InspiRussian

Some weeks ago on the Antiques Roadshow someone brought in a Russian tea set and a rather exquisite enamel napkin ring which the expert pointed out was not actually part of it. It was Russian, though, and in fact turned out to be by Fabergé. I really liked the floral pattern on the napkin ring so I paused the programme, took a picture, and used it to make some sketches later. It just cried out to be stitched; silks would be ideal to show the sheen of the enamel but for some reason I saw it in my mind in crewel wools, and as the napkin ring was done in cloisonné enamel the main colour blocks of the embroidery would have to be outlined in some form of metal thread (copper or muted gold) to mimic the fine metal strips in the original.

As I scribbled down all these observations plus some colour ideas I was a little worried about copyright, but after some thought came to the conclusion that anything that age is unlikely to be covered anymore. If anyone knows differently, do please let me know before I start stitching! I’ve already got the design transferred to my favourite linen…

The Russian design transferred to a piece of linen

Having produced my first coloured version of the design, I set about choosing wools. I love choosing threads from my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool; quite apart from the joy of opening drawer after drawer of glorious colour, they are a delight to handle, beautifully soft and fondleable (yes, that is now a word). I picked five colour families, Old Gold, Madder Pink, Lagoon, Goblin Green and Cornflower Blue. For now I wasn’t too concerned with how light or dark the design was going to be, just with getting the right shades.

First attempts at picking colours

And I wasn’t. Getting the right shades, I mean. The combination of blues and greens I’d gone for in my digital version was always going to be tricky to replicate, and it might have been easier to go with something closer to the original napkin ring, but I’d grown rather fond of my version by now so I was jolly well going to see it through! The problem was the blue – it needed to be just a tiny bit closer to the green end of blue without merging into the turquoise shade. It was obviously time to hit the shops, or rather one shop in particular: Catkin Crown Textile Studio.

Steve and Hazel not only stock the entire range of Heathway Milano crewel wool at a very reasonable price, they are also invariably helpful – I can thoroughly recommend them. This time what I needed from their store of goodies was the Bluebell colour family which is just that bit less pure blue than the Cornflower family. And as I was getting those I might as well get the missing shades in the Madder Pink family, so that I had a wider range to choose from for the flowers. And as I was getting those I was only a few skeins off qualifying for free postage. And so, uhm, well…

The shades I needed The shades I added

Moving on, it was time to compare the Bluebell and the Cornflower combinations to see which one was going to make the final cut. Colour preferences are very personal, but for me the Bluebell version immediately appealed in a way that the Cornflower one hadn’t. Bluebell it is!

The Cornflower combination The Bluebell combination

Since then I have made a few changes to the colours, but only in the way they are distributed, particularly in the flowers, so no need for another purchase smiley. I also turned the black design lines golden yellow to better show the effect of the cloisonné outlining. And that’s as far as I go for the time being – first I have a rainbow to finish (among one or two other things…). But it’s nice to know I won’t run out of things to stitch any time soon.

The revised colour version, dark The revised colour version, light

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking what to call this design. At the moment I’m considering either Exquisite Enamel or Fabergé Floral; but perhaps I should just stick with the title of this post!

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

How absent-minded ordering leads to another project

As you may know I’ve got seven or eight projects on hold, patiently waiting in my craft room in various stages of WIP-ness, and have only allowed myself the Ottoman Tulip because I need something that I can just use as a sort of paint-by-numbers exercise in between the Certificate and the SAL – and then my lovely Heathway Milano wools arrived.

Heathway Milano wool for the SAL

I ordered them as back-up for the SAL threads, with a few spares thrown in for good measure. But as I sorted through them I realised that for two of the greens I’d ordered as spares, I already had a spare. And because Steve at Catkin Crown had very kindly pointed out to me that if I ordered one more skein I’d qualify for free postage I had also ordered another “neutral”; always useful, but I now have perhaps slightly more than I strictly speaking need. And then there was a brown for which I ordered a spare and of which I had a bit left from a previous skein. And they went so beautifully together, and I happened to have a spare bit of twill…

To cut a long story short, this is another Oh Sew Bootiful design; it is meant to be done in purple and yellow stranded cotton and contains French knots as well as stem stitch and satin stitch, but I’m ditching the knots – I want some really relaxing embroidery to do when I’m tired and just want to enjoy the rhythm of the needle, and the soothing colours and the soft feel of the threads.

The transfer on this is quite wobbly (all right, I admit, I rushed it) and the two circles I’ve stitched so far are, to say the least, rustic. But oh my goodness I enjoyed stitching them! It was the most relaxing bit of embroidery I’ve done in a long time, and I don’t care what it looks like when I’ve finished – this is just the perfect bit of therapy smiley.

Oh Sew Bootiful kaleidoscopic design

Choosing SAL materials

Last Friday the SAL materials list was published – high time for me to stop stitching samples and start stitching complete trees! But before I can do that, like every other stitcher who will be doing the SAL, I need to choose my materials.

As I need to stitch both the Plain and the Bling version, it seemed a sensible idea to make sure they differed as much as possible, not just in the addition of goldwork materials. In previous SALs I generally made sure I did at least one version with the most basic materials possible, which in this case would be stranded cotton (DMC for me, but Anchor works equally well) on a cotton ground. This budget version, even if you had to buy everything from scratch (20 skeins of stranded cotton, a fat quarter of medium-weight cotton fabric plus calico backing, one size of sequins and 2 colours of beads) would come in at around £25, and you’d have plenty of leftovers. Work from stash and you can get away with a minimal outlay.

But… but… Even though I know that an “economy” version with standard threads and fabric can look just as good as a more expensive one, I already had two combinations in mind, and I really don’t want to do three trees! So I’m hoping some of you will show us just how beautiful a stranded cotton tree can be, and I’ll show the effect of wool on twill and silk on linen.

First the fabrics. I was about to post pictures of my actual fabrics in action, with the design transferred onto them, and then realised this rather defeats the purpose of a Mystery SAL. So just pictures of the fabrics used in other projects, I’m afraid: traditional twill as in the Rabbit & Carnations, and a densely-woven German linen as in Llandrindod.

Crewel project on twill Llandrindod on German linen

Once you’ve chosen your fabric, there is another decision to be made: To Back or Not To Back, that is the question. Easy enough with the twill – twill is a sturdy fabric that can stand on its own and doesn’t need backing (I’m sure there are exceptional circumstances when it would be a good idea, but let’s stick with unexceptional for now). But what about the linen? Because it’s a good weight and a close weave, I don’t back it when I use it for small projects like the Ottoman Tulip; I did back it with a very light Egyptian muslin for Llandrindod, but with hindsight that wasn’t necessary. The SAL design, however, is not only a much larger piece than either of these, it will also have goldwork elements in it, and I do find a backing invaluable when doing goldwork because it makes all the oversewing of plunged ends so much easier. So a lightweight calico backing it is.

As for hoops and frames, the twill (which will have the design in the larger of the two sizes) is now securely fitted in my humongous 14″ hoop (it’s a monster!) – the binding definitely helps to get good tension, and although it is very difficult to get perfectly drum-taut tension with a hoop that size, there is a distinct drum-like noise when I gently tap the fabric. The linen and its backing will be mounted on the Millennium frame, and I will then lace the sides for extra side-to-side tension.

On to more colourful decisions: threads! The twill pretty much chose its own threads – traditionally it is used with crewel wool, and although it is of course perfectly possible to use it with other threads it is such a tried and tested combination that I am happy to go with it. Added to which I absolutely adore working with my Heathway Milano crewel wools, so any opportunity is gratefully seized on. When I first started designing this tree I envisaged it with leaves in blue, green and purple. As blue and green are also two of the non-leaf colours, this means you can save on your materials by having those two shades double up. With two shades of beads (leaving out the optional leaf-coloured ones) and one size of sequin instead of three, this gives you the bare minimum needed for the SAL. I went for fairly muted shades, especially the purple.

Minimal materials, including Heathway Milano crewel wool

However, I have lots more shades of wool and it seems a shame not to use them, especially as some of them are rather lovely and bright. So I also put together a set with separate leaf colours – muted Aubergine made way for Lilac and was joined by Lagoon and Dusky Rose, as well as an extra shade of beads.

Extra crewel colours

For the silk version I originally picked Rainbow Gallery Splendor stranded silks, which are lovely to work with (and some of which I’m using in Llandrindod), but although there were enough shades for the blue-and-green-doubling-up version, I just didn’t have the range of colours needed for a version with separate leaf colours. I reluctantly abandoned Splendor and had a rummage in my Silk Mill boxes. Their threads are filament silks so they have a lovely sheen; unfortunately they are also rather more difficult to work with because of their springiness (steaming them beforehand helps). Still, I managed to stitch a medieval King with them quite successfully, so I’ll have a go! Some of the goldwork materials in the picture won’t be in the final project, as I put in both options where I hadn’t quite decided yet which one to use (like the two black metals, one rough purl and one wire check). Silk being rather less bulky then crewel wool, I could fit all the threads and goldwork materials in one little project box – doesn’t it look neat?

Silk Mill silks and goldwork materials All that is needed in one small box

So there I am, all set to start stitching! (In between sorting out some issues with my Certificate piece…)

Changing suppliers

I don’t like change. This may sound odd coming from someone who changed country, job and marital status in one fell swoop some 14 years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Even the knowledge that quite a lot of change in my life has been for the better, and that I am fully enjoying the new (but by now familiar) situation, does not make me embrace change as it happens. And recently I’ve been faced with three disconcerting changes in suppliers. But is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel(s)?

Well, let’s start with the first tunnel: Sew & So. Anyone in this country (and many abroad) who does needlework will at least have heard of Sew & So, even if they’ve never bought anything from them. They are the go-to place for all basic supplies and quite a few not-so-basic ones; just to illustrate this, they stock both a wide range of standard Zweigart fabrics and a good selection of hand-dyed and silk threads. So to see the following notice after I’d just put some things in my shopping basket the day before (you can still see them there, but I can’t access them any more) came as rather a shock:

Sew and So has closed

In a way it was a shock-in-stages – last year they completely changed their website, making it much less user-friendly, and although there were plenty of comments and suggestions from customers on their Facebook page none of these seemed to be taken any notice of. Last month they suddenly closed temporarily for a “change of ownership”, opening again a few days later, so all seemed well. Then, looking for the RSN’s online courses (which they offer in partnership with Sew & So) after a conversation with a lady in America, I found they were no longer listed. I should perhaps have twigged it might be something to do with the Sew & So side of things, but I didn’t. Not until that notice! On their website and Facebook page they say that they are “securing a new home for you”, but no-one seems sure what that means. Tunnel #1 is very dark indeed.

Now for the second tunnel. In quite a few of the kits I offer, the projects are finished by mounting them in aperture cards. The freestyle Wildflower Garden, the two Shisha designs, the raised Christmas Wreath, the embellished Butterfly Wreath, the goldwork Flowers & Bee, plus a couple of workshop projects that aren’t for sale on the website yet – all made into cards. I like that way of finishing because it is relatively quick and you end up with something you can use.

As I have neither a suitable die-cutter nor the time or inclination to produce the cards myself, I buy them in. And for the past few years I’ve been getting all my cards from Craft Creations, who had an enormous range as well as the option to buy as few or as many as you needed of any size, cut and colour. Ideal.

Aperture cards from Craft Creations Craft Creations' value range

And then I got an email announcing that Craft Creations had been taken over by a new owner. With slight trepidation I checked the website. There was hardly anything there.

At this point I rushed into the craft room to check my stock of aperture cards, and found to my relief that there was a fairly good selection in my stash to tide me over, if the tiding-over period wasn’t going to be too long. I contacted the company and a kind lady told me that she was fairly sure all the card types I was looking for would be back in stock in time, as they would be adding more and more of the previous range to the website again, but that it might take time because they were trying to source materials themselves. Fair enough, I would exercise patience and have another look in a few months’ time. I did. Most of the cards I needed are still not there; the one cut and size that is there, is available in limited colours; and only in packs of twelve. Clearly it was time for another email.

This time I was told that they were still sourcing materials, but that in any case they would no longer be selling individual cards. That in itself need not be an insurmountable problem; it merely means that I will have to limit the number of colours I use for the various kits. Some come in a limited range already – the Wildflower Garden in red, blue and cream, the Christmas Wreath in red and green, the No Place Like Home workshop in red, green and blue. I’ll have to have a good look at the thread colours I use in the other kits and pick the two or three card colours that will work with most thread combinations.

Another possibility is to source the cards elsewhere, but unfortunately I have not found any other company with the range that Craft Creations used to do. There is a company who cut cards to order; they don’t offer all the exact sizes and colours I’m using now, they are more expensive, and they too require a minimum order, in their case at least nine of every different size/cut/colour combination. Still, they may be a useful option to fall back on if Craft Creations doesn’t come up with the goods.

So yes, there is a little light at the end of Tunnel #2, but I hope it grows brighter quickly as I’m beginning to run out of some of the cards!

As for the third tunnel, you may remember the picture below – Pearsall’s crewel wool starter pack. I found out about their lovely Heathway Milano crewel wool while trying to find the silks I used to buy from them, only to be told that they no longer did them (see what I mean? change everywhere! even though in this case it had a positive spin). Carol was absolutely lovely and looked through several available starter packs for me to see which would best suit my requirements, and I have bought a fair few skeins of wool from her since.

Wool from Pearsall's starter pack

Unfortunately my crewel Rabbit & Carnations piece showed that there were lamentable gaps in my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool, so when a bit of website maintenance (I’m nothing if not versatile) brought in a little extra cash, I was off to the Pearsall’s website with whoops of delight before you could say HTML. Mabel may be pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to stash, but if any of my non-needlework activities can lend a helping hand, I’m all for it!

Once on the website I was so engrossed in the delightful problem of deciding which colours to pick as definites and which as possibles that I initially missed a narrow red banner at the top; it bore the ominous message “Pearsalls Embroidery is closing down. Purchase of goods is disabled. Click here for more information.” Clicking as instructed brought up a message to the effect that the business was being taken over by Catkin Crown Textile Studio, with an email address.

Now I knew that Carol was thinking of selling the business, but I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. And I was worried whether Catkin Crown would carry on with the lovely wools. Time for yet another email.

And hurray, light! Steve & Hazel, who are Catkin Crown, turned out to be extremely helpful people. They assured me that although they will be adding all sorts of exciting products to the shop’s range of supplies, they are very keen on keeping the Heathway line going, and in fact it (and twill fabric) will be their core product range to begin with. They also said that although the new website was taking a bit longer than expected, if I could send them a list of the colours I wanted they’d see which ones they had in stock, and they’d be happy to do a special order for me.

So I did, and they did, and look:

A parcel from Catkin Crown Twill and Heathway Milano wool The new wools sorted by colour

Tunnel #3 is going to be just fine smiley.

Choosing colours and accommodating different materials

Winter in England can mean beautiful snowy vistas under an icy blue sky, but more often it’s just rather grey and damp. Yesterday edged towards the former, although the snow was just a sprinkling. But icy it definitely was, and I managed to slip on a treacherous little patch just outside our church. The ladies preparing for the mother & toddler group immediately treated the patch with salt, and offered to treat me with tea, but I didn’t think it was too bad so I just went home. And it isn’t too bad – no broken bones or torn ligaments or anything – just aching muscles in my leg and a stiff arm, probably from trying to break my fall. Unfortunately it’s my right arm. The one I stitch with.

It’s a good thing that my order of Milano Heathway crewel wools from Pearsall’s had arrived the day before; sorting through threads distracts the mind very effectively from both the muscle ache and the inability to stitch. And I had quite some sorting to do! You see, some of the Milano wools already in my stash have been set aside (for quite some time now…) in a box with my Tree of Life project, to stitch experimental leaves. And some I had picked earlier in the week for a crewel project based on parts of two designs from the two crewel embroidery books I bought last week. The remainder of my existing collection was in a third box. And now these new shades had arrived. It was time to get organised.

The wools and other materials for the Tree of Life Two new crewel books Materials for the crewel Rabbit and Carnations The wools in my latest Pearsall's order

One thing I had to do was decide how to store skeins that have been used; so far I’d put them back on the cards in two different ways, and that just looked messy. As one method could fairly easily be transformed into the other but not vice versa, the choice was easy. That done, I got all the shades together and organised them on binder rings. The Tree of Life project is definitely on the back burner at the moment, so I will re-pick the shades for that as and when I get into my experimental leaves again. For now I needed the shades for my Rabbit & Carnations (above), and my wool version of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. I deliberately do not call it a crewel version, as it will be in split stitch only and I have a feeling that doesn’t quite qualify!

Whatever it is called, the change from silk to wool brought with it the need for a little change to Hengest. A leopard may not be able to change its spots, but I would have to change Hengest’s – even in my original version they are already a little bigger than on the medieval cope by which he was inspired, but crewel wool being rather thicker than a strand of silk there would simply not be enough room (especially in the smaller spots) to comfortable work a dense spiral of stitches, and show off the texture and colour of the thread. Fewer, larger spots were what was needed.

Hengest for silk with small spots Hengest for wool with big spots

In addition, I printed him a bit larger than I would for the silk version, once at 9cm high and once at 10cm. The fabric I intended to use was Normandie, a cotton/linen mix, probably in the “natural” shade, which is a bit beige-y. I got out the fabric to see whether it would work with the white and greys I’d picked.

Will the fabric and threads go together?

I was happy with that combination, and cut the Normandie to sit comfortably in a 7″ hoop. I cut some calico backing and ironed both pieces of fabric. I then realised that if I wanted to use the 10cm version (and I did) it would really need an 8″ hoop. Fortunately I had cut rather generously, and found that it was just about big enough for the larger hoop. Phew. Now all I had to do was get an 8″ hoop. My deep hoop is already in use for Soli Deo Gloria, and it turns out I have no other wooden hoop (which I prefer for this sort of work) of that size. Fortunately Barnyarns stock them and so one is on its way to me as I write this; when it arrives I’ll bind it, and then Hengest is good to go!

Hengest transferred and the threads chosen

By the way, I love split stitch in wool – compared to a single strand of silk there is so much more thread to aim for!