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…

Shopping and workshopping

Some three weeks ago (where does the time go!) I was at the Knitting & Stitching Show in Alexandra Palace, having a jolly good time both as a tutor and as a stitcher going round the stands. I’m really enjoying the combination – my stash of fabrics, threads and other bits and bobs is so well-stocked after years of stitching that I’m not sure two days of solid shopping would on its own be a reason for going, but mixed with teaching workshops it’s great.

And I didn’t just shop, either: in between looking for silks and buttons I wandered onto a stand where you could learn to knit or crochet. I’m OK with crochet, but knitting, in spite of several attempts and in spite of having a knitting grandmother, mother, aunts and mother-in-law, has so far eluded me. I only had about 20 minutes before the next workshop, but the kind volunteer teaching me to cast on, knit and purl was so clear and helpful that I managed to produce something which, though not in any way aspiring to being useful (it will never become a jersey or even a dishcloth), did at least look like acceptable knitting. A very proud moment!

A tiny bit of knitting

I did do some shopping as well, of course, and bought a few supplies (spending all of £7). Having learnt the basics of soft string padding at my RSN goldwork class the day before, I got a card of soft string to practice with at home (well, I couldn’t possibly go to Golden Hinde’s stand and not buy at least one thing), and from John James’ stand I got some good value petite tapestry needles for the Christmas Wreath kits and the Butterfly Wreath workshop.

Purchases at the 2017 Knitting & Stitching Show

There is a third item in the picture above: ten little wooden floral buttons. They are the culmination of a two-year search, which sounds much more serious than it is smiley. You may remember I stitched an elephant for our niece’s wedding, and that after things going rather badly wrong during the finishing process it did eventually turn into quite a nice card, embellished with four small wooden floral buttons. As I’d originally bought five, at a previous Knitting & Stitching Show, I had one left. And I really liked them. So I tried to find some more, both at the K & S and in shops – unsuccessfully, until this October. Yes, this time I finally found the exact match to my remaining button – yay!

A Wedding Elephant Matched buttons

What I forgot to do, however, is make a note of who sold them, so if I want any more the whole search will have to be repeated … My task for next year: find the stand that sells the buttons and write down the name!

One thing I did notice – and it may not be as bad or as widespread as it looks to me; I hope it isn’t – is that fewer small independent shops have stands. Kate at Sparklies pulled out several years ago, and this year The Calico Cat, from whom I had hoped to purchase some 3-yard skeins of Gloriana silk, was absent. Both mentioned spiralling costs as one of the reasons that they didn’t come to the Knitting & Stitching Show any more. It seems to me that the K & S are shooting themselves in the foot here, as it is surely these small shops, often one-woman or husband-and-wife outfits, that make the show so interesting. Yes, being able to buy needles at a discount from John James, to name but one of the “big” names, is useful, but it’s the relatively unknown designers, the makers of unique hand-dyed threads and fabrics, the purveyors of kits you could only get from them, who make us come back year after year. Or am I projecting my own ideas onto everyone else? When you go to a Show like this (or if you had the opportunity to go), why do you/would you go? What makes it interesting to you? I’d love to hear.

And then there were the workshops. I do enjoy those! Especially when the people coming to them tell me that they have enjoyed them too smiley. Here is a small impression of what was produced at the Shisha, freestyle and embellished embroidery workshops, including my own very artistic doodle cloth. (Incidentally, K & S, slightly more inspiring surroundings to teach the workshops in would be really nice…)

The Shisha workshop The freestyle workshop The workshop doodle cloth  
 Some of the Shisha projects Some of the embellished projects Some of the freestyle projects Some more embellished projects

Kits. Lots of kits.

When I started Mabel’s Fancies, it was because I found that other people liked the things I’d been designing for my own use, and as I had some experience in writing websites it seemed a good idea to set one up for myself and offer the designs for sale, thus to at least partly finance my hobby. My husband, ever ambitious, has long urged me to expand and go for world domination, but I’m perfectly happy for it to stay small-scale and bring in some stash money so I don’t have to worry about buying goldwork threads or hand-dyed fabrics.

To this end, I decided that digital chart packs were the way to go. There was a bit of a scare a while back when it looked like I would have to charge VAT for every digital sale abroad and make sure that it was the correct VAT for whatever country the buyer was from, which would have put a complete stop to that side of Mabel’s Fancies, but fortunately the law turned out not to apply to things sent out by email. Phew.

Quite early on in Mabel’s existence I did add one kit (or rather a set of three kits) to the range: the Mini Needlebook kits for people who wanted to try out Hardanger. Between them they cover the three most common bars and filling stitches, and you end up with one or more usable needlebooks. And that was it. A few tools were added, like squissors, but on the whole most of Mabel’s fancies were digital ones.

Set of Hardanger needle matchbooks

Then I started teaching classes and workshops. And for those classes and workshops I needed to provide material packs. And as I was putting those together I thought I might as well put together a few more and bung them on the website, and so the needlebook kits were joined by bookmarks and notebooks and coasters (all in Hardanger), as well as a number of cards in Shisha, freestyle, tactile and embellished embroidery. It was definitely expansion, though fortunately still a long way away from the world domination advocated by my husband.

On the whole, I can get away with making up a few kits at a time, or even just making them up as and when they are needed. I’ve got two boxes with kit materials, some of them pre-cut, and so putting a single kit together when it’s ordered is fairly quick, and it means I’m not taking up storage space which is rather at a premium in our house. Even when it’s a single workshop, which is usually for a maximum of twelve people, it’s all quite manageable. It’s when there are three or (as now) four workshops looming that the production line begins to get a bit overwhelming.

And so this is what our house has been looking like for the past week or so:

Preparing Shisha kits And more Shisha kits Preparing Wildflower kits Preparing Butterfly Wreath kits
And more butterfly kits Cutting the fabric Ironing the fabric Transferring the patterns

You may have noticed, by the way, the complete and slightly surprising absence of Cat in these pictures. Lexi took pity on me and decided not to spread her fur onto the fabric, tangle the threads in a play-fight or photobomb the FoF pics. She confined herself to attacking and killing a few off-cuts – I am much obliged to her.

A successful workshop and a swarm of bees

Last Saturday was the first of the three Freestyle Embroidery workshops in aid of the Dunchurch Baptist Church building fund; I found myself doing some last-minute preparations around lunchtime (transferring the design to twelve pieces of blue cotton and putting them in hoops with some backing fabric) but fortunately got everything done in time *phew*.

When we got to the church, 45 minutes before the workshop was about to start, two ladies were already waiting – they were from relatively far away and hadn’t been sure how long the journey would take, although I hope their early arrival was at least partly due to enthusiasm and eagerness as well!

The twelve participants came from a wide range of ages, from 14 to 90, which was lovely; but they were all women. Not that I mind women, you understand – I am one myself, after all – but I know for a fact that there are some very talented male stitchers out there. What keeps them from attending these stitching workshops? Is it seen as unmanly? Are they afraid people might spot them as they stealthily creep out of the church, clutching a piece of stitching? I hereby call on all men, stitchers or not, to come and have a try; it’s not difficult, or scary, or dangerous, and if you can wield a precision screwdriver a needle and thread should hold no terrors for you.

By the way, do you remember Katie my helpful guinea pig, who tried out workshop kits for me to see if they were suitable for young stitchers? She was there, and was by far the fastest stitcher. That’s what dedicated concentration does for you smiley.

Everyone enjoyed the afternoon, and in spite of a good amount of chatting, and some time spent on tea or coffee with biscuits and buttered scones (the latter kindly donated by one of the participants), by the end of the afternoon twelve wildflower gardens were flourishing in various degrees of completeness.

Fierce concentration A relaxing cup of tea Good progress

I have been told of at least three that have been finished since then – and indeed more than finished. Jenny was not satisfied with her first bee, and so with laudable determination she kept on trying until she was. If any of the flowers in her garden fail to get pollinated, it won’t be for lack of effort on her part!

A swarm of bees

One workshop down, two more to go, and in an attempt to be more organised I am getting the kits ready now. Ironing the fabric, cutting it to size and transferring the design to it; printing the instructions and attaching the cover photographs to them; sticking 2 needles per kit into a bit of felt; folding the cards, inserting them into their envelopes and adding a piece of wadding each; and my favourite bit, getting the threads together. Don’t you just love playing with colourful stranded cottons?

The Wildflower Garden kits, without threads Threads for the Wildflower Garden kits

A workshop and too many projects

The weekend before last I taught the first of my three shisha workshops in aid of our church’s building fund. As one of the ladies attending brought cake for everyone, we can safely say it was a great success smiley.

Progress - with cake

But even ignoring the cake (not easy – there was chocolate cake, carrot cake, coffee & walnut…) it went very well, with ten ladies practising their needle skills and producing their very first piece of shisha embroidery. Would you like to see how they did?

Fleur's card Gill's flower Sam's card My doodle cloth

That last, rather abstract version is my doodle cloth (yes, that sequin is very purple), which I use to demonstrate stitches. The next workshop will be on 13th June, and the last one, which still has places available, on 11th July.

My preparatory stitching for these workshops has long been done, but there is plenty more on my Would Like To Stitch list; and being a bit of a serial starter I now have five projects on the go with several waiting in the wings. Actually being stitched at the moment (on a sort of rota basis): the goldwork balloon, my Pearsall’s wool experiment, the second Wedding Elephant, a set of birthday coasters for my mother, and Join the Band, a Hardanger and surface stitch band sampler. Nagging to be started: the Tree of Life, several Kelly Fletcher designs, and the little goldwork project whose design I’m using for my wool experiments. Waiting to be charted: a goldwork toadstool, flower & seahorse (not all in one design, I hasten to say), several “outline” designs to be worked in stem stitch, and the Round in Circles SAL.

Could someone please leave me a fortune so I can retire?

Shisha sampler finished!

After the two experiments on my pre-sampler sampler I decided that the condemned blue & white daisy would be replaced by the more open version of the Cretan shisha variation. A closer look at the sampler confirmed something I had vaguely suspected before, namely that the 24mm sequin was too big for where it was. A rummage through my modest stash of shisha materials produced a bag of 18mm mirrors, which I bought for a class I taught some time ago. Just the size Mary Corbet was working with in her instruction pictures, so that would work very well – I could now be fairly sure that the 16-dots-only version of the Cretan stitch would come out all right. I picked a rather chipped mirror as I wouldn’t be able to use that in a class and it would do perfectly well for a sampler. (Do you find yourself doing that, when teaching someone to stitch, or passing on some threads or materials? Saying “well, it would be all right for me but I couldn’t possible give it to someone else”?)

The daisy has been unpicked, and a new mirror chosen

As I had feared, the holes from unpicking the daisy were quite visible, and using a smaller mirror meant I wouldn’t be covering them with the shisha, so I mulled over various options in the back of my mind while working the Cretan stitch; I could go over the holes in French knots, or beads, or small sequins, or perhaps chain stitch. Oh well, let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.

16 dots have been drawn, and the foundation stitches laid

In the end, I decided not to do any of these things. I did add sequins and beads, but only to balance the overall look of the sampler, giving it a vaguely circular outline and filling in a few obvious gaps. The unpicking holes will be part of the sampler, a reminder that you don’t always get things right first time round. As for the Cretan stitch, I definitely like the way it turned out and will be using it again; probably only with the smaller mirrors, though, which I think look a bit daintier than the big sequins (unless you’re doing a really chunky piece that will be seen from some distance away, like a wall hanging).

The finished shisha sampler The finished shisha sampler

In fact, as I was considering using this stitch again, I thought it would make rather a pretty floral design with some stems and leaves added. So back into the hoop went my shisha experiment, and out came some DMC floche, variegated stranded cotton and blending filament. Some stem stitch and fishbone stitch later the two shishas had become part of a flowery whole.

Stems and leaves added to the Shisha experiment Fishbone stitch leaf in stranded cotton and blending filament

After that, it was a small step to cards. Using the less dense Cretan variation with a smaller sequin or mirror, with a scroll and a leaf to complete it, makes a quick and very attractive card for birthdays or other celebrations – and of course the colour of the flower can be adapted to the receiver’s preference. Tucked away in a drawer somewhere were some pretty aperture cards that were just the right size for this project, and, well, I’ll be making a few more of these in the near future! Not only that, but the design struck me as just the right project for the 2-hour workshop I’m planning in aid of our church’s building fund. Slightly different stitches, probably, like chain stitch and fly stitch; a blue background; cheerful yellow shell discs instead of sequins; some spangles…

Small shisha card

But first it’s back to the golden bee and watering can, and, at some point, Orpheus!

Workshops both ways

I’ve got workshops on the brain at the moment. For one thing, tickets for the Knitting & Stitching Show workshop at Alexandra Palace are now available, so if you’re coming to the show on Friday 10th October and you’d like to try your hand at Hardanger (or brush up your skills, or simply spend some time stitching with like-minded people) do join me there.

Then there were the two workshops at Dunchurch Baptist Church, held in aid of the building fund on the last Saturday in June and the first Saturday in July. They were great fun to do because none of the ladies there (no gentlemen, unfortunately – are they shy about their needle skills? Or were they all occupied in polishing their car or playing cricket?) had ever tried Hardanger before, and several hadn’t really done much needlework at all. Did that matter? No! In fact, as one lady said, “It’s remarkable! We didn’t know anything about it and now, only two hours later, we’ve made something really pretty.” There are few things more gratifying than to watch someone cut and remove the threads for the first time and then give a delighted gasp because there, as if by magic, is that airy pattern of five holes. They all did really well and I am proud to show some of their work here:

June workshop July workshop
Anna's needlebook Claire's needlebook Linda's needlebook

But it’s not just teaching – I’ve booked myself a workshop as well, or to be precise a Royal School of Needlework Day Class. They do some in Rugby now, which is too good an opportunity to miss! So I’ve signed up for goldwork, and the fact that it’s on 6th December, the day after St Nicholas Eve, makes a great excuse for a present to myself. No previous experience is required, so having done one of the RSN’s short workshops (the lovely dragonfly below) at the Knitting & Stitching Show two years ago is a bonus and should help me not make a complete fool of myself smiley.

A goldwork dragonfly done at the 2012 K&S

Putting things together and building things up

Not too much stitching this week, but a lot of preparation – I’ve been putting the kits together for the Knitting & Stitching Show workshop next month (there are still some tickets available), and getting some more card and felt for the Dunchurch workshop in June. For the pink floral card I can’t quite decide whether it looks better with the baby pink or the bright fuchsia felt! By the way, did you notice the small coloured rings that hold the threads for the K&S kits? They were an unsuccessful attempt at finding a replacement for my light wooden storage rings; unfortunately they were far too small to store full skeins of perle on, but they turned out to be just the right size to hold the threads for one Hardanger patch – and they look bright and cheerful into the bargain.

Putting together the workshop kits Card and felt for the Dunchurch workshop kits

Another thing that needed some preparation and putting together was Treasure Trove. I’ve done a fair bit of the surface stitching (just half the border to go) so it was time to start on the goldwork. For this I needed 4 tiny yellow felt circles, 4 slightly larger yellow felt circles, and four gold kid octagons. After some deliberation I decided on 8mm and 14mm for the felt circles; the gold octagons would be cut from 2cm squares. I measured everything carefully, cut it all, and then panicked – surely these minute bits of felt and kid couldn’t possibly be the right size? But fitting them to the running stitch outlines I had previously worked as a guide, they were just right. I could see I was in for some very fiddly stitching, securing first the smallest circle, and then the larger one covering it, both accurately centred inside the running stitch outline.

Gold kid and felt cut to size for Treasure Trove

As it looked like the sort of stitching that would need fierce concentration, I decided to do it at my very chatty and distracting stitching group. Apart from one knot-and-loop at the back of my work which I noticed too late (and subsequently secured behind previous stitching rather than unpick the whole thing) it all went remarkably smoothly, and I ended the session with what one of my fellow stitchers called “four felt blobs”. She obviously wasn’t altogether sure whether anything else was going to happen to them, but I reassured her that the rather garish yellow blobs would in fact be covered in tasteful antique gold. I would have started on it there if it hadn’t been for the fact that I forgot to bring a sharp needle, and my size 28 tapestry needle simply refused to go through the kid!

Two layers of felt built up, waiting for the gold

So just a little bit more to do on Treasure Trove – and then I need to stitch the blue-and-silver version…

Serendipitous hoops

If you’ve recently looked at the Workshops page you will know that we’ve got several planned for this year. The two London Knitting & Stitching Shows will probably not surprise you, but why on earth one at Dunchurch Baptist Church? For a very simple reason – I am a member there, and we are raising funds for a new building.

The rather sad reason why we need a new building is that the old one, built by the members themselves in the 70s, is falling to bits. The much more joyous reason is that it’s getting too small! But whatever the reason, a new building needs a new budget. As anyone who has ever tried to raise money for a good cause will know, it takes a lot of ingenuity and creativity to come up with enough events and projects that will interest people. Our Elders decided to start from the Parable of the Talents – anyone who wanted to was encouraged to collect £10 from them, and to use that money to raise more in whatever way their particular talents suggested. So far this has yielded a Murder Mystery Evening with 3-course meal (tomorrow, and we’ve got tickets!), a Christmas Cookbook (recipes to be handed in in March and cooked/baked in April – book to appear just before the Village Fête), an Arts & Craft Exhibition with cake stall, a sponsored walk/run/cycle ride/pram push, several Quiz Nights, a Beetle Drive (I had to look that one up smiley) and a concert. Oh, and a Hardanger workshop.

It wasn’t until I’d offered it and picked a date that I realised I’d need twelve 4″ hoops. When I teach at the Knitting & Stitching Show, hoops are lent us for the duration of the workshop, but here I’d have to provide them myself. And oddly enough I didn’t have twelve 4″ hoops just lying around…

As you do nowadays, I Googled hoops, and found that even with my husband’s and my £10 pooled I wouldn’t be able to afford twelve. Until I came across a Gumtree ad. Eight red 4″ flexi-hoops. The hoops were somewhere in Wales (I think), and only local pick-up was specified, but I thought I might as well contact the seller and see if they’d be willing to post them. The lady was very helpful and said yes, she’d be happy to send them. I asked if by any chance she had any more hoops. “Not red ones,” she said. “But I do have twelve green ones.”

Just the right number, and for a great price that was well within our Talent budget – they were obviously meant to be! In the end I bought the eight red ones as well, on the grounds that some workshoppers might like to buy one to take home. And here they are: my serendipitous collection of hoops. Now all I need is twelve people to use them on Saturday 28th June.

A lot of 4-inch hoops

A very helpful guinea pig

When I offered to do a workshop at the Knitting & Stitching Show I was fairly certain what I would do with the unsuspecting stitchers signing up for it: the dove’s eye matchbook. It’s aimed at beginners, it doesn’t take too long so in the 90 minutes the workshop takes they should be able to achieve quite a lot, and they end up with something to take home that they can use in their future stitching.

So far so good. But then came the question, “Is the workshop suitable for children?” Rashly I said that yes, it would be fine for children aged 12 and over. There was just one snag. I’d never actually tried it out on a 12-year-old.

Enter my guinea pig Katie, the most suitable 12-year-old you could imagine for this sort of experiment. We’ve done stitching together before (starting when she was about 8), she produced an impressive gym-bag-with-stitched-initial at last year’s Holiday Club, her stitching at the annual Christmas Craft Event is invariably splendid, and she enjoys a needlework challenge. She crochets, too.

So I gave her a Matchbook kit to have a look at, and yesterday afternoon we held a private workshop. A little different from trying to show twelve people what to do, but it would give an idea of whether the kit works for young stitchers. Even if we did interrupt proceedings several times to make the dough for that evening’s pizzas. I decided to work the project at the same time, so I could show her the various stitches, but not to do a single thing for her – getting the fabric into the flexihoop, using a waste knot, counting from the centre to the starting point, working out the direction of the stitches, cutting, it was all her own responsibility. She set to it with enthusiasm and determination.

My Guinea Pig starts her project Concentration while counting

And here is what she produced, in not much more than the 90 minutes allotted to it: the surface stitching complete and the cutting done; the woven bars and dove’s eye; and the finished matchbook.

First ever cutwork First ever bars & dove's eye A perfect matchbook

What do you think, did Katie prove me right smiley?