Do you find that you have certain favourite materials and stitches for the various types of embroidery? I’ve been doing quite a bit of goldwork recently (you may have noticed…) and certain metals and threads have been steadily emerging as favourites whereas others are on the avoid-if-possible list. The larger sizes of rococco, for example, definitely fall into the latter category (I much prefer the also wavy but finer check thread); and passing thread in its various weights is one I reach for with much more enthusiasm than Jap, with which it shares certain characteristics. It’s a shame that Jap and rococco are required in my Certificate piece, whereas check thread and passing are not allowed.
So what is passing, and how does it differ from Jap? Well, they both have a thread core (silk or cotton); the difference lies in what is wrapped around the outside. In Jap this is a relatively wide strip of metal foil paper, whereas in passing it is a metal wire or a thin strip of metal. This makes passing slightly stiffer, but also more suitable to take around sharp bends – Jap’s foil wrapping sometimes comes away from its thread core if the bend falls right in the middle of a wrap.
A few weeks ago someone on the Needle ‘n Thread Facebook Group mentioned a shop called Tied to History which, they said, had some great bargains on discontinued threads, among them fine passing. This sounded interesting! I had a quick look, and before long several shades of fine passing had made it into my shopping basket, including a lovely rose gold which you may remember I thought might work for adding wavy highlights to Mechtild’s hair. When they arrived, I was not disappointed – lovely fine threads, much finer than any of the passing I had in my stash.
In fact what it most resembled was an unidentified metal thread I was given by my mother-in-law a few years ago. And like that thread, it seemed to be a bit betwixt and between: relative to the thread’s thickness, the wraps around the core are much narrower than in Jap, but rather wider than in passing. When I asked the seller about this, she said that she wasn’t an embroiderer herself but a maker of historic costumes; she hadn’t been able to find a thin enough metallic in the US, so had begun to source them herself, and eventually found these in India. She said she might well not be using the correct technical term for them. Be that as it may, they are lovely fine threads, and I look forward to using them!
But to do that, I need to undo the skeins. I started with one of the silver ones, partly because I bought two of them so if something went wrong I’d still have the other skein. Call me a pessimist, but metallic threads can be unruly and challenging, as I knew only to well after tackling the Jap that came in the bundle of gold threads my mother-in-law passed on to me.
And yes, before too long I ended up with an almighty tangle. Sigh. I contacted the seller, who said yes, the threads could be challenging to store; she usually popped them around a jam jar and took off as much as she needed, straightening the thread as she went. I can’t quite visualise the jam jar, but over the Christmas period, when the light is rather too bad for any serious goldwork stitching, I hope to take a leisurely afternoon or so to create shiny order out of metallic chaos. Wish me luck!
As I got back from my Certificate class last Wednesday there was a padded envelope waiting for me among the Christmas cards. I opened it to find that it contained… a Christmas card! But there was a reason for the protective wrapping, which became apparent when I looked inside the very pretty stitched card – three little glassine bags containing three shades of gold bright check. What a lovely surprise to have some sparkle added to a dark December afternoon. Unfortunately the Certificate brief means I can’t use any of these kind gifts in Bruce the Kangaroo, but I’m sure I will find a good purpose for them.
One thing the bright check won’t cause is the sort of gold spaghetti I ended up with at the back of my work after plunging the mixed couching on Bruce’s back. I’ll tell you more about the front of the work in a later FoF, but I thought I’d show you the slightly dispiriting sight that greets me at the moment when I turn over a frame whose front looks quite neat and tidy.
The curved needles that come with the Certificate starter kit are fairly chunky which makes it difficult to pick up only the backing calico, and oversewing some earlier plunged threads I’d managed to catch the silk as well as the backing so that the sewing thread was visible at the front. This had to be unpicked (fortunately the silk wasn’t damaged) and re-done. I ditched the kit needle and used a curved beading needle I acquired a while ago. Well, I acquired two, but they are rather fragile and I broke one a few weeks ago. Now at the class Becky, the tutor, mentioned that a quilting shop near Hampton Court Palace did curved needles that were thinner and more flexible than the RSN ones, but sturdier than beading needles, so I rang them and ordered a couple of pairs. When they arrive I’ll get all those ends secured, and then Bruce and Haasje will go into hibernation over Christmas.
When I posted the spaghetti picture in a stitching forum, a fellow member asked about the wastage rate of goldwork threads, seeing that they are not the cheapest of materials to buy. Thinking it over, I found that actually it’s not too bad. Wastage in goldwork comes mainly in the couched threads where the ends of the thread get pulled through to the back (plunged) for the purpose of finishing off. The hollow wires that you treat like beads have (in theory at least) no waste at all because you cut them exactly to size; I say “in theory” as this takes a lot of practice, but even when you’re not yet very good at estimating the right length relatively little is thrown away – bits that are a little too long or short can usually be used elsewhere in the project. The same goes for pearl purl which is the only one of the couched materials to be cut to size and not plunged (because it doesn’t have a thread core). In fact, if you restrict your materials to pearl purl and the various flexible hollow purls and checks (and spangles), you won’t see any gold at the back of your work at all!
Anything with a thread core gets plunged, so you leave at least an inch on both sides; I actually tend to leave a little more when I pre-cut lengths, as I did for Bruce’s back where the lines are relatively short. The shorter the couched length, the greater the wastage as a percentage of the length used. But in Bruce’s hind leg, for example, where for the central part I’ll just be going round and round and round, the plunged bits will be a relatively small percentage.
And even then I can’t really think of the plunged ends as “wastage” because, well, you need to finish off! In much the same way that you weave the thread end in when doing cross stitch or Hardanger you need to secure these gold threads. You only oversew about 10 to 15mm but you do need a bit more to pull to the back so you do tend to cut off a few centimetres each time after securing, and those offcuts can’t be used for anything else. Still, on the whole it’s fairly economical with the materials (depending to some extent on the design) – most of the gold is definitely on the front where it is seen!
After all the preparations I talked about in last week’s FoF, it was time for the third class in my Goldwork module. The first thing I did there was not concerned with the prep at all, but involved a little tweak to my sampled grass. Helen Jones, the tutor, suggested gently pinching the tips of the blades of grass with tweezers to make a sharper point, and it did make a difference. I still have to sample invisibly couched tips though! I also learnt that twist is always couched using the invisible in-between-the-plies method unless it is part of mixed couching, so both the grass and the kangaroo outline will have to be done in this way.
On to discuss the soft string padding. Helen hadn’t seen the design or the extra bit of tail padding before, so we talked about possibly using thicker string or more strands as a documented design decision (as discussed with Angela last time), but when I remarked that I had sampled a blunt ending and moved the tail felt because the tail had to gradually get down to the level of Bruce’s rump, she suggested I cut 20 short lengths of my slightly thicker soft string, wax them, outline the tail on my sample cloth and see whether splayed out the twenty strings might not be enough to cover the base of the tail after all. They were. Helen said the sample I’d done at home was fine so she suggested I move straight on to the real thing. Away with the sampling cloth and out comes the slate frame!
It took several goes and a fair bit of unpicking, because I wanted to get this absolutely right. The cutwork tail is going to be quite an eyecatcher, and having the proper foundation will make it much easier to get the cutwork even. So the tapering had to be gradual, and the securing stitches not stick out. It took most of the class, but then I did have a tail to be proud of! Well, Bruce did .
Actually, it was rather nice to be able to spend such a long time just getting an important part of the project done just right. It’s not something you can easily manage at home, but in class, well, there’s nothing else to do but concentrate on your stitching!
And finally, I did manage to get on a little bit of actual gold thread that would be seen – but not without a design change. I was going to use a pair of rococco and Jap for the outline of the cloud, but the Jap looked dwarfed by the chunky medium rococco, so I changed it to a single line of rococco with a pair of Jap couched next to it. I got the rococco on in class and later that weekend added the Jap and the pearl purl outline of the sun at home.
So the first gold is on – yay! Although… I’m not at all sure the bricking on the Jap and the rococco is up to scratch. The irregular nature of rococco when couched in curves makes it difficult to space the couching stitches evenly, which in turn makes it difficult to know where to place the couching stitches on the Jap; bricking based on the rococco will simply make the spacing on the Jap uneven as well, while spacing the couching on the Jap evenly upsets the bricking pattern. For now I will leave plunging and fastening off on the cloud, in case I decide to take it all out after discussing it with Angela. If a thing is worth doing…
Sometimes embroidery can sound quite aggressive, or just plain weird – stabbing, waxing, plunging… Never mind, we know what we mean! Before there can be any plunging at all, however, there is the very extensive prep stage to get through. Tempting to rush through it or skip bits, as it will all be covered up, but I know from experience that it does make a difference to the look of the end product, so I’m being a good little embroiderer and completing all the steps.
So the first thing was to finish stab stitching the silk and the calico together (to avoid any puckering when the embroidery is taken off the slate frame), just inside paint lines which enclose areas that will be covered, and exactly on the paint lines of areas that will only be outlined. Encouragingly, when I had finished this it was very difficult to see where the stitches were, but the picture taken with the light at an angle will show you the general effect.
Then it was time to put some near-golden colour on: the felt padding. I recut the front leg as the original felt piece simply would not fit properly inside the paint lines, and I lowered the bit of padding in the tail, having just in time realised that the tail would need to flatten towards the rump in order to prevent an ugly step in height.
By that time the light was getting bad. Should I leave hind leg with its four layers and intricately shaped top? After some consideration I decided to attach the first three layers; after all, the fourth layer is the only one that will be seen, and even that only temporarily! Now to position them correctly. My Bohin chalk pencil proved invaluable in making sure that the outlines of all layers were more or less equidistant on the part of the haunch where all four pile up.
The next day, when the light was better, I added the last layer. And boy was it fiddly! Still, I managed to fit that sizeable and awkard foot snugly within the paint lines, so a good result.
On with the string padding. My homework was to get that finished too, but I was having second thoughts. I have done string padding before, once at a one-on-one RSN class and once at Helen McCook’s goldwork racehorse class, but in both cases the padding was tapered at both ends. Here I needed to have one end (the top of the tail where it attaches to Bruce’s rump) gradually decreasing in height but increasing in width – a sort of chisel edge rather than a fine point. Out of my entire collection of goldwork books (admittedly only about five, but these include the RSN guide and Alison Cole’s excellent volume) there was only one that described this process: Lizzie Pye’s. Her pictures were very helpful and informative but even so I decided to sample this method first – I wanted to bounce it off the tutor before applying it to the real project.
Besides all this foundation work I also did some grass sampling (well, I wanted to do some shiny embroidery). There are two methods of couching twist: taking the needle down in between the plies and making stitches that lie in the direction of the twist, so the couching thread “disappears”, or taking the needle over the top at right angles just as all other metal threads are couched. I tried both, the disappearing version on the left and the visible version on the right. I prefer the invisible method, but it is more fiddly, and it’s very difficult to make the pointy turns work so I had to use a few auxiliary stitches. More sampling needed to learn how to couch the points invisibly too. Nothing like a bit of a challenge to keep things interesting!
Some time ago I finally got the book that accompanied the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition which I was lucky enough to visit in 2016. I’ve been dipping into it off and on (it’s not really a book you read from cover to cover in one sitting!) and last night I got to the final exhibit, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ Pall. This is a beautifully embroidered coffin cover which was used at Guild members’ funerals. It features several depictions of St Peter, who was their patron saint, and of their coat of arms which is supported by an armour-clad merman and a mermaid holding a mirror. I’m afraid for reasons of copyright I can’t post pictures here, but you can see the pall and several other pieces in this V&A article. Have a particular look at the mermaid.
The Opus Anglicanum book shows her in a full-page close-up, which shows some wonderful details. For example, the mirror she is holding shows her reflection – how is that for attention to detail! But what really drew and held my attention was her hair. Let me post a close-up of a small segment of it, which I think is allowable for illustrative purposes:
Can you see how the hair is stitched? I can’t be be absolutely sure just from the picture, but it looks to me as though the embroiderer worked a background of yellow silk (probably in split stitch, as that is the stitch most commonly used in Opus Anglicanum) and then couched gold threads on top in wavy curls. The result is wonderfully effective and 3D and tactile!
I was reading this and studying the picture at about 10.30pm, so setting up a bit of a doodle cloth and having a play was not really practical, although I was sorely tempted. And today unfortunately Bruce the kangaroo’s felt-padded leg took priority, and tomorrow her tail needs doing in time for Saturday’s class. But I definitely want to have a go at stitching hair like that, and for a very particular reason: Mechthild.
Remember Mechthild? She is going to be (when I get round to her…) the royal companion to Ethelnute the medieval king. She also has long flowing locks with just the sort of wave that the mermaid’s hair has.
There are a few things to consider. Challenges, possibly even snags. The least of which is the fact that Mechthild is a brunette, and gold couching is going to show up to rather more startling effect than I really intend. Nowadays some goldwork threads come in many colours, but I don’t think smooth passing (which is the obvious choice of thread for this) does; and even if it did, it would not be in keeping with the period at all. Silver would, and copper possibly, but neither would really solve the problem. She may just have to have a peroxide bleach. More problematic, however, is her size.
Working from a picture taken at an angle and some not very helpful measurements, my best guess is that the mermaid is at least 15cm from the top of her head to the bottom of her tummy (where her tail begins), and that her head (top to chin) is about 6cm. Mechthild is about 7cm high from crown to bosom, and 3cm from the top of her head to her chin. It would take some very fine passing to create the same effect.
And you know what? About a week ago I just happened to order some fine passing from America, among which there is a lovely rose gold, and which according to Royal Mail’s tracking information is at the moment in Langley (near Slough, my husband informs me). Once I’ve got Bruce’s padding out of the way, I feel a bit of goldwork hairdressing coming up!
In preparation for my class on the 7th I did some more sampling – bricking rococco. I found that by twisting or untwisting individual rococco threads I could manipulate them so that they fitted together better, both within the pairs and the pairs side by side. There are a few gaps, especially in the strongly curved bits, but on the whole I’m not unhappy with this! I used a lighter weight of rococco here from the one I used in the mixed pairs to see the different effects, and I think I will use the heavier weight (Medium) in the couching on the cloud outline, while using the lighter, slightly easier to manipulate weight (Very Fine) in the more solid area of mixed couching.
Incidentally, I learnt something about mixed couching in class (well, that’s what I’m there for ) – the mixing doesn’t have to be within the pair, it can also refer to pairs made up of two the same threads, as long as other pairs in the area are made up from other types of threads. So you could alternate pairs of Jap with pairs of twist or pairs of rococco. Angela also suggested that if I did use mixed pairs which included rococco, I should reverse the pairs when couching them next to each other; in other words, if the first pair is Jap/rococco, couch the next pair as rococco/Jap, so the two wavy threads lie together. All very useful stuff.
Next was sewing on the silk dupion. Because I’m working with the smaller slate frame and we wanted to keep the silk as large as possible, this was a bit fiddly, but it worked. You have to leave the calico fairly slack while doing this, which makes it even more fiddly but which is apparently essential, then you put full tension on the fabric ready for getting the design on. Things were getting exciting!
I’d done the pricking, now for the pouncing. Positioning the tracing paper with the pricked design was a bit awkward as the back (which is rough because the holes are pricked from the front and so sharp bits of tracing paper stick out at the back) kept catching on the silk. When I removed the tracing paper there was in fact some fluffing up here and there, but I hope most of that will be covered up. Anyway, having rubbed in the pounce, it was time to see how the tracing had come out.
Doesn’t look too bad does it? But before long most of the kangaroo’s head, all of Haasje and the left-hand side of the grass were a ghostly blur. Probably partly because of the rough texture of the silk, and partly because I had to tilt the frame while painting to be able to see the dots because of the way the silk catches the light – and so the pounce moved. (Unfortunately I didn’t take a pic of the blurry mess, but I was working Haasje in particular mostly by referring continually to the printed design.) I just had to make the best of it, and most of the lines are, I think, pretty close to the original design.
By the way, as we were looking through the brief for something else I found that I should have used a power-woven (i.e. much smoother) silk dupion, not the rather slubby (though very attractive) hand-woven one I did pick; Angela was surprised at this as she thought it just specified silk dupion, so we’ve agreed she’ll put a note in the official paperwork to say she approved the fabric.
The next step in the process is tacking, basting or stab stitching (choose your term) the two layers of fabric together. “Where is your self-coloured thread?” asked Angela. I didn’t have any – it wasn’t mentioned in the list of materials or in any other part of the brief. She said that if I was very precise I could use the yellow sewing thread; the only reason they prefer a thread the colour of the silk is that stitches that don’t get covered don’t show up so much, so it simply means I have to be extra careful in placing my stitches! Back home I showed my husband the back of the work because he couldn’t see from the front where the tacking was (a good sign) and noticed a big loop. Bother. It has now been seen to.
Besides my homework I also did a bit of felt padding sampling; not really necessary, perhaps, but I wanted to try out something with more layers than I had used so far. This little heart has five layers on the left, but only two on the right, with a bit of stab stitching to create extra contours. When my goldwork is back from assessment (whenever that may be) I might work Jap couching all over it; I’ve done some sketches of possible patterns. Perhaps it could even be turned into a brooch or ornament.
So the painted design is on, and by the start of the next class I will (with a bit of luck) have completed the stabbing, the felt padding and the string padding. All of which will eventually be covered up. Sigh. Still, at the class I may actually get to attach some gold that will remain visible!
As I mentioned last week I ordered a pair of longer side stretchers for my Millennium frame, and because it didn’t make a difference to the postage a couple of other things made their way into my shopping basket – a wooden fabric-into-the-groove pusher and a pair of clever plastic gadgets for securely storing the grooved bars without the rods falling out. The tracking information for my order promised they’d be with me on the 9th; in the end they turned up today, 10 days after placing the order. Not bad! (The record is held, however, by a stitching friend who had a pair of bars for her Millennium frame delivered in 7 days. To France. Ah well.)
One reason for getting the longer stretchers was my plan of setting up the Millennium frame as an additional sampling cloth for the RSN goldwork module. The hoop works fine at home, but to use it at a class I need to take two different stands (the Sonata seat stand for the hoop, and the Aristo lap stand for the slate frame) and as they are both fairly bulky with lots of sticky-outy bits that is rather awkward. Much easier to take the slate frame and the Millennium frame which will both happily sit on the Aristo. So I’ve got together some calico, the original piece of silk dupion I bought which had the grain running the wrong way, the grooved bars, my new side stretchers, herringbone tape and parcel string (not to mention that implement for potentially inflicting serious injury, the bracing needle) and I’m ready to get framed up this weekend.
An added bonus is that I get another go at attaching silk to a calico background; practice makes perfect, they say! Admittedly it would have been more useful to have had this practice before attaching the “official” silk, but I’m sure the experience won’t be wasted.
Last Saturday, when I was in Rugby anyway for my Certificate class, I killed two birds with one stone and picked up my new glasses. Not the everyday ones, I got those a few weeks ago – these are bi-focals. When stitching in the evening (my usual time for non-Certificate stitching) my usual stitching glasses have a disadvantage: I can see my embroidery, but very little else. Which means that when I look up to say something to my husband, or to watch something on the telly, both husband and telly are so blurred I might as well not look up. This is not very sociable.
Cue bi-focals – one bit for stitching, one bit for being sociable. I looked into getting extra-wide inserts (the bit for embroidery) but they turned out to be so eye-wateringly expensive that I went for the standard width. The lady at the optician’s very helpfully drew an outline of the inserts on the plain lenses in the frame I’d chosen, so I could see where they were in relation to my eyes, and I felt that would very likely work. Well, it does – they do! They take some getting used to (you have to learn to ignore the blurry line between to two bits of lens) and they need a little tweaking still (one lens needs to be higher, so a bit of frame-bending is required), but otherwise they are a great success.
In the picture you see them with a project I’ve just started, which is a Melbury Hill kit. After all those rainbows I wanted something less (excuse the pun) focused, with no need for taking notes, writing instructions or keeping track of how much thread I use. Just plain, straightforward stitching. As I’m working this upside down (I think it looks much better that way) interpreting the instructions involves a little mental gymnastics, but not too much. Even so, I found myself very carefully measuring the placement of stitches on the strawberry’s laid work (remember the Dutch “geometry triangle” I used for the battlement couching in my RSN Jacobean piece?); however, as soon as I realised what I was doing I chucked the triangle and went for a more rustic approach with slightly irregular pips; relax, woman !
Some days ago I found myself saying to my husband, “More threads isn’t always the answer”. Yes, I know – heresy! But I have redeemed myself by ordering a pair of longer side stretchers for my Millennium frame. As I was commenting on a fellow member’s Cross Stitch Forum post about Millennium frames and Lowery stands I wrote “with hindsight I would have chosen the slightly longer side stretchers” and then thought, well, why not actually get them! The idea is that with the larger stitching area I could use it as a sampling set-up for the RSN Certificate goldwork module, mimicking the slate frame set-up better than a hoop can.
Now Needle Needs, known for their excellent craftsmanship and their beautiful, sturdy and effective frames and stands, are unfortunately also known for slow delivery and less than ideal communication. Personally I’ve never had any problems, possibly because I just ring them instead of emailing, but I know other people have had difficulties. I’m not in a frantic hurry for these stretchers (I’ve managed very well without them so far, after all) but in view of wanting to use them for the goldwork module it would be nice to have them before I finish! So I rang them to ask for a time frame – and found that the gentleman I spoke to remembered me (and my husband’s vintage Austins) from when I visited their workshop to try out the Aristo lapstand back in 2015!
Anyway, he said he would be making some stretchers of the right size in the next few days, and yesterday I got an email to say they would be delivered by 9th November, exactly one week after I ordered them. There may, of course, still be glitches, but it all looks promising!
Until then I continue to do my sampling on the spare silk mounted in a hoop, which works well enough. Today I heard that next Saturday’s Certificate class will go ahead, with only two students which should make it nice and safe, so I’m glad I managed to do most of my homework to show Angela. Part of that involved “mixed couching”, where instead of using a pair of the same threads you couch a pair of dissimilar threads, for example rococco paired with twist. Because rococco is by far my least favourite goldwork thread I decided to practise mainly with that, starting with it combined with twist, and then trying to work a pair of rococco and Jap right next to it, bricking the couching stitches as much as possible.
“As much as possible” turned out to be not very much – one of my questions for Angela will be how on earth you evenly brick anything that has rococco in it, with its wave that should be regular but in practice turns out not to be even when stitched in a straight line, let alone on a curve. Oh well, I’m meant to be learning so it’s just as well I have questions . (The picture also shows some improvement in my stitching already: there is a definite gap between the two pairs where I start on the left, whereas they are much better abutted as I went on. Reassuring to know sampling helps to sort these things out.)
Another thing I’ve been sampling is kangaroo eyes. That rather sounds like a buffet I don’t want to try, but actually it was a very useful exercise. In the design drawing, the kangaroo’s eye is roughly triangular, and my original idea was to use chips of smooth purl to somehow fill in that triangle, either with the chips all running vertically (with the front one slightly curved) or with some used as outlines (another idea of making them all run parallel with the top sloping line never even made it to the sampling stage). As you can see both these options looked awful. So then I started playing with the idea of a spangle with two chips of smooth purl for the top and bottom outline. That effect was much more like it, and after some experimenting with spangle sizes and placement of the securing stitches I eventually decided on the one indicated by the orange arrow: a 2mm spangle with the slit facing forward and one securing stitch facing backward.
And finally, remember the rainbow project I called Hope? I’ve been stitching quite a lot of variations on the theme (including a personalised one for a young girl facing a lockdown birthday) and was hoping to put the chart pack on the website this month, but the design was taken up by a magazine for publication which means I can’t publicise it myself until after that issue of the magazine has come off the shelves (some time next spring). I think I can probably get away with a teeny-weeny sneak peek though…