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 their 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…