Enjoying new stitching goodies

I’ve had an embarrassing number of lovely parcels arrive on my doorstep in the course of March and April – another book from the same series as the Lizzy Pye goldwork one, Crewelwork Embroidery by Becky Quine; floche from Needle in a Haystack in the US (a special treat as you can’t easily get it here in the UK, but unfortunately paid for just when the pound was at its weakest); coton à broder from Spinning Jenny; doodle canvas and some Splendor silks from West End Embroidery (who got it to me the very next day, with second class postage!); Heathway Milano crewel wool from Catkin Crown Textile Studio, whose dangerous website went live two weeks ago today; a lovely goldwork monogram kit (now discontinued, I bagged one of the last two) by Lizzy Pye of Laurelin; and (courtesy of my mother-in-law’s birthday present) two crewel kits from Melbury Hill. Now these are things to keep your spirits up!

A crewelwork book and stocking up on floche Coton a broder in two sizes Canvas and Splendor silk
Stocking up on Heathway Milano crewel wool A goldwork monogram from Laurelin Embroidery Two Melbury Hill kits

I spent some happy hours bobbinating my new threads and rearranging some of my storage boxes to take the new acquisistions – aren’t they like beautiful jewel caskets?

Floche thread box and stock A box of coton a broder A box of Splendor silks

As for the kits, taking a peek inside the plain, unmarked box from Laurelin Embroidery was a treat in itself. A beautifully presented instruction booklet, full skeins of DMC and bobbins of sewing thread as well as plenty of goldwork materials, and the fabric with its calico backing neatly wrapped in tissue paper. As for the colours, Lizzy had very kindly substituted a turquoise for the usual green to match the colours of the Mabel’s Fancies logo; and would you believe it, in my stash I happened to have a wire check in a light turquoise that goes with it perfectly! I’ll enjoy working out where to incorporate it into that gloriously blingy and colourful M.

The instruction booklet and the transfer pattern Threads and goldwork materials Wire check in two colours to go with the DMC threads

The Melbury Hill kits, though understandably a bit short on the sparkly wow-factor by comparison and with a little less in the way of instructions, are nevertheless very enjoyable to open and explore. The first is Strawberry Fair – the picture on their website shows it with the strawberry sticking up, but I think it looks more natural (in as far as Jacobean-style crewelwork ever does) with the fruit hanging down. By the way, I love the way they use the Bayeux couching stitches to represent the strawberry pips – I wish I’d thought of that!

Melbury Hill's Strawberry Fair kit

The second kit is the Heritage Cat & Tulip Tile. Now I would not normally have bought this – for one thing it includes a hoop I don’t need, but more importantly it uses a single stitch throughout in a monochrome design and is therefore unlikely to “stretch” me. However, a few things made me reconsider. To start with the most altruistic of my reasons, in this time of lockdown I try to support independent businesses and designers. The second reason is that with the present situation being so unpredictable, unsettling and worrying I really like the thought of a relaxing project; sometimes you don’t need stretching, you need soothing! Thirdly, my mother-in-law had given me a birthday present and it felt right to spend this on something that was not necessarily useful to Mabel’s Fancies but just fun. And finally, I am a Dutch ex-pat who loves cats. How could I not buy a blue & white tile with a cat and a tulip on it? The perfect project for Koningsdag (the Dutch King’s birthday, on 27th April)!

Melbury Hill's Heritage Tile kit

And I haven’t finished last year’s Queen’s Silks yet, or even started on 30s Revisited

The RSN metalwork course project Helen Stevens' 30s Revisited kit

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

Happy Easter

This Easter I would like to share with you the story behind my Hardanger dragonfly, and why it is called Resurrection:

In a pond there live little underwater creatures who are very sad whenever one of them climbs a stalk up to the surface, because they know it is the end and they will never see him again. One little creature decides to climb up himself, look around, and come back to tell everyone what happens when you get there. But when he gets to the surface he falls asleep, and wakes up to find himself the beautiful dragonfly he was always meant to be. Full of joy he wants to rush back to tell his friends not to fear or grieve about the journey to the surface, but his new dragonfly body can’t go down into the water. One day, though, they will join him and know for themselves the joy of this new life.

An Easter blessing

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

Free download during the Coronavirus lockdown

We all know that stitching is very therapeutic – so obviously we can never have too many patterns, especially now that many needlework fans have a little bit of extra stitching time!

So for as long as the UK is in lockdown for the Coronavirus, Mabel’s Hardanger design Home Sweet Home will be a free download (everywhere, not just the UK). It’s the full chart pack with diagrams and instructions, and it comes with a little extra chart for the alternative wording Stay At Home.

Home Sweet Home - stay at home!

Enjoy – and do send us pictures of your completed Home Sweet Home!

Special birthday offer

Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, which also happens to be Mabel’s birthday (I’m sure this is not at all significant…) – her 50th, in this case. And Mabel’s Fancies has an anniversary coming up: on Easter Monday it’s nine years ago that she first opened her virtual doors. (I tend to remember it by the occasion rather than the actual date; Easter is a time of new beginnings, and Mabel’s Fancies was definitely a new beginning for me!)

What better way to celebrate birthdays and anniversary than by stitching something? So with any order placed between 1st and 13th April, we’ll throw in 1-2-3, our Hardanger set of numbers.

90 18

But what, you might say, if you don’t do Hardanger? Or if you do, but you’ve already got this design in your stash? Well, if you’re not a Hardanger stitcher, and have no desire to try it (this could be a great opportunity, you know smiley), you can contact us to request Spring Flowers (anniversary version) instead; and if we see from our records that you have already bought 1-2-3, we’ll send you A-B-C (our Hardanger alphabet) instead.

Enjoy your birthday or anniversary stitching!

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.

Some small projects

It has been a shamefully long time since I’ve written anything here – this was partly because of trying to get things done (particularly all the SAL blog posts) before going away for a weekend (in Wales) and a week (in the Netherlands), and partly because even since those trips were cancelled due to Coronavirus I’ve been working on other websites that I look after (such as our Church’s) to keep them up to date with the latest advice. I also seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time foraging; all of a sudden I feel great sympathy for our grandmothers’ generation who had to spend a considerable part of their day shopping for food.

Meanwhile, the Figworthy household is keeping well, and in line with government advice both the main family business and Mabel’s Fancies remain open as they are online only. So work as usual, and stitching mostly in the evenings as usual, but although in some ways things haven’t changed too dramatically for us, I do find it difficult to concentrate on anything large and/or complicated. It was time for a few more small projects. And the perfect occasions were two birthdays: my aunt, whose 80th birthday I was meant to be celebrating with her in the Netherlands, and my sister-in-law.

For my aunt I turned to a set of number outlines I keep by for this sort of card, Anchor’s perle-with-metallic, some Petite Treasure Braid and petite seed beeds for added bling, and a spare piece of material left over from some old cushions.

Setting up aunt Juliette's 80

It stitched up quite quickly but still looks suitably festive – not quite the same thing as celebrating her birthday with her (we were going to have a combined party for her 80th and my 50th) but I hope it will make her smile.

Aunt Juliette's 80 mounted in a card

For the other birthday card, which had to be stitched in a single evening because I started rather late, I chose a Sarah Homfray freebie – a small butterfly. I changed the shape of the lower wings a little, and got out my box of coton à broder #16; a slightly chunkier thread so that even with mostly outline stitches it wouldn’t look too empty.

Preparing Sarah Homfray's butterfly

The bullion knots were a last-minute addition because the wings looked a bit bare without them. I did think of adding some detached buttonhole frills here and there, but as it was past 11pm by then I decided against it; they would have made an interesting addition but they weren’t absolutely necessary to make the butterfly look pretty. And in fact it was rather nice to know that a very decorative butterfly could be produced in a little under two and a half hours!

The finished butterfly

The next morning, Saturday, I had to make up the card in time to catch the 11am post – and preferably in time for me to still be able to go for my usual Saturday walk with a group of friends (observing proper social distancing). In my stash of cards I found a wine-red one with an oval aperture which would have been ideal if it hadn’t been just too small – I should have measured it first and adjusted the design size to it! Fortunately a dark blue card with a circular aperture made quite a good alternative.

Making up the card

Finally, before sending it off, it had to be inspected by the Quality Control Feline. She approved.

The card is inspected by Lexi

So what next? Well, there are a few things still to do on the SAL, and of course there is the Certificate Tree of Life – although what with classes having been suspended because of Covid-19 who knows when I’ll be able to hand it in for assessment. Not to mention that mounting it the proper way is not something to be undertaken lightly, as I have been told by other students, and really should be done with a tutor present. So for now my plan is to finish the stitching by 22nd April as I originally intended, and then to decide how to proceed. I may just take it off the frame and store it flat until I can go to a class to mount it, and in the meantime prepare as much as possible for my Canvaswork module. We’ll see.

I’d also like to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn, who has lain neglected for far too long, and to start on Soli Deo Gloria – a good reminder in these uncertain times. But I will also start a few projects that are not my design, and which I can just have fun with. A smaller version of Percy the Parrot worked in coton à broder #25, a Sarah Homfray freebie flower (not sure yet what stitches I’ll use for that, but I’m thinking of using Palestrina stitch as a filling for the stem, with the knots offset in consecutive lines) and some designs from one of the small Anchor embroidery books, including a teddy bear for our grandson Teddy, and some aeroplanes for his room to tell him about his late great-grandfather who flew planes in the war. That should keep me busy for a bit!

Possible future projects

Proud Percy

Percy the parrot turned out to be the perfect travelling project, as well as the perfect relaxing project – no planning, no thinking, no note-taking, just stitching. Bliss.

He came out looking rather different from his inspiration, although in one respect he resembles the original more than I thought he would. You may remember I described the Anchor version as being worked in “colours (purples and blues and pinks on a blue background) that were not what I would have chosen” and yet here he is with blue and purple plumage and accompanied by a pink flower!

The original parrot in the Anchor book Percy the Parrot, finished

Some people have asked about the stitches I used, and also whether they can use them in projects of their own. The answer to the latter part of the question is that it’s not up to me to say yes or no to that! Embroidery stitches belong to no-one, so you can use any and every stitch you like. As for the former part, the picture below shows what I used where; the order in which I worked the various bits, as far as I can remember, was branch/feet & beak/leaves & flower/tail/chest/wing/crest/head/eye.

Stitches used for Percy

I pretty much used whatever stitch happened to pop into my mind when looking at the design; I decided on whipping the tail feathers each in a blue that was one shade lighter than the chain stitch, partly to create texture but mostly to make sure they weren’t just three separate feathers – the colours link them together. For his chest feathers I was originally going to use Mountmellick stitch, but I felt that was more spiky than feathery, and so I went for the more frilly look of detached buttonhole stitch.

Incidentally, for something that was meant to be relaxing and non-challenging I did occasionally make things unnecessarily complicated; at one point I was trying to get the shading I wanted in the branch by having three threads on the go at once, threading and re-threading because I’d only brought one needle. Sigh. Note to self: try and keep travel projects straightforward.

Juggling three shades of brown and one needle

And after all that, am I pleased with him? On the whole, yes. There are a few things which I would probably do differently if I stitched him again (not an unlikely event – I’ve already printed out my pared-down version of the design in several sizes, the smallest to be used for cards) but I like his look, and I am partcularly pleased with his eye. It’s got character, that eye smiley.

Percy printed out in several sizes Percy the Parrot, a close-up

So what would I have changed? And am I being too fussy and self-critical, as so many stitchers are? To answer that last question first, I tend to look at anything I stitch with a critical eye, but with different aims in mind. I look at the RSN Certificate piece to find anything that isn’t as near-perfect as I can make it, and improve it if I feel that I can. I look at something like Percy with a critical eye in order to store up ideas for future projects. I’m definitely not unpicking and re-doing him – he is fine as he is!

But for future reference, I would divide the second-lightest bit of the wing into two parts like the part underneath it (in the middle shade of blue) – I think that would look more balanced. I would not use the rather bright shade of orange that is on the outside of the flower centre (the colour is shown more accurately in the close-up). And I would probably keep only his chest in purple, and use blues for his crest – although I must admit the purple crest is growing on me.

Things I would do differently Rather too orange

One thing which niggles me but which I won’t change because I think the alternative would look less effective is the placing of his tail in front of the branch he is sitting on. In the original, the branch is (correctly, from a perspective point of view) stitched over the tail feathers. But in the original the branch is a single line of chain stitch, whereas mine is a rather more elaborate affair. I feel it would break up the flow of the tail feathers too much (quite apart from making those feathers more awkward to stitch). And let’s face it, he’s not exactly a naturalistic parrot anyway! So in future versions as here I will allow Percy to show off his tail in all its glory.

Pretty threads and a parrot project

In my search for inspiration threads for canvaswork I came across a job lot of Rainbow Gallery Silk Lamé on eBay. Will they be used in the RSN Canvaswork module? Perhaps. Certainly not all of them. But they are very, very pretty, and they came to less than half price. I succumbed.

Rainbow Gallery Silk Lamé

These threads are for future projects, however, so we will put them aside for now and move on to the exciting topic of Travel Projects! I need a travel project for when we go and visit my mother-in-law. I don’t actually need a new travel project because there are at least four small existing ones, ranging from itty bitty (the Quatrefoil I started in order to try out the Quaker Tapestry transfer method and a padded rose about which I will write more in a future FoF) to a little bit larger but still fitting a 5″ hoop (the Ottoman Tulip and the kaleidoscope design I got from Oh Sew Bootiful). But you know how it is…

Some time ago I found one of those small Anchor embroidery books in a charity shop – there’s a whole series of them, introductory guides about 6″ not-quite-square. This one was about crewelwork, and besides stitch descriptions it also has photographs of projects worked using these stitches (although as quite a few of them are worked in stranded cotton or perle they aren’t strictly speaking crewelwork), as well as transfers for most of these designs in the back of the book.

The Anchor Crewel book

One design that caught my eye was a parrot on a branch. True, because of the way the big circle around his eye had been stitched he looked rather grumpy, and the colours (purples and blues and pinks on a blue background) were not what I would have chosen, but in spite of all that he had that indefinable quality of Potential. This parrot could go places!

Parrot from the Anchor book, far too blue and purple

And so he will – to Devon, when we visit my mother-in-law smiley. I wanted him to be a relatively small and simple project, so I left out quite a bit of the foliage when I transferred him onto a spare piece of Essex linen I had lying around. As for threads, I’m doing quite a lot of things in crewel wool at the moment so he is not going to be a proper crewel parrot; instead, I’m going to use some of the DMC floche I got from America several years ago. Because it’s so difficult to find here I’ve never felt able to use it in any of my own designs, as it would be difficult for customers from the UK and Europe to get the threads. But Percy Parrot here is just for my own enjoyment, so I can use whatever I like. I’ve put my whole (admittedly not extensive) collection of floche in the travel box so I can decide what colours to use as I stitch, and I haven’t got a stitch plan – he is going to be very free freestyle.

A parrot travel project

By the way, that little blue bird shape in the project box is a hummingbird needle threader – Mary Corbet wrote about it on Needle ‘n Thread and I found it was available in the UK as well for only a couple of pounds; it looks like a good one for threading the smaller needles, which isn’t always easy with regular needle threaders. The trick in using it appear to be that after you’ve pushed the little hook through the needle’s eye and hooked the thread you move the needle along the threader to slip it off rather than pulling the threader through. I haven’t used it yet, but I’ll let you know how I get on with it!