Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

A fruitful class and more sampling

Although there has been the occasional burst of activity on Mabel’s Fancies’ Facebook page it’s been two weeks since the last FoF – high time for an update! The long silence can at least in part be blamed on the SAL, as I’ve been spending rather longer than I thought I would on drawing, editing and writing up the remaining stitch diagrams. However, they are all done now; and although there are still chart packs to write and stitch photographs to take, I’m pretty much on schedule.

And so, finally, a report about my latest RSN Certificate class – more than a month ago now, but still fresh in my memory (helped by some photographs I took on the day). We had the luxury of not one, but two tutors: Angela was being shadowed by Jessica Aldred, who is in the process of becoming a Certificate and Diploma tutor. This meant twice the encouragement and advice – I was very pleased I decided not to cancel after all!

This doesn’t mean that I got a lot of stitching done. You may remember that I started the class with the trunk and the vine completed; well, at the end of a 10am-4pm day I had added a petal, and part of a petal…

The Tree of Life before the September class The Tree of Life after the September class

What I had done, was discuss a lot of my samples with both tutors and bounce ideas off them; I was scribbling notes the whole time, and it was very encouraging to hear, in some cases, that what I’d been doing different from the diagrams in most books was actually right smiley! More about that later; let’s go through the design elements we talked about that day.

First there was the bullion knot square-with-rounded-corners. This was give the thumbs-up. Jessica at first said perhaps to couch the longer ones (making sure that the tension of the couching thread doesn’t dent them) but on feeling how solid the square was said it didn’t seem necessary.

A bullion knot square

Then there was James the Snail. You may remember I sampled his shell in two different stitches: padded buttonhole stitch and raised backstitch. The former is by far the easier to do, and to do neatly. Unfortunately the raised backstitch version is preferred by most people who have seen them together, including Angela and Jessica, and me, for that matter. My homework is to do another sample, with the “spokes” for the raised backstitch sticking out further on the outside so the outer design line is covered, and possibly meshing the spokes on the inside of the coil to get sufficient coverage (at the moment there is a bare channel between the coils which simply will not do). I’ve also decided to try and use four shades of turquoise for the shell instead of the three in the sample.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

Next up was the satin stitch brick. I’ve pretty much decided to use satin stitch rather than burden stitch, and I really like the look of this version. But at my third class Helen Jones said all satin stitch had to be slanted, and I couldn’t see how that would work. Nor could Angela and Jessica. We all agreed the vertical version looked much better than a slanted one would; slanted would also make some of the stitches far too long. The RSN Guide mentioned only slanted satin stitch, but by actually calling it “slanted” it suggested that there was a legitimate straight version as well. In the end Angela promised to enquire into the RSN’s official position on satin stitch, and if they inisisted on slanted I might stick with vertical but write up the decision in my log, and perhaps show I could do slanted satin stitch in sampling. They also pointed out that there will be slanted satin stitch in the ball of wool anyway, so the straight version could just be seen as an extra stitch.

A satin stitch brick

As it happens I later heard back from Angela, who passed on the verdict that “satin stitch is often stitched in a slanted direction mainly for ease and a better finish, but in circumstances such as your particular shape, the vertical direction chosen is preferable because a slanted direction would not enhance your design”. So a vertically satin-stitched brick it is!

Then there were a few quick questions which I bounced off the tutors and which for a change needed only short answers (most of my questions seem to take rather longer to address…) – first, should I “void” the body of the cat where the wool is wound around her? Answer: no, work it over the top. That was a relief, as voiding such a thin line would be quite tricky! Angela also suggested that I couch the thread that comes off the ball of wool and entangles the cat, which would look more natural than the split stitch I had originally intended. Secondly, should I make one of the leaves underneath the big tulip darker than the other (leaving out the very lightest shade in one, and the very darkest shade in the other), to indicate where the light comes from, or have them identical (colour-wise, that is; the shading will be mirrored) as I first drew them? Answer: the latter. No need to be too naturalistic in Jacobean designs!

Where the wool winds around the cat Two leaves of equal darkness

While we were on the question of the petals, I took the opportunity to ask Jessica about long & short stitch. The diagrams in most if not all books (and my own diagrams as well) show a split stitch outline, a first row of stitches which are of two lengths and alternate (some disagreement about whether you come up inside the shape for the first row), and consecutive rows of stitches of equal length. Unfortunately following that to the letter does not give very nice results. It looks a bit regimented. So whenever I’ve used long & short I’ve made my stitches rather more random. And then there is the question of what to do when the stitches are almost parallel to the outline – in that case how do you cover the split stitch line without changing the angles too much? Most diagrams only show scenarios where the filling stitches are at a considerable angle to the outline. So far, I’ve solved this by making the final stitch in a row fairly long and working it practically on top of and in the same direction as the outline, going down only just the other side of the split stitch. I felt a bit guilty about all this; I was obviously bodging my long & short to get the look I wanted.

Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project

Imagine my delight when Jessica told me that I was doing exactly what I should be doing! She dislikes the name “long & short stitch” as it gives the wrong impression, and prefers “painting with the needle”, which allows for some more interpretative stitching. As for stitches that are parallel to the sides, go over the split stitch edge when you can, into it when you have to, and if necessary have a stitch completely outside it. So I can carry on as before smiley.

Jessica's notes on long & short stitch

On to the right-hand leaf, which I’d sampled in a sort of brick stitch. Both tutors liked the look, but we agreed that the way I was working it (in long lines rather than short rows) it wasn’t really brick stitch. After considering and rejecting “bricked backstitch” we decided I’d put it down as “backstitch filling”.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally the gap at the bottom of the tree. I charted that in Cretan stitch, but it’s a little wide – the stitches may get rather too long. I was told to sample it to see if it worked, but when I got home I had a different idea. How about working three very pointy “triangles” of Cretan within the main triangle? Keep the shading vertical (i.e. top to botton, in horizontal stripes) to contrast with the trunk. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The gap in the bottom of the trunk

Recently I had another idea for the ball of wool as well; originally I intended to do one layer of satin stitch, with a partial layer at right angles on top, to show how the wool was wound up. But why not turn this into properly padded satin stitch? First outline the ball in split stitch, then put padding in, then the full layer of satin stitch, and then the partial layer; that should make the ball look quite 3D. Sample to follow!

Scribbles about the ball of wool

Oh, one other thing came up, and it’s one that demonstrates Angela’s comment right at the start of my Certificate course, that the design will probably look quite different from the first drafts when it’s finished. As you may remember, for the Jacobean design the stitcher is allowed two main colours (five shades each) and an accent colour (two shades). My accent or contrast colour is Coral. Unfortunately I realised when having another look at my colour plan that there is rather a lot of it throughout the design, whereas the accent colour and the main colours should not have equal weight. A certain degree of de-oranging was called for. Painful for one Dutch-born and bred, but there it is. So far this is the result:

The previous colour scheme, with too much orange The de-oranged scheme

By the way, the frills on the tulip will actually be the same colour – either both brown or both turquoise.

I have, you will be pleased to hear, done some work on the Tree since the class, but I have hit two snags which are keeping me from getting on with things. I will report on these in a future FoF. So far sampling has been a little more productive, with some work done on my block shading. I’m trying to get the stitch right, but am also using the samples to try out different colour combinations; to this end I’ve divided the hillock into sections. (It’s not actually the right hillock, but I had this one drawn on the fabric and for sampling purposes it doesn’t matter much). This is not the first block shading I’ve done (there was some in the Rabbit & Carnations project where I pretty much winged it without a very clear idea of how the stitch was meant to be worked) but it’s definitely not a stitch I am very familiar with; one rather surprising problem was how difficult it proved to be to keep the line the same height along its entire length!

Dividing the hillock into sections and arcs Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project Trouble keeping the line thesame height Trying out a colour combination

And that wraps up my fourth class – number five follows at the end of November. By which time I hope to have completed the big tulip, the left-hand hillock and the brick, and possibly the right-hand leaf. Plus those samples, of course. We’ll see!

A Jacobean trunk – lots of brown

You may remember that I wasn’t at all sure whether I ought to go to my September Certificate class, as I had been able to do very little work on the project over the summer. If you cancel within a week of the date, you don’t get a refund, so I had to decide by Friday 13th at the latest. This is when my husband, who still has delusions of Mabel achieving world domination in embroidery, stepped in and made me schedule an hour and a half off work to stitch on as many days as we could manage leading up to the class.

We run our business from home and my desk is actually in the same room as my slate frame set-up, so logistically there wasn’t a problem. And I agreed that I would have to do some serious stitching if the class was to be more than just an expensive way of buying stitching time. Well, with four 90-minute sessions (with restful cat in the background), a fair bit of stitching over the weekend, and sampling in the evenings I did manage to get enough done to make the class worth while. In fact it was a very fruitful day – but more of that in a later FoF.

Stitching session with cat

Today I’d like to talk about the trunk, and what I’ve learnt from stitching lots and lots of brown chain stitch smiley.

The first thing I learnt (during my previous class) was to work the stitch slightly differently from how I would normally do it. Picture the usual process: bring the needle up, go down in the same hole, leave a loop at the front, come up one stitch length away, catch the loop, pull through. Yes?

No.

Apparently this puts too much strain on the thread. I can’t say I’ve noticed it in other projects, but wool is notoriously shreddy (especially Appleton’s) so the less unnecessary friction the better. And I will admit the noise that the twill and wool produce when doing chain stitch the usual way did make me feel the tutors had a point! The solution is to add a step to the process: after “catching the loop” you don’t just pull through from to the top by pulling the needle, you pull the loop through from the back with your fingers (bit of fumbling until you get into the rhythm) so that the chain stitch looks like a finished chain stitch, then pull the thread through to the front by pulling the needle. In this way, the thread is only ever pulled straight through the fabric (i.e. not at an angle), minimising the amount of friction. It worked so well that I inserted the same extra step when it came to stitching the stem stitch vine.

Because the extra step makes every stitch take just that little bit longer, and because the tree trunk contains a lot of chain stitches, and because I’m trying to keep my stitches as evenly-sized as possible, and because I am not a natural at the slate frame (more about that in a later post too), progress was not particularly quick, and at the end of the third class this was where I’d got to:

After the third class

So far so good, now just keep stitching chain stitches in five shades of brown and Bob’s your uncle. Except there was another lesson to be learnt – the fact that sometimes you can’t tell whether something looks right until you’ve done it. I’d finished the second shade of brown and started the third, when I realised there was too much of shade two in the top part of the trunk. If I left it in, the other three shades would be crowded. I decided to unpick. At the same time I noticed that I could have done with a little more of the first shade where the top half of the trunk meets the side branch. Unfortunately that would mean having to unpick the whole second shade in that top section, and I’m not that dedicated to achieving a perfect result! Technically, the stitching there was fine – my only niggle was that colour-wise it would have looked better with just a bit more of the darkest brown. I will note this in my log, and explain why I didn’t change it.

A bit too much of shade two Unpicked, ready for re-stitching with shade three

The log is an intriguing thing; it can be used to explain all sorts of things you have or haven’t done, especially in conjunction with the samplings. I like my log!

I also learnt… well, no, I had it confirmed (and believe me, this will be a recurring theme) that Appleton’s wool is, shall we say, less than consistent in its quality. In fact, one of the threads I fastened on against my better judgment looked so fluffed up and puffy after only one stitch that I promptly took it out again and discarded it. Because I don’t like throwing thread away I use some of these discards for my samplings, but it’s not ideal – after all, the samplings are meant to give an idea of how a stitch will look in the actual design!

A fluffy puffy thread

One of the things I get a little paranoid about (besides worrying whether my chain stitches are all approximately the same length, and whether my voiding is precise enough) is design lines. The brief specifies that none of the painted design lines must be visible in the finished piece. But with something like chain stitch, which is relatively wide, it often leads to a difficult decision. In the picture below, a bit of design line is definitely still visible (orange arrow). But an extra line of chain stitch will take the stitched area well across the design line, making the branch thicker than it was originally intended to be. Of course, when I say “well across” I need to remind myself that we’re talking millimetres here. So possibly I’m just being a bit too pernickety. Anyway, I added the extra line.

The blue arrow in the second picture above shows yet another learning process. In order to blend in lines that aren’t full-length, a little creativity is needed now and then. Here I am starting the line that will go up the trunk from inside a stitch on the line that curves into the side branch; that way, there will be no very obvious starting point in the middle of the bark.

That isn’t always possible, but however you work it, lines that don’t go all the way must not noticeably end. The easiest way of decreasing the width of a shape like this trunk is to make each line as long as it can be, stopping each one when you hit the design line. If you do it that way, the longest lines will be in the centre of the trunk, and the closer towards the design line you get, the shorter the lines become. The disadvantage of doing it this way is that the outline can look a bit stepped. For this reason I decided to “hide” some of my shorter lines on the inside of the trunk (green arrows) rather than having them on the outside. I try to end each shortened line by tucking it under the previous line or at least having the little holding stitch as close to the previous line as possible. Because chain stitch tends to spread a bit, especially when done in wool, this effectively hides most of the endings.

Can I just get back to Appleton’s for a moment? Most of their colour families come in anything from five to nine shades; the higher the number of a shade, the darker it is, so in a series of nine xx1 will be very very light, xx5 somewhere in the middle, and xx9 very very dark. Now I would expect the difference between each pair of shades to be more or less the same, so that 4 is as much different from 3 as 3 is from 2. But it isn’t. My five shades of brown are 182, 183, 184, 185 and 187 – one number missing between my darkest and my next darkest shade, so you expect a bit of a gap there, and so there is. But whereas you can see a fairly clear difference between the middle three shades, unless you look very carefully the very lightest one is almost indistinguishable from the next one up, making the right-hand side of the tree a rather uniform beige. A bit late now to swap 182 for 181, and anyway the tutors advised me against choosing that shade early on in the course because they said it would be too close to the colour of the fabric. So it’ll have to be what it is now.

The five shades of brown in the trunk

I may be a bit unfair to Appleton’s here; even with my very favourite crewel wool, Heathway’s Milano, the nine gradations within a colour family aren’t always evenly spaced. But even the tutors remarked on the fact that Appleton’s 4, 5 and 6 shades are often so close that they advise students to use no more than two out of the three. Perhaps if Heathway expand their colour range, they might be able to convince the RSN to change over…

But that’s well into the future, if it ever happens, and my Jacobean Certificate piece is now. And Appleton’s or not, I’m quite pleased with how that trunk has turned out!

The finished trunk

Excursions into needlepoint

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

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

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

Necessities Sampler on Congress cloth

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

Now where did I find this design?

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

Trying out threads and canvases

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

Appleton's crewel wool on 18-count canvas

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

Waiting room progress

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

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

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

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

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

Hooray for Doodle Cloths

(If you hummed the title, or even sang it to yourself in an Ethel Merman type of voice, you’re probably not in the first flush of youth; or you just love musicals smiley.)

Anyway, back to the point. Which is that Doodle Cloths are Awesome!

My current doodle cloth

45 minutes with one and I…

1) know how to do Quaker stitch – although it didn’t yet establish whether I actually like it better than its alternatives split stitch and stem stitch (of which it is a combination);

Quaker stitch compared to split stitch (left) and stem stitch (right) Quaker stitch compared to split stitch (top) and stem stitch (bottom)

2) have tried out a stitch I saw on one of my mother-in-law’s embroideries and which I’ve christened “fly stitch couching”, and played with the placement of the fly stitches which couch the long straight stitches;

Fly stitch couching

3) have got fairly confident with the stitch sequence of plaited braid stitch (although it’ll need quite a bit more practice to get it to look even); and

Plaited braid stitch in Wonderfil Fruitti

4) found out that crewel wool is not the ideal thread for plaited braid stitch!

Plaited braid stitch in Renaissance Dyeing crewel wool

And all this in well under an hour – pretty profitable use of stitching time, I’d say!

Of course I couldn’t leave it at that.

The doodle cloth, continued

Another half hour or so and I:

5) found out that floche does work well for plaited braid stitch (but that when I try to stitch it in a curve I get spiky bits sticking out – must work on that); and

Curved plaited braid stitch in floche

6) determined that split stitch (on the right) seems to take tightish curves just as well as Quaker stitch (on the left), and moreover that I don’t like the contrast in Quaker stitch between the look of straight lines and the look of curves (just in case it’s just me not getting it right I’ll try and find some close-ups of the Quaker Tapestry, for which it was designed).

Quaker stitch and split stitch lettering

Apart from having a personal tutor on standby whenever you need one, this must be one of the best ways of improving your stitching; and it’s fun, too smiley!

A different use

Remember those twelve or so projects I had in various stages of WIPness? Well, several have been finished – the Wedding Umbrellas, the little flower and the Sarah Homfray crewel bird. So there are fewer in the pile now? Well, no. A doodle cloth has been added for Soli Deo Gloria (I have worked out what I want to do with the flower centre; now to try different approaches for the petals), as well as a crewel project made up of bits of designs from two books, and a wool version of Hengest (using some of the Milano Heathway wools that arrived today). But at least I am finishing things as well as starting them!

Milano Heathway crewel wools - some of them for Hengest

One small project, however, was in danger of turning from a WIP (Work In Progress) into a UFO (UnFinished Object). It was a small pansy which I found on an embroidery website somewhere and which I thought would be handy to try out my Madeira Lana threads. And so it was; I got some useful long & short stitch in on one of the petals, then rather lost interest, at least partly because by then I’d used the Lana for one of my Quatrefoils as well, so the pansy’s original use had been rather overtaken by events.

Long and short stitch in Lana on a pansy petal

And I realised I didn’t really like the way the leaves were designed, divided into two halves, light and dark green. Of course I could change that to be long & short stitch as well, but by then I’d already done half a leaf in dark green split stitch. And then it dawned on me: I could use this pansy to Try Out Something Else!

The Tree of Life I’ve been designing for the past three years or so has one of those willowy trunks that you see a lot in Jacobean crewel work as well; mine is meant to be worked in stem stitch lines, and probably not solidly filled. But that, and a daffodil I did some time ago, made me wonder about using stem stitch and split stitch as a solid filling when you don’t go round and round but work in lines. If you work the two outlines and then work your way in from both sides to the middle (which is what I would instinctively do) then unless the shape is uniformly wide along its entire length you will get a sort of vein in the middle where the lines coming from left and right meet. How could you avoid that effect? Well, one way might be to work middle-to-sides instead of sides-to-middle – then the lines would get shorter on the outside of the shape. Start at the bottom in the middle to do a full-length line right to the top, then add lines on the left and right of the middle which are each a little shorter than the previous one, simply stopping when they reach the outline.

My theory, when thinking it over, was that the former method (sides-to-middle) would cause a ridge or vein in the middle but also have smoother sides, while the latter (middle-to-sides) would be smooth in the centre but perhaps a little stepped on the sides. Well, why not try this out on the four leaves of the pansy! So I set out to work the dark green halves of the leaves, side-to-middle on the left-hand leaves and middle-to-side on the right-hand ones. As you can see the bottom leaf on the left particularly shows the slightly stepped line down the centre, where the light green other half will meet it.

Split stitch leaves, side-to-middle, first half Split stitch leaves, middle-to-side, first half

The photographs below were taken before I managed to completely finish the final leaf, but I think the difference is clear enough to see, and a very useful record to keep in my doodle folder. I managed to keep the sides of the middle-to-sides leaves rather smoother than I had feared/expected, which was a pleasant surprise!

Split stitch leaves, side-to-middle, second half Split stitch leaves, middle-to-side, second half

So now I know: if I want a vein down the middle, for example because I am stitching a leaf, I’ll use sides-to-middle – and if I don’t, for example on petals or trunks, I’ll use middle-to-sides! As for the rest of the pansy, it may get finished. Or not. It depends on how loudly the wool unicorn calls…

An old adversary

Something has been niggling me over the past week. It came about as I was stitching Carousel. And it needs Seeing To.

Are there stitches that you love on paper but which don’t live up to expectations? There is one which has been my bugbear ever since I first heard about it. I even devoted an entire FoF post to it three years ago! That post started “Once upon a time there was a stitch. It looked lovely on paper. It had an attractive name. It got itself included in the Round in Circles SAL. It was stitched up in a model, and given a diagram and a description. So far so good.” Substitute “Carousel” for “Round in Circles SAL” and it still infuriatingly holds.

The stitch in question is the Maltese Cross, also known as Maltese Interlacing, and whereas the SAL had it and lost it, Carousel started without it but gained it. It got designed and revamped long before the SAL but I never got round to stitching it until now, when I was forcefully reminded of the problem of this particular stitch. It is that it Never Looks As Good As It Should. In my mind I know exactly what it should look like, a bit like the braided ornamental fasteners on coats which I have always known as “mattekloppers” (“carpet beaters”) but which I am told are officially known as Brandenburg fasteners in Dutch and frog fasteners in English.

Carpet beaters, Brandenburg or frog fasteners

Intricate, swirly, braided, beautiful. That’s what Maltese crosses should look like. But they hardly ever do. In order to make them work (for me – tastes differ) they either have to be done in very thin thread in two colours, when they look attractive but not the least bit like the thickly braided effect I had in mind, or in thick thread in one colour (yes, I changed my mind on that since 2015) so that the braided effect shows up without the distraction of the foundation colours.

High-contrast, lightweight Maltese cross A single unit of Maltese interlacing

In Carousel, it was charted with a thin dark foundation thread and a thick light interlacing thread – in my stitched model, Caron Wildflowers (Tanzanite) and Watercolours (Celestial Blue). And it looks Plain Wrong.

Malteser cross in dark and light

I was tempted to just chuck the whole idea and put in a different stitch, but I thought I’d persevere and try the thing with two changes: one, to use only one colour, the light one. And two, to pull the thread more tightly as I had seen it done on some Indian embroidery. And then it did work.

Malteser cross in light only, pulled more tightly

So now I need only to unpick the first Maltese cross and re-do it, and then I can get started on the cutting. And before you know it Carousel will be available in all its Maltese glory smiley.

Life’s too short to work a moss stitch – or is it?

The craft room was never meant to be a room to spend a lot of time in, despite the desk – when putting it together I thought of it more as a handy way of storing all my stitching stuff in one place. But a few days ago I went in there and sat at the desk, with a lovely view of the snowdrops in the garden, bird song coming in through the open window and the early morning light streaming in, and as I set about putting a kit together and mounting a small goldwork project in a card I realised that everything I needed for these two tasks was in the same room as I, mostly within reach from where I was sitting. Bliss!

So I may be spending more time there than I thought, and one of the things to do there is try out stitches on my doodle cloths. When I went to my stitching group last Monday, we were told a lady had donated two boxes of stitching supplies to the Guildhouse (the local adult education centre where we meet), and would our group like to have a rummage; anything we didn’t want would then be offered to the beading class. Well! Who would say no to the chance of rummaging through two boxes of stitching books, fabrics, ribbons, beads, scissors and other bits and bobs? This is what I eventually went home with: beads, two pendants for mounting embroidery in, and The New Anchor Book of Crewel Stitches and Patterns.

My share of the Guildhouse booty

One of the stitches mentioned in the book is moss stitch, and from its diagram it looks very attractive, and very symmetrical. I should have been warned by the fact that the ones in the accompanying photograph of an actual embroidery were rather less clearly defined…

The diagram for moss stitch

After having produced a number of less than uniform moss stitches I tried to work out what the problem was. Well, one of them was the fact that as I pulled the working thread through on the last step, it invariably got itself knotted, and so it wouldn’t pull snugly around the base cross. Looking at the diagram again, I realised I was following it almost exactly, but not quite: I didn’t anchor the thread loop with my finger! Perhaps that was where I went wrong. Tried it again, with the loop duly anchored while pulling through. A bit better, but still nothing like as tidy as the diagram. Eventually I found that tightening the working thread around the needle while it was still inserted under the cross, and only then pulling the needle through, produced a reasonably neat result.

A row of uneven moss stitches Pulling the working thread tight against the needle A completed moss stitch

So is moss stitch like a stuffed mushroom – something that life is too short for? It rather depends on how attractive you think the stitch is, and how much effort you are willing to put into what will mostly be used as a scatter stitch. Once you get into a routine it should speed up the process, and having the hoop on a stand so that you can use both hands (which I didn’t) would certainly help. But whether I use it a lot or very rarely, it’s a new addition to my repertoire, which is always welcome.

Applying appliqué lessons

You may remember that my first appliqué bauble suffered from a few flaws, most notably visible attaching stitches. A second bauble was called for, with two changes: the thread used to attach the patterned fabric would match that fabric, not the calico it was being attached to; and the embroidery stitch covering the edges (in this case heavy chain stitch) would be worked in perle #5, not perle #8. Together these measures should make the stitches pretty much invisible. So I set to work.

The patterned fabric attached with coordinating thread

So far so good; the thread I’m using is variegated so it doesn’t match the fabric everywhere, but as the fabric is patterned it doesn’t matter too much. Yes, definitely pleased with that.

The next bit is unchanged from the first bauble, because I quite liked it as it was – two lines of Kreinik 1/8″ silver ribbon couched with the same variegated stranded cotton I used to attach the coloured fabric.

The central band is bordered by silver ribbon

Now for the second change, working the border stitch in perle #5. Well, the stitched circle itself looked fine (it is my firm belief that very few things stitched in Anchor’s Blue Hawaii shade could ever look bad) but I noticed something that had occurred in the previous bauble as well: the appliquéd fabric seemed to pucker as I covered the edges.

I held it up to the light at different angles; I pulled the calico tighter in the hoop; I squinted at it. None of it was any good. There was no doubt about it, it puckered.

The fabric puckers after working the heavy chain stitch

So there we are. Using a matching thread to attach the coloured fabric and a thicker perle for the border did solve the problem I’d set out to solve, but the problem I hadn’t really thought much about was, if anything, worse. When I noticed it in the first bauble I rather thought it was just one of those inexplicable things that sometimes happen in embroidery and it would be fine in subsequent projects – after all, there had been no puckering in the appliqué Christmas tree. It now seems that it may be a direct consequence of the border stitch I chose. The Christmas tree was worked in raised chain stitch, most of which is on the surface; only the foundation stitches go through the fabrics, and there isn’t much strain on them, whereas the heavy chain stitch pulls quite strongly at the fabric.

The finished tree, embellished

So it seems there will have to be a third bauble, bordered in perle #5 raised chain stitch! One advantage of that stitch is that it takes corners better than heavy chain stitch; not crucial in the bauble design, which is perfectly circular (or as perfectly circular as I can make it), but I have other ideas…

Twin butterflies (continued)

A few months ago I wrote about a butterfly sketch which I intended to turn into two versions, Beginner and Intermediate, possibly to be used in workshops. My first stitched version showed up a few things that needed attention, and so I decided to stitch two models of each of the versions – one each at the original size I printed it at, using special threads (respectively silks and variegated perles), and one each at a slightly smaller size, using coton à broder #16 (slightly thicker than the more usual #25).

And here they are! The Beginner butterfly had its body stitch changed from the initial sketch, but as that was done before I stitched the first model they both use the interlocking buttonhole/blanket stitch. The stitch for the head was changed between models; the buttonhole stitches in the first model simply wouldn’t behave and make a nice, neat oval. I changed it to a “spoked” arrangement consisting of straight stitches only. The wings are whipped running stitch in both models, but in the second model the running stitches are shorter and closer together, to give a smoother line. I could have used whipped backstitch for an even smoother effect, but decided to keep that for the Intermediate butterfly.

The first version of the beginner's butterfly The second version of the beginner's butterfly

I really like the look of the interlocking buttonhole stitch, but I resisted the temptation to re-use it in the Intermediate butterfly and instead used what I had envisaged in my original sketch, buttonhole stitch closed into segments by straight stitches, each segment decorated with a French knot (there were one or two segments that had come out too small to accommodate a knot, so they were left empty; as they were fairly symmetrically spaced – at the ends of both models and in the middle of the second – it doesn’t look too odd). Incidentally, I did wonder whether to call it buttonhole stitch or blanket stitch as many books and other sources seem to use the terms interchangeably. My personal understanding is that it’s buttonhole stitch when it is very densely worked (as you would around a buttonhole), and blanket stitch when the teeth are more widely spaced as they are in these butterflies. But I must admit to being a bit slap-dash in deciding what I call it in any given design.

The two lines of Mountmellick stitch in the top wing were meant to have their pointy bits together at the body end, but in the first model I started from the wrong side. It looks fine that way too, it’s just not the effect I had in mind smiley. The second model shows the stitches worked the way I intended them to be. I like the look of the communal starting point, and am using something similar (but with the two lines back to back along their entire length) in some of the experimental leaves for the Tree of Life.

Finally a note about the antennae. They are couched pistil stitches, and I added the couching as an afterthought because I wanted a nice elegant curve to the antennae, and pistil stitches don’t curve. But I’m not sure I like the look of the couching. No, that’s not true. I’m sure I don’t like the look of the couching, it just looks clumsy. So the final version of the Intermediate butterfly will have straight antennae, unless I (or any of you) can think of a different way of introducing the desired elegant curve.

The first version of the intermediate butterfly The second version of the intermediate butterfly

And that’s it as far as the butterflies are concerned for the time being. I haven’t got any firm plans for Butterfly workshops at the moment, as there are four K&S ones plus probably some more Church Building Fund ones to prepare for first. The Beginner and Intermediate butterflies will hibernate in my project folder until the time is ripe for them to stretch their wings and become a stitch sampler for some Beginning and Intermediate stitchers!