along. Even with the best of the bunch it took a few goes but at last all the paint lines were covered and there was a pleasing sweep of the thread towards the ball. By the way, the middle picture shows how I angled the needle to make it look as though the thread appears from behind the cat.

Choosing an even thread Angling the needle The finished couching

And that was it! As I photographed the tree at various angles and in different light conditions, I also took a few close-ups which I’d like to share with you; they are parts that you’ve seen before, but even so I thought it might be nice to show them again now that you’ve seen them in the completed design.

The flower on the left The leaf on the right The big tulip James the snail

And to end the story, here’s the finished tree once more. The next time you see it it will be mounted and off to its assessment!

The finished tree

Playing with stitches

After overcoming a certain amount of mental resistance, last weekend I finally put the first stitches into the very last part of my Jacobean Certificate piece: Lexi. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to start on her – perhaps because she is a fairly complex piece of stitching in that she is much less formal (and therefore less predictable and rule-based) than the rest of the design. Whatever the reason, I’d been putting it off but with my (admittedly self-imposed) deadline of 22nd April looming, I really needed to get on with it.

Well, she is far from being a complete cat yet, but the two furthest legs are done as is her tummy, and she has an outline – some of it in two strands, as advised by Helen McCook, to make the legs that are to the front of the image stand out more from the two dark legs in the background. With a bit of luck she will get her stripes (and I must not forget the light beige tip of the tail!) next weekend, after which all that remains is the wool wound around her.

An empty cat An partially filled cat

In between trying to get the Certificate finished I’ve been having fun with other people’s designs, like this Sarah Homfray freebie (do have a look at her kits and supplies as well – now is a good time to support our independent designers!)

Someone on the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked me about the stitches I’d used, so I made a diagram like I did for Percy the Parrot (remember him?). The thread I used is Threadworx overdyed Vineyard silk and it’s really a bit too heavy for this size project, which is partly why my original plan for the stem didn’t work. Vineyard silk is two-ply, and the individual plies look rather like a very nice flat silk, so I started by separating the plies and working Palestrina stitch on the left-hand side of the stem, meaning to fill the whole stem with Palestrina, off-setting the knots in consecutive rows. Unfortunately the untwisted plies were not very stable and they kept fraying and breaking, so I had to go back to using the full two-ply silk, which was too thick for my Palestrina plan. Never mind, stem stitch to the rescue!

A silk flower

The other stitches were not planned in any way, I partly followed Sarah’s crewel version (especially in determining open and solid areas) and partly did my own thing, and I used stem stitch far too much smiley – it’s such a versatile and easy stitch that in several places I decided I couldn’t be bothered trying something more decorative but also more complicated! In fact I’ve been playing with a fruit bowl design which I want to do in Bayeux stitch but which I think would also look quite good just outlined in stem stitch, perhaps as a Get Well card; what do you think?

A fruit bowl to play with

A cat-shaped outline

As you may imagine, the Coronavirus lockdown is playing havoc with my RSN Certificate since all classes have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. (Having said that, I’ve just received the workshop schedule for the October Knitting & Stitching Show – stitchers are obviously an optimistic breed!)

The RSN are offering one-on-one online classes with some tutors, but I’ve thought it over and I feel that at the moment it wouldn’t benefit me enough to warrant the fairly high cost. Both mounting the finished Jacobean piece (when it is finished…) and framing up for Canvaswork are things I really do not want to tackle virtually, as it were, even if I could get the right materials.

Fortunately all C&D students have been offered extensions to the time we have in which to complete the courses, so there is no extra pressure. Even so I’ve decided to try and finish the stitching for my Jacobean module according to my original schedule, that is to say by 22nd April. To that end I’ve been doing some work on it over the past few weekends, but my goodness it’s been slow. Still, I think it’s been worth it!

The first bit of work I did was actually some doodling – I wanted to see whether the cat would look better with whiskers. On the whole, I don’t think so; because of the thickness of the wool they are rather too prominent, and I somehow don’t think they’d allow me to use some of Lexi’s real slimline whiskers smiley.

The original cat doodle without whiskers The alternative cat doodle with whiskers

Then it was time to put some stitching into the actual project, and I decided to start with something not too challenging: random French knots underneath the block shading. I temporarily toyed with the idea of doing a pattern, but various trial runs on paper didn’t produce anything pleasing so I abandoned that idea. Back to random. Next thing on the list was the water, and I got as far as putting in the first line of couching before I ran out of time and daylight.

A little bit of work on the Certificate

By the way, although I’m looking forward to not needing the trestles with my new small slate frame, I do enjoy working with a view of our increasingly colourful garden. I will admit that I sometimes get distracted by the view – it’s a good thing my stitching glasses reduce it to a green-and-flower-coloured blur or I’d get more distracted than I do already. But one distraction last weekend was a bit different: a tiny insect had taken up residence in my Cretan stitch, and it proved exceedingly difficult to remove it without hurting it. Eventually I managed to get it to climb onto my needle, and then took it outside before finally getting down to some stitching.

Homework with garden view Homework with garden view An interloper

Although I had started on the water, I decided to work on the ball of wool first. I discussed this with Helen at my last class and based on her comments I put in two layers of full satin stitch padding (instead of the more usual surface satin padding) within the split stitch outline, followed by the full top layer (going over the outline), and finally the partial very top layer. There are one or two minimal irregularities in the outline but I’m happy with the look of the finished ball.

First layer of padding Second layer of padding Full top layer Partial very top layer

Finally it was time to finish the water. In order to determine the waviness of the couched lines I used short pins to try out various possible positions, and when I was happy with them I lightly drew them in. I then started the fly stitch couching, at which point Lexi decided to pose for her portrait, unaware that it wasn’t her turn yet.

Pinning out the lines The lines drawn in Starting the fly stitch couching Lexi poses for her portrait

There was a slight hold-up when I had to remove some black fibre from the Appleton’s wool *sigh*, but I managed to finish the water before the light became too dim.

Black inclusions in Appletons wool The finished water

And so the one thing left that is outline-only is Lexi. I will make a start on her this weekend if all goes well, and finish her next weekend. Surely two weekends should be enough for any cat! After that the project will be stored, still stretched on the slate frame (on the advice of a former RSN tutor and some of the Diploma students), until such time as we can attend classes again. Meanwhile I will be able to put the finishing touches to the SAL stitched models, and then hopefully get back to some of my abandoned projects. Hengest is calling, er, neighing me!

The Tree with only a cat left to stitch

A manageable frame

If you’ve been following my RSN Certificate progress you may have picked up a hint or two (or three, or four…) that I do not like working with the slate frame. Well, that’s not absolutely true, I do greatly appreciate the excellent tension you get on a slate frame, and I rather enjoy doing embroidery in a way that connects me with stitchers from many centuries ago; what I do not like was its size, which means you have to use it with trestles, which in turn means that even with considerable added tilt, the work is still at a near-horizontal angle.

A near-horizontal slate frame

This seems to work for some, maybe even most people (although I have heard from at least one RSN graduate that she hardly ever uses a slate frame anymore because it “did her back in”) but I am hampered by my eyesight. Not only am I very short-sighted, I have protein deposits in one eye which cause blurring. Together they make it impossible for me to see the whole slate frame in focus when it is positioned on the trestles. I could reasonably comfortable work on the bottom third of the design, and also on the top third by the simple expedient of turning the frame round. It was when working on a particularly challenging part right in the middle of the design that I found the only way I could see well enough to do the stitching with the required level of accuracy was to stand up and bend over the frame. Doing my back in? I’ll say!

Back-breaking work at the slate frame Back-breaking work at the slate frame

It was very clear to me that I needed a smaller slate frame. The RSN don’t do anything smaller than my present 18″ one, but several other people do, among them Jenny Adin-Christie, a former tutor and studio embroiderer at the RSN and therefore well-acquainted with what is required of a slate frame. It just remained to convince the RSN that I could, in fact, do the next three modules on a 12″ slate frame as the size requirements were so much smaller than for the Jacobean module (A5 max instead of A4). Initially they were not happy with the idea; it took a fair few emails (including mentioning that I would not be able to continue with the Certificate in the present set-up) and a promise that I would discuss it with my tutors, but in the end they did agree and the very next day I ordered my smaller frame.

A smaller slate frame

It’s difficult to tell the size when seeing it in isolation, so here it is (with pinned lengths of herringbone band to help it keep its shape) on top of the old one – once on top of the covers and once showing my Jacobean piece, which actually very nearly fits!

The new slate frame on top of the old The smaller frame would almost accommodate the Tree!

The main thing about getting this smaller slate frame was that I could dispense with the trestle set-up. But it’s obviously too big to hold – it needs a stand of some sort. On her site, Jenny Adin-Christie says this size can be used with a Lowery, although it will need support on the unclamped side. Well, that’s not going to be a problem – remember this?

A Meccano solution (with cat) The Meccano prop in place

But the Lowery is not ideal from a portability perspective. To use this frame at my classes it would be really helpful if it worked with the Aristo lap stand, the arms of which in their natural state are not quite long enough to support the slate frame at full stretch.

The arms of the Aristo lap stand are not quite long enough

Once again, Meccano and Mr Mabel’s engineering expertise to the rescue! (He has modestly requested I show only his hands, not his face.)

Picking useful bits of Meccano Putting things together

And here it is, ready for use when I start my Canvaswork module (whenever that may be…)

The finished extension in place The finished extension in use

PS By the way, the conversations with my tutors about the slate frame were interesting. One said that it was unusual but she had no doubt I’d manage as long as I could find a stand to use it with in class (sorted, see above); with the other, the conversation went as follows: “I’ve been allowed to work on a smaller frame.” “Yeah, that’s fine.” “No, but a much smaller frame.” “Yes, OK.” “I mean, 12-inch small”. “Yes, fine.” Well, that was obviously a big problem smiley.