A horse of a different colour

My embroidery has been distinctly equine recently, and I’d like to show you some of my progress (and regress; that is to say, unpicking…) on two horsey creatures.

The first is the goldwork racehorse I started at Helen McCook’s three-day class last year. I’d been doing some couching and plunging but a week or so ago I decided that before I did anything more, something needed seeing to first – his eye. The centre of the eye is a gem, and in the stitched model it is round and makes a good iris. But the gem that was in the kit, although a round cut as well, was set in such a way that it looked quite square. It was also rather larger than in the model (at least partly because of the setting), and quite apart from the fact that it just didn’t look right, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to work the surrounding couching properly with the setting extending beyond the design line in places.

Two different eyes

Time to rummage through my stash and see if I could find an alternative. I remembered some tiny oval flat-backed gems I bought last year – might they work? But alas, even the tiniest was too large. How about a sequin? The 3mm flat ones I have would be too small, but what about a facetted cup sequin held on with a black bead? Would that look like an iris with a pupil? And it would still have some of the facetted look of the original gem.

A slightly too large oval gem A cup sequin-and-bead combination that looks promising

I unpicked the original eye, attached the sequin and bead, and gave a sigh of relief. The eye operation was a success!

A much better-looking eye

Next was a decision about the pearl purl curving around the eye and down the horse’s neck. This was a very fine pearl purl which had also been used in the tail, and I’d noticed there that the gold was very yellow. I didn’t think this would work very well against the copper that outlines the eye, and another rummage produced a much mellower-coloured pearl purl of roughly the same thickness. None of the photographs I took quite picked up on how different the colours were, but it should give you an idea.

Very yellow pearl purl

Since last time I also completed both the colour-graded couching and the plunging on the horse’s backside, and here it is as it looks at the moment (you can see the very yellow purl outlining the chipped section at the top of the tail).

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

On to a horse of a different colour, or rather of many different colours – although the bits I’ve been working on have been mostly grey smiley. For some time now I’d been itching to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn; I hadn’t worked on him since June last year! To ease myself back into it I started with his nose band. Once I’d stitched it I realised that if I stitched the rest of the bridle (if that’s the correct term) in the same light golden yellow (Old Gold #4) as I had planned, it wouldn’t look quite right next to the light yellow spot high up his neck. But I didn’t want to use the darker #6 because that was going to be used in his horn (together with darkest #8) and I needed the contrast. Fortunately I remembered that I also had shade #7 in my stash, so the rest of the bridle will be done in #6, and the horn in #7 and #8. One problem sorted, although putting the solution into practice would have to wait as I wanted to get on with his mane first.

And as I stitched the first two locks, another problem emerged. They were far too dark.

Hengest's mane is too dark

I’d worked it out so carefully, too. Because Hengest is quite cartoonish in look, I didn’t want the shading in the mane to be too subtle. All the rest of him is areas of flat colour, with the only “shading” coming from the direction of the split stitch. The mane would have dark locks and light locks, and each would be done in two shades which I wanted to be visibly different, with the light and dark locks also having to be different enough from each other. The design drawing has black outlines, but the stitched version doesn’t, so the locks had to be delineated by colour difference.

I had therefore decided to have no colour overlap between light and dark locks: for the light locks I chose Silver Grey #1 and #3, and for the dark locks #5 and #6 (the difference between two consecutive shades is not always equally large). But #6 was very obviously too dark compared to the pastel tints of the rest of Hengest. And so I ended up doing something I had strenuously resisted for this project so far – I started a doodle cloth. Five combinations of two greys would be tried out, and I started with the darker one in each of the combinations, then added the lighter shade. #5 plus #3, #4 plus #3 and #4 plus #2 were all options for the darker locks, while #3 plus #1 and #2 plus #1 were possible pairs for the lighter ones. Having studied all the combinations I opted for an overlap after all: #5 with #3 and #3 with #1.

Different shades of grey A doodle cloth with five combinations Starting with the darker shades The lighter shades have been added

Hurray! As tress after tress was added the new shades turned out to work very well together, the individual locks perfectly distinct in spite of the fact that they share shade #3. I’d completely forgotten that the direction of the split stitch would set them apart even if the colour didn’t.

The old mane is unpicked Starting the first locks The new mane is growing The locks are perfectly distinct

And that’s the state of the Figworthy stable to date. I love both its occupants, but I will admit to a soft spot for Hengest. He will never be a racing champion (his inspiration on the Steeple Aston cope is decidedly duck-footed) and he will never be decked out in the Queen’s colours, but I think he holds his own against any racehorse in his polka-dotted eccentricity smiley.

Reading about stitching

Many moons ago, on my 2016 London workshops-at-Ally-Pally visit in fact, I had the opportunity of seeing the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V & A. It was absolutely stunning, and I’d have loved to go twice because there was so much to see and take in that my brain felt quite numb by the time I got to the end of the exhibition. At that time I didn’t buy the catalogue, an enormous hardback book that was A) far too heavy to carry around with me until going home, B) far too expensive and C) far more detailed than I needed. Fast forward three years or so and a fellow member of the Cross Stitch Forum mentions that she has been given this book as a Christmas present, and how wonderful it is.

Could I possibly treat myself? Well, ordering it online would mean a delivery to my door rather than traipsing through London with it. That took care of objection A). A bit of Googling found it on Wordery at £9 less than the RRP, which took care of B). And most importantly, in the intervening years I’ve become much more interested in medieval embroidery in general (I’ve recently been engrossed in Carola Hicks’ excellent book about the Bayeux Tapestry) and Opus Anglicanum in particular (I blame the Coombe Abbey retreat with Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray); having learnt a bit more about the style and technique and tried it out myself I would now really like to “re-visit” that exhibition. So that was objection C) done with. And yesterday morning it arrived:

Catalogue of the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition

I haven’t had time yet to look at all the large photographs in detail (let alone read everything) but I do hope I will find the embroidery depicting Jesus’ betrayal which shows Judas and the other attackers wearing, according to the explanatory notice beside it, “striped leggings [which] were a marker of their sinful pride and bad character”. Well, they do say clothes make the man!

Two pictures I would like to share with you, and as they are partial pictures and meant to illustrate a point I hope the V & A won’t feel too upset. First of all a certain chap who looks decidedly familiar – surely he is kin (although admittedly larger and rather more detailed kin) to King Ethelnute of Coombe Abbey?

Ethelnute meets a similar king

And secondly a source of inspiration – the dappled horse from the Steeple Aston cope who is the spiritual ancestor of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. Not having seen the original horse for a while (and not having worked on Hengest for some time either) I was surprised both at how recognisably alike they are, and yet how much Hengest has developed a personality of his own (not least because of that goofy look in his eyes).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn meets his horsy inspiration

The book also contains a picture of a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout reading Hick’s “life story” of that particular piece of embroidery, I found it quite exhilarating to think that if one of the stitchers of the Tapestry walked into our house, one of the few things she’d immediately recognise would be my Certificate set-up of a slate frame on trestles with wool embroidery on linen. In some ways we who do hand embroidery may be closer to those medieval stitchers than to some of our contemporaries who have no love or appreciation of craft.

“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).

What next for a neck?

Ethelnute the medieval king had a full head of hair (with a crown on it) framing a fully stitched face. He also had a collar with some serious bling on it. What he didn’t have yet, was a neck to connect the two parts; this was because there was a bit of a challenge about that part of his anatomy, and it took me some time to decide which of the various options to go with.

When doing split stitch in one shade, indicating a dividing line can really only be done with a change of stitch direction. Instinctively I would have stitched the neck in curved horizontals, as it is done in most medieval embroidery, but because of the way his chin was stitched (lack of foresight there) that wouldn’t show up. The tutors at the Coombe Abbey retreat solved a similar problem in one of their stitched models by adding a line of a darker pink, which you can also see in some genuine medieval examples of this type of work. Even so, it wasn’t my preferred solution.

Stitching the neck in curved horizontals

Another option was to stitch the neck in verticals; although this doesn’t show the roundness and curve of the neck, I thought it would actually make for a rather regal look, giving the neck a proud, erect attitude. However, as far as I can tell necks are hardly ever (if at all) stitched this way in the genuine article, so it wouldn’t have the authentic look. I hadn’t convinced myself that it would work in the tout-ensemble, so that one was stored away as a possible-if-nothing-better-turns-up.

Stitching the neck in verticals

My third idea was to go horizontal, but straighter, so there would be some contrast in direction. The very tip of the chin would still be in the same direction as the neck (indicated by the blue arrow), but the rest should show a clear line.

Stitching the neck in straight horizontals

All in all I was leaning towards the third option, but then I shared the neck pictures on an embroidery Facebook group and several people said they preferred the vertical version! One voiced concerns that horizontal lines (whether curved or straight) would give poor Ethelnute a turkey neck, and another pointed out that verticals, if they are slightly curved outward at the bottom, actually follow the lines of the large muscles in the neck and might look rather more naturalistic.

I was still hesitating when one member suggested manipulating the vertical lines to give him an Adam’s apple. For some reason that really appealed to me, and I also saw how curving the lines outward to follow the neck outlines would almost automatically create that little hollow at the base of the neck, between the collar bones. That was it, I was sold. It was a while before I could schedule a good chunk of uninterrupted stitching time, but when that came round, I was on to Ethelnute like a shot.

The first thing was to put in some guide lines; nothing too precise, just a little indication where the Adam’s apple was to go, and the stitch direction.

Pencil guide lines

I decided to start on the right, which was going to be the largest block of uninterrupted curved vertical lines as Ethelnute is facing away from us to the left (his right). The first few lines were slightly too widely spaced (not very easy to see with the light-coloured silk and the bad lighting, but it’s where the blue arrows point to) so I filled the gaps in later. When I’d got to the point where the curve would have to change direction, I started from the other end, putting in a line with the outline of the Adam’s apple as a guide.

The right side of the neck The left side of the neck with Adam's apple

So did it work the way I intended? Yes, mostly. The division between chin and neck is clear without the need for an additional stitched line in a darker shade. The hollow at the bottom of the neck is not as noticeable as I thought it would be, but there is some change in texture there. And the Adam’s apple definitely shows up, albeit that it is extremely difficult to show the full effect in photographs; this is undoubtedly at least partly because I’m not a very good photographer, but also because the play of light on silk (and therefore the effect of the stitch direction) is best seen when either the embroidery or the viewer moves. Perhaps I need to do a video…

Shading of the neck The effect of the stitch direction

Now the king needed only a finishing touch: a bit more gold underside couching along his jewelled collar. I added a line of green silk as well, to balance the red, but that turned out to be far too prominent, so I took it out again – the gold will have to do on its own. It would have been brilliant to have been able to use my very own hand-rolled gold thread, but alas, that was not to be. Never mind, the gold twist from the kit creates a very satisfactory blingy border, too – and so Ethelnute’s portrait is complete. And if he lasts even one-tenth as long as some of those medieval vestments and wall hangings, I’ll be well pleased!

A far too prominent line of green silk Some last-minute unpicking Ethelnute finished

P.S. The class kit came with an oval flexi-hoop to frame the embroidery in; but I thought King Ethelnute might look rather regal mounted on the lid of one of my satin boxes, and I had a vague feeling there was a burgundy red one among them. There was – but it was tiny! I took some measurements and found that he would just fit. Snugly, but definitely a fit. I went for it and do you know what, I really think his tight-fitting frame makes him pop smiley.

A frame and a box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box Ethelnute mounted on his satin box

A stitch (back) in time

Remember I wrote about having lots of projects on the go last time? Even as I posted it it seemed to me that surely five projects couldn’t be the whole lot – and I was right. I’d forgotten a tiny flower started as a travel project (of which I have no picture as there is not much to see yet) and a Kelly Fletcher butterfly.

Progress on the Kelly Fletcher butterfly

And now there is one more as a medieval king joins the throng! This is the project Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray used at the Coombe Abbey retreat to introduce a group of nine stitchers to the joys of Opus Anglicanum, or English medieval embroidery. It includes lots of split stitch in silk, gold couched using both the usual and the underside method, and some Serious Bling.

But before I say more about the stitching, a little about the venue. Coombe Abbey is an impressive building with lovely gardens, and makes a rather appropriate setting for embroidery of the type we were doing. Atmosphere in spades! Its only downside is unfortunately rather inherent in a medieval building, and that is gloom. Even though the room we were in had relatively large windows, we definitely needed the collection of daylight lamps that had been brought along. As for the hotel reception, anyone with less than perfect night vision would be advised to bring a torch. But it would be churlish to complain about such characterful surroundings – and I won’t. I thoroughly enjoyed my two days’ stitching there.

Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey Coombe Abbey

Can something be both intense and relaxing? This retreat certainly did a good job at being both. There is nothing quite like a long period of stitching time when you don’t have to worry about the ironing or the groceries because they are Somewhere Else and you can’t do anything about them anyway. Very relaxing. But trying to learn a technique that originally involved a seven-year apprenticeship in two days? Very intense.

Of course the seven-year apprenticeship involved rather more than just learning the stitches, and Sarah and Angela warned us not to expect perfection quite yet, so we had to settle for getting a taste of this lovely embroidery. We did so by means of brief talks about the background of Opus Anglicanum and other types of medieval embroidery, live demonstrations (using a nifty camera-and-big-screen combination), and of course trying the techniques for ourselves using the kit provided.

Workshop set-up Talks Demonstrations The class kit

Day one had a lot of split stitch; it was interesting to look at pictures of medieval embroideries using this simple stitch so effectively, using changes in direction to create shading even when using only a single shade of silk. In our royal head this is especially noticeable in the way the spiralled cheeks, chin and forehead stand out against the rest of the face (or will do, when I get the rest of the face stitched…)

Day two had us tackling underside couching, a technique apparently almost unique to Opus Anglicanum; taking the couching thread down through the fabric creates lots of little “hinges” which keep the fabric flexible even when covered in large swathes of gold, as on ecclesiastical vestments. We were told to work a little of it in both silk and gold twist, and then to decide whether we wanted to fill in the entire collar and/or crown in this technique, or to go back to ordinary couching instead. This option was not unwelcome, as it is quite a time-consuming technique (the needle has to go up and down through the two fabric layers in exactly the same place, and must be pulled through just enough but not too much) which requires a lot of concentration, not to mention strong fingers. As I was still nursing an injured hand, I decided to stick to the mimimum – but I’m glad I gave it a go, as it’s an interesting technique.

Finally we got to add all manner of bling; beads, glass gems and tiny freshwater pearls fit for a king! In all it was an occasion which I’d be very happy to repeat – stitching with a group of like-minded people, in beautiful surroundings, with leisurely chats over lunch, and learning more about this wonderful hobby of ours. So here are the two things that made the retreat so special: the tutors and fellow-stitchers, and the project. The second picture shows what I managed in the two days, plus a little work on the crown at my library craft group yesterday. I hope to show you a finished king in the not too distant future!

Tutors and stitchers Progress on the Opus Anglicanum king

By the way, Sarah and Angela were kind enough to give me some feedback on Forever Frosty, and one suggestion which I may well follow up…