Stitching setbacks – a spot and a SAL

In which one of Hengest’s pink spots is in The Wrong Place, and a SAL hits a snag.

They say we show our character by how we respond to adversity. Well, I didn’t throw either a tantrum or my embroidery, so I suppose I’m doing reasonably well. But I can’t say I enjoyed it when two of my pet projects suffered a setback this week.

At least one of them is going to be relatively simple to put right. Time-consuming and annoying, but simple. It involves unpicking the pink spot at Hengest’s bottom left, getting the skein of Tudor Rose 2 out again, and applying it two spots to the right.

Hengest's spot in in The Wrong Place

And I was so proud of that spot, too! The white surrounding it was a little irregular (a small portion of the outline was straight rather than curved) so I set out to correct that with the coloured spiral filling it in, and I was pleased to see that it worked quite well. Then, as I fastened off, put on my regular glasses, and prepared to contemplate my work with a happy and satisfied sigh, I noticed it was straight underneath the other pink spot. And it shouldn’t have been. Why I didn’t see this throughout the time it took me to stitch the second spot I will never know. I have said before that sometimes we are too close to our own work (literally) and need to step back to see the project as a whole, and I suppose that’s what was needed here. Oh well. Today I will take my nice sharp scissors to Hengest once again, and stitch the correct spot.

The other problem may take a bit longer to solve. It involves the mechanics of a mystery Stitch-A-Long, thwarted (for the time being) by the mechanics of using a backing fabric.

This was not the way I had hoped to announce this SAL. It will be my first since 2016, and it will be my first non-Hardanger one, and it will be my first non-year-long one, and all of that I felt deserved a bit of a fanfare when I was ready to spring it on the world, and the needleworking part of the world in particular.

Of course I could have waited for this issue to be solved (if it ever is) and then done the fanfare unveiling and not mention the rocky road that lead to it. But then I thought some of you might be interested in the process of developing a SAL, and all – or at least some of – the things that are involved.

So here is the snag I ran into. The SAL is going to be a Mystery SAL, which means you don’t know at the start what the finished article will look like. In a sense this was always somewhat compromised in my Hardanger SALs, in that they consisted of 12 individual little projects, so that each month you would see exactly what that small individual project would look like when finished – the remaining mystery being what the following months would be like and how they fitted in with the general theme. This one, being one big freestyle embroidery picture built up in the course of 10 instalments, is much more of a traditional Mystery.

And it is the combination of the phrases “one big picture” and “freestyle embroidery” that caused the problem. Freestyle designs are generally worked with the pattern transferred to the fabric; this can be done in more or less detail, but there is always some transferring to be done. And in a home environment that generally means drawing the pattern onto the fabric by means of a lightbox or a well-lit window. Then you add a backing fabric and hoop it up and start stitching.

So far so good. But for the Big Picture to remain a mystery, the various parts will have to be added after stitching has already commenced. My idea was that whenever a new instalment came out, people would take their project out of the hoop, add the new element, re-hoop and start stitching the new bit. What I hadn’t thought about was that what comes out of the hoop is not just the original fabric, but the fabric-and-backing-fabric sandwich. And they will be firmly attached to each other by means of the stitching done so far.

An embroidered project with backing fabric The backing fabric is attached by the embroidery The embroidery goes through the backing fabric

So how do you transfer the new bits? Transferring through one layer of fabric can be tricky enough – transferring through a double layer of fabric is challenging to say the least, and I feared it might prove to be downright impossible. Because of the way the design is laid out, you could just about cut out new bits of the design and carefully slip them between the layers where they are not attached, but that’s not ideal, especially when using a window rather than a lightbox.

My husband, who is an engineer and therefore wants to (and often does) solve things, suggested using the prick & pounce method. (Slight digression to include a “proud wife” moment – how many husbands of stitchers would suggest this, or even know what it is smiley?) But not everyone feels comfortable with this method of transferring, and moreover it needs additional equipment, which I’m trying to keep to a minimum.

But it did make me think of a possible variation on that method. What if you traced the new bit of the design onto tracing paper, then pricked holes in it as for prick & pounce, only a spaced a little wider apart, place it on the fabric and then go through each hole with a pencil to make a dot? Then after removing the tracing paper you could connect the dots for a complete transfer. Again, the nature of the design makes this feasible as there aren’t many very detailed parts to transfer. But would it work? Time to try Prick & Pencil!

On the matter of additional equipment, in the pictures I’m using a cheap children’s pricking mat and pen, but if that is difficult to get hold of or simply an expense you’re not willing to incur, then a folded-up towel and a pin with a reasonably large head will do just as well. The pencil I’m using is a propelling one so it stays sharp, and it’s fairly soft so it makes a good mark. As you can see on the right-hand petal I spaced the holes further apart to see if that would be enough of a guide for drawing the complete design.

Equipment used to try the prick and pencil method Pricking the transferred design The pricked design
Using a pencil to draw dots through the holes The design shown in dots Connecting the dots The finished transfer

And just because I happened to have them handy, I also tried the pricked transfer with some drawing pens, green and black; these are Sakura Micron pens (I transferred only the flower centre in black, not the petals).

Using a Sakura Micron pen A green and a black transfer

So does it work? On the whole, yes. I did find I needed the tracing there to refer to when connecting the dots, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It also takes a bit of experimenting with how close together you want the holes to be, and the light green pen wasn’t as easy to see as the black or the pencil (although it was clearer than it looks in the photograph) so you have to choose your writing implement wisely. But it’s definitely a viable alternative to transferring on a lightbox.

Is it a good enough alternative to SOS (Save Our SAL), though? I’m not sure yet. But it’s a glimmer of hope! And as I was playing with my lightbox, I found another – although transferring through two layers of fabric isn’t ideal, it’s not impossible as long as there isn’t a great amount of detail. The first picture shows a design seen through light blue cotton with no light behind it; the second shows it on the lightbox, and the third on the lightbox with backing fabric. Although the dots in the design aren’t easy to see, the simpler outlines are visible even in the third picture.

Design behind cotton fabric, no light Design behind cotton fabric, with light Design behind cotton fabric and backing, with light

Even when using cotton duck, a heavier fabric, the design lines show up both without and with backing fabric, though again details are lost. Unexpectedly, the most difficult fabric was a natural-coloured Normandie, a cotton/linen mix which is not particularly heavy. The picture shows it with backing fabric, and whether it is the texture or the not-quite-plain colour it would definitely be more of a challenge to transfer new parts to it.

Design behind cotton duck, with light Design behind cotton duck and backing, with light Design behind Normandie fabric and backing, with light

Still, there are possibilities, so for now the SAL is alive! But I’ll keep trying to find better and easier ways to deal with transferring parts 2 to 10 before the real fanfare announcement.

The effect of “more” on a design

We’ve probably all had moments when we were presented with too wide a choice and just ended up saying “I don’t know” and not picking anything. Too much choice can be paralysing. And even if you are usually an extremely adventurous stitcher, there may be times when you don’t want to hear “you can do this design in 5 different colourways, would you like the blue, red, purple, green or neutral, and with or without speciality stitches?” – you just want to pick up a kit or chart that tells you exactly what to do in exactly what spot with exactly what thread in exactly what colour.

On the other hand, it is equally true to say that choice is liberating! Now that I have more shades or Pearsall’s crewel wool to choose from, I can decide whether I want Hengest’s spots to be muted pastels (which is all I had until my most recent purchase) or bright pastels, if the latter isn’t a contradiction in terms. And I’ve chosen the bright pastels (my husband says they remind him of Edinburgh rock). They’re so cheerful that I find myself smiling just looking at them, and I’m looking forward to seeing Hengest in all his unnaturalistic, brightly pastel-spotted glory.

New colours for Hengest's spots

By the way, I managed to fit in irises! (And incidentally also found that surrounding the eyes with a single line of white before working the vertical lines of the face sets them off beautifully while also reducing the dark grey outlines to something a little more subtle.)

Hengest has blue eyes

As I was using that light blue anyway, I treated myself to a few spots smiley. Just the one colour, the rest of the sweet shop will have to wait until I’ve finished his face!

A first few spots

The eyes have it

Last week, Hengest gained a face. And what a face it was. Let’s just say that someone compared him to Claudia Winkleman.

Is it Hengest, or is it Claudia?

When stitching Ethelnute at the medieval embroidery retreat I found that the dark lines we put in for the nose and eyes looked much less prominent once the other stitching had been done around it (the later stitching part-covered it, pushing up against it) so that’s what I expected would happen here as well. But even so, the eyes were very black. Very very black. And I remembered that Ethelnute’s facial features had actually been done in a dark brown. And that, in the past, I had read or heard that pure black is often a no-no.

So I surveyed my collection of crewel wools and pulled out the darkest grey and the darkest brown I could find; because of all the other greys in Hengest, I picked the brown from the more muted, cooler range, rather than one of the warm browns.

Hengest with black, grey and brown for the eyes

Lots of people have come up with comments and suggestions about how to make this change, and mulling them over for a bit I decided to cut out the black, then stitch the outline only in a quick running stitch in brown for one eye and grey for the other. Some people suggested stitching the eyes last, when I have a better overview of what Hengest’s colours look like together, but as I said above, I think the eyes (and the nostrils) will actually blend in better if the other stitching is done around them.

Did you notice I said “cut out the black”? Having read what I wrote about unpicking split stitch when Hengest acquired his unplanned blue spot, a fellow-stitcher asked why I didn’t just cut the stitching out. Well, there I was taking out part of a thread, and I needed to retain enough of the unpicked bit to be able to fasten off again, so the other part of the thread, which was clean and OK to stay put, wouldn’t get undone. The eyes and nostrils, on the other hand, are isolated elements, so here I was definitely happy to take the short cut and use my nice small pointy scissors. And tweezers as well, because black leaves quite a residue!

Unpicking Hengest's eyes Black residue

Then it was a matter of trying with the two dark-not-blacks, in simple running stitch so it’ll be easy to take out before the official restitch.

A brown eye and a grey one

So now I’ve got a brown and a grey eye. And I don’t know which one I like best. I still think the grey would fit in better with the rest of the palette, but in isolation I rather like the look of the brown. Perhaps I could give him grey eyes and brown nostrils! That way I can use the brown, but not in such a prominent position. But no, that’s just chickening out from taking a decision. So my decisive decision is that I’ll mull it over for a bit, perhaps stitch some other wool project, or something different altogether, and then have another look at it and make a real firm decisive decision.

By the way, someone on an embroidery FB group posted a close-up picture of the original Steeple Aston Cope horse, and oh my goodness me, it’s got irises! I hadn’t noticed that in the pictures I used, which were all rather smaller. However, I don’t think I’ll manage to get in an iris in Hengest’s eyes, as he is much more diminutive than his cope cousin. Not in the wool version anyway – it should be possible in the silk though… *scuttles off to find the coloured pattern and add a line of blue*

The original eyes have an iris!

PS concerning my earlier remarks about not posting embroidery photographs which are not your own even if the embroidery itself is in the public domain – they still hold, but I decided that showing the eyes only would probably be all right. If you know otherwise, please let me know so I can rectify it.

A stained unicorn and the benefit of hindsight

Wool Hengest is coming on well, but he is eating wool at a rate of knots. I haven’t done that much stitching in crewel wool, and nothing that was completely covered in split stitch, so I didn’t really have a realistic idea of how much wool would be needed. I got two skeins of Arctic White but hardly expected I’d need the second skein. Well, I do. Here is Hengest after one complete skein has gone into him.

Hengest after one skein of white

I was all set to start the second skein, when disaster struck! No, don’t worry – no-one’s injured, our house is still standing, the cat’s fine. It was a disaster in stitching terms only. And it was one of my own making.

The hoop I bought for this project is a simple 8″ wooden hoop. It works just fine, but there were some rough patches on the outside of the outer ring which occasionally caught the wool and fluffed it up. So I asked my husband for some sandpaper to rub it smooth, he got me some of the finer paper in his collection, and I set to. Carefully pulling the fabric out of the way I sanded the offending bits, which took only a few rubs – the roughness really wasn’t very bad, only occasionally just annoying enough for me to want to do something about it. I made sure I wasn’t accidentally sanding the fabric, but otherwise I was more concerned with keeping any sawdust away from my nose and mouth, as I’m allergic to the stuff.

After a while I could rub my finger along the hoop without encountering any noticeable roughness, so I put the sandpaper down on the kitchen table and took the hoop back into the sitting room. It was only then that I looked at the fabric. And gasped.

Hengest feels blue

The picture above actually shows the stain after I had already brushed some of it off the fabric – it originally showed a bright azure spot where there is only a smudge in the photograph. What had happened? Well, the piece of sandpaper, which was fairly long and narrow, had some sort of blue powdery residue on one side of one of its shorter edges which neither my husband or I had noticed, and this had flopped over while I was sanding and deposited some of its powdery blueness on Hengest.

Of course I was extremely wise after the event, and told myself that what I should have done was take the fabric out of the hoop before sanding, but I’ve got it so nicely hooped up, all snug and at just the tension I like, that I didn’t want to disturb it, so I left it in and there it was. I was by now feeling more blue than the unicorn, but there was very little to be gained by What Ifs, so I got on with seeing whether the thing could be salvaged. A good brushing removed all the blue from the fabric, but the wool proved to be more resistant to my ministrations. Having brushed it to within an inch of its life, it looked decidedly more fluffy but still faintly blue.

Remnants of blue

There was no help for it, some of the stitching would have to come out. As it happens the worst affected stitches were actually at the start of a new thread, so I unpicked the two rows of split stitch nearest the edge. And I can tell you now that unpicking split stitch is not something I would recommend as relaxation therapy. Because the threads are split, you can’t unpick it all from the front – it has to be done half a stitch at a time, and as I occasionally put in random stitches to fill in gaps where the rows aren’t quite close enough together some of it was rather like unravelling a mystery looking for clues (which word, incidentally, comes from “clewe” meaning ball of thread; rather appropriate).

Having unpicked those two rows I wasn’t completely happy with the previous couple of rows; depending on the light they varied from white to probably OK to definitely blueish. And part of the idea behind Hengest is that the whiteness of his body contrasts with the pale pastels of his spots; having part of his body (a small part, but a part nonetheless) pale blue would rather defeat that aim. To be on the safe side, I took those rows out as well.

Blue or not? A clean start

While I was at it I then upicked a small section right at the top of his neck where I didn’t like the stitch direction; I replaced it with satin stitch because with the new stitch direction it was a bit narrow to fit in more than one split stitch per row.

The stitch direction I didn't like New satin stitch

And so after all that, and a day on which I had hoped to get through half the second skein and finish Hengest’s body or perhaps even his head, here is where I am: pretty much back where I started. But – with no blue! And tomorrow it’s my weekly embroidery group, where in between chat and tea I’ll had a stab (pun intended) at getting that body finished; all the time reminding myself that this is a project purely for my own enjoyment, so that it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t get finished until next year. Relax smiley.

Progress...

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!

Mechthild’s bosom

Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night with A Thought. If I really wake up (rather than just being a little less asleep) I tend to scribble a note to self so that in the morning I don’t have that annoying feeling of a brilliant idea lost forever. Admittedly quite a few of the scribbles turn out to be less than brilliant in the cold light of morning, and some are frankly incomprehensible, but on average it’s beneficial enough for me to continue the practice.

Yesterday’s note read: “Mechthild’s bosom”.

And yes, that was actually a usable note smiley.

Earlier this week, still flu-ridden and looking for some soothing, simple stitch-related activity that didn’t actually involve sitting up and holding a needle, I worked on the stitch direction for Hengest and Mechthild, my two Opus Anglicanum-inspired projects. Because they will be worked mostly in split stitch, the direction of the stitching is very important as it provides a large part of the shading, especially in Mechthild’s face. And so it is helpful to have a little diagram handy to refer to while stitching – it prevents one from trying to work out the direction on the fly and making a pig’s ear of it instead of a Queen’s face.

I started with Hengest the Medieval Unicorn on the grounds that he doesn’t have much of a face, or at least not as much as Mechthild, and that I was already quite sure about the majority of the stitching in his case – the most important bit being the fact that his body background will be stitched in long vertical lines following the outlines, with his spots worked in spirals to set them off.

Stitch direction for Hengest

Then on to Mechthild. Her face is going to be done in much the same way as King Ethelnute’s, and her neck in curved verticals like his. Her hair is almost self-directing because of the curly texture (a bit like Hengest’s mane). The challenge with her is her clothing – she has much more of it than Ethelnute, who ended with his collar! The cloak (of which more later) is relatively straightforward, just flowing lines along the outlines. Because there is so much more textile here than on Ethelnute, I will use shading-by-colour as well as shading-by-stitch-direction, with two shades each for the outside of the cloak and the visible bit of lining. But what about her bodice?

Two shades there as well, but I definitely want to use directional shading too. And the obvious use is in her, uhm, curves. I tried some possible outlines and came up with this:

Stitch direction for Mechthild, first try

It was the following night that my note was scribbled. Somehow my unconscious mind was convinced that Mechthild needed a bit of help in the bosom department. This could all go horribly wrong, but fortunately in pencil (or digitally drawn lines) only, so worth a try. My second version, although undoubtedly highlighting the lady’s assets, does make her look a little as if she is wearing one of those 1950s pointy bras; the effect wouldn’t be quite so strong in stitches, but even so I fear it might give the impression that her bosom is somehow a separate entity. In fact it would look rather like Hengest’s spots!

Stitch direction for Mechthild, second try

Back to the drawing board, and for now I have decided on a compromise between versions one and two – more emphasis on the curves, but without the spiral effect. There may still be a lot of unpicking and restitching on the horizon, but at least I’ve got a plan to work from.

Stitch direction for Mechthild, third try

Incidentally, while working on her stitch direction I also tweaked her cloak a bit. The medieval manuscript on which the cloak is mostly based shows it as quite a stripy affair in about four colours. I almost immediately changed that to two colours, hoping the colour closest to the bodice would look like the lining of the cloak, as though the edges were turned back. The only problem was that it didn’t. I changed a few lines and I think I’m closer to the effect I wanted now; but until it’s stitched, it’s open to improvements!

Mechthild with her new cloak

“It is not good that the man should be alone”

Remember Ethelnute on his box?

Ethelnute mounted on his satin box

Well, look what I found in my drawer of boxes smiley:

A companion box to Ethelnute's

A second box, the same size but emerald green – Ethelnute obviously needs a wife! But what is she to be called? Æthelflæd? Gunhild? Alfgifu? Hadewich?

We have a little 1930s car called Hilda (which is a good medieval name) so my husband suggested combining it with Mabel (also medieval, although it tended to be spelled Amabel) and making Mabelhild. Nope. I know Ethelnute’s name was a bit of a hybrid as well, but this just sounds silly. But it did remind me of the name Mechthild (the Germanic version of Mathilda), which retains the M and the Hild(a) and is a proper medieval name, so that’s who she’ll be!

Having decided on the important matter of her name, she needed to be designed. I collected various images of ladies and queens from medieval manuscripts and embroideries (which, being many centuries old, have long since entered the public domain) and combined several of them into a sort of amalgam queen – although I hope Mechthild shows plenty of individuality in spite of that! The colours in the image below are by no means definitive (I’ll decide on that when I start putting the materials together) and it doesn’t show which bits will be gold or gems or beads rather than embroidery, but it should give you an impression of what she’ll look like.

Queen Mechthild

She will be stitched using pretty much the same materials as Ethelnute (Silk Mill silks, pearls, beads, gold twist) but there is one element in the King that won’t be used in the Queen, and that’s the glass gems; I haven’t been able to find any in the right size, colour and type. However, I did find some glass beads in interesting shapes which I think may work: Miyuki drop beads (like seed beads only drop shaped) and Czech pip beads (which look squashed, as though someone has sat on them, and are rather larger). I got some in a selection of suitably “medieval” shades and look forward to using them.

Queen Mechthild with beads

And then there was that medieval unicorn I wanted to design, based on the quirky horse on the Steeple Aston cope. The main changes were easy enough – he needed a horn and a goatee beard. I also enlarged his spots to show off the “coloured whites” I’m hoping to use for them. And as with the medieval queen, I found him a name: meet Hengest (Old English for horse).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn

I was slightly worried about the horse’s bridle and various leather bits, because I rather wanted to keep them (they offer a great opportunity for the use of bling, whether gold or beads or any other type) but they didn’t strike me as proper unicorn accessories. However, a bit of quick online research showed that fortunately there are medieval tapestries showing unicorns with chest bands. My bling was saved! I repositioned and redrew the original chest band to make room for dangly pip beads, and moved his eyes so there was room for bling on the bridle as well. Hengest is ready to roll! Er, gallop.

Hengest with experimental beads

P.S. An important thing about using images in the public domain: even when the original image/embroidery/manuscript is in the public domain, photographs of it are not (or not necessarily). So although you can use the original (in my case medieval) image to base your artwork on, you are not allowed to reproduce modern photographs of it without permission of the copyright holder (which is why I removed the image from my Silk Mill Sale post and gave a link to the V&A’s image of the Steeple Aston cope instead).