Can you tell I’ve waxed?

Commenting on a previous FoF about the Tree of Life SAL, Louise asked about Thread Heaven as a conditioner and we got onto the subject of using beeswax. I use it in goldwork to wax the threads used for couching or otherwise attaching the gold threads and wires, but I have never used it to smooth or tame wayward embroidery threads – I’ve always been slightly nervous of making the thread lose its sheen or look, well, waxy. However, I know of stitchers who have used it and they tell me it makes the thread more manageable without affecting the look.

Then a fellow-member of the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked about Silk Mill silks and when I mentioned how springy they are (I may have used the technical term “boingy”…) she expressed concern that they would not lie flat. Now I’ve only used the silk for split stitch and a bit of underside couching, where this is not a great issue. But in satin stitch, for example, it would be. I could feel an experiment coming up.

Earlier that day I had been re-arranging boxes and folders of designs, and in one of them there was a 3″ flexihoop and a piece of Normandy fabric which I’m sure had a purpose at one time, but as I couldn’t remember what it was I decided it would do very well for this experiment (which I wanted to be fairly quick). In one of the folders I also found a Mary Corbet freebie, the inner part of which was just right for trying out both line and filling stitches. I would work the lines in stem stitch and the shapes in satin stitch, half of the project with waxed threads and half with unwaxed (and unsteamed) threads.

Notes for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I transferred the design standing at an awkward angle over my lightbox wearing the wrong glasses, which is why the lines are not the cleanest, but it’ll do. The experiment could have been done in one colour, but I chose two for a bit of interest, and also to see whether different colours would stitch up differently when waxed. I will readily admit that the combination is not very subtle, but the green is a colour of which I was sent a duplicate in error so I’ve got plenty of it, and the pink (which I chose based on the Silk Mill website rather than on their real-life samples) turned out to be much more shockingly pink then I had expected, so I’m unlikely to use it in any “proper” project.

Materials for the Silk Mill waxing experiment

I started with the outermost circle in unwaxed pink stem stitch. And I’d got about half-way round the circle when something I knew in the back of my mind suddenly came rushing to the fore: Silk Mill silk is Z-twisted! What does this mean? Well, almost all cotton and wool embroidery threads and most silks are plied in an S-twist, that is to say the direction of the thread’s twist is like the slanting middle part of an S, top left to bottom right. But rayons and some silks, including Silk Mill, are plied in a Z-twist, with the slant of the thread going bottom left to top right like the diagonal line of a Z.

At this point a polite non-stitching friend might say “ah”, displaying a mild interest and wondering whether the knowledge could come in handy in a pub quiz some time; a less polite one might opt for “so what?” And it is true that the difference is not always important. As I said, so far I’ve only used this particular silk for split stitch and underside couching, neither of which involves a great amount of twist (in fact underside couching involves no twist at all, as most of the thread lies flat of the surface with bits of it pulled through to the back at regular intervals by the couching thread). This means that the twist of the working thread doesn’t make much difference to the look of these stitches. But when working stitches that do incorporate a certain amount of twist, such as stem stitch or French knots, S-twisted threads and Z-twisted threads behave differently.

Take stem stitch. When working from left to right, the loop of working thread is always kept underneath the line of stitching. This results in that lovely rope-like texture which makes such nice crisp outlines. Were you to keep the loop of working thread above the line of stitching, you would technically be producing outline stitch – and the effect is quite distinct, especially when worked in a thread with a noticeable twist like perle cotton. This is because stem stitch twists the working thread in the direction of its natural twist, causing it to tighten up, whereas outline stitch twists it in the opposite direction, making the twist looser and the line of stitches much less textured.

Stem stitch (top) versus outline stitch (bottom) Outline stitch (left) versus stem stitch (right)

At least it does when the thread is S-twisted; but if you have a Z-twisted thread, the effect is the opposite! So when the stitch instructions for a design say “stem stitch” but you’re using a Z-twisted thread, you need to work outline stitch, and vice versa. You’ll also have to twist the thread around the needle in the opposite direction when doing French knots or bullions, and it will make a difference to whipped stitches as well. You can see this effect in the picture below; you’d expect the green to be stem stitch and the pink to be outline stitch, but in fact it’s the other way round as they are worked in Z-twisted Silk Mill silk.

Outline stitch (green) and stem stitch (pink) in a Z-twisted thread

I’m rather pleased to think that my choice of silk is going to add another learning experience to the SAL: I’ll be able to point out in the blog which stitches need to be worked in mirror image to the usual instructions to get the same effect!

But back to waxing. The finished experiment shows stem stitch, unwaxed (pink circle), outline stitch, unwaxed (green circle), stem stitch, waxed (pink quatrefoil), outline stitch, waxed (green quatrefoil), satin stitch, unwaxed (outer pink) and satin stitch, waxed (green and central pink).

The experiment complete

And the first thing that struck me was how much darker the waxed quatrefoil lines look than the unwaxed circle ones. Whether the coating of wax does actually make them darker or whether it’s because they reflect less light (or reflect it differently; there definitely seems to be less of a sheen), the effect is quite noticeable and would have to be borne in mind when choosing whether to wax. A second difference between the unwaxed and waxed threads shows up more clearly in the satin stitch sections: when waxed the threads look much more cord-like and separate – they don’t blend into one smooth surface nearly so well as the unwaxed threads.

The experiment complete

That’s how wax influences the thread’s look; but does it make a difference to how it handles? Well, waxed it was a little more manageable with less bounce to it, although I was actually surprised how well the unwaxed thread behaved when I was doing satin stitch, especially considering that I hadn’t steamed them. On the whole I don’t think the slight improvement in handling is worth the loss of sheen and the loss of “spread” in the satin stitch areas. Yes, I can tell where I’ve waxed – and I won’t be doing it again.

Choosing SAL materials

Last Friday the SAL materials list was published – high time for me to stop stitching samples and start stitching complete trees! But before I can do that, like every other stitcher who will be doing the SAL, I need to choose my materials.

As I need to stitch both the Plain and the Bling version, it seemed a sensible idea to make sure they differed as much as possible, not just in the addition of goldwork materials. In previous SALs I generally made sure I did at least one version with the most basic materials possible, which in this case would be stranded cotton (DMC for me, but Anchor works equally well) on a cotton ground. This budget version, even if you had to buy everything from scratch (20 skeins of stranded cotton, a fat quarter of medium-weight cotton fabric plus calico backing, one size of sequins and 2 colours of beads) would come in at around £25, and you’d have plenty of leftovers. Work from stash and you can get away with a minimal outlay.

But… but… Even though I know that an “economy” version with standard threads and fabric can look just as good as a more expensive one, I already had two combinations in mind, and I really don’t want to do three trees! So I’m hoping some of you will show us just how beautiful a stranded cotton tree can be, and I’ll show the effect of wool on twill and silk on linen.

First the fabrics. I was about to post pictures of my actual fabrics in action, with the design transferred onto them, and then realised this rather defeats the purpose of a Mystery SAL. So just pictures of the fabrics used in other projects, I’m afraid: traditional twill as in the Rabbit & Carnations, and a densely-woven German linen as in Llandrindod.

Crewel project on twill Llandrindod on German linen

Once you’ve chosen your fabric, there is another decision to be made: To Back or Not To Back, that is the question. Easy enough with the twill – twill is a sturdy fabric that can stand on its own and doesn’t need backing (I’m sure there are exceptional circumstances when it would be a good idea, but let’s stick with unexceptional for now). But what about the linen? Because it’s a good weight and a close weave, I don’t back it when I use it for small projects like the Ottoman Tulip; I did back it with a very light Egyptian muslin for Llandrindod, but with hindsight that wasn’t necessary. The SAL design, however, is not only a much larger piece than either of these, it will also have goldwork elements in it, and I do find a backing invaluable when doing goldwork because it makes all the oversewing of plunged ends so much easier. So a lightweight calico backing it is.

As for hoops and frames, the twill (which will have the design in the larger of the two sizes) is now securely fitted in my humongous 14″ hoop (it’s a monster!) – the binding definitely helps to get good tension, and although it is very difficult to get perfectly drum-taut tension with a hoop that size, there is a distinct drum-like noise when I gently tap the fabric. The linen and its backing will be mounted on the Millennium frame, and I will then lace the sides for extra side-to-side tension.

On to more colourful decisions: threads! The twill pretty much chose its own threads – traditionally it is used with crewel wool, and although it is of course perfectly possible to use it with other threads it is such a tried and tested combination that I am happy to go with it. Added to which I absolutely adore working with my Heathway Milano crewel wools, so any opportunity is gratefully seized on. When I first started designing this tree I envisaged it with leaves in blue, green and purple. As blue and green are also two of the non-leaf colours, this means you can save on your materials by having those two shades double up. With two shades of beads (leaving out the optional leaf-coloured ones) and one size of sequin instead of three, this gives you the bare minimum needed for the SAL. I went for fairly muted shades, especially the purple.

Minimal materials, including Heathway Milano crewel wool

However, I have lots more shades of wool and it seems a shame not to use them, especially as some of them are rather lovely and bright. So I also put together a set with separate leaf colours – muted Aubergine made way for Lilac and was joined by Lagoon and Dusky Rose, as well as an extra shade of beads.

Extra crewel colours

For the silk version I originally picked Rainbow Gallery Splendor stranded silks, which are lovely to work with (and some of which I’m using in Llandrindod), but although there were enough shades for the blue-and-green-doubling-up version, I just didn’t have the range of colours needed for a version with separate leaf colours. I reluctantly abandoned Splendor and had a rummage in my Silk Mill boxes. Their threads are filament silks so they have a lovely sheen; unfortunately they are also rather more difficult to work with because of their springiness (steaming them beforehand helps). Still, I managed to stitch a medieval King with them quite successfully, so I’ll have a go! Some of the goldwork materials in the picture won’t be in the final project, as I put in both options where I hadn’t quite decided yet which one to use (like the two black metals, one rough purl and one wire check). Silk being rather less bulky then crewel wool, I could fit all the threads and goldwork materials in one little project box – doesn’t it look neat?

Silk Mill silks and goldwork materials All that is needed in one small box

So there I am, all set to start stitching! (In between sorting out some issues with my Certificate piece…)

A Sale dilemma

When a shop has a really good sale on and you were going to place an order with them anyway, what do you do? Buy what you were going to buy and spend less, or spend what you were going to spend and buy more?

This is not an idle question. Today and tomorrow The Silk Mill offers 25% off everything. I’d decided last week that I would treat myself to 50 of their silks, and fortunately *phew* didn’t actually place the order because I ran out of time. As they have 700 shades to choose from, it’s been taking me some time to put together a sensible selection of useful colours in four or five shades each. And then there was “Whiter Shade of Pale”.

“Whiter Shade of Pale” is one of their themed sets and consists of 14 shades of not-quite-white – the very palest shades of pink, grey, green, flesh, so pale that they are, you might say, coloured whites. It’s a beautiful set, I’ve fallen in love with it, and I don’t need it.

Silk Mill's Whiter Shade of Pale set

Or do I?

Ethelnute has left me with a taste for Opus Anglicanum, and I’ve been looking for another project. At the Coombe Abbey retreat Angela Bishop had with her a small split stitch embroidery of a horse based on a medieval cope. It was a horse that made you giggle. It had character. I looked up the Steeple Aston cope online and found it had a companion horse, equally eccentric. I drew outlines of both, put in some colour suggestions, altered the reins and bridles and tucked them away in a folder somewhere.

Then I saw the not-quite-whites and thought Unicorn. Not sure why, but I did. And I wondered whether one of the horses, probably the one Angela used as well, could become a medieval unicorn (which means that besides a horn he’d also have a goatee; or should that be a unicornee?). For now, he is just an ordinary polka-dotted horse with mad eyes – but he could be transformed!

Drawing of the Steeple Aston horse

He’ll probably have to lose his bridle and jewels (unless I make him a tamed unicorn), and of course a horn will be added (not too long; I want to keep the design squarish) as well as the chin hair – but I can just see him split stitched in grey with all his polka dots worked in some of those lovely coloured whites.

So will I buy the set? I’ll let you know…

Stranded silks in Hardanger

Having come to the conclusion that yes, you can use silks in Hardanger (hurray!) because there are such lovely silk perles and other silk threads of the right thickness out there, I rather glossed over the question whether any of those other lovely silks could be used as well – not for surface stitching (almost any thread can be used for that, with your imagination being practically the only limit) but for Kloster blocks, bars and fillings.

There was a good reason why I didn’t go into that side of things. I’d never tried it.

But recently I was looking into my collection of silks because someone asked about them on the Cross Stitch Forum I am a member of, and as I was petting all the pretty threads (silks are just so tactile!) I took out a bobbin of Silk Mill stranded silk. It has quite a strong twist, an amazing sheen, and the strands (a little thicker than strands of DMC) looked as though they might do very well as a substitute for #12 perle. Probably OK for bars and fillings, then. But might they also work, 3 or 4 strands together, for the Kloster blocks?

I was trying to finish Patches, I had 9 blackwork Christmas cards to stitch by Tuesday for the ladies in my stitching group, and have been trying to get to grips with our ancient sewing machine to finish a project as a tuck cushion ornament before the big family pre-Christmas get-together next weekend. I did not need Another Project. But be honest, once an idea like that had entered your mind, would you be able to resist?

I’ve got a small chart that I use for any Hardanger thread experiment, the same that I used for the Gloriana threads. So here is the result of using Silk Mill stranded silk on 25ct Lugana, one strand for backstitch, woven bars and dove’s eye and four strands for Kloster blocks.

Silk Mill Hardanger

So did it work? Well, yes and no. It obviously worked to some extent in that you can see a finished piece of Hardanger stitched with Silk Mill silks, and it certainly has a lovely shine in real life. But click on it for a larger version and you will notice a few problems (especially when I point them out to you – something that a stitcher should never, under normal circumstances, do!)

I had expected the problem of keeping four strands of fairly springy and boingy silk together so that they would behave as one thick thread. This was not easy (I hadn’t expected it to be) but on the whole it was reasonably successful, although I did occasionally have to stroke the threads into place with my needle. The bigger problem came when cutting. Because each stitch consists of four separate strands, it is extremely easy to nick one of them. Now I occasionally nick my threads even when using perle cotton or Caron Watercolours, but because that is one thread it is much more forgiving, and any small fraying bits can be "swept under the carpet" as it were, by pushing them gently into the Kloster block. Not so here – when you nick the thread it is likely to sever one of the strands completely, and that is much more difficult to hide!

You can also see that although the woven bars look fine from a distance, in close up they show gaps. This could be remedied by more weaves, of course, but it’s not ideal. So on the whole I’d say that although Silk Mill stranded silk can be used for Hardanger, I wouldn’t advise it; it’s a lot of hassle for a slightly shinier result.

The silk backstitch looks great though, so I may well get it in black and golden yellow for some luxurious blackwork! (Surely you didn’t think I’d end on a negative note about silk?)