An old adversary

Something has been niggling me over the past week. It came about as I was stitching Carousel. And it needs Seeing To.

Are there stitches that you love on paper but which don’t live up to expectations? There is one which has been my bugbear ever since I first heard about it. I even devoted an entire FoF post to it three years ago! That post started “Once upon a time there was a stitch. It looked lovely on paper. It had an attractive name. It got itself included in the Round in Circles SAL. It was stitched up in a model, and given a diagram and a description. So far so good.” Substitute “Carousel” for “Round in Circles SAL” and it still infuriatingly holds.

The stitch in question is the Maltese Cross, also known as Maltese Interlacing, and whereas the SAL had it and lost it, Carousel started without it but gained it. It got designed and revamped long before the SAL but I never got round to stitching it until now, when I was forcefully reminded of the problem of this particular stitch. It is that it Never Looks As Good As It Should. In my mind I know exactly what it should look like, a bit like the braided ornamental fasteners on coats which I have always known as “mattekloppers” (“carpet beaters”) but which I am told are officially known as Brandenburg fasteners in Dutch and frog fasteners in English.

Carpet beaters, Brandenburg or frog fasteners

Intricate, swirly, braided, beautiful. That’s what Maltese crosses should look like. But they hardly ever do. In order to make them work (for me – tastes differ) they either have to be done in very thin thread in two colours, when they look attractive but not the least bit like the thickly braided effect I had in mind, or in thick thread in one colour (yes, I changed my mind on that since 2015) so that the braided effect shows up without the distraction of the foundation colours.

High-contrast, lightweight Maltese cross A single unit of Maltese interlacing

In Carousel, it was charted with a thin dark foundation thread and a thick light interlacing thread – in my stitched model, Caron Wildflowers (Tanzanite) and Watercolours (Celestial Blue). And it looks Plain Wrong.

Malteser cross in dark and light

I was tempted to just chuck the whole idea and put in a different stitch, but I thought I’d persevere and try the thing with two changes: one, to use only one colour, the light one. And two, to pull the thread more tightly as I had seen it done on some Indian embroidery. And then it did work.

Malteser cross in light only, pulled more tightly

So now I need only to unpick the first Maltese cross and re-do it, and then I can get started on the cutting. And before you know it Carousel will be available in all its Maltese glory smiley.

A last-minute rethink

Once upon a time there was a stitch. It looked lovely on paper. It had an attractive name. It got itself included in the Round in Circles SAL. It was stitched up in a model, and given a diagram and a description. So far so good.

But the more I looked at that stitched model, the less happy I was with it. Not with the design as a whole; that was fine. But with That Stitch. It looked fussy. And muddly. And not nearly as attractive as its paper counterpart. It had been stitched in two colours; I re-stitched it in one. It looked a little better, but not much. I re-charted it to be a little bigger, and had a go at various sizes and colour combinations on my doodle cloth. None of them did anything to brighten my day.

In the end I decided to go for a different stitch altogether. Unpick, re-chart, re-stitch, draw a new diagram and write new instruction – better that than putting out a design I’m not happy with!

And what was the offending stitch? A Maltese cross. I still like the name, and I still like the way it looks on paper. I even like some of its stitched versions. I did one myself four years ago, and it surprised me at the time by looking nothing like its charted version.

Maltese Cross

So what’s the trouble with it? I’m not absolutely sure. One problem may be that in the confines of a small design I chose to do a single “unit” of Maltese interlacing instead of this bigger version which consists of five looped sections (four for the arms of the cross, plus the central one). The larger version comes out as a highly textured cross, the single unit just looks rather blobby.

A single unit of Maltese interlacing

A few other ideas I picked up from images I found on the internet, and from doodle-cloth experiments based on them:

  • The stitch seems to work best (for me at least) in two highly contrasting colours, whereas the SAL will in most cases be either all-white, or two shades of the same colour.
  • The version I liked best uses the same weight of thread for the mesh and the weaving (which I didn’t in the SAL design), and quite a light weight for its size at that. I think my combination of a heavy weaving thread and a small size made it look too dense.

The Maltese cross below shows the high-contrast, lightweight look which I think works well, and which makes me think that even the small single-unit, low-contrast version in the SAL might have looked just about OK if it had been stitched in perle #12.

High-contrast, lightweight Maltese cross

However, I didn’t want to add yet another thread to the SAL, and by now I was getting thoroughly fed up with Maltese interlacing anyway smiley, so I will keep it stored away for future use in other projects, and use my alternative stitch for the SAL. And no, I’m not telling you yet what alternative stitch!

A revamp for Carousel

Some designs take a long time to get exactly right. Mind you, I sometimes doubt any design is ever "exactly right" – but most of them fortunately do get to a point where I can say "I’m happy with that" (or even, occasionally, "very happy"!)

How it works for other designers I don’t know, but I find that for me most budding ideas either work or not fairly quickly. In my mind I’ll have a shape, or a colour, or a theme, or even a particular stitch I want to use, and then I’ll sketch a bit, and try out some things on the computer, and generally it becomes clear pretty soon whether or not it’s going to come to anything. There are several files in my Mabel folder consisting of ideas which simply didn’t live up to what I saw in my mind. Being by nature a relatively optimistic soul I keep them in the hope that one day they’ll get transformed into something usable.

There are others which take shape, and almost from the start I feel that they do actually look the way I envisaged them (Frosty Pine and Very Berry spring to mind). It’s very exciting when that happens! Fortunately this is how most of the designs that eventually end up on the website are created.

And then there are the ones which get charted, and I’m happy with them, but in the back of my mind there is a small but unmistakable niggle that they are not quite what I had intended. It’s often hard to put my finger on it. It may be a feeling that the shape is not exactly right. Or that it ought to have a certain something more. Or less. Or different. In those cases, I tend to put them on the Planned page, but they get moved to the back of the queue; there are generally plenty of designs I can stitch before I get to the "might-be-room-for-improvement" ones, and it gives me a chance to have another look at them in a few months’ time.

This is what happened to Carousel. I designed it last September, and it started with a particular combination of stitches I wanted to use. In one of the Round Dozen designs there are four Y-bars (my own invention, as far as I know) around a central square, and they have a rather pleasing lop-sided look:

Y bars

I wanted to use that combination again, in a design which would be a bit swirly, and suggest circular movement. It was at that point that I came up with the name Carousel (it was a toss up between that and Merry-Go-Round). The starting point was easy – the Y-bars. Then I thought spider’s web fillings would add to the circular theme, and beads for the decorated fairground feeling. So far so good, and I put all these things together in a design charted in two colours (a greeny blue, though I wasn’t sure yet that those would be the eventual colours). It looked like this:

Y bars

I had some vague idea that the cross shape and the 8 diamonds around it would look a bit like a merry-go-round viewed from above, but it didn’t look quite right; so it got put towards the end of the Planned queue and I thought of it no more. Then I wrote about this earlier I found some interesting new stitches in a second-hand book; well, old stitches really, of course, but new to me. They were crying out for a design, but try as I might I couldn’t get them to work together – or even to work separately. Then one day I looked at Carousel and realised that the Maltese interlacing stitch was quite swirly, and might go well with it. And the satin stitch braid looked rather like the sort of decorative band you might find around the top of a carousel. And the third stitch I wanted to use (a variety of laced or threaded stitch) was again rather winding and would fit in well.

The time was right for a revamp. Carousel lost its central cross shape and its diamonds, and the spider’s webs were put in as surface stitches rather than filling stitches. The Maltese stitches were put in the four corners, and for the border I combined the braid stitch and the threaded stitch. It doesn’t look any more like a Carousel than the old version did, but suddenly it feels right. It may even get moved up the queue!

Y bars

Two new stitches

Last weekend we were away at an extended family pre-Christmas, and while exploring the town where we were staying we found (besides a needlework shop which, alas, catered mostly for knitters and quilters, and a wonderful but way-beyond-budget deli) several second-hand bookshops. And in one of those I found a book called, with elegant simplicity, Embroidery. Its subtitle promised traditional stitches, patterns and techniques from around the world.

I haven’t had much time to read it yet, but I’ve dipped into it, and it does seem to live up to its title, with offerings from South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe (and that’s only the bits I’ve had a look at).

Although the patterns and complete designs are interesting, it’s the stitch diagrams which are inspiring me at the moment – so many that are new to me and that I want to try out! (It was also fun to see some that I have recently used myself, such as the Ukrainian eyelets in Lviv.)

Two stitches particularly caught my eye, and as I always have a scrap of fabric lying around with some threads and needles to try things out on, I gave them a go. I used perle #5 and #8 on Hardanger fabric, and unfortunately the two threads are not really different enough in colour to show up the stitches in detail; I’ll have to do them again in more contrasting threads. But I do like the effect of the two different thicknesses in both.

The first one is called Maltese interlacing. The underlying "mesh" is stitched using perle #8 – and had to be unpicked because the first time I concentrated so much on counting that I forgot to weave the threads over and under. The interlacing is then done in perle #5. The surprising thing was that it doesn’t look the least bit like its stitch diagram, but forms a highly textured cross shape!

Maltese Interlacing

The second one they called Turkmen satin stitch braid. Incidentally, I’m not sure how typically Maltese and Turkmen these stitches are, or how accurate the naming is – what the book calls Rhodes stitch is nothing like what I know by that name. Anyway, satin stitch braid. This I think would work well both using the same colour thread for both parts, or using contrasting ones. Again my two greens are really neither one thing nor the other, but the close-up should show you the texture of the stitch. I think it would make an attractive border.

Satin Stitch Braid

I may combine these two with another stitch I’ve been meaning to use, buttonhole eyelashes. When I have a moment I’ll start doodling some ideas, and who knows, this may become the first of my 2012 designs!