A pre-sampler sampler

OK, I’m a wimp. My shisha piece is meant to be a proper sampler, which strictly speaking should include false starts and unsuccessful experiments. But I would also like it to look nice smiley. So out comes the shisha daisy, and because it is so densely stitched it will leave an awful lot of little holes in the fabric. Fine if I were certain which stitch I was going to use in its stead, but I’m not – I’m havering between re-doing the daisy version in perle #5, and using the Cretan version. Better try them both out first before putting whichever one I decide to go for on the sampler. And so was born the pre-sampler sampler! From the sewing basket I got some green fabric left over from a cushion project, and some non-descript cream fabric left over from who knows what, and mounted them in a hoop together. Add two shades of Anchor Multicolor perle #5 and two 24mm sequins (one silver, one blue) and you’ve got a mini project.

The pre-sampler set up

In her shisha instructions, Mary Corbet uses perle #5 both for the foundation and for the surface stitches, but I decided to use a matching perle #8. It would have made sense to try out both thicknesses for the foundation, seeing that I was about to try out two shisha variations, but I thought of that too late; I’ll probably try the #5 foundation on the proper sampler. So here are the two sequins secured with a perle #8 grid. You can make the grid more secure by weaving the threads over and under, or looping them round each other, but here I just worked them in straight stitches without any complications.

The sequins have been secured

By the way, my apologies for the atrocious colours in most of today’s photographs; I wanted to take progress pictures but was hampered by the fact that it was evening and the work is lit only by a standard lamp. This meant the camera insisted on flashing (as in the picture above) unless I specifically told it not to (as in the following pictures). Disabling the flash, however, not only made it necessary to keep the camera steady for a long time, the low light also seems to play havoc with colour accuracy. Even so, I hope the pictures will give you some idea of the how the stitches work.

For those of you who looked up the stitches that I’m trying out here on Mary Corbet’s blog, you will notice that I’m doing one or two things a little differently. (Isn’t it wonderful how needlework can be adapted to any stitcher’s requirements, skills and preferences?) Firstly, she uses ¾” card circles in her demonstrations, which equates to about 18mm, whereas my sequins are almost 1″ in diameter. This has an effect on the number of stitches worked around the sequins. Secondly, on the fly stitch variation (the one that looks like a daisy) she draws a full circle around the sequin for stitch placement; I’ve chosen to use dots, so that the line doesn’t show up among the petals, and also to help me place the stitches at regular intervals.

The dots were placed as regularly as I could make them by eye – that is to say, I didn’t get out the compasses and ruler, but used a sort of “points of the compass” division method: first mark dots to the North, East, South and West of the sequin, then equally divide the quarters and place dots NE, SE, SW and NW, then divide again and place dots NNE, ENE, ESE, SSE etc. For deciding how far from the sequin to place them I used a pinkie’s width to begin with, then judged it by eye (not completely accurately in some cases). This gave me 16 dots, which I thought might be enough for the Cretan version (which is very widely spaced and open in Mary Corbet’s version), while for the daisy I could use 16 more virtual dots by going between the marked ones. Both stitches start in the same way, by coming up on the outside of the sequin and looping the thread around the foundation stitches. Here is the start of the daisy/fly stitch version, with the petals anchored on and between the dots.

The start of the fly stitch shisha variation

The next picture shows where a new stitch starts, and also illustrates quite nicely how to start a new thread if you run out before you’ve completed the circle. When you come to the end of your thread, complete a petal by anchoring it. The needle is now at the back of the fabric with nothing to do but start a new stitch, so fasten off and start the new stitch with the new thread (where I’ve just brought the needle up in the picture).

Starting a new thread

Changing threads isn’t nearly so easy in the Cretan shisha variation, because there you keep having to catch the loop of the working thread, so when the needle is at the back of the work the stitch hasn’t actually been finished yet. More of that a bit later; first let me point out another difference with Mary Corbet’s version. When I first learnt shisha stitch, from a book of stitches, I learnt to work it clockwise. Both Mary Corbet and RSN tutor Sarah Homfray work theirs anti-clockwise. Both methods work just fine, they are simply mirror images of each other, but I thought I might as well go with them and go anti-clockwise, especially since the variations they show and/or teach go anti-clockwise too. Except, for reasons I can’t quite work out, for Mary’s Cretan variation, which goes clockwise. Being now firmly in anti-clockwise mode I decided to mirror it, which is what I’m doing here, and why it looks different from the tutorial on her blog.

Working the Cretan shisha variation

As you can see I use the virtual in-between dots for this variation as well; I really like the open look of Mary’s version but didn’t have the courage of my convictions – if I’m brave enough I’ll try the less dense way of stitching it on the real sampler. Even my denser version of the Cretan shisha stitch uses less thread than the fly-stitch variation, so the lighter version would probably only take one length of perle. Here, however, I did need to change threads, and because of the point made above this needed some preparatory thinking. In the end I decided it would have to be done in two stages. First, take the needle down and leave a loop at the front, as usual.

Leaving a loop before changing threads

Next, fasten on the new thread by means of a waste knot and a few tiny stitches near the sequin, then bring it up in the right place to catch the loop (making sure that you don’t get entangled with the end of the old thread at the back of the work). Pull through and work the next loop around the foundation threads. Before taking the needle down the next dot on your guide circle, fasten off the old thread, then continue to work with the new thread. Simples!

Catching the loop of the old thread with the new thread

So here are the two shisha variations side by side, both with 32 petals. I was surprised how easy both stitches were once I got into the rhythm of them, and both are very decorative, though I have a distinct preference for the Cretan one. That variation also uses less thread – a look at the back of the work explains why.

The two variations, finished A look at the back

And finally, two close-ups. These show quite clearly that the foundation threads are visible between the surface stitches in places, but I’m not too bothered about that, bearing in mind that the original Indian pieces Sarah showed us last week didn’t always have complete coverage either. All in all I’m pleased with my pre-sampler sampler – a successful experiment; and now it’s back to the real sampler to try the ligher version of the Cretan stitch.

Fly stitch shisha variation Cretan stitch shisha variation

Shisha day class (and a bit more goldwork)

Last Saturday was my second RSN day class – shisha this time, the Indian style of embroidery that incorporates little mirrors. The tutor was the same as for the goldwork day class, Sarah Homfray. Like last time, it was a lovely day; it’s very relaxing to spend time with other stitchers, improving existing skills and learning new ones. Also very interesting to see some of Sarah’s own work in this style, and some original Indian pieces. I was quite surprised to see that the coverage on these original embroideries wasn’t always as full as I had expected – perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried about the occasional gap!

The kit for the class contained silk fabric with cotton backing, a selection of stranded and perle cottons, five shisha mirrors (a circle, a small triangle, two squares and a heart) and an oval domed “jewel”. Sarah showed us two types of shisha stitch to attach the mirrors, the one that I used in the Shisha box top and another one which is simpler and quicker to work, and two very decorative surface stitches that were variations on feather stitch and fly stitch. There was no design as such, we just each worked on our own personal sampler – a sampler in the original sense of the word, in that it is a tangible reminder of stitches learnt which you can later use as an example. For this reason I worked some of the shisha stitches with foundation threads in a different colour from the surface thread, to make the structure of the stitch more visible; ordinarily you would use the same colour for both, so that any gaps in the surface stitches would be less visible. Below you can see what I managed to do during the class, plus the materials I haven’t used yet.

Shisha embroidery worked in class

I took the embroidery with me to my weekly stitching group to work on it some more; my general aim was to try and pull the various elements together into something looking more like an intentional whole and less like a random collection of stitches. I wanted to add some embellishments (both purchased at the class and from my own stash) and also try one of Mary Corbet’s shisha variations, though without the whipping. It looks very attractive, rather like a daisy. I used it to attach a flat round sequin, with some variegated blue and white stranded cotton from the class kit.

Did it all work as intended? Well, sort of. I remembered to unpick the last stitch of the (pale lilac) fly stitch flower head and re-do it so that it went underneath the first stitch. Not really necessary perhaps, but it offended against my sense of symmetry to have the last stitch go over the stitches on either side of it, rather than over one of them and underneath the other, like all the other stitches. The instructions for this stitch start with a half stitch and end with one as well, but I found that if I remember to tuck under on completing the circle, there is no need for the half stitches.

Shisha embroidery worked at my stitching group

I’m happy with the added sequins, beads, button and French knots, and I like the line of the dark green flower stem of feather stitch (called “little coat hangers” by Sarah’s assistant tutor). As for the shisha variation, I’m not satisfied with the way it looks. I don’t just mean that it is incredibly irregular – I decided to do very little measuring out on this sampler and just stitch free-hand – but the stranded cotton doesn’t cover the foundation threads at all well unless you pack the stitches in really closely (which makes it difficult to have nice defined petals), and the three strands look rather untidy. I was working from memory as I don’t have a tablet or anything like that, but when I looked up the instructions on the website later, I realised Mary Corbet used perle #5; this meant far fewer stitches were needed, and the lines looked much cleaner. And as I noticed there isn’t enough of the blue and white stranded cotton left to complete the stitch anyway, I will probably unpick the straggly daisy and restitch it in perle #5. Or I may try another variation altogether, one that she calls shisha with Cretan stitch (very closely related to feather stitch). It’s quite open compared to the other shisha stitches, but that gives it quite a nice lacy look.

Sarah very kindly brought some goldwork purchases as well; at the goldwork day class I didn’t want to impulse buy, so I researched what I wanted later, and asked Sarah if she could bring the things to this second workshop. For now they are mainly tools: a velvet board for cutting bits of purl on and keeping them in check (pun definitely intended smiley); a pair of serrated goldwork scissors to grip the purl while cutting; a pair of curved tweezers to pinch pearl purl and passing threads into nice sharp corners; a mellor to guide sewing threads over the thread or wire being couched, and to gently push couched threads into shape; and a curved needle for finishing off plunged threads.

Goldwork purchases - velvet board, scissors, tweezers, mellor and curved needle

I’m hoping to build up my goldwork thread and wire collection over time, but for now I just bought a mixed bag of chunky bright check purl (gold, silver and copper), and some finer silver bright check purl (more about that later). And from the many decorative bits and pieces Sarah brought to adorn shisha work with, I couldn’t resist some padded felt shapes and a bag of reddish gold sequins. I admit it, an impulse purchase; but as it was all of £1.25 I don’t feel too bad about it. I resisted some particularly splendid beetle wings as she hadn’t brought the pre-drilled ones, but I may very well get some in the future; Mary Corbet does spectacular things with them in both shisha and goldwork, and while I don’t aspire to the dizzy heights of her expertise and skill I think the wings would make a very attractive addition to less ambitious work too.

Other purchases - bright check purl, padded felt shapes and sequins

Hoping to ask Sarah for a little advice I had brought the goldwork bee. And straight away she corrected my assumption about its body. The reddish bright check purl is not copper, but gold tarnished from long term neglect *oops*. I said I’d thought of unpicking the body and she suggested salvaging the purl, if possible, and combining it with the silver bright check I bought to create stripes. So that’s my aim for when I next pick up this poor neglected insect.

Thinking of goldwork and shisha I was struck by the difference between the two classes. The shisha class was very free – no two projects created that day were the same, even though we were all learning the same stitches and using the same materials. This slightly uncharted and unplanned approach seems to go quite well with the folksy nature of the embroidery, and somewhat to my surprise (I am generally a counted embroidery girl, after all) I really enjoyed this aspect of it. The goldwork class was much more structured, and we all ended up with more or less the same result (apart from choosing different colours for the flowers, or putting some of the secondary swirls in a slightly different place) because we all started with a design drawn on our fabric, and were told which techniques to use where. Of course this is not an absolute difference; you can draw a formal design for shisha work, and many of the stitches will undoubtedly look better if you draw guidelines to keep them regular and tidy. And goldwork, even when starting from a particular design, allows for lots of variation. This was brought home to me when I had a closer look at my latest goldwork scribble, a toadstool with a caterpillar; I wrote down what I am likely to use in the way of materials and techniques, but it could be done in many different ways and would then look quite different.

An idea for a goldwork toadstool and caterpillar

Oh, in case you were wondering: copper pearl purl for the outline of the hood, spirals of couched silver passing (or Japanese thread) for the spots, padded kid for the “collar”, outlined in twist which will also outline the rest of the stem, chipwork under the collar to indicate shade, cutwork of rough purl (or a combination of two purls) for the underside of the hood, couched check thread for the grass with tiny spangles in gold and silver as flowers, and slightly larger spangles attached with stem stitch in gold and silver bright check purl for the catterpillar. With thin gold thread and petite beads for its feelers. Probably. But I may change my mind.

Shisha and goldwork (and more) ideas

I love our pretty little cat. I do. Honestly. She purrs. She sits on my lap. She is sweet. And then, one morning (this morning, in fact) I come back from visiting a friend to find a veritable cat’s cradle of light green perle #8 wound around the legs of the easy chair and the back of the chair at my desk, with enough knots in between to make any needleworker weep.

Not having a proper craft room, quite a few of my current bits and bobs live on the dining room table, and they are obviously an irresistible temptation to our playful feline. Oh well, I managed to untangle the thread, and although I will probably be picking cat hair off it for some time to come it looks quite usable; my husband suggested keeping any small, tempting items on the dining room table in a plastic takeway container so they are kept safe; and the purry furry one has redeemed herself by means of lovely cat cuddle. Until the next time…

On to what was actually meant to be the topic of this FoF: designing. Sometimes I set out to design something – for a particular occasion, or because I want to use particular materials for example. But quite often an idea just pops into my head and I take it from there. Having done the goldwork class last month and looking forward to the shisha class next week my brain has evidently decided that Hardanger can take a back seat for the moment, and I’ve been sketching shapes and scribbling down stitch and thread suggestions. Great fun, and some of them may even get stitched at some point! The shisha designs are mostly variations on the box top I did some time ago, some smaller, some bigger, and using different stitches. The small one I’m hoping to use for a workshop in aid of our church’s building fund later this year; I’ll post details nearer the time.

First sketches for a shisha design First sketches for a shisha design

By the time the new church building is actually a building, and not just plans on paper and the prospect of a lot of fundraising, I’m hoping to be proficient enough in goldwork to be able to work a small celebratory project; below are my first jottings for a little cross. The star shape was vaguely intended as a practice piece, with lots of different areas using different techniques, but then a week later I had some ideas for more pictorial projects – a daisy and a seahorse – which could serve the same purpose and perhaps be more fun to do. I’m thinking of a dark red background for the daisy, and I have some lovely blue-green dupion which I got with the cross in mind, but which might also work quite well as an underwater background for the seahorse.

First sketches for a goldwork cross First sketches for a goldwork design First sketches for a goldwork daisy and seahorse

The trouble with goldwork is that the materials are unfortunately rather costly, even if you do go for the budget options; and I will have to decide very carefully what I will actually use, and get only that. Of course I know that that motto should equally apply to all my other purchases, but the sheer opulence of these materials makes me go all cautious. My husband would probably say that is no bad thing smiley.

Other ideas have been floating around my mind; ideas for – dare I mention it? – the next SAL… it’s taken some time but I think the designs are beginning to gel!

Model stitching and students’ work

The Guildhouse course has ended by now, but there is one project I haven’t shown you yet. Unlike the others, this was not a counted technique. The students were given a piece of satin dupion with a few outlines on it, and a diagram showing the outline and the various stitches worked on and around them. It included shisha stitch and some paisley and peacock feather motifs, and the idea was to produce some fairly free-hand Indian-style embroidery. I’d managed to get some very reasonably priced little round mirrors for the shisha stitches, but I decided to work mine using two fivepences – just to show that you can, really! The other stitches included French knots, chain stitch, couching and buttonhole stitch.

Shisha stitch using a five pence coin The whole Shisha project

When I teach a course I like to give suggestions for finishing the projects we stitch. Some methods only require a bit of sewing, for example a humbug scissor fob or biscornu. If the budget allows I include some finishing materials in the course material pack, such as cards, coasters, sticky-back magnets (for fridge magnets), felt (for needle cases) or in one case a silicone cupcake mould to make a cupcake pin cushion.

A cupcake pin cushion

Sometimes, however, the finishing item would be too expensive to include, or too much a matter of personal taste. I mounted the silk gauze miniature peacock in a silver locket I happened to have, but I didn’t think I could include one in every material pack! It works well as a suggestion, though, and it helps if I can point students to shops which supply finishing items such as pendants and brooches.

Miniature peacock mounted in a locket

It also helps if the shops in question don’t suddenly stop stocking things *exasperated sigh*. I’d mounted the Shisha model in a satin-covered box by Rajmahal which used to be available in a range of sizes and colours from Debbie Cripps. But as I tried to find the right web page so I could put it in the handout for that class it turned out that since I last looked the boxes have disappeared – and the people from Debbie Cripps haven’t replied to my email about them. They are still available from some Australian sites, but unfortunately with the postage that may not be worth it.

The Shisha project mounted in a Rajmahal box

But some students show great initiative, and are not to be discouraged by retailers dropping things from their catalogues. One lady simply made a fabric-covered box herself!

Margaret's hand-made box

I’ll finish by showing you three more projects. One student decided that she wanted her Silk Sampler to be useful as well as pretty, and remembering some of the finishing items from previous courses mounted it in a coaster.

Heather's silk coaster

And probably my star pupil was a lady who had only recently taken up stitching, and so far had stuck to cross stitch on aida. I’m not sure she quite realised what she was letting herself in for when she joined the course, but she took to it all with relish, from blackwork to Shisha to Hardanger with ribbon work – and she produced some of the most regular buttonhole wheels I have ever seen! Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of that, but here are her blackwork card, and her Hardanger.

Janice's blackwork Janice's Hardanger

Playing with stitches

As I was going through my notes for the Song of the Weather SAL, looking at the lists of possible stitches to include, I thought it might be rather fun to include some Shisha glass. I picked some up in the tiny needlework section of a shop somewhere in Yorkshire some time ago, and hadn’t done much with it yet. Now Shisha stitch is usually worked on non-count fabric, so if I was to add it to the SAL I’d have to see if I could chart it for counted fabric. The first step was to work out how many fabric threads the little mirror would cover, how far apart the base stitches should be, and whether I could work a regular circle around the glass using stitches of roughly equal length.

Shisha stitch

It turns out the base stitches need to be much closer together than you would expect! They are pulled towards the edge of the glass by the later stitches, which are a sort of twiddly buttonhole variation, and I actually had to re-do the base stitches twice before I got them right. Then I started wondering – would it be possible to have the Shisha stitch without the glass? You’d have to create a sort of "inner circle" or more likely an octagon of straight stitches, and work into those. Well, I tried, and it’s possible, but it looks a bit flat. There’s definitely a good reason for having the glass inside the Shisha stitch!

Shisha circle

Finally I thought I’d try Shisha stitch in a straight line; make a sort of braid. A base of backstitch, more buttonhole twiddles and voilà, Shisha braid. I like the look of this one, and it’s definitely staying in my repertoire of stitches.

Shisha braid

In case you think I’ve given away part of the mystery in the Mystery SAL, don’t worry – I decided that adding Shisha glass would add another complication to the materials list (not to mention having to chart different versions for different counts of fabric), and I didn’t need another "band" stitch so the Shisha braid has been stored for some future design. I did think up another stitch, though, or rather a combination of two familiar stitches, which may very well make it into the final SAL design – so that one is staying a secret for the moment …