Further excursions into needlepoint

I blame Fiber Talk. There I was, perfectly content doing just Hardanger, freestyle embroidery, goldwork, Shisha, crewelwork, embellished embroidery and chunky stuff (not a technical term, but I don’t think the Christmas Wreath counts as stumpwork and I don’t know what else to call it), and they get me interested in canvaswork, or needlepoint as they call it. You may remember that I indulged in a little needlepoint recently, and I had rather hoped that had got it out of my system. And then, in my chronological trawl through the Fiber Talk archives, I came to this Midweek Chat. And I was lost. Because one of the pictures shown with the podcast was this:

Carole Lake's Bali Ha'i

It’s a Carole Lake freebie called Bali Ha’i. It uses Caron threads in the shade called Tahiti, which I’ve always loved. And in the middle of the design there is a double fan doubled, which I think is a perfectly irresistible name, like pearl purl. Until recently, I had never even heard of double fan doubleds, if that is the correct plural. But I love the name, I love the look, and here was one in one of my favourite Caron colours, in a project small enough to be doable in between all the other projects I should really be getting on with. What could I do? I downloaded it.

However, looking at the list of materials needed I realised two things: firstly, that even though the list was quite short, I had only one of the five required threads (and I wasn’t going to buy £15 worth of Caron threads just for this small project), and secondly, that the threads were chosen to work on 18ct canvas, and I had intended to do it on 24ct Congress cloth. And then there was a third consideration, which was that you can’t put Congress cloth in a hoop, and unlike my earlier small experiments this project couldn’t easily be worked in hand. It looked like the Figworthy Bali Ha’i was scuppered before it had even started. Or was it?

Looking at the picture of the design, it seemed fairly “open”, so working it on 24ct instead of 18ct would probably just result in a slightly denser look. I remembered once having bought some cheap stretcher bars, and after some rummaging found them in the back of my hoop drawer. And a quick trawl through my box of Caron threads yielded a rather pleasing green-and-yellow combination of Lemon & Lime Watercolours (3-ply cotton) and Waterlilies (variegated stranded silk), Jade Impressions (wool/silk mix) and an anonymous green Soie Cristale (solid stranded silk). Together with a not-quite-gold-not-quite-silver Kreinik #4 braid, which I decided would do as a stand-in for the required Kreinik #8 on my finer canvas, it made quite a pretty picture against the background of my black Congress cloth.

Black Congress cloth on 6 inch stretcher bars Green and yellow threads for Bali Ha'i

I was all set to go. But then I had a session of thread-rearranging, as some of my boxes were getting terribly crowded and threads don’t like to be cramped, and although the box of Caron variegated threads was one of the few that didn’t actually need rearranging, I did come across some orange Soie Cristale in one of my silk boxes which turned out to go very nicely with Caron Tequila, which I happened to have in both Watercolours and Waterlilies; I didn’t have an orange Impressions, but I did have a Wildflowers (an indivisible cotton about the weight of a perle #8). It’s not as matt or as soft as Impressions, but unless you knew the original design specified Impressions, you wouldn’t notice.

Orange/yellow/pink threads for Bali Ha'i

So now I had two possible colourways. It was beginning to look as if I’d have to do two versions!

Green or Orange?

After some consideration I decided to use the Tequila one first, on the grounds that it was brighter and therefore more like the original. I clamped the stretcher bars to my seat frame, and set about stitching my very first double fan doubled. It was a new thing for me to be allowed, nay told to work with a very long thread (72″ in fact) – I tend to use longish lengths of thread but every tutor at every workshop or day class or retreat always tells you to use short ones. Obviously needlepoint is different! I did figure, though, that 72″ on 18ct meant that 54″ should be ample on my 24ct. If not, I’d just have to start again smiley.

Now the instructions described the first few rounds of stitching in detail, noting exactly which previous stitches to weave over and under, but then it just said “continue to weave over and under”. Unfortunately it was clear from the first two rounds that it wasn’t a simple over-and-under, as you sometimes went over or under two previous stitches. I tried to work out the pattern, then decided to see if I could find a video. I found two, one without any comment or sound at all which was oddly disconcerting, and one by Debbie Rowley of Debbee’s Designs.

Now I know her from Fiber Talk (Gary must be her biggest fan) and I remember Christine mentioning in one of the podcasts that Debbie Rowley had said not to count but to feel the rhythm of the stitch. Hoping I’d be able to work out the rhythm from the video, I started watching. And right where my written instructions left off, she gave me the vital clue: over and under, yes, but over and under groups of threads, which (especially as she worked the stitch in two colours) were actually relatively easy to identify (even though she did work them opposite to my written instructions – over/under where mine said under/over). I watched the rest of the video, activated my sense of rhythm, and produced a… well, not perfect but perfectly acceptable double fan doubled. Yay me!

My first double fan doubled

The Kreinik #4 feels a little thin for the motif; I’m working at 3/4 scale (and yes, the 54″ length of Caron was plenty long enough), but Kreinik #4 is, as far as I know, half the thickness of #8, so the effect is understandably a little less pronounced. Still, it gives a nice bit of sparkle. At this point I wasn’t very happy with the threads showing through from the back – I worked them exactly as instructed, so the travelling threads are presumably where they are meant to be; perhaps it’s just that canvas is more open than the fabrics I’m used to. Fortunately most of the empty canvas around the central motif is actually covered as the project progresses, so I was hopeful it would turn out all right. But just to make sure the stranded threads filled as much space as possible, I even used my stiletto as a laying tool!

Using a laying tool

Then, as I’d done several bits of the Soie Cristale but had not yet used the Impressions (the two solid colours in the design) I realised that in the original these are a dark and a light red. In my green colour scheme the two solids did happen to be a dark and a light (albeit the other way around from the original) as those were the only greens I had in these threads, but for the bright colour scheme I had for some reason picked a dark orange silk that was very similar to the solid cotton Wildflowers thread I was using – and I did actually have two lighter oranges! However, there was no way I was going to unpick the silk stitches I had already done, so I looked for Wildflowers that might offer some contrast with the orange silk. In the end, I decided on the variegated yellow/orange; the variegation on it is gradual and mild enough to work as a replacement for the solid colour.

A change of colour

One of the things I really like about this design is that it looks complete at the various intermediate stages; the center with its mosaic stitch border works perfectly well on its own, and again when the Scottish stitch border is added, and again after the half Rhodes border (the outer one in the picture below). That one, by the way, was tricky to start and finish. On embroidery fabric like Lugana I would have used a waste knot running underneath the length of the border, but because of the open nature of canvas (even a 24ct canvas) that was simply not an option here. I’m getting quite creative in finding ways of fastening on and off! That did give me an idea, however. In time I want to work the green combination as well, so why not try that on 25ct Lugana or 22ct Hardanger fabric? It may turn out that fabric isn’t sturdy or stiff or solid enough to stand up to the needlepoint stitches, but then I’ll just find out, won’t I? And it will certainly make starting and finishing easier! I’ve even got ideas running through my head of a double fan doubled as the central motif in a Hardanger design…

Looking complete after the half Rhodes border

But let’s not get carried away, and get back to stitching on canvas. Two more borders to go, both very relaxing once I got into the rhythm (as were the half Rhodes and Scottish borders; it’s quite meditative, this needlepoint thing!) and Bali Ha’i was finished – my first proper needlepoint project (not counting the teeny weeny experiment). I’m quite proud! And I’ll let you know how the fabric version turns out.

Bali Ha'i finished

Incidentally, if you Google “Carole Lake Bali Ha’i” you’ll as likely as not find a link to the Caron site, where she was once a Featured Designer, and where you can also find the chart. This reminded me that once, at the dawn of Mabel’s career, I too featured on Caron’s website. I’ve not re-read it, so I can’t tell you whether it is by now horribly embarrassing, but it does have a link to a freebie design smiley.

Excursions into needlepoint

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

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

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

Necessities Sampler on Congress cloth

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

Now where did I find this design?

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

Trying out threads and canvases

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

Appleton's crewel wool on 18-count canvas

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

Waiting room progress

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

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

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

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

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

Congress cloth Hardanger and freedom to vary

Does Hardanger have to be stitched on Hardanger fabric? If you have ever browsed Mabel’s designs (or those of many other designers), you’ll know that the answer to that is “no”. In fact, when Hardanger embroidery started there was no Hardanger fabric. As long as the fabric is an evenweave, and as long as you can find threads in suitable thicknesses, you can use whatever you like, from 14ct afghan fabric to 55ct linen (I’ve seen the pictures to prove it, but haven’t been brave enough to try it myself). Even so, the fabric of choice of Nordic Needle’s Roz Watnemo has always struck me as unusual – Congress cloth.

Why unusual? It’s not the count; at 24 threads to the inch it’s perfect to use with perle #5 and #8. But it’s not a fabric – it’s a canvas. That means it’s very stiff and also quite open, both of which seemed to me unsympathetic to Hardanger. My main questions were: if the weave of the fabric is relatively open, will there be enough contrast between it and the cut parts? Won’t the stiffness make it harder to cut, and practically impossible to tuck in the cut ends? Will the stiffer threads have enough “give” when working bars, for example when pulled together in a wrapped bar? There was really only one way to find out. Try it.

To my surprise, it worked. Of course it shouldn’t really have surprised me – if an experienced Hardangerista like Roz Watnemo swears by it, it’s unlikely to be impossible. Even so, I hadn’t expected it to stitch up just as quickly as on my usual fabrics.

Hardanger on Congress cloth

So how did the experience differ from my normal stitching? And will I use Congress cloth again? To begin with the first question, for one thing the material is much stiffer. You couldn’t use a hoop if you wanted to, I think. But then, you don’t need it, as tension is not really a problem with such a stable material. With a small snippet of a project like this, not having to use a hoop is quite an advantage, as it saves on material – you can stitch in hand on a little off-cut, rather than having to use a 5″ square to fit a 4″ hoop (note to self: must try a 3″ one to see if it will do; perhaps if I work “in the well”?). Not sure how I’d like to stitch anything big on this canvas, though I suppose a roller frame would work if you didn’t want to stitch a large project in hand.

Cutting was fine, the squissors coped beautifully with the stiffer threads, but as predicted, poking in the cut ends is more difficult on Congress cloth than on Hardanger fabric or Lugana (looking at pictures of Congress cloth Hardanger projects online I didn’t find any without visible cut ends). They do eventually bend back on themselves, but they are more likely to unbend again and poke their annoying little heads through the stitches. Working the bars was much easier than I’d expected: the canvas had enough “give” to allow me to pull the threads together. And finally, the look of it. That is to a great extent a matter of taste, but for me the weave is just too open – too much of the coloured backing shines through, making the contrast with the cut areas less striking.

Congress cloth vs Hardanger fabric

The answer, then, is no, I won’t be using it again; at least not for Hardanger. But it was an interesting experiment to try, and I can see it would be a useful material for building up 3D Hardanger shapes such as Christmas ornaments.

As I was stitching the patch for the last of my sixteen bookmarks yesterday, I suddenly realised that I’ve completed the wrapped bar/sunburst models needed for potential kits (except for the pink and turquoise versions as I had only one tag of each and they’d already been made up with woven bar/dove’s eye patches). This means that I am now free to stitch any future felt-tag-bookmarks-for-charity with whatever backstitch motif & bar & filling combination I’d like to use. To celebrate I finished number sixteen with picots smiley.

A picot felt bookmark

When I’ve ordered some more tags I’d like to try personalising one or two by stitching initials underneath the patch (chain stitch, probably). And stitch a few with the little baptism cross – being rectangular rather than square it would look good on the rectangular bookmark, and both good causes I am stitching for (Dunchurch Baptist Church's new building, and the Elijah Gambia foundation) are Christian, and likely to attract a fair number of fellow Christians to their charity sales. It looks like I’ll have plenty of enjoyable little projects to keep me occupied even if I don’t get round to my larger designs – and of course the annual Christmas Craft Event is looming, so I need to think up a project for that as well!

PS Two of the bookmarks are now in the hands of bibliophile friends who have promised to test-drive them ruthlessly. We’ll see how they stand up to the treatment…