Persistent pounce, tremendous trestles and The First Stitch

Last Saturday was the third of my “contact days” for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. I hesitate to call them “classes” because they aren’t really, although we learn a lot; most of it seems to be done in a learning-through-doing sort of way. As ten students were expected we had two tutors this time, Helen Jones and Angela Bishop, but as it happens only six students turned up so we all got even more attention than usual smiley.

It was going to be an exciting day for me, as I would be transferring my pricked design to the fabric and actually Start Stitching! I’ve transferred designs using prick & pounce before, but only small ones like the little silverwork sheep, so this was going to be a bit of a challenge. Using grey pounce (simply a mixture of black pounce – charcoal – and white pounce – ground-up cuttlefish) I carefully went over all the holes, trying to stay away from the edges of the tracing paper. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in the latter. In fact, I got in a mild panic when I noticed that I’d rubbed a fair bit of pounce into the fabric at the bottom of the design (where the pricked lines actually didn’t get that close to the edge of the tracing paper; what on earth was I doing?), but Angela said not to worry, it would all come out just fine.

The pounced design

Except it didn’t. After giving the fabric a good beating from behind with a brush (apparently the accepted method of getting the pounce off while leaving the paint on; it looks a bit brutal but I’m willing to learn) there were two noticeable shadows below the hillocks. More beating, slightly less noticeable shadows but still definitely noticeable. More beating. Same result. Angela said she’d never known it to do this. The mild panic was beginning to grow into something less mild. Pounce can obviously be very persistent.

However, as there was no way I was going to start the whole thing again (prepare a new piece of fabric, dress the frame, prick & pounce, paint) I’d have to think of something. Helen said she thought the traces would actually disappear as I worked on it, and I decided with Angela that I would simply extend the water a bit. It was originally going to be a wavy line roughly parallel to the bottom of the hillocks, now it would be more of a circle segment, deeper in the middle.

My husband claims he can’t actually tell where the shadows are, and I must say I’m finding them hard to spot now unless I take my glasses off, so perhaps Helen is right and I can go back to plan A for the water, but it’s a reassuring thought that I have a plan B.

By the way, painting the design was an interesting experience in itself. It’s remarkable how, the moment you get the slightly thinned gouache on your fine brush and near the fabric, you stop breathing. Trying to draw steady lines, as thin as possible, while not leaning your hand on the not-yet-connected pounce dots requires nerves of steel and intense concentration. Not being in an old building with creaky floors that move when someone walks across the room would also help. As does remembering to breathe every now and then. Still, between moving floors and not breathing I managed to produce an acceptable transfer, with only one or two places where I may have to stitch slightly more heavily to cover the lines (though of course those places would be in one of the more open parts of the design…)

Joining the dots with thinned gouache paint The painted design

Now that the design was firmly on the fabric, we could roll it up slightly for easier access. As I am still getting to grips with the slate frame Angela helped me do this (remind me never to try and join the Boy Scouts; well, for obvious reasons, but in this case mostly because I simply cannot remember how to do a slip knot!) and before long I was finally ready to stitch.

Rolling up the fabric for better access Ready to stitch

My frame, unfortunately, is not quite flat so I had a little trouble keeping it stable on the trestles (this was also the reason I had been told to do my transferring on a table, with a heavy book on one corner of the frame, instead of on the trestles – try as we would, we couldn’t get it to sit right). Helen suggested hanging a heavy weight on the corner that was sticking up, but as we didn’t have any in the classroom I made do with slipping my camera strap over the offending slat; it’s a fairly lightweight camera but it did make a bit of difference.

We’d decided I’d start with the tree trunk, for one thing because in crewelwork (in fact, in most Western types of embroidery) you work a design from the back to the front, so elements that are in front of others get worked later, and the tree trunk is at the very back of the design. It was also one of the elements where I was absolutely sure what stitch I wanted to use, and in what colours. I’d done a stitch plan but there were still a few “To Be Decided” areas, so starting with one of the Definites felt nice and safe.

At this point I will admit I felt almost reluctant to actually put in the first stitch! But after a bit of lunch I really couldn’t put it off any longer, and fortunately I was beginning to feel quite excited about the whole thing. I started with Very Dark brown chain stitch. The die was cast. More lines of chain stitch, of staggered lengths to help with the shading. Even a little jump to the top half of the trunk. Then the realisation that there was too much Very Dark, and I should have made the last line shorter and switched to Dark. On to my first unpicking, and then to adding the second shade, and beginning to shape the triangular void at the foot of the tree which will be filled with Cretan stitch.

The very first stitches The first unpickings Two shades of brown

As it was getting on for 4 o’clock I went through my homework for next time with Helen, and packed up. No stitching time at home, unfortunately, but I did spend a little time getting my Home Stitching Set-Up just right. Two clamps to hold down the two springy corners (in the hope that over time they’ll give up fighting against the clamps and just lie flat), a stool to get me nice and close to my stitching, and the trestles put up several notches so I can stitch without bending my neck all the time.

The set-up at home The set-up at home

And talking of trestles, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Ikea ones actually work better for me than the RSN ones! Because I use the narrower frame, the trestles have to be pushed in quite close, and I kept hitting my left elbow on the upright bar; I also found I had to wriggle around the right-hand upright bar when I wanted to bring my right hand to the top of the fabric. The Ikea frames have no uprights, and my elbows enjoy perfect freedom. Win-win smiley.

Finally a picture of the complete design, with the work done so far. By the next meeting (late September) I hope to have finished at least the trunk, the vine, some of the large flower, and the left-hand hillock with the snail; I also need to decide on the remaining stitches. I have managed to come to a decision about the colour distribution: the cat is going to be a tabby rather than a ginger (Lexi will be pleased).

Where I've got to after the third class

Incidentally, I found it very encouraging to see a male stitcher at the class – Marcel was working on his Diploma Whitework module. I am definitely going to groom the imminent grandbaby to be a manbroiderer!

A slate frame day

Last Wednesday was my second class for the RSN Certificate. And did I get to stitch? Well, that rather depends on your definition of “stitch”…

I stitched on my doodle cloth – I’d done some homework stitching trying out battlement couching and padded buttonhole for my snail’s shell to show to Angela, and while there I tried some fillings for a leaf. Not very successfully, as I still don’t know what I want to use, but at least I stitched!

Battlement couching A snail's shell Doodling a leaf

Then there was a lot of stitching that was sewing rather than embroidering when we got on to dressing the slate frame (after cutting the fabric exactly on the grain). Sewing the fabric to the webbing, sewing herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and (using a positively lethal bracing needle) “sewing” the herringbone tape to the side bars. My hands got an awful lot of exercise!

The slate frame parts and my on-the-grain fabric The fabric pinned to the webbing, ready for stitching Lacing the fabric to the frame with a bracing needle Some very very tight fabric

I’d been working as fast as I could while still being accurate (I’d even curtailed my lunch break to 45 minutes instead of an hour, and didn’t have an afternoon cup of tea – quite unheard of, as I tend to live on intravenous tea) but by the time the fabric was taut on the frame there was no way I was going to get the design on. However, I did manage to get my tracing (or rather my cleaned-up version printed on tracing paper) pricked so that next time I can get started on transferring the drawing by pouncing (not an inappropriate term with that cat in the design) and then connecting the dots with paint (trying to keep the lines as fine as possible).

The printed tracing The design ready-pricked

In between getting the fabric on the frame I managed to discuss some of my questions with Angela, and have a look at the colour plans I’d done (two on the computer, one in pencil). Over the next month I’ll have to consolidate these into one which I’m sticking with, and I also need to work out a detailed stitch plan. There are some stitch ideas and indications in these colour plans, but not nearly precise enough.

Three colour plans with stitch indications

Several stitch ideas will have to be tried out first on a doodle cloth; the one I started with is not very big and will soon be full, but my fabric drawers yielded a larger piece of twill (you can doodle on calico or any other material, but I like the idea of seeing how it works on the right fabric with the actual threads I’ll be using) which I got some years ago and managed to scorch slightly when ironing it *oops*. This makes it unfit for a proper project, but perfect for a doodle cloth! So this one will probably see my attempts at curved burden stitch for the cat’s body, detached backstitch for the snail’s shell, various shapes filled with satin stitch, and block shading. I don’t particularly like the look of block shading but it’s one of the obligatory elements; I’ve been trying it out on the crewel rabbit & carnations project, which is proving to be quite a good practice piece for this course.

A larger doodle cloth Starting on block shading

So one month and two contact days into the Certificate, what have I got? I’ve got my fabric mounted on the slate frame, a pricked-but-not-pounced design, several colour plans and half a notebook full of questions, sketches and stitch ideas. It doesn’t sound much, does it? But it’s a start, and next time I am definitely going to get stitching on the real thing!

Working with a late frame

No, that’s not a typo – it’ll become clear in a bit smiley.

Yesterday was my unexpectedly soon first day of the RSN Certificate’s Jacobean module. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but went armed with colour schemes, scribbles, sketches and a head full of ideas, as well as a pencil case with the recommended tape measure, ruler, pencil and notebook plus a thin paintbrush added on my own initiative and a mellor and tweezers (I was using the goldwork pencil case which they live in and thought they might come in handy; as it happens, it would have been better if I’d left in the screwdriver I use to tighten hoops – I’d taken it out as it’s quite heavy and I wasn’t expecting to be using a hoop. I was mistaken.)

There were six of us in total, three in the final stages of the Jacobean module, one in the middle of silk shading, one coming towards the end of her stumpwork, and me. Tutor for the day was Angela Bishop. As everyone was setting up I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the work in progress. I was particularly taken with Yin’s nearly completed crewel piece, especially her owl, which used bullion knots for the toes gripping the branch on which he sat – a clever idea which she was happy for me to file away for future reference.

Yin's owl's toes

As Angela prepared to get me started we hit a snag. The 18″ slate frame which I’d ordered had not arrived. Time for Plan B, which involved getting on with the design process instead. We talked through the colour schemes I was considering and the elements I wanted to include, and she answered a few questions I’d noted down about the twill fabric and some stitches; then I was provided with several books about crewelwork, a photo album of previous Certificate projects, tracing paper and a box with samples of the complete range of Appleton’s crewel wool. Angela told me to collect the various elements of my design together, trace and/or draw them and then play with size and placement. I set about doing this, but couldn’t resist having a go at the wool first. There was only one suitable turquoise series (helpfully called Turquoise), but several possible browns and pinks.

Finding Appleton's colours to match my DMC choices

Eventually I settled for Turquoise, a muted brown series called Chocolate, and accent colours from the Coral series. Then some serious drawing began, and also a conversation about copyright. As you know I try to be extremely careful about copyright, and so I was a little surprised when, having shown Angela a tulip motif from a design in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery, I was told I needn’t actually change or adapt it, I could use the flower as it stood; in the final embroidery it would look different from the original because I’d be using different colours and stitches, and – the most important point – it would be used in a personal piece, stitched for educational purposes. I’m so used to looking at designs from the point of view of turning them into chart packs or workshops (i.e. using them commercially) that I hadn’t considered the different situation I am in as a Certificate student! So I traced the tulip to incorporate into the design, although one of my aims before my second class is to do an alternative version with an adapted “carpet flower” (from a carpet used in the church where we worship) just to see which I like best.

Sketch with wool colours

I put all the elements together, plus a few small additions, and then Angela came to have a look and commented on elements that were perhaps too small, or superfluous, or would be better placed slightly higher or lower. After taking in her comments and advice and making some alterations, it was time to produce a clean line drawing, done in drawing pen on tracing paper and reducing the detail in some of the elements to those lines that need to be transferred. This (apart from the possible change in flower) is the design I’ll be starting with – though not necessarily, as Angela warned me, what I will end up with!

The line drawing of my Jacobean design

What else did I do? Actually, it’s remarkable how long all this took, so there wasn’t a lot of time for other things. But we did look at a small crewel piece I started some time ago (the rabbit with carnations) so I could ask Angela’s opinion about some of the stitches; I was surprised to hear that not pre-outlining my fishbone leaf in split stitch was actually correct, and gratified that she thought most of the outline was very good (apart from one bumpy bit). We agreed that the shading was a bit too blocky and discussed ways of making the colour transitions gentler, as well as talking about the stitch direction in the leaf – she suggested using small “extra” stitches to smooth out the curve where necessary. I also learnt more about where to use a split stitch outline on long & short stitch and buttonhole shading, and equally importantly, where not to.

Crewel rabbit with carnations A fishbone leaf

We also went through the content of the bag that is part of the introductory kit – all the paperwork about the course, including the design brief and instructions on setting up the slate frame and mounting the finished work, and materials and tools needed for transferring and eventually mounting the design and preparing the frame (the bracing needle, that chunky curved piece of metal stuck in a cork, is stuck in a cork for a reason, as my husband found out when he took it out before I could say “be careful with that, it’s very sharp!” – it is used for taking the thick string with which the fabric is tensed through the webbing; I have as yet no idea what the extremely large piece of plastic is for, as I forgot to ask).

An intriguing purple bag Paperwork, some boring but important, some very interesting Materials for transferring the design, setting up the slate frame and mounting the work

My homework for next time (22nd May) is to produce two colour plans, a tonal plan (black & white, showing light and dark) and a stitch plan, and to try out trellis stitch and laid work on a doodle cloth. I’m also going to play with that large flower, possibly producing and alternative design (with its own colour plan etc.) and make changes to the rock the snail is sitting on (I’ll explain why in a future post). Angela assured me that I’m still on track – I’m just more or less reversing the first two classes, getting the design work done before learning how to set up the slate frame. So I’ve had fun playing with colours and ideas, and I’ve got a little longer to get used to the idea of using something that large to hold my fabric; I’m happy with that smiley.

Colours and scribbles

Thinking of my quickly approaching first day of the RSN Certificate I began to wonder what exactly I would be doing from 10am till 4pm. There is no set project to work on, everything you stitch for the various modules has to be your own design. So besides learning how to dress a slate frame, which I sincerely hoped wouldn’t take from 10 till 4, whatever else I’d be doing it seemed unlikely it would be stitching. Discussing design ideas with the tutor, perhaps?

I decided to ask on the Mary Corbet FB group what my first day of the Jacobean crewelwork module was going to be like, as I knew the group boasts quite an impressive number of people with RSN Certificate experience. Although a lot of the reactions were enlightening, they did at times seem a little contradictory, with one person saying she hadn’t stitched at all until after her first class, while another had her frame set up, her design prick-and-pounce transferred, and her first stitches worked, all during that first meeting. Hari the Helpful Education Manager had told me that the programme was very much tailored to each individual, so that presumably accounts for some of the differences.

One piece of advice that came from almost all those who replied was, “Go well-prepared”. This was slightly unnerving, as I had by then not received any information about what to bring to the class and what, if anything, to do beforehand. Partly my own fault for jumping at the chance to start a month early, and consequently leaving the Education Team about two days until my first tutorial day, but even so distinctly unsettling.

Fortunately an email entitled “Joining Instructions” arrived this morning, so I am now a little better-informed; I have added a tape measure, small ruler, notebook and several other useful items to my project box as suggested, and printed and studied the design brief. I soon realised that the main challenge was going to be the restriction on colours: five shades each of two colours, plus two shades of an accent colour. Studying other people’s Certificate pieces online made it all to clear that there is virtually no colour combination that hasn’t been tried yet, but my own instinctive preference (influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jacobean designs are generally plant/tree-based, albeit in quite a stylised way) clearly veered towards either green or brown as one of the main colours.

Unfortunately I do not have an Appleton shade card – well, only a digital one, and we all know how accurately colours are represented on a computer screen. So I decided to work by proxy, and choose a few colour combinations from my collection of DMC. I’d be unlikely to find exact equivalents in the Appleton range, but at least it would give my tutor (Angela Bishop, with whom I have taken several classes before) some idea of what I was aiming for. Having discarded green as too dominant (yes, I know there are subdued shades of green as well, but I felt it would still be in danger of taking over) I chose some muted browns, which I hope to combine either with not-too-bright turquoises or subdued pinks, with gingery/orangy shades for my accent colour.

Brown and turquoise colour scheme Brown and pink colour scheme

What many helpful group members mentioned as well, was to go furnished with plenty of ideas and sketches. Well, that wasn’t likely to be a problem – if anything I probably have too many ideas for a design that has to be less than A4 size. I’ve even been sketching ideas for canvaswork, a module I’m not planning on doing! So I’ve gathered all my sketches and photos and scribbles and will bring them all along. We’ll see which bits survive the weeding-out process.

Sketches and photographs

By the way, one of my sketches is of Lexi in her stretching-with-backside-and-tail-in-the-air pose, and I really want to include her. But the limitation on colours made me wonder whether that would be possible. Then my husband suggested I could use our previous cat, the lovely ginger Alfie, instead; it was partly this that led me to choose ginger/orange as my accent colour. I just hope it won’t put Lexi’s little pink nose out of joint!