What are these flights of fancy that Mabel has? Well, they are short snippets about anything that I've been doing, stitching, designing, thinking about, experimenting with, and so on, which I think you may be interested in. They'll tell you about new designs, how I come up with names, changes I'm making in designs I'm working on and so on. I can't promise posts will be regular or terribly frequent, but I'll do my best not to neglect this page for long periods of time! By the way, most of the pictures are thumbnails, so you can click on them for a larger version; if you hover over one and a little magnifying glass with a + appears, it's clickable.

Back where I started – almost

Have you ever heard of the Echternach procession? Its participants used to progress by taking two steps backward for every three steps forward. The fifth class of my RSN Certificate goldwork module (AKA Bruce) felt more like two steps backward for about one and a half steps forward – I ended up not even back where I started, albeit with a little additional chipping to keep my spirits up.

A little chipping in the sun

We started the class looking at Bruce’s ears. The original stitch plan has smooth chipping there, but the areas are quite small and I wondered whether longer, parallel chips might not look neater. I bounced this idea off the tutor (Helen McCook, with whom I did the racehorse workshop two summers ago) and she agreed that that would be a better idea, and approved the directions I had chosen for the longer chips. So stripy ears instead of spotted ones for Bruce, although not quite yet – first there’s all the couching to finish.

New ear fillings

When I say “finish”, what actually happened was more of a “tidy up”. Having had a look at the foot, Helen suggested a few extra couching stitches closer to some of my plunging, which I put in. Two of them are marked with arrows in the picture, and I cannot for the life of me remember where the third one was, even after comparison with earlier photographs. But they’re there now, hopefully giving extra security to the foot.

Extra couching in the foot

Then we got to the painful bit. Not quite the most painful bit – that came later, at home, and will be fully revealed in a later FoF. But quite painful enough. Helen turned out not to be bothered about the thin part of the leg (which was my worry), but picked up on the underside of the haunch. She said it wasn’t as smooth as the rest (which was true) and that it therefore drew the eye because the rest was so even and smooth. We looked at the sloping sample, then she tested my couching stitches on the actual piece and said the tension wasn’t tight enough. After discussing a few more technical points she suggested that I take out the couching stitches along the bottom curve of the haunch and re-couch. Not a nice thing to hear, but as a very wise stitching friend said, “That is what tutors do. If you can accomplish your task without them, then they don’t have anything to do.” Very true.

Couching unpicked

Incidentally, although I would not wish difficulties on anyone, it was rather reassuring to find that the Diploma (that is, Advanced) goldwork student next to me was wrestling with the same problem: getting pairs of gold threads to lie flat when couching them onto a sloping surface. At least it wasn’t just me!

Anyway, I unpicked the couching from the outermost pair to the first of the mixed pairs, plus a tiny bit on the last two pairs. This was rather more awkward than it sounds – because the couching is so dense, because I couldn’t always tell where I’d started a new couching thread and because towards the leg there are several plunged and oversewn ends which lock everything into place, it wasn’t a simple matter of snipping the thread and then pulling out all the stitches in that row one after the other; they snagged, they dragged, they misbehaved. Still, during the class I managed to restitch from the outer edge up to the mixed couching, and Helen said it looked much better. When I showed it to my husband later that day, he agreed. I’m still not fully convinced. It looks better, yes, but does it look that much better? Still, if it looks better to the tutor’s eye (and therefore hopefully to the assessors’ eyes) then I suppose that’s the important bit!

Recouching the haunch Nearly recouched

There was another snag. Helen picked up on the fact that there was no couching-straight-onto-the-fabric anywhere in my design, even though that is required in the brief. How I managed to miss that I don’t know. How three tutors, all with access to my stitch plan and looking at the actual project, managed to miss it is anybody’s guess. But there it was. After a good long look at the design, and having come to the conclusion that I couldn’t really add another couched area without throwing the design completely off balance, I suggested that I could take out the felt on the front leg. Not an area I would have chosen for “naked” couching if I could help it, as it is small and the shape is quite complex. On the other hand, it’s only one layer, it wasn’t put in there to add height but merely to do what yellow felt does in goldwork, namely make it look better and disguise any gaps (which is of course exactly why the brief specifies an area of couching without this safety net), and most importantly, it hasn’t been couched on yet. So out it will come, after I’m done with the hind leg.

The felt on the front leg

On the plus side, Helen really liked my couched twist and pearl purl outlines, saying (after some rather disconcerting pushing and pulling) that it felt nice and solid, and also approved the bit of chipping I did on the sun. It looks like Bruce is not a completely lost cause after all smiley.

Making waves

Well, couching them anyway! Just a quickie post about the added texture Angela and I agreed I’d incorporate into Bruce’s haunch. The first thing was to remove the two most recent laps of Jap, which fortunately turned out to be a less awkward process than I had feared. Then it was time to work the three pairs of mixed couching: rococco/Jap, double rococco, Jap/rococco. The decision for rococco as the non-Jap thread was one of necessity rather than design – I didn’t want to mix in twist because in the rest of the design that’s used for outlines, and I think it looks better overall to keep it as an outline thread only; and I didn’t want to use pearl purl because that is going to be used to outline the central section of chipping. The only option left was rococco, and actually that is quite serendipitous – as a fellow stitcher pointed out, the mixed section in the haunch now echoes the mixed section on the back rather nicely!

The last two laps taken out The mixed couching put in

But nice though the echoing effect is, I am most pleased and proud about the fact that I managed to synchronise the waves in the paired rococco. Because the couching is worked around a curve, the waves of the inner and the outer thread of the pair slowly get out of sync, but with some judicious twisting of the thread I got them to lie nicely together around the entire lap – yay me smiley.

Synchronised waves

I had planned to make a start on the couched Jap-with-turns, but there was too much going on and I didn’t get around to it. Which was just as well because – and if you are of a nervous disposition may I advise you to look away now – this is what Bruce’s backside looked like a few hours into last Saturday’s class…

The horror, the horror!

Projects portable, impromptu and irresistible

When we travelled to Devon for a week to provide care for my mother-in-law Elizabeth in March, I took five projects with me (two of them far too complicated; I don’t know what I was thinking). I managed about three stitches. When we went for another week in early April I wondered whether to bother bringing any embroidery at all – but like most stitchers I get twitchy if I haven’t got a single project with me Just In Case, so I packed the three simple ones, only one of which I had done any work on yet: a Jacobean-style leaf.

Caroline's leaf design

There is a Facebook group for RSN Certificate & Diploma students, with members from all over the world. One of them is Caroline from Australia, and some time ago she posted a picture of a leaf she had designed to do some experimenting with; the picture above is of her original leaf. I really liked it and asked whether she’d be happy for me to stitch a version of it; she very kindly said yes. In an attempt at stash-busting I picked some lovely House of Embroidery hand-dyed perles to work it in, and as for the stitches, I just did whatever felt right at the time – these projects were very much meant to be an easy thing to pick up for a few stitches at a time without having to hunt around for a stitch plan or a diagram. In that nice and relaxing way I managed to complete the leaf to my more-or-less satisfaction by the middle of the week. It also had some unexpected consequences, of which more later!

About halfway, with light pink whipped backstitch on the left The finished leaf, with an extra bit of dark pink

The other two projects I had with me were the printed fabrics of two of Sarah Homfray’s fruit trees; I’d picked some of my lovely Heathway Milano wools and decided to start on the apple tree. Initially I thought I’d just do everything in stem stitch that could be worked in stem stitch, but in practice that felt a bit too relaxing. Bearing in mind my mother-in-law’s axiom in her later life that she could stitch whatever she liked using just the basic stitches, I thought I’d add some variety but without going for anything too fancy. During our stay there I got almost as far as the third picture (I finished about half the leaves at home), with stem stitch for the trunk and branches, reverse chain stitch for the grass, and fishbone stitch for the leaves. Back home I had a think about the apples, and plunged for padded satin stitch – I did consider long & short for a more naturalistic, rounded look, but as the tree is quite stylised anyway, I rather liked this stripy approach! The middle apple isn’t quite finished because (typical, isn’t it…) my medium red thread ran out about 2 stitches short. Oh, the outer green bits are whipped backstitch.

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool The first stitches Three different stitches so far One and three quarter apples

I’m really enjoying this little tree; my only quibble with the printed design is that the screen-printed lines are a bit thick so my crewel wool doesn’t always quite cover them, and as the printing is done in rather a strong bright colour it is a little noticeable here and there. But as this is not going to be a display piece I’m not too worried about that.

Now for the unexpected consequences of the Jacobean leaf: a new convert and an impromptu project smiley! One of the carers who came in to stay with my mother-in-law overnight is a crafter, and when she saw the leaf in its embroidery hoop lying on the coffee table she said, slightly wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to try that but I can’t draw and I wouldn’t know where to start.” Well, I did! On our previous visit I had been sorting through Elizabeth’s threads, fabrics, beads and so on and bagged up whatever I couldn’t use to go to her Embroidery Group. But surely they wouldn’t begrudge a new stitcher a few bits and bobs? So I quickly designed a V for her (the first letter of her name) and put a project together from the bagged up resources. She had a go the very first night after I gave it to her, and a pretty good go too, I’d say!

Sketching a V Transferred design, sample cloth and a selection of threads Vickey's first stitches

And the irresistible part of the title? That came when RSN tutor Heather Lewis (with whom I was fairly certain I did a class some years back) posted on Facebook that her Etsy shop was now open, with her very first kit in it: Elizabethan Beauty. I have too many kits already. They take me forever because I have to fit them in between developing my own designs and working on the RSN Certificate. But it was the stem that did it. It uses a braided stitch which I have attempted once or twice using perle or other relatively easy threads, but never in gold. My dear husband, instead of helping me resist the temptation, told me to get on with it and order the kit. I did (and asked whether it was indeed her who did a one-to-one goldwork class with me). It arrived yesterday in a dinky fabric bag, with a hand-written message to say yes, she did teach me in 2017! One of these days (months? years?) I’ll get around to stitching it. For now I am greatly enjoying looking at it smiley.

Heather Lewis' Elizabethan Beauty kit and its bag Kit content, from Heather's website The design The braided stem

A digital consultation

I left you last time with an inconclusive answer to the question of Bruce’s buckling leg, and the hope of some answers from an hour online with my tutor, Angela. Time to fill you in on what happened next!

Beforehand I had emailed Angela the issues I wanted to look at, and sent her some pictures. The question of Bruce’s hind leg, which might get dramatic if the advice was to unpick the whole lot, was kept as the main course; the starter was the two possible arrangements for the front leg. I showed Angela the samples I’d done and she (like most people I’ve shown them to, and in fact like myself) preferred the right hand version. Neat though the other one is, it makes the front leg look like a detached motif rather than a leg that is part of the kangaroo. She did suggest that I don’t turn the Jap, but plunge it staggered (this method seems to go by half a dozen different names including herringbone, fishbone, fishtail and dovetail; any of them will tell you what it looks like) to create a neat seam. As I have demonstrated sharp turns in the hind leg, she said I wouldn’t need them here; I’d been a little worried that there were only a few there, but she seems to be happy that they fulfill the brief.

The front leg sampled two ways

One last-minute question I’d added to my list was about mixed couching. Having seen progress pictures of the goldwork unicorn that a fellow Certificate student is stitching, I became concerned that the smallish area of mixed couching on Bruce’s back might not be quite enough. Could I perhaps add some to the front leg? Angela did think a bit more mixed couching would be a good idea, but suggested that instead of the front leg, which is a relatively small and complicated area, I could add it into the hind leg, which has a rather vast expanse of couched Jap already and more to come. This led neatly into our discussing the thorny question of whether any of that expanse needed unpicking, and if so, how much?

Having looked at the sample, she agreed that the straight-up-and-down method was out; gappiness, she implied, was the ultimate sin in goldwork couching (unless intentional, for effect). When I described in detail how I did the couching on Bruce she said that was exactly what I should do; the only thing she suggested was an occasional little stab stitch, which she said might make the couching a little more secure; she’d been taught that when she was training. I’d never heard of it! And I must say, if the tutors are taught that, I wonder why we students aren’t. All I can think of is that it might be because in the first four classes of this module I’ve had three different tutors, each of whom may have thought the other would have told me.

Be that as it may, having looked at close-ups of the thin part of Bruce’s leg her opinion was that it didn’t need unpicking. Hurray! She said that there was a little slippage in some of the pairs, but nowhere were they actually completely on top of each other, and the overall effect was neat enough. Well, that was obviously a relief smiley. Then we got on to the question of turning versus plunging. So far I’ve been plunging (as symmetrically as possible) when the Jap goes down from the haunch into the leg, but when the curve becomes sufficiently shallow (though still forming an acute angle) I want to start turning the Jap. Not only does it make for another demonstration of my ability to neatly execute a sharp turn, it also means less plunging!

When to start turning instead of plunging

Angela thought that I had definitely come to the point where I could start turning. But then the conversation took a different, erm, turn. This was partly because of the earlier discussion about adding mixed couching, and partly because of something else I had only noticed a few days before the online class, when I happened to be looking at close-up photographs to send to Angela: Bruce’s backside was not as taut as it ought to be – there were gaps…

Gaps in Bruce's backside

There is a reason why you put yellow felt underneath gold couching (and chipping, for that matter). Quite apart from the fact that it gives some lift to the metal and makes it catch the light in nice sparkly ways, it makes any gaps much less noticeable. These ones, as I said, I hadn’t actually noticed at all looking at the work from a normal distance, and even at “working distance” they hadn’t looked particularly alarming. In the close-up photograph, however, they looked positively cavernous! Would I have to unpick after all? Angela, fortunately, didn’t think so; close-up photographs, however useful in studying your work, are cruel in what they show up. She suggested I try and tweak the gappy pairs with a needle or mellor, and I said I could also push them to a small extent with the next pair.

Which brought us to what the next pair would be. We talked about various ways of introducing mixed couching, and having considered a few options (and discarded the ones that included twist, as I want to keep that for outlines only) I decided on a pair of rococco/Jap, followed by a pair of rococco, followed by a pair of Jap/rococco, and then back to Jap only. In order to accommodate this, I would unpick the most recent round of Jap, which hadn’t been plunged yet anyway. This would also help to address the gappiness I just mentioned. Unfortunately it does make it impossible to do a turn instead of plunging when going down into the leg, as each of the three pairs is different.

Plan for mixed couching

When I wrote up my notes after the meeting with this in mind, I had a look at Bruce’s haunch and how much of it has already been filled. I don’t want the mixed couching to get too close to the central area of chipping, and I do want some Jap turnings, so I will take out (in fact by the time you read this I will have taken out) two pairs of Jap, even though that means undoing the secured ends on the last but one pair and “unplunging” them. This will make the position of the three mixed pairs within the leg a bit more balanced, and with a bit of luck still leave a sharp turn when I get back to Jap-only.

Finally, a brief note on online classes. So far I have felt absolutely no inclination to do some or all of my Certificate online; has this one-hour consultation changed my mind? Even though this meeting was very effective in sorting out issues I needed help and advice on, no. There were difficulties. Zoom froze every now and then, and it was difficult to know how much of the previous conversation had been missed, so we would either repeat what the other had already heard, or not repeat enough. It also rather interrupts the flow of your thoughts when you have to keep going back a bit. A Whatsapp video call, which I wanted to use to show Angela close-ups of the work while moving the camera around (more informative than still pictures when trying to show texture, especially in goldwork), wouldn’t connect properly. You might say these are technical problems, and if everything works 100% as it should these classes would be fine. And if that could be guaranteed I could see myself taking the odd online class. But computers and internet connections hardly ever work 100% as they should, so the problems I had today would almost certainly also turn up in a day class. No, for the time being I’ll stick with face-to-face classes as much as I can. Roll on 24th April!

An inconclusive sample

Last time I updated you on my RSN Goldwork module, progress on Bruce’s leg was about to be interrupted by some sampling. To establish once and for all whether the buckling noticeable on the thin, steep part of his leg was caused by angling the needle when couching, I would couch all around a four-layer padded oval, angling on one side and not angling on the other. There was a picture of the felt I’d be using, but before attaching it to my sample cloth I decided I wanted it to be rather narrower, so I trimmed the four bits of felt and then secured my padded shape. Time to get couching! I started with a loop to minimise cut ends at the front (I was definitely not going to plunge and secure on my sampling…)

Trimmed felt for padding The padding is complete, and the Jap attached

I didn’t fill the shape completely – after all, what I wanted was the effect on the sloping sides, so the top was irrelevant – and I was pleased to see the sample had a nice bit of height to it. Just so I wouldn’t forget how to stitch on which side, I marked them on the fabric. This was very helpful as it is easy to get distracted (you can call me bird brain; or, if our Lexi is anything to go by, cat brain).

The 'straight' side of the sample The 'angled' side of the sample A nice bit of height

Remember those words “once and for all”? Well, that didn’t quite work out. There was some difference between the two sides, with the straight-up-and-down couching showing (as I rather expected) distinct gappiness, but the angled side rather let me down.

Distinct gappiness where the couching is straight-up-and-down

You see, although there was noticeable buckling on the tight curves, the side was actually pretty smooth…

Buckling on the curves A pretty smooth side

I hadn’t managed to reproduce the degree of buckling seen on the leg (indicated by the blue arrows), and so in one sense the experiment was a washout. On the other hand, it did clearly show that the only alternative, straight couching, was a definite no-no. It gave me more couching practice as well. And, as any sample cloths are handed in with the assessment piece, it shows the assessors I was willing to spend time and effort trying to find a solution to the problem; so on the whole a fairly useful exercise after all.

Buckling on the leg

And that’s where I was at the start of the one-hour online consultation I’d booked with Angela: an inconclusive sample, and Bruce with ends of Jap sticking out of his thigh. To be continued…

The state of play before the online consultation

Remembering Elizabeth

I have written recently about my mother-in-law Elizabeth. On Good Friday my husband and I went down to Devon to look after her for a week, which we had been doing alternately with my sisters-in-law for the past couple of months; we returned home last Friday, and yesterday afternoon we received the news that she had passed away. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.

As this is a blog about embroidery, I want to remember her here as the outstanding needlewoman she was – but also as a wonderful mother-in-law, who (apart from perhaps not always being the most tactful person in the world) couldn’t be further away from the usual stereotype. She and I enjoyed many a joint stitching session whenever we visited.

Stitching with Elizabeth

Elizabeth would try anything that involved thread and fabric and some sort of needle or hooked implement. She knitted me a fabulous dress – when I asked if I could have it in beige she said “you’re not old enough to wear beige!” and only budged when I explained that a beige dress could be worn with all sorts of brightly coloured and patterned tights smiley. She crocheted as well, and was a whizz with a sewing machine: when she and her husband moved to the States for three years in the 1970s she sewed their outfits for the square dancing classes they joined.

I don’t have pictures of some of her more experimental embroideries (including an abstract piece with various appliquéd arches in different materials, and a Monet-style waterlily garden), but here are a few of her projects: a Suffolk puff Christmas tree, a canvaswork piece called The Garden of Jersies, a tea cosy with shisha work which she made for one of her daughters, and the quilted patchwork bedspread she made for my husband and me (the back is all in shades of green).

a Suffolk puff Christmas tree A Garden of Jersies canvaswork An embroidered tea cosy A patchwork quilt

For decades she was happy to experiment and try new things, but a few years ago she said to me, “I’ve found that I can embroider anything I want using just a few simple stitches, so I don’t bother with the fancy ones anymore”. Seeing what she could do with stem stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch and French knots, I didn’t argue!

Vintage stash and shop sadness

My mother-in-law Elizabeth, who has been a keen needlewoman all her life, has asked me over the past few years to go through some of the embroidery stash she had no further use for (you may remember some interesting goldwork threads she bestowed on me some years ago). Recently, in view of her failing health, she asked me to sift through the remainder and divide it into things I could use, and things to be passed on to her embroidery group once they are allowed to meet again.

In the drawers of her needlework chest I found a wealth of lovely textured threads and ribbons, some of which I hope to use in my Canvaswork module (the next one after Bruce is finished), as well as a variety of metal threads, something that looks like coloured pipe cleaner (the blue a bit mottled with age), and miscellaneous bits and bobs including some pretty mother of pearl thread winders.

Textured threads and other bits and bobs Silk ribbons Miscellaneous metal threads Coloured metal passing Chenille wire, also known as pipe cleaner

But the biggest haul, going by quantity, was an enormous bundle of vintage Filoselle silks. My guess is that they were originally intended for a tablecloth or a project of similar scope, presumably with a pattern of leaves and flowers – mostly leaves, if the amount of green is anything to go by!

Vintage Filoselle silks (and a darning egg)

Pearsall’s Filoselle silk, which has sadly been discontinued, was produced until relatively recently (I bought some in a sale in Cumbria back in 2012). Judging by the paper wrappers, however, these skeins are likely to be a lot older than that. They may well be the same age as the “Journal of the Embroiderers’ Guild” which I found on one of the bookshelves – Spring 1956, when Elizabeth was four years married and a young mother. Perhaps they were bought for the transfer illustrated on the back cover?

An old issue of Embroidery magazine

One of the things that struck me in the magazine was the names, or rather the titles, of the various “Officers of the Guild” and the Presidents, Chairmen (mostly women, actually), Secretaries and Treasurers. Her Grace the Duchess (two, plus a Baroness, if we count vice-patrons as well); a Countess and a Viscountess; numerous Honourables, Ladies, and Honourable Ladies; a Captain and a Major. I fear the Guild has come down in the world somewhat since then… Still, a more egalitarian Guild may well be a reason for rejoicing; but what saddened me when flicking through the magazine was the advertisements. Such an abundance of shops to buy your needlework materials from! And what has happened to them all?

Francis of Bath Street in Leamington Spa is long gone; Celic in Bedford who advertise as Mail Order Stores are now a “catalogue shop”, but what they offer and whether they in fact still do so is anybody’s guess, as Google declines to throw up any further information. The name of Boynton & Turner, “Designers and Makers of Transfers for Every Kind of Embroidery since 1906”, turns up only on Etsy and eBay and the like where people offer their “vintage transfers”. Art Needlework Industries of Oxford is no more either; one of the few mentions I found was about an old shade card for their wool. Harrods – well, Harrods still exists of course, but I had no idea whether nowadays it has “everything for the needlewoman”, let alone whether “demonstrators” are still “at hand from time to time”. A bit of search engine activity brings up a promising page called “Needle & Thread” on the Harrods website, but this turns out to be a clothing brand. The only remotely crafty things seem to be in the Children’s/Toys section…

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Art Needlework Industries or A.N.I. must have been quite an influential shop – they appear in several more adverts dotted throughout the magazine. As for the other advertisers on the page shown below, the Dundee Heritage Trust has some swatch cards and sample booklets which seem to be the only remnants of Richmond Brothes and their Glenshee Embroidery Fabrics. Like Boynton & Turner, Peri-Lusta turns up only on sites like eBay as vintage materials. Briggs & Co. of Manchester and their “Waffle-Weave Embroidery by Penelope” have been through some changes too – James Briggs & Sons are stil trading, but have nothing to do with needlework now; Penelope seems to be still going although I’m not sure what they stand for now besides the name of a type of canvas. Searching for Aero hoops leads to bicycle parts rather than embroidery, and “Flora Macdonald embroidery needles” once again turn up only in “vintage” sales.

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Elsewhere in the magazine, Deighton Brothers advertised transfers, “art needlework and needlework accessories” and a book on smocking; they still exist, but only for “on-demand tapestry printing”. Knox of Kilbirnie stopped making their linen embroidery threads (some of which – see below – I found in a charity shop in The Netherlands!) in the 1990s and now produce “industrial and military nets”. The Needlewoman Shop in Regent Street closed in 1985. The Old Glamis Factory in Dundee which produced embroidery fabrics closed in 1984.

Knox linen floss

We still have many amazing manufacturers of threads and fabrics, and we’re not likely to run out of resources any time soon, but it is sad to think of those many, many shops selling beautiful materials which for whatever reason were no longer viable. Fortunately we can still use and enjoy their products, now with the label “vintage”; here is one of each of the Filoselle colours from my mother-in-law’s collection with a square of linen from another of her needlework drawers for a project. A rose, perhaps? Or an E decorated with flowers? Whatever it is going to be, it will be a lovely reminder both of my mother-in-law and of all those wonderful needlework manufacturers.

One of each colour and some vintage linen for a project

The last leg

Ah, if only smiley. But starting from the front I suppose a creature’s hind leg can be thought of as its last leg, so I’ll stick with that! Before I got on to Bruce’s haunch, however, I invisible-couched the grass. Most of the points I managed to get nice and sharp with the aid of the lovely little pliers I was given for Christmas; one blade of grass (indicated by the arrow) would not do what I wanted it to, even after unpicking and re-couching. More unpicking would have damaged the twist to such an extent that I would have had to pick out the entire line and start again, and I did briefly consider that, but in the end decided I could live with one blunt bit of grass.

Grass couching in progress The whole line couched A wayward bit of grass

Now for the leg. On one of the design print-outs I’d pencilled in a rough guide to the way I wanted the Jap to go, with indications where I would likely have to fill in little “pockets” and start new threads. Another thing: you may be able to see from the way the shadows fall on the felt that especially on the thin part of the leg the incline is quite steep! A bit like the legs of Alpine cattle on a mountain side, one half of the pair of Jap threads is going to be significantly lower than the other. Which brings me to another challenge of couching through up to four layers of felt: I must pull the couching thread enough to lie snugly over the Jap, but not so much that it pulls the Jap into the padding. Deep breath, and off we go!

Getting ready for the leg

I started with a loop start in the toe, trying to get it right inside the tip, and then proceeded to couch along the twist outline. After a while I realised I could use the width of the foil wrapping on the Jap to gauge the distance between my couching stitches, which made them much more regular. The next tricky bit was getting the Jap to run smoothly along the edge of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back.

A loop start in the toe Couching along the edge of the mixed couching

I’m happy with the couching around the haunch, that’s nice and regular, but yes, there are a few gaps between the mixed couching on the back and the Jap on the haunch. With a staggered edge I suppose some gappiness is inevitable but in one place I could have taken the back thread a bit further in (see arrow). I bounced this picture off the lovely stitchers in the Facebook C & D group and one of those who had done their Goldwork module already said she thought it was an acceptable amount of gap, which was encouraging.

Gappiness along the edge

On with the foot. Feeling terribly organised and bathed in a virtuous glow I drew up a digital plan (easier to include in my log than pencil scribblings on a printed picture) for filling in the remaining gap by the ball of the foot, and a tentative start on the gap at the ankle.

A plan!

As I was couching I realised that lines drawn on a picture are never going to tell you how the Jap will fit on the actual piece – for one thing the lines are never going to be the exact width of the Jap, and for another there is variability in stitch tension (however much you aim for consistency) and the angle of the padding which you can’t see in the photograph. In the end I had to use some quite short lengths, and rather more plunging than I’d hoped for, to get the foot and ankle filled. Coming down the narrow part of leg, for example, there was only room for one thread so I plunged the second one, took the remaining single through, and added new thread to make a pair again. It was too tight for the planned turn so both were plunged staggered, then a new pair was started with a loop. And so on and so forth. I could have called this post “A twisted ankle” – my goodness it got tight! I’m not completely satisfied, but a stitching forum friend said the resulting triangle looked very much like an ankle bone, and although that was the almost automatic result of the shape of the foot rather than a conscious design decision, I was rather pleased with that comment.

Filling the foot The narrow part of the leg is closed Overview after filling the foot and ankle

One thing you will notice in the close-up below (if only because I’ve drawn attention to it with arrows smiley) is that there are some places where the gold foil does not quite cover the core thread. There is a trick of tightening the Jap by twisting it as you couch, and I’ve done that as much as possible, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. And unlike with wool you can’t keep stopping and restarting with a new, neater thread. However, another message on the Facebook C & D group brought similar reassurance that this is quite normal and to be expected. Phew.

An ankle bone and some separating gold foil

With the lower leg completely covered, it now just remained to keep going round and round the haunch until I had a pleasing shape left in the centre to fill with chipping and a pearl purl border. That sounds nice and straightforward, but there were decisions to be made. To Turn Or To Plunge, for one thing. At first that was an easy one to answer, as the angle down the leg was just too sharp to turn. Ideally I would have plunged everything herringbone fashion, that is to say where the pair of Jap meets itself in the leg, you would first plunge the outer thread on one side, then the outer thread on the other side, then the inner thread on the first side and finally the inner thread on the second side. This makes for a neat line down the centre. Unfortunately I had placed my first couching stitch rather too close to the plunging point for this too work on the first circuit of the haunch, and I’d forgotten to take into account the single plunged thread I mentioned earlier – so the line starts with three consecutive plunges on the left side followed by two consecutive plunges on the right.

Asymmetric plunging down the leg

After that I managed to plunge symmetrically.

Symmetric plunging down the leg

Then I got to the point where I could either plunge or turn, and as I didn’t want to make that decision after several hours of concentrated work, I left it there, to be picked up again this weekend.

Plunge or turn?

But… I hit a snag. Actually, I hit that snag quite a while back, but I eventually decided to ignore it, which may turn out to have been a Very Bad Idea.

So what is it? Well, you will remember that the leg is padded with several layers of felt to give it plenty of lift. Where the leg is narrow, that creates quite a steep slope. And on those sloping sides the pairs of Jap simply will not stay flat. They start out flat, but by the time I come back to that point after another circuit of the leg, one of the pair will have tried to hide underneath the other. It isn’t very obvious when you look at the piece straight on, but when looking from the side (and the assessors will definitely be doing that) you can see the threads slip and buckle.

Jap slipping and buckling

I didn’t immediately and completely ignore the problem. I manipulated the misbehaving threads with my mellor and that would initially look quite promising, but after a while they frustratingly just slipped back again. The mellor having failed me, I tried pulling the couching stitches tighter – but that just dented the padding by pulling the gold threads down into it. I tried looser couching stitches – but then the gold threads just wobbled around. In the end I assumed that this is simply what pairs of Jap do when on a steep incline, and tried not to worry about it.

And then one night I woke up with A Thought. Could it be the rule about angling your needle when bricking Jap? Every goldwork class I’ve attended and pretty much every goldwork book I’ve read mentions this: when couching a stand-alone line of paired threads, the needle goes pretty much straight up and down to make the couching stitch. But when you couch a pair of threads next to an earlier pair, bricking the couching stitches (i.e. staggering them relative to the previous pair to create a brick pattern), you are told to come up on the outside of the pair and then angle the needle underneath the previous pair in order to pull the new pair snugly next to it. Now that works beautifully when the surface is flat or nearly flat, but might it be what caused the slipping and buckling on the steep sides?

Angling the needle when bricking

So here’s the plan: on my sample cloth I will make a four-layer padded oval with fairly steep sides. I will then couch paired Jap all around it, using angled stitches on the left and perpendicular/straight-up-and-down stitches on the right. If they both look the same (i.e. both “bunch up”), I’ll just continue with Bruce as he is. But if the right looks markedly better than the left, then it’s time for some Big Decisions…

The padding for my couching experiment

A Welsh gem and two of my Five-a-Day

For various reasons I haven’t done a lot of stitching lately, although I have made some progress on Bruce which I hope to report on soon (probably after this weekend when I intend to complete the section I’m currently working on – sneak peek below). As you know I am never short of a project or two (or three, or twelve), but none of them particularly appealed to me even when I had the opportunity. So I’ve tried to re-ignite my enthusiasm by planning some sampling, and kitting up a couple of uncomplicated projects.

A sneak peek at Bruce's leg

Two of my long-term projects (and I do mean long-term; we’re talking several years here) which have not had the attention they deserve are Hengest and Llandrindod. In both projects I’m at a stage where there are decisions to be made, and that is always a dangerous point for me. So much easier to just start something new! Hengest has been languishing in his stable because after his mane I need to decide how to stitch his bridle and especially the jewels on it; but as there is still some mane to stitch first I’m hoping to return to him when I’ve reached the point with Bruce where I can’t do anything more until I see a tutor. Llandrindod is a bit more problematic, but I’ve decided that now is the time to tackle it. The challenge is the direction in which the facets of the central diamond are stitched.

The central diamond in Llandrindod

Originally I intended to stitch these facets so that the lines of stitches go around the central part, much like the outer facets on the coloured stones. For some reason I changed my mind a little over a year ago and started working them from the outside edge towards the centre. Unfortunately I failed to make a note anywhere documenting this change – or if I did, I can’t find it – so I have no idea why I discarded the around-the-centre approach in favour if the into-the-centre one. Equally unfortunately I don’t particularly like what I’ve done so far. But I don’t want to unpick it, start again with the other method, find out that there was in fact a fatal flaw in it, and have to unpick again. The solution: a sample cloth! In spite of what the outlines may suggest that doesn’t mean I have to stitch the diamond three times in total, as I won’t have to stitch all the facets to get an idea of what the effect of each method is; at least I fervently hope a few facets on each will do the trick!

A sample cloth set up to try two ways of stitching the facets

With Llandrindod and Bruce both what you might call “concentration projects”, as I really want to get them right and there’s a lot of note-taking going on (although in the case of Llandrindod obviously not quite enough…), it’s nice to have some relaxed projects on the go as well. On rare occasions these can be my own designs when they aren’t intended to become chart packs or kits, like Septimus the Septopus, but generally it’s someone else’s design, whether as a kit (I’ve got a good few waiting in the wings, from wonderful designers like Lizzie Pye of Laurelin, Helen Richman of Bluebird Embroidery and Alison Cole) or as a design only where I get to play with my stash and pick everything myself.

The projects I set up the other day are somewhere in between – a couple of little fruit trees by Sarah Homfray which used to come as a set of four kits but two of which I found last January as printed fabric only. So the fabric has been decided for me, and I don’t have to transfer the designs, but I do get to rummage through my thread boxes and play with colours. The originals were stitched using Madeira Lana, of which I have a respectable collection, but I decided to go with my favourite Heathway Milano crewel wool, which is a little thicker but not so much as to be a problem. And this is what I ended up with:

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool

They were meant to be my relaxing bits of stitching while we were away on family care duty, but I didn’t actually get any stitching done during that week. Never mind, they make lovely little fillers for when I haven’t got the clear mind (and the time) I need for Bruce or when I can’t face anything that involves making decisions. I can just pick them up and stitch. Perfect.