Reading about stitching

Many moons ago, on my 2016 London workshops-at-Ally-Pally visit in fact, I had the opportunity of seeing the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V & A. It was absolutely stunning, and I’d have loved to go twice because there was so much to see and take in that my brain felt quite numb by the time I got to the end of the exhibition. At that time I didn’t buy the catalogue, an enormous hardback book that was A) far too heavy to carry around with me until going home, B) far too expensive and C) far more detailed than I needed. Fast forward three years or so and a fellow member of the Cross Stitch Forum mentions that she has been given this book as a Christmas present, and how wonderful it is.

Could I possibly treat myself? Well, ordering it online would mean a delivery to my door rather than traipsing through London with it. That took care of objection A). A bit of Googling found it on Wordery at £9 less than the RRP, which took care of B). And most importantly, in the intervening years I’ve become much more interested in medieval embroidery in general (I’ve recently been engrossed in Carola Hicks’ excellent book about the Bayeux Tapestry) and Opus Anglicanum in particular (I blame the Coombe Abbey retreat with Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray); having learnt a bit more about the style and technique and tried it out myself I would now really like to “re-visit” that exhibition. So that was objection C) done with. And yesterday morning it arrived:

Catalogue of the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition

I haven’t had time yet to look at all the large photographs in detail (let alone read everything) but I do hope I will find the embroidery depicting Jesus’ betrayal which shows Judas and the other attackers wearing, according to the explanatory notice beside it, “striped leggings [which] were a marker of their sinful pride and bad character”. Well, they do say clothes make the man!

Two pictures I would like to share with you, and as they are partial pictures and meant to illustrate a point I hope the V & A won’t feel too upset. First of all a certain chap who looks decidedly familiar – surely he is kin (although admittedly larger and rather more detailed kin) to King Ethelnute of Coombe Abbey?

Ethelnute meets a similar king

And secondly a source of inspiration – the dappled horse from the Steeple Aston cope who is the spiritual ancestor of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. Not having seen the original horse for a while (and not having worked on Hengest for some time either) I was surprised both at how recognisably alike they are, and yet how much Hengest has developed a personality of his own (not least because of that goofy look in his eyes).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn meets his horsy inspiration

The book also contains a picture of a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout reading Hick’s “life story” of that particular piece of embroidery, I found it quite exhilarating to think that if one of the stitchers of the Tapestry walked into our house, one of the few things she’d immediately recognise would be my Certificate set-up of a slate frame on trestles with wool embroidery on linen. In some ways we who do hand embroidery may be closer to those medieval stitchers than to some of our contemporaries who have no love or appreciation of craft.

I must not stitch and chat

Write 100 times: I must not stitch and chat.

Well, actually, I must – after all, why else do you go to meet other stitchers? Even at classes, where everyone is concentrating on the learning process, there’s usually some chatting going on, let alone at a meeting like our weekly Embroidery Circle where we each bring whatever we’re working on and have a bit of a stitchers’ social.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to choose your project wisely; I wouldn’t work on my Certificate piece (even if I could get it there, trestles and all) because I really cannot chat and do anything meaningful on that at the same time. I did bring my doodle cloths a few times, and that worked well: interesting, but not essential to get it absolutely right as it’s just trying out things.

Last Monday I brought Llandrindod, my little Celtic Cross. I didn’t want to work on the SAL, having done rather a lot of that over the Christmas period. I didn’t feel like working on the Ottoman Tulip, and I’ve rather missed Llandrindod. And (very important) the part of the design that I’m working on at the moment is just filling in facets with split stitch. What could possiby go wrong?

This.

Too much stitching

Doesn’t look too bad, does it? There’s a slight issue with the red slanted satin stitch which I need to do something about, but the split stitch facets are OK, aren’t they?

Yes. Except that the teeny-weeny medium blue facet towards the centre should have been light blue.

That in itself isn’t too much of a problem; after all, I worked the corresponding facet on the red gem in the wrong direction first, and had to unpick and redo it. Unfortunately with this gem I thought it would be easier and save fastening on and off if I did all the medium blue facets in one go, rather than one by one. Which means that every line of split stitch in that small facet is connected to the facet next to it, and (by running behind the satin stitch at the back of the work) with the large facet on the far right. I stopped filling in the small facet the moment I noticed, and as I started at the narrow, pointy end I may be able to just stitch over it in light blue, but it will need a bit of thinking.

Next Monday I will take the Ottoman Tulip. Two large areas left to fill in and both the same colour!

Certificate decisions

Last week I wrote about a significant set of four RSN Stitch Guides and ideas for the Canvaswork module of the RSN Certificate and this means, doesn’t it, surely it must, that I’ve decided to do The Whole Thing after all. As you may remember I set out on this course with the clear intention of doing the Jacobean and Goldwork modules, and then stopping. Several people (including tutors, my very supportive husband and a fellow student) have since encouraged me to do the whole Certificate, and I’ve been keeping this in the back of my mind throughout the first module. The ideas are there – my canvas scribbles and pictures-for-inspiration are fairly obvious indications of that. And yet.

Various ideas for the Canvaswork module

Having stitched for quite a few hours now using the trestle-and-slate-frame combination, I think I can confidently say it is simply not my cup of tea. I find the stitching position uncomfortable and the nearly horizontal orientation of the frame (even after putting the rear of the trestles up another notch to give it extra tilt) puts a strain on my eyes – with my ordinary glasses I can see the further end of the embroidery, but I can’t see the details nearby, while with my stitching glasses I can’t see far enough without things going blurry. When stitching the tree trunk, which covers quite a bit of the height of the design, neither of my glasses allowed me to work an entire row of chain stitch in focus while keeping a comfortable (and healthy!) posture.

The trestles at maximum tilt

But the slate frame is obligatory when doing the Certificate (and the other “big” RSN courses like the Diploma and the Future Tutor programme), and I don’t think it is negotiable. Not for the Canvaswork and Goldwork modules, with A5-sized projects, and not even for the Silk Shading module, where the brief specifies that “overall the piece should be no bigger than 8×8 centimeters (3in x 3in)”. Leaving aside for the moment that 3 inches is even less than 8 centimetres, does this really need a slate frame, even my “small” 18-inch one? I fear that it probably does if it’s part of the Certificate, and that no amount of coin-bouncing off my laced Millennium frame will convince them otherwise. But just possibly the Bling SAL Tree may sneak into my frame bag, come to my February class and show off its drum-taut tension, and then who knows?

Laced Millennium frame

PS Depending on the outcome, would anyone be interested in taking over a hardly-used slate frame in a year or so? With trestles?

Christmas presents, scribbles and inspirations

Did you get any stitchy presents? I did! (I also got an OS Map Quiz Book – my husband knows me well.) Eldest and daughter-in-law (and, according to the gift tag, baby grandson, although I’m not sure how much he was involved in the whole process) gave me three of the RSN Essential Stitch Guides: Crewel Work, Silk Shading and Canvaswork. With the Goldwork book that was already on my craft room bookshelves I now have expert information about all four modules of the Certificate at my fingertips. (You will note that I picked canvaswork instead of blackwork, which is the other option for the fourth module; I greatly admire some of the blackwork that talented stitchers create but for now I have no particular desire to create any myself.)

My Christmas present: three RSN Stitch Guides All four Stitch Guides together

Incidentally, I do know that the RSN have brough out this absolutely amazing book containing all their Essential Stitch Guides. It’s a great idea as some of the information occurring in every guide (for example about dressing a slate frame) can be given just once instead of being repeated in every section, and it is also a cheaper option than buying all the individual Guides; but I really like the fact that the individual guides aren’t very large, and especially that they come with a spiral binding which means I can open the appropriate volume at the relevant page for whatever I’m working on, put it down flat beside me, and it will stay there, ready for me to consult while I’m stitching. For me, these will be working books.

Anyway, of course I had to have a good browse through them all on Boxing Day, and as I was looking at the various stitches in the canvaswork book I just had to scribble down a few ideas for a sea shore design.

Scribbles for a sea shore canvas project

By the way, anyone who watched “The Snail and the Whale” on Christmas Day will see where at least one bit of inspiration came from smiley.

Inspiration from the Snail and the Whale

This sea shore idea isn’t entirely new; when I was sketching and collecting images for the Jacobean module I also noted down any ideas that didn’t quite fit the technique or the brief but might be usable for other modules. Bearing in mind that at that point I fully intended to stop after Jacobean and goldwork (and I’m still not 100% decided on this matter) I’m not sure why on earth I kept thinking of things that would look good in canvaswork, especially as that was definitely the least interesting module as far as I was concerned, considered an option only because blackwork so definitely wasn’t. But there you have it – an idea for some sort of sea/beach combination with “bits” on the beach (both animate and inanimate) was born.

Earlier scribbles for a sea shore idea

That is still the most likely type of design for me to use if ever I do get round to the canvaswork module, but there is another contender. It would need quite a bit of work – simplifying, deciding on textures etc. – but wouldn’t these oystercatchers make a striking design? I photographed them at Buckler’s Hard a couple of years ago, and they are just such distinctive birds.

Oystercatchers at Buckler's Hard may be a good topic

Or perhaps an oystercatcher could invade that beach scene…?

Class notes, a hillock and a brick

It’s been a few weeks since my last RSN Certificate class so high time for an update. And the update doesn’t go beyond the class, I’m afraid, as I haven’t touched the project since – at the moment, the SAL is taking up most of my Mabel time!

We were a select few on 30th November at the Rugby branch of the RSN – only four of us, three of whom were on the Jacobean module. As always it was extremely interesting to see the other students’ projects, what design choices they had made, how they were handling certain stitches. I also found out that I was on the positive side (to my mind) of a change the RSN had made to the Jacobean brief. The other two crewel students both started a little after I did, and they were told that they could have only one animal in their design (I assume people had been going rather overboard on the animal front; the same thing happened some years back with the number of colours you are allowed to use). I heaved a sigh of relief that I’d started earlier, for how could I possibly have sacrificed either James the snail or Lexi the cat! Phew.

Talking of the cat, you may remember I had sampled the ball of wool that she is entangled in. Angela (the tutor) thought it looked very effective but warned me that the assessors (who, by the way, do not look at your work through a magnifying glass – the person telling me that was fibbing!) might have something to say about the long, unsecured satin stitches on the top. I prodded at them to show her that they were really quite firmly placed but she said normally they would expect satin stitches that long to have a little couching stitch in the middle. This, of course, would ruin the effect I was after, so she advised me to put a note in my log to explain that it was a conscious design decision to have the top stitches long and unsecured, and not just me being ignorant of best practice smiley.

Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch

In preparation for my fifth class I had worked on the gap in the tree trunk and the left hillock. I was going to ask the tutor about my idea of whipping the existing chain stitches bordering the gap, but completely forgot! However, if I do decide to add that whipping it can be done right up to when I finish the project, so I’ve made a note to ask next time. For the Pekinese stitches making up the hillock my pretty little stiletto came in handy once again, especially by the tree trunk where the stitches were threatening to get far too intimately acquainted with each other.

Using the stiletto on the left hillock Two areas of stitches coming together

I’d hoped to complete the hillock before going to class but that was clearly not going to happen unless I got up very early on the Saturday, and I felt I’d probably be doing quite enough stitching that day! So this is where I was at the start of my fifth class:

Before the fifth class

Incidentally, although your are expected to attend eight classes (or contact days) per module, don’t let that give you the idea that you put in your last stitch at the end of class #8. Part of the module is mounting your work, and that generally takes all of your eighth class as well as probably half (or more) of your seventh. Angela advised me to have most of my stitching done by the start of the seventh class, so that a bit of tidying and tweaking is all that’s left, stitching-wise, and then concentrate on the mounting. This includes cutting your own mount board and covering it with calico before you get to what I would usually think of as mounting.

But for now it was mostly checking with Angela that she was happy with the bits I’d done at home, like the lattice work and the long & short leaves; to show her the various samplings and ask her opinion; and to get on with stitching. Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that working on these various aspects of my project from 10am to 4pm (minus about 45 minutes for lunch and stretching my legs, and the odd cup of tea in the classroom) I’d get lots done. I certainly thought that, although previous experience should have taught me otherwise. Let’s face it, if you’re into instant gratification an RSN Certificate is not the way to get it. Stitching this precise is slow, not only because accuracy takes time but also because you stop and consider what you’ve done, judge previous decisions and decide whether to change or re-stitch, and so on. This meant that I finished the class with one completed hillock and a little over half a brick.

After the fifth class

Of course that’s a slightly misleading way of putting it, as I came away from the class with lots of feedback, advice, encouragement and ideas as well – and the pleasure of having seen the start of what is set to become an amazing piece of blackwork (creepy, but amazing) by a Diploma student, and of meeting a lady who to my mind is a stitching hero. Having done nothing more than a few needlepoint kits, she decided she wanted to get some solid embroidery schooling and is now working on the Jacobean module for her Certificate. My husband, when I told him about her, said it sounded like someone who’d got a provisional driving licence and a few lessons and then entered a Formula 1 race. Fortunately the risk of serious injury is not nearly so great in embroidery smiley and that Saturday she was having a lot of fun designing a worm as the animal in her crewel project.

Telling my husband all about the classes afterwards is part of my enjoyment of them, and I also like discussing bits of the design or stitch decisions with him as he knows enough about it to understand what I’m talking about, but because he is not an embroiderer himself he has a different way of looking at these things which can help me see them from a fresh perspective. He also helps me not to get too obsessive about the whole thing. When I confessed to him that I liked the doodle cloth hillock much better than the one on the proper project, and wondered aloud whether I should re-do it, his straightforward engineer’s solution was to threaten to take my doodle cloth away until I came to my senses. I have since come to realise that although they look different, and the shape of the doodle cloth hillock is still, to my mind, more pleasing, the final version is absolutely fine.

Now when I said that this FoF would not look beyond the class I was not entirely accurate. It is true that on Sunday afternoon I packed away the trestles and slate frame to sit idle until the new year, but before that I did do a little bit of work on it – I just couldn’t leave it with the brick only half done. There was a practical consideration to this: it is generally best to work a shape like that in one sitting, if possible, because your stitch tension changes from one day to the next. Imagine how it might change from one month to the next! So before bundling the whole set-up into the craft room I finished James’s brick, and I am really pleased with the smooth outline I managed to get on the satin stitch.

A satin stitch brick

And here is the whole thing as it’s gone into hibernation:

The RSN Jacobean project before hibernation

Roll on 2020!

An interesting find and a WINP

Last week I spent a few days back in my native Holland, and of course I took a little travel project, in spite of travelling with hand luggage only. I packed a pair of squissors – my favourite little pointy scissors do fall into the category of “Small scissors (with blades no longer than 6cm)” that are allowed in hand luggage according to the Government’s website, but I didn’t want to take the risk. Once when flying some years ago (admittedly not very long after 9/11) the teeny-weeny nail file was wrenched off my nail clippers, presumably because I might stab the pilot with it and force the plane to land in the Outer Hebrides or Inner Mongolia.

The project I picked was the Ottoman Tulip; having finished the blues in the tulip itself it needed only two colours to complete, black and a mid-blue, and not too much of either of those so I could just cut a few lengths and leave the bobbins at home. The design itself is definitely handbag-sized, even in its hoop. Perfect.

When I left home it looked like this:

Progress on the Ottoman tulip

And, erm, when I returned it looked like this…

Lack of progress on the Ottoman tulip

Yes, my tulip is officially a WINP, a work-in-no-progress. Still, something embroidery-related happened while I was in the Netherlands! I generally go and have a browse around my favourite second-hand shop; being large and well-stocked it used to provide the majority of my wardrobe when I still lived in the Old Country, and although it has changed premises since then to me it will always be known as the Pelgrimshoeve (“Pilgrims’ Farmhouse”), the building they started out in. It’s a big place, and they sell everything from clothes to books and from electrical equipment to furniture – and they have a haberdashery department. Among the beads, knitting needles, zips and bobbins I found some wooden buttons and a box of linen embroidery threads at 50 cents a skein. In hindsight I should have bought the whole box, but for some reason I contented myself with two pinks and six blues.

Linen threads bought at the Pelgrimshoeve

All the threads are a no. 16 weight, but the pinks are by a UK company called Knox (apparently Knox’s of Kilbirnie were big in linen threads) whereas the blues are Anchor and were, according to the label, produced in Belgium. It was only when I got them home and looked at them in natural light that I realised one of the light blues is actually different from the other two; never mind, the combination of the three blues is pleasing enough for me to be able to use them all together. Perhaps in another Ottoman Tulip?

By the way, is it just me or do the buttons remind anyone else of a caterpillar smiley?

A button caterpillar

An entangled cat and a ruffled tummy

I’ve been rather quickly and haphazardly adding to doodle-Lexi’s fur because I wanted to sample the couched thread of wool which winds around her tum. This worked well, and will be connected up with the satin stitch ball of wool when it gets to stitching her on the Big Project.

Cat with couched wool around her

When I showed the sample to my husband, he remarked that there was a very clear line between the light stitching on her tummy and the dark stitching on the rest of her. Drawing my attention to real-life Lexi, who was at that moment lying on her back on my lap, looking adorable and showing off her real-life tummy, he pointed out that on her the line was much more blurred. I pointed out that Jacobean embroidery is not exactly renowned for its accurate and naturalistic way of depicting the animals and vegetation in its realm. Even so, his words remained in the back of my mind. What if I added some angled medium and dark brown stitches to the edge of the dark fur so that they overlapped with and blended into the beige?

I tried quite spiky stitches first, sticking out noticeably from the dark top half and overlapping onto the light belly, but that just looked wrong – the angles were simply too different from the generally horizontal direction of the fur and they were too short. Some long stitches, only slightly more angled than the main ones were called for. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the spiky version, but here is the “milder” one (getting these stitches in was a bit challenging where I had to sneak them underneath the couching – obviously on the real thing they would be done before adding the turquoise – which is why they are not quite as neat as I’d like, but they’ll do as an illustration/sample).

Cat with slightly ruffled fur

And here are the stark-lined original and the slightly blurred new version side by side. It’s a subtle difference, but on the whole I do like the second version a little better. So when I get round to stitching her on the real project, wool Lexi will have her fur ruffled!

Two feline tummies

The Tree of Life SAL sign-up is open!

If you’re on Facebook at all you may have seen a quick message I posted about a last-minute changes to a one of the leaves on the SAL Tree of Life. It’s a shame I can’t show you how it turned out (that would rather spoil the Mystery bit of the SAL…) but I’m really excited about it!

Oh well, all right then, a teeny weeny sneak peek – can you guess which version it is smiley?

Sneak peek

If that has whetted your appetite you’ll be pleased to hear that sign up for the SAL is now open. And it looks like it’s going to be quite an international gathering – already there are subscribers from seven different countries!

Mabel's 2020 Freestyle SAL

PS For various reasons (most of them to do with the fact that I am a one-woman band, albeit with a very supportive husband) the SAL-joining process is not automated – I send out every welcome email individually as and when I get a notification that someone has signed up. So if I happen to be out doing the weekly grocery shop when you sign up (or asleep, if we’re in different time zones), it may be a few hours before you get a reply; but I’ll do my best to send out all welcome emails as soon as possible.

More sampling, a block shading lament and a finished tulip

Two months between my fourth and fifth RSN Certificate classes – surely I must have finished at least three-quarters of the tree by now? Well, not quite. But I have done a lot of sampling, and some “proper” work too, with a few more parts to follow this week with a bit of luck (and application). One of the things I sampled is the ball of wool which entangles the cat. Having decided to work my brick in straight satin stitch, this will be where I show off satin stitch that is both slanted and padded.

First I made a few sketches of the various options, and eventually I decided on a split stitch outline and padding top left to bottom right (surface satin stitch so it doesn’t create too much bulk at the back), then a complete layer of satin stitch in the darkest shade of turquoise bottom left to top right, and finally an incomplete layer like a band in the middle using the second darkest shade, again from top left to bottom right. And when I stitched it, it actually looked as I had envisaged it! Very encouraging – usually it takes at least a few goes. This may of course mean that the one on the actual Certificate piece is going to be disappointing, but let’s remain optimistic.

Sketches for the ball of wool Split stitch outline and padding First layer of satin stitch Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch Showing the lift that the padding gives

I like having that ball of wool in the design. The Anglo-Saxon word for it is “cleow” (very close to the present-day Dutch “kluwen”) which is said to be the origin of the term “crewel”. How cool to have a crewel cleow smiley.

Next was a couple of sketches for the gap in the tree trunk; Angela had expressed concern that Cretan stitch over the full width of the gap, especially towards the bottom, would be too wide. How to divide it? My idea was to sample one version in three parts, from shaded from medium to lightest turquoise, and another in two parts, with dark shades on the light side of the tree and light shades on the dark side, to create the illusion of a deep hollow in the tree which is just picked out by the light coming from the right.

Sketch for the gap in the tree trunk The gap divided into three parts The gap divided into two, to show depth

The three-part version turned out to be too fussy at the top; I like the look of the dark/light version better, although even there the Cretan stitch looks remarkably like feather stitch at the top where it can’t spread out. But then lots of stitches are really the same thing with only minor variations, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. One question remains: does it need the extra outline I had originally put in my plan? Perhaps I could just whip the chain stitches that border it already. I’ll bounce that off the tutor on Saturday.

On to block shading; I obviously need practice on that (see my previous report) plus I had to try out colours. I like the bold version on the left, but on consideration decided that a lighter version would show up the ball of wool better. The sample on the right uses two browns because the lighter one looked too light on the skein, but it turned out to look better when stitched – so the colour combination on the far right is the one I’ll go with. As for the block shading itself, it’s definitely getting better but I just can’t seem to keep the bands the width I set out with. It’s exasperating! I will have to draw really clear guidelines and stick to them like glue.

More block shading

Finally I managed to do some proper stitching on the actual embroidery: the two large leaves at the bottom of the tulip flower, to be worked in long & short stitch. You may remember from my report about the September class that Jessica Aldred gave her official blessing to what I’d been doing in long & short stitch all along, which was encouraging, so without any further sampling I got on with the Real Thing – split stitch outline in medium (except where they meet the tulip, as there will be later stitching along those lines), and then fill in from the tip in lightest to the base in darkest turquoise.

Split stitch outline and first shade of long and short filling One leaf And another one

Incidentally, all these photographs are upside down because I’m working with the top end of the frame towards me at the moment – I simply can’t reach the top of the design when the frame is the right way round!

Having finished the leaves I decided last Saturday to forgo my usual Ladies’ Walk (it looked like rain anyway…) and spent three solid hours on my Certificate homework, in spite of someone in the neighbourhood using some sort of machinery which emitted a continuous droning noise for the first 90 minutes or so. My tulip bulbs may be languishing in the garden shed instead of being planted, but this tulip was going to be completed!

Having seen effect of the dense turquoise stitching on the leaves, the colour of the frills on the petals decided itself: brown. As with the leaves I decided against sampling, plunged for medium brown for the buttonhole/blanket stitch and dark (not darkest) brown for the detached buttonhole fringe, and got stitching.

Blanket stitch along the tulip's fringe Adding the detached buttonhole frill A 3D frill

The last part of the tulip was the dark orange outline, which according to my stitch plan was to be done in knotted stem stitch (also known as Portuguese stem stitch). I had second thoughts; the lines surrounding the brown battlement couching should, I felt, be like the lines surrounding the turquoise lattice work – plain stem stitch. Fortunately it is a doddle to change from plain to knotted stem stitch and back again within a single line, without any need for fastening off and on again, so I decided to work the bits around the brown central petal in plain, and then switch to knotted once I was clear of that part.

Knotted stem stitch doesn't work

No. Absolutely no. It just looks fussy, and with so much going on in that flower already, the outlines need to be clean and simple and not distract the eye. So unpick the knotted bit, discard the unpicked thread because it did not stand up well to this, fasten on a new one and complete the outline in plain stem stitch all around.

A plain stem stitch outline

And here is the whole thing, right way up – I hope to complete at least the left-hand hillock (and possibly the brick) before Saturday’s class.

The tree so far

PS Don’t forget you can sign up for that other Tree of Life from this coming Friday!