I am not always as organised as I would like to be. For example, it’s my favourite aunt’s birthday next Wednesday, but until yesterday I hadn’t really put any thought into her birthday card; and bearing in mind that she lives abroad, this made for a certain urgency in the matter. I definitely wanted to send her a stitched card, but it would have to be relatively simple. Not too simple, though – it must be festive! Because her birthday is on 21st March she used to be known as the Spring Baby or the Spring Child at home, so I decided on a daffodil, to be worked in silks and with some gold outlining.
There was a practical reason for this as well as the fact that it seemed very appropriate: I could nick it from the Spring Flowers design I did for my mother-in-law last year! I cropped the daffodil to an approximate square, printed it to the right size for one of my small aperture cards, transferred the design, got the silks and the right thickness of gold together, and I was set to go.
And then I noticed the stem. In the original, the placement of the stem in front of one of the rear petals means the stitching is a bit fiddly, but that’s all. Here, however, I meant to outline the petals in smooth passing, and having to interrupt the outline for the stem would mean a lot of extra plunging and a lot of ends to secure at the back of the work. A slight adjustment was called for.
There was now just one challenge left (well, besides the challenge of actually stitching the whole thing in time for her birthday) – re-drawing the outline on the fabric. It’s not a particularly expensive or special fabric, but even so I don’t like wasting it. Fortunately one of those plastic erasers turned out to do the trick, so all that remains is a very slight roughness where the original stem was; and I probably only notice that because I know it’s there. So on to the stitching!
Yesterday the friend who helps out in our main business one day a week arrived with a bag from his wife Gill, who is a fellow stitcher. “For you,” he announced, and went on to explain that a lady who had helped embroider their church’s altar cloth “three vicars ago” now couldn’t embroider anymore because of illness, and had asked Gill to find a good home for some of her stitching materials. “It all looks like scraps to me,” he said, “but Gill said you’d like it.” I cast a curious glance into the bag’s interior.
Off two cardboard rolls came two good-sized pieces of kid, one a sturdy silver, the other a beautifully soft textured gold.
A variety of plastic and paper bags yielded two sizes of silver pearl purl and one of gold; silver bright check; silver smooth purl; gold smooth passing, quite fine; and a chunky gold rococco.
Over the years (I presume these threads date back to the altar cloth three vicars ago) some of the silver has become a little dull, and the gold has tarnished into a warm coppery colour – but they are still perfectly usable, and how lovely to work with metals and threads that have such a history!
Incidentally my husband, who is an engineer and therefore approaches all problems from the “how can I fix it” angle, suggested trying silver dip. Just on a little bit at first, he hastened to reassure me (I think I looked rather aghast at the thought). Well, I suppose we could sacrifice a chip or two to see if it works – after all, if it does it would be marvellous to use them in their original splendour, and if it doesn’t there’s plenty left. Watch this space!
Last year, after my annual embroidery workshops for the church building fund, I idly remarked that I was beginning to run out of techniques to teach, and I’d have to resort to goldwork. It’s dangerous to make remarks like that, even idly. Less than one year on and I’m getting the materials together for a goldwork workshop!
More about getting the materials later – the first priority is to get the design right. One of the things I wasn’t quite sure about in my initial version was the bee and so I decided to work three bees close together on the same piece of fabric so that it would be easy to compare the effect of the various metals. Another thing I wanted to work out was whether it would be better to stitch the wings before the body, or the other way around.
Well, the latter was the easiest question to answer – definitely wings first! Having sorted that out, it was on to the bodies themselves. My original idea was to use no.4 bright check, which is quite chunky, but as it is also quite expensive I used a sadi thread on my first model. Sadi threads (or wires, rather) are used in Indian embroidery and are similar to goldwork threads but as far as I know they have no precious metal content, and they come in only two sizes for each type. The fine check sadi (which is quite as chunky as the bright check no.4 – I wouldn’t like to work with the broad check!) is a lot more open in texture than the “proper” goldwork threads, and very shiny. As it doesn’t come in copper (or at least I haven’t been able to find it in copper) my first bee had to be gold and silver.
In this bee experiment the sadi version is on the bottom left – you can see how sparkly it is. The top bee is worked in bright check no.4. I really like the effect of the gold/copper combination, but the chunkiness of the thread made for a very fat bee! It was also quite difficult to get the wires to curve nicely over the felt on such a small area. The third version, which is definitely my preferred one, is worked in wire check no.6 – the higher the number on these, the thinner the thread, so this is narrower than the bright check. It is also less sparkly: wire check is the matt version of bright check. But the texture is interesting and almost fuzzy, and once I get some copper wire check, the stripes will be better defined.
Some of the ladies in my stitching group, whose opinions I asked, actually preferred the sadi version as it was the shiniest, so I may offer that as an alternative; but as it is billed as a goldwork class, I would like to use traditional goldwork materials as much as possible. The only sadi wire I will use is the pearl one, which is really very similar to the traditional pearl purl.
One slightly odd thing I noticed in the wire check is that the gold is an S-twist and the silver is a Z-twist (and not as closely twisted). Trying to remember where I got them from I think that the silver may have been in the kit of a day class I attended, whereas I bought the gold separately later. You’d expect them to be quite uniform, wouldn’t you? It’ll be interesting to see what the ones I’ve got on order are like, and whether there is a difference between the gold, silver and copper.
And finally something that has absolutely nothing to do with goldwork. Last week we were at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen to see an exhibition with my in-laws, and in the gallery shop had these lovely wooden door wedges, very smooth and a joy to handle (not that you handle door wedges a lot, but you know how tactile and strokeable wood can be). Until now the door of my craft room has been wedged open (when it is safe to do so, i.e. our inquisitive pussycat is outdoors) with a bright green frog wedge that used to be in one of the children’s bedrooms – it works, yes, but this one was something altogether different. As I was debating with myself whether I could really justify another extravagance, my mother-in-law took it out of my hands and gave it to me as a present! It now sits looking beautiful in the craft room. Trouble is, it rather shows up the scruffy door…
When I completed the RSN goldwork boot some time ago, and posted pictures of it on the Cross Stitch Forum (yes, I know, it isn’t cross stitch – but they humour me and allow me to stay a member even though I do mostly other needlework now ), one lady remarked that it would be fun to stitch the whole outfit to go with the boot in goldwork: gloves, hat, corset, dress… I agreed it would make a lovely series, but that it was very unlikely to happen, especially to scale! But suddenly a picture of a parasol entered my mind, and refused to budge.
When that happens, resistance is futile – and so I started looking for basic umbrella/parasol shapes. Although the original idea had been for a parasol as an accessory to the never-to-be-stitched Edwardian costume, at this point I wasn’t sure whether it might not become an umbrella, and anyway they are pretty much the same shape, aren’t they? A parasol just being a lighter, more elegant version of an umbrella. But I knew quite certainly the sort of outline I wanted: what you might call a child’s version of an umbrella, with four or five panels, and tilted about 45 degrees. After a few sketches I did a first line drawing on the computer.
This captured the essence of umbrella-ness I was looking for, and I did some work on the fillings and materials, but something bothered me. When I had a closer look, I realised what it was – the drawing was wonky. The left-hand panels were longer than the ones on the right-hand side, making it impossible to place any decorative motifs satisfactorily, and the angle of the shaft was slightly off. Back to the drawing board.
Once the outline had been tweaked to my satisfaction, I could work on the decoration of the panels. After a while I found myself with two versions which I liked equally. OK, so why not have two projects, a parasol and an umbrella? And to make them look more balanced when stitched as a pair, I reversed one of them.
While all this was being done on the computer, I was also still scribbling notes on the first printout, jotting down ideas for materials and stitches.
Deciding which of the various ideas to use is never easy, because inevitably some have to be discarded (unless you want to end up with a whole herd of umbrellas – and how many goldwork umbrellas am I likely to want to stitch?!?) Eventually I managed to work out which ones I liked best, and in which combinations, and I could add some indication of stitches to the bare transfer drawings.
The fabrics for both projects had already practically picked themselves – two of the shades of Essex linen I bought last month, Teal for the umbrella (in silver), and Orange for the parasol (in gold). Both behaved beautifully on the lightbox, and I’ve got a beautiful deep 10" hoop that’s just the right size, large enough to give the design breathing space and small enough to be manageable. And here they are (only in unstitched outline as yet): Come Rain, Come Shine.
Now for the fun part of picking the threads, wires, spangles and whatnots!
Finishing the goldwork leaf I’d started at my RSN tutorial took a little longer than I had intended, but fortunately there was no deadline and I could just enjoy the process! The first step was to work an inner line along the Jap that was couched around the edge of the leaf. Heather had intended that to be another line of double Jap, with the couching “bricked”, that is to say with the couching stitches positioned in between the ones on the first line. However, having done quite a bit of bricking on earlier projects I wanted to try something different – something wavy, in fact. My first thought was milliary wire, but back home I realised there is actually quite a choice in wavy threads and wires, so I put three of them with the Jap outline to see which I preferred. They were check thread (tight wave), rococco (longer wave) and milliary (pointy wave attached to a straight wire).
And after all that I decided on … milliary wire. At least in part because, as a wire, it doesn’t need the dreaded plunging!
Then I got on with finishing the cutwork, and I am relatively pleased with what I produced. There are definite issues (I’ll come to those in a bit), but bearing in mind that this is the first cutwork I’ve done over soft string padding (much more raised than the few bits I’ve done over felt) it’s not too bad. In fact, some of the things I’m about to point out are not nearly so noticeable in real life as they are in a close-up photograph – fortunately!
Right, here we go. The blue arrow points to where the the tapering is not as even as I would have liked; the green arrow shows up a length of purl cut just too short; the purple arrow points to a length that is just too long and has therefore cracked; and the red and orange arrows highlight some of the places where I failed to line up the adjoining lengths correctly – some are pushed up by neighbouring lengths (red) while some get lost underneath others (orange).
Having said all that, I am honestly pleased with what I learnt, and even with the slightly wonky finished article. It just shows there is room for improvement, and let’s face it, I would have been a miracle embroiderer if there hadn’t been. And now for a bit of advice (which I should start taking myself): unless there is a very good reason for it, Do Not Point Out Your Mistakes. When people are sincerely admiring your stitching, don’t tell them of that one stitch which should have been a millimeter to the left, or that other stitch which you accidentally worked in the wrong colour. For one thing, it may well embarrass them because it suggests they have been uncritical or ignorant in their comments. It also practically obliges them to repeat the compliment. So you see, it’s actually much more modest and humble NOT to point out your mistakes!
So here, without any apologies for any of it, is the finished leaf, with some added spangles:
Having had such fun with the leaf I decided to dig out the boot I started at the rather ill-fated RSN day class last April. During the class I managed to finish couching all the Jap, but not plunging all the ends, so that my boot looked rather like a helping of gold spaghetti. I took the boot and my lap frame to my Monday afternoon embroidery group and set about plunging. And for two hours, that’s all I did. Well, I had tea as well. And I may have chatted a bit. But embroidery-wise I plunged and secured and plunged and secured some more. My theory being that if I took the boot home with all the plunging done, I’d be much more likely to pick it up and continue with it; also, plunging doesn’t take as much concentration as some of the other aspects of goldwork, which is a definite plus as the embroidery group is not the most distraction-free environment. Well, the theory was correct, and that evening I added a double line of rococco, and immediately plunged those ends as well!
None of the remaining techniques – couched pearl purl, chipwork and spangles – require plunging, so I was expecting to finish quite quickly; I had a whole Saturday afternoon to myself, which would surely be enough. Well, it was, but only just – I keep forgetting how time-consuming chipwork is! What looks like a small enough area of felt to be covered begins to look huge when you put the first tiny chip on. So my optimistic hopes that I might even start a new project were dashed, but the boot was finished. It’s not easy to capture the sheer sumptuous sparkle, shine and glow of goldwork in a photograph (unless, presumably, you are a professional photographer) but I hope these give you some idea.
And here are a few close-ups, of the bricked Jap boot cuff (where I took one Jap thread around the front before plunging because the edge looked rather ragged and this seemed the easiest way of tidying it up) and the chipwork toe.
What next, goldwork-wise? Well, there is a certain balloon which has been languishing for far too long now, so I mounted it on the Millennium frame and I will try to make that my next finish. Unfortunately there is a rival on the horizon, or rather a pair of rivals. A lady on the Cross Stitch Forum, on seeing the boot, said wouldn’t it be lovely to work the rest of the outfit in goldwork as well – dress, gloves, hat etc. I can confidently tell you that that is not going to happen, but reading her comment I suddenly saw a goldwork parasol; well, the germ of one (if parasols germinate). And now I have a parasol/umbrella pair of possible projects. Never mind jewellery or scent or even stitchy presents, could someone give me a couple of extra months for Christmas? They don’t even have to be gift-wrapped!
Two weeks ago, before getting into the whirl of teaching four workshops in two days at the Knitting & Stitching Show, I had treated myself to a three-hour one-on-one goldwork tutorial at the Royal School of Needlework. My tutor Heather Lewis and I were at a table by a window in a cubby-hole leading to a storage room. But then you don’t need much room to embroider, and anyway this was not just any cubby-hole – this was a cubby-hole with A View!
I’d asked specifically for the tutorial to concentrate on attaching fabric to fabric in such a way that it doesn’t wrinkle or pucker, and on soft string padding. The former because I simply cannot seem to get smallish bits of beautiful fabric attached to large bits of useful calico backing and have the same tension on both, and the latter because it is a technique I’d never tried and I liked the 3D look of it. Heather gave me some good advice about attaching fabrics (the main one: don’t have too much tension on your ground fabric when applying the top fabric) but as you will see from the pictures, I need a bit more practice – the green silk for the leaf is definitely not completely flat!
You can see a bit of the other technique in there as well – soft string padding uses, unsurprisingly, soft string (in yellow as padding for gold, and white or grey for silver) which is couched down in a bundle and cut gradually from below to fill the desired shape, in this case the leaf stem. You start with the full bundle at the widest part of the shape, then cut one or two threads at a time from the bottom of the bundle (hence flipping it over as in the picture above) depending on how quickly the shape becomes thinner. Below you can see the stem all cut and couched into shape; this will be covered in cutwork, but first the leaf was outlined in double couched Jap. I chose to couch in visible green rather than invisible gold, a choice I regretted just a little bit as any irregularities in your couching are so much more noticeable in colour.
You’ll have noticed that the stitches attaching the silk leaf to the background are not quite covered by the double line of Jap. Another line is needed, but as I’ve done a fair bit of couching before Heather and I decided I could do that at home, even though strictly speaking it should have been finished before starting the next bit. There was enough Jap in the kit to do another line, bricking the stitches as is traditional, but I’ve decided I’d like a different, wavy effect so I will do the inner line using either rococo, check thread or milliary wire (which I described to my husband as “the goldwork equivalent of Toblerone”). I’ll probably add some spangles of different sizes as well. A bit of extra bling never hurt anyone!
So on to the cutwork. This uses small lengths of purl (in this case smooth purl, but rough, wire check or bright check can also be used) which are attached much as you would beads, by taking the needle through them. The trick is to cut them to exactly the right length to cover the soft padding, and to handle them as little as possible. It is fiddly and time-consuming, and I didn’t manage to finish it all, but on the whole I am not dissatisfied with my first attempt.
So here is the leaf as it was at the end of the tutorial; and now to finish it. The bits nearer the ends of the stem are going to be more tricky and no doubt some re-cutting will occur. I’ll probably do the wavy inside line of the leaf before completing the top end of the stem so that I’m doing it as much as possible in the “proper” order, and then spangles to round the whole thing off. With some spare time this weekend and next it shouldn’t be too long before I can show you the finished article!
I keep most of my goldwork materials in small glassine envelopes – little greaseproof paper bags which are translucent so you get an inkling of what’s inside (and how pretty it looks). The envelopes are in turn kept in a storage box, where they are stacked in shallow rows: a stack of different pearl purls, a stack of spangles, a stack of milliary wires and so on.
It works very well, and I can lay my hands on whatever I want with ease. Generally. Recently, however, I could not find an envelope of gold Elizabethan twist, and one of silver smooth passing. I knew I had them (I keep a record of all my stash), I could visualise them, but although I went through every compartment of the storage box half a dozen times, they would not turn up.
This puzzled me especially because I remembered quite clearly that the Elizabethan twist was a relatively large roll of metallic thread which had only just fitted inside the envelope. Surely that couldn’t hide anywhere so successfully? The solution to the mystery turned out to be twofold: a) bad memory – my stock of Elizabethan twist wasn’t nearly as big as I though, it was the gold smooth passing (which was not missing) that rather stretched its envelope, and b) an annoying tendency for glassine envelopes to form close bonds with each other, especially when not very full. The gold twist and the silver passing were both where they were meant to be, just hiding inside the flaps of their neighbours…
So now that I had all threads and wires present and correct I could finally do what I had actually got the storage box out for: choosing the golds for the silk version of the Tree of Life. These will be used for the bird sitting on one of the leaves, for a small detail in the top leaf, and for or nué (a type of couching) on the final leaf. After some consideration I’ve chosen smooth passing, pearl purl and wire check, as well as some gold kid which isn’t shown here. I’m looking forward to showing you my golden bird and leaves!
Have you ever heard of the hopping procession of Echternach? Although throughout its history it has been danced in various forms, the one that has always stuck in my mind is the three-steps-forwards-two-steps-backwards version. It strikes me as being a very accurate description of many of life’s projects, including embroidery ones.
You may remember a small goldwork project I started last year, based on a design in Sampler and Antique Needlework. It’s a Jacobean-style flower and leaf, and I first used it as a sampler for trying out crewel wools from Renaissance Dyeing and Pearsall’s. But it was always intended to be a goldwork piece, and I thought it would make a nice project to get a bit of practice in with the various techniques. Although I roughly stuck to the design, from the start it was my intention to change whatever I felt like changing, and possibly to add a few things here and there. Some of the changes were planned, some weren’t.
This is where I’d got to last November. It shows both types of changes: the use of silver, two sizes of pearl purl, and check thread were definitely planned. The small beads inside the big leaf weren’t – they were a consequence of the small green silk leaves coming out too small and not filling the leaf outline satisfactorily.
6 months later I felt it was high time that this project got finished. There’s the RSN goldwork boot to complete as well (my stitching friend who came to the workshop too has already finished hers!) but as this one was all framed up, and pretty close to completion (much closer than the boot with all its plunging still to do…) it got priority.
The main part of the remaining work was the chip work that was to part-fill the flower cone. In the original design, this is done in gold chips of bright check. My plan was to stick with the bright check, but to shade it from copper through gold to silver. I couldn’t use the thread size guide of the original as I’d chosen to enlarge the design a bit, so I’d have to work out what looked best. As it’s still a fairly small project (a little over 3½” wide) a not-too-chunky #6 seemed the best choice.
I rummaged in my project box. Copper in the bigger #4. No gold or silver. Very odd. Have a look in my big goldwork box. Gold and silver in both #4 and #6, but no #6 copper. Bother. I could have sworn I had both thicknesses in all three metals. Obviously not. And as I definitely wanted to use copper, I started the chip work in #4 bright check. I did all the copper I wanted, and started filling in the gold. And I really, really disliked how it looked.
There was no help for it, it just had to come out. I’d have to do something in gold and silver only, or choose some other wire. Another rummage through my project box for inspiration… what was that bag of copper #6 doing there? Ah. At one point I had considered doing the chip work in coarse and fine copper, and so I’d put both thicknesses (but no gold or silver) in my project box, and somehow the #6 had hidden itself right at the bottom.
So I could do the chip work as planned – yay! And it did look so much more like I’d envisaged it.
Finish the gold chips, scatter some silver chips around, and then there were just a few more spangles to add for my Jacobean goldwork flower to be done.
The last stage, the finishing finishing, will be to lace it very tightly as the fabric wrinkles rather when taken off the frame, and then possibly frame it; unless I can lace it around the insert of one of my satin boxes. I’ll keep you posted!
There aren’t many positive sides to gastric flu. For a moment it seemed to hold the promise of starting the Easter egg season with a few pounds to spare, but even that proved short-lived. However, it did mean that last weekend I had energy for very little more than sitting in the garden, reading a bit, absorbing the sunshine (and incidentally getting my calves sunburnt), observing the bumblebees and enjoying the colourful sight of the tulips and grape hyachinths and late daffodils, and I’m sure this was very good for my soul. It also gave me some ideas.
Having looked forward so much to my RSN day class I understandably had goldwork on my mind, and looking at the bold outlines and the variety of petal shapes of our red, yellow and pink tulips I was reminded of a vague intention some time ago to “do” something with tulips and goldwork. I exchanged my novel for a sketchbook and tried to capture the various tulip profiles, with some grape hyacinths thrown in for good measure.
After a few separate doodles I decided on a combination of a single tulip with a couple of grape hyacinths, and some random sprigs of flowering grass which no botanist could possibly put a name to. I also scribbled some notes as to possible threads and wires and techniques to be used; for the grape hyacinths I jotted down two options, one using purl chip work and one using spangles. I like both options so may try a separate grape hyacinth to see which looks best. As the design has two grape hyacinths I toyed for a moment with the idea of doing one in each style, but on second thoughts I discarded that idea – it would just look indecisive and confused. I do want spangles in there somewhere so I’ll probably use tiny ones for the flowering grass, and chips for the grape hyacinths.
The next day I tried incorporating some of my daffodil sketches into the mix, but I simply couldn’t get them all to work together; the result was a separate design of a single tulip and a single daffodil.
Over the next week I tidied them up in my photo editing program, and in the process produced a second version of each design in which the tulip had been shortened a bit. For some reason I tend to create designs which are square or nearly square (or circular), and this one looked a bit elongated. I haven’t quite decided yet which I prefer.
As I was playing with the designs it occurred to me that they would also work quite well in coloured embroidery, whether using stem stitch throughout, or a variety of stitches (like short bullion knots for the grape hyacinths – nothing like setting yourself a bit of a challenge). In fact, I felt it would be just the thing for a little celebratory embroidery in honour of my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday if I added a “90” to it. So I did. Now I just need to stitch it. By Thursday evening at the very latest. So far, I’ve chosen the silks…
We had a lovely weekend planned, my husband and I. Separately, it is true; he was to go on a vintage car trial in Scotland with a friend, I was to attend my RSN goldwork day class, a belated birthday present to myself. It didn’t quite go to plan. Stomach flu intervened, and if you’ve ever had it you will know that it is not an intervention you can easily ignore. Scotland had to be given a miss altogether, and although I did go to the class I had to hoist the white flag after a couple of hours. Oh well, it can’t be helped; at least I got a little bit done, and had the kit to take away with me to finish at home.
As this was another beginners’ class (like the watering can I did some years back) there weren’t any techniques in the design which I hadn’t come across before, so I’m reasonably confident I’ll be able to produce a creditable Victorian ankle boot! I may add a few extra flourishes just to use some of my goldwork stash though…
The tutor for this workshop was Angela Bishop, who funnily enough recognised me from the previous day class when she assisted Sarah Homfray. The kit was very nicely presented in a neat little box, which held general notes on goldwork, instructions for this design, and of course all the threads and wires and bits and bobs. (The cat was not part of the kit. She’s just being nosy.) The third picture shows you most of the materials in close up: a pretty little heart-shaped bit of beeswax, a sparkly snaky length of bright check purl (sometimes known simply as bright check) to be used for chipwork, wavy Rococco thread, a piece of stiff-but-pliant pearl purl (great name), and three spangles (which can be told from sequins by the little indentations, caused by being made from a flattened coil). I’d already used most of the Jap thread, so that’s not shown, and you can see the remnant of a piece of yellow felt (used to pad the toe of the boot) in the box.
I still haven’t finished the Jacobean flower, but I may try to complete the boot first, just so it doesn’t get put away in a drawer and forgotten for several years (it’s not been unknown…). Updates to follow, hopefully soon!