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…)

Further twill (and twilling) adventures

It’s been very interesting working on the two twill samples which Barbara at Tristan Brooks sent me last month. The final verdict? I like them both! But that’s not particularly helpful, is it?

So let’s look at them in a bit more detail. I described in an earlier post how the different twills took micron pen transfers differently; now to find out whether they take stitching in crewel wool differently too. First up was the Scottish oatmeal twill. It’s quite a heavy fabric compared to anything I’ve ever stitched on – Lizzie at Laurelin Embroidery described it to me as “a heavy cloth suitable for soft furnishings” and it definitely feels stiffer and a bit coarser than evenweave or plainweave linen. In order to minimize wear on the crewel wool (Appleton’s, which happened to be the only type in my stash) I used a size 22 chenille needle, which feels quite big but works well. The fabric has a nice close weave, closer than the Normandie, and it was easy to pierce it exactly where I wanted to, which makes for accurate stitching (well, as accurate as the stitcher…). I’m not sure I’d use this with silks or goldwork, but I do like it with wool; even using wool that I don’t particularly like!

You may ask why I’m stitching with wools I don’t much like. Good question. It’s because when I wanted to buy some crewel wools to experiment with, several years ago, Appleton’s was all I could find. It also comes in lots of colours, which is convenient, and it isn’t too expensive. But it suffers from varying thickness, getting quite worryingly thin sometimes, and it pills, bunching up when you come to the end of a thread. I have good hopes that the Pearsall’s wool I treated myself to the other day will be nicer to work with.

Back to the project for a moment, and to the non-fabric elements. The design is Kelly Fletcher’s Bloomin’ Marvellous 11, and I used stem stitch (the stem), padded satin stitch (the green bit under the flower), buttonhole stitch (light yellow), chain stitch (the petals), and finally, because the petals looked a bit empty, I added dark yellow lines of Palestrina stitch. I varied the distance between the knots to see which I liked best, but I think they’d all work depending on the effect you want.

Bloomin' Marvellous 11 on Scottish twill - does it need anything more? Bloomin' Marvellous with a few more lines added

The next project was Bloomin’ Marvellous 4. I’ll get the stitches out of the way first: stem stitch (the stem and the outline of the leaf), loop stitch (inside of the leaf), two shades of buttonhole stitch “slotted” into each other (green ring), French knots (yellow centre), chain stitch and lattice work. The chain stitch and the buttonhole stitch, by the way, show how varying in thickness the wool is.

As for the fabric, it’s Legacy Linen twill as used and recommended by Mary Corbet. It’s a much lighter fabric than the Scottish twill, both in weight and in colour. It also feels smoother and more pliable. But like the Scottish twill it is a close weave which makes it easy to place stitches exactly where they should go, and in spite of being lighter it has enough body to take the stitching well without distorting or puckering. (Both fabrics take unpicking well, too.) Because of its smoother, lighter look I can see myself using this with other threads besides wool, making it a bit more versatile than the Scottish twill. But as I said at the beginning, I like them both and will hopefully use them both again.

Bloomin' Marvellous 4 on Legacy Linen Twill, half done Bloomin' Marvellous 4 completed

Incidentally, have you heard of “twilling”? Nothing to do with twill, which is what I first thought, but a type of stitching used mainly by quilters, apparently. It consists of outlines stitched in Palestrina stitch, originally white on white or at least tone on tone (much like Hardanger), but now also worked in colour. As the outline stitch used is knotted I’m not sure it would work for very detailed pictorial designs, but perhaps a Celtic knot pattern or something similarly abstract? Mary Corbet does beautiful things with it on an ecclesiastical linen pouch, outlining a cross. Definitely a stitch to play with!

Normandie and a tale of two twills

Do you like trying out new materials? I do! Threads, needles, scissors, frames, embellishments, goldwork stuff, and of course fabrics. Sometimes when trying out a “new” fabric it’s actually a familiar one but from a new hand-dyer who may have quite a different colour palette from the ones you already knew; fabrics like that, in novel shades and interesting colour combinations, can be a great source of inspiration. Or it could be a familiar fabric but in a different count, like the 55ct Kingston linen I used recently for the floral cross. But at the moment I’m also trying out fabrics that are really new to me: twill and Normandie.

Normandie is a Zweigart cotton/linen blend for freestyle embroidery, and there seems to be a rather freestyle approach to its spelling among sellers; Willow Fabrics, for example, spells it both Normandie and Normandy on the same page. I’ll follow Zweigart’s own -ie spelling. Anyway, for the needleworker spelling is neither here nor there (unless you’re stitching a motto or a name, of course). The other two fabrics are twill samples which Barbara at Tristan Brooks very kindly sent me; one is Legacy Linen twill in a warm white colour, the other is a much thicker and stiffer Scottish twill in (appropriately) an oatmeal colour. I think it is pure linen as well. What I’m hoping to look at in these trial projects is how the fabrics handle, how they take a transfer, how easy they are to stitch on, and probably (though I hope not) how they behave when – oh dear – there is unpicking to be done.

The Normandie I used for my stem stitch Grace Christie strawberries, but for the twill I needed something smaller, and also something slightly quicker to stitch. I fitted both samples in as large a hoop as possible, which was a 4″ one for the Legacy twill and a 3″ one for the Scottish twill, and decided on two Kelly Fletcher flowers reduced in size. To compare it with the Normandie I really should use the same sort of silks, but twill is so strongly associated with crewel work in wool that I dug out some of my Appleton crewel wools; I may not use all colours in both projects, we’ll see how they develop. As for the stitches, I’ve scribbled down a few ideas for the Legacy twill project to begin with. The Scottish twill one will likely just be stem stitch or chain stitch with perhaps satin stitch for the green bit underneath the flower.

Appleton crewel wools for the two Kelly Fletcher flowers on twill Stitch ideas for the Legacy twill project

Only one part of stitching a project has been done on all three fabrics so far: transferring the design. In all cases I did this by placing the fabric over the design against a sunny window, and tracing it using a brown Sakura Micron 01 pen, which has a 0.25mm tip. As you can see the fabrics take it rather differently! On the Normandie, I got a very fine line – visible but easy to cover. It didn’t go so well on the Legacy twill; the line is too thick and bleedy and rather hazy looking; in fact it makes my eyes go funny to look at it (I keep wanting to blink), which may turn out to be awkward when it comes to stitching the design! A thin pencil may be a better choice here. The Scottish twill was a bit more difficult, as it’s darker and thicker than the other two fabrics, and the sun had gone in. Fortunately the flower shape is simple, and for this trial piece it didn’t matter too much if the petals turned out slightly differently from the original design. The line is fine and visible enough, but I did find that the pen occasionally got “distracted” by the twill ridges, which might be a problem when transferring finely detailed designs.

brown Sakura Micron pen on Normandie brown Sakura Micron pen on Legacy Linen twill brown Sakura Micron pen on Scottish twill

The only one that has been stitched on so far is the Normandie (I’m determined to finish Orpheus before picking up anything else, and I’m getting on well). The Grace Christie strawberries were worked in a variety of silks in stem stitch. The heaviest thread I used was the Gumnut silk/wool (which they call Poppies); it’s a little fuzzy and about the thickness of three strands of cotton. It’s easy to work with, but it did leave some fuzzy residue when I had to unpick it. The fabric stood up well to this unpicking, fortunately, and I don’t think you can tell where I had to unpick stitches. This is at least partly because most of the unpicked areas were stitched over again, but the fabric didn’t feel pulled out of shape or slack after unpicking. In order to follow the curving lines accurately I sometimes had to split the fabric threads, and in most cases that was easy to do – any problems there were caused by my eyes, not the fabric.

The strawberries finished The strawberries finished (direct sunlight)

It’s not really fair to give a verdict when I’ve only used one of the three fabrics, but I do like this Normandie. It’s light and it’s easy to trace on, but it’s got enough body and the weave is close enough to be able to place stitches quite accurately. The fabric has a slight slub and some unevenness (due no doubt to its 45% linen content) which I think gives some character to the fabric, and although it is noticeable it doesn’t get in the way of the stitches. I’ll definitely be using Normandie again.

Close-up of stitching on Normandie fabric Close-up of stitching on Normandie fabric Close-up of stitching on Normandie fabric