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.

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.

All framed up

All right, I can’t resist. I’m so ridiculously pleased with the lacing I’ve done on the Millennium frame and the good tension I managed to get on my 14″ hoop that I just want to show them off! A bit of work in my photo editing programme to blur the transferred designs, and now I can share my framed and hooped SAL fabrics without spoiling the mystery smiley.

I photographed them both with the threads and other bits and bobs around them to give some sense of the size (the cat in the hoop picture is not there for scale, just for her decorative value). For a stitcher who until relatively recently thought of a 7″ hoop as quite large, this 14″ whopper comes as a bit of a shock whenever I see it. The bigger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get good tension on the fabric, but as I mentioned before the bound inner hoop helps, as does the fact that it is a 20mm deep quilting hoop; a few more judicious tugs at the fabric yesterday and some persuasive wingnut action and the tension is now equal to what I would expect from a much smaller hoop.

Hooped fabric and materials for the plain Tree of Life

The Millennium frame has superb tension when used as it comes, even side to side – in fact surprisingly so for a frame which (like pretty much all scroll frames) holds the fabric top and bottom only. The top-to-bottom tension is incredible, and must, I assume, be so much better than on any scroll frame I’ve tried because it is achieved by lengthening the side bars (they each have a thick wooden screw inside them which screws up and down), in effect pushing the roller bars apart, rather than by trying to roll the fabric tightly onto the bars. You can apply so much more force that way. The Millennium frame’s side-to-side tension is derived purely from the scroll bars – because the fabric is held firmly along its entire width by an ingenious groove-and-rod combination, it is almost as taut at the edges as it is in the centre, something that is practically unheard of with other scroll frames.

Orpheus mounted on the Millennium frame

So why lace the fabric? Two reasons. Firstly, I said “almost as taut”. You can bounce a penny off the centre of the fabric, but there is a little bit of give right at the edges. Secondly, because of the very strong top-to-bottom tension the fabric will stretch vertically, albeit only slightly; this will be more noticeable the longer the fabric is on the frame, and this project will likely be there some time. You can slacken off the tension between sessions, but I prefer to keep the fabric taut so the tension remains more or less the same throughout my work on the piece.

Neither of these is an insurmountable problem, and I have happily used the frame without any further fabric preparation, as you can see from the picture above. But because this time I’m working with two layers of fabric, and there are goldwork elements in the piece, I thought I’d apply some of my newly-gained knowledge of dressing a slate frame to this smaller frame for even better tension. Attaching the fabric to the top and bottom bar is done as usual – there is no canvas to sew it on it to, and I’m very pleased there isn’t as the rod-and-groove system is a lot quicker – and after that I extended the side bars enough to make the fabric sit flat, without sagging, but not so much that it was stretched.

Next, sew herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and use that lethal bracing needle I showed last time to lace them to the side bars. Slightly more fiddly than with a slate frame because the Millennium side bars are not uniformly shaped from top to bottom, and part of what I’m lacing around is the exposed wooden screw. But with a bit of string manipulation it works perfectly well, so on to the final stage of gradually increasing the tension in both directions by extending the side bars and tightening the lacing. At the end of all that I’ve got a piece of fabric you could play an impressive drum solo on, and it’s much more portable and manoeuvrable than the slate frame, sitting quite happily on my Aristo lapstand rather than needing trestles. Win!

Framed fabric and materials for the bling Tree of Life

I might sneak in a few SAL stitches later this week during my RSN Certificate Homework Time…

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

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…)

Is it all right if I…?

Have you ever wondered/had a stitching friend ask you/asked a designer or tutor: “Is it all right if I…” (stitch this in green instead of yellow; use only part of the design; turn the dog into a rabbit; work it in wool on canvas, not in silk on linen; turn the design 90 degrees)? If so, you are not alone. It’s a question that often crops up on forums, and it’s a question that I, undoubtedly like many designers and tutors, have been asked more than once. The answer?

Yes.

Yes, it’s fine. This is your project, and you decide what it’s going to look like. I feel quite strongly about this, and yet when I do it myself, I feel a little diffident. That doesn’t stop me from changing things, though smiley.

As an example let’s look at Oh Sew Bootiful’s “Splashing in the Waves”. I wrote a bit about this in an earlier FoF, but as the project is now finished I can show the effect of all the changes together. First, the original: two Japanese-looking waves with light blue foam and green fish.

The original design, with blue wave tips and green fish

Now not all of the changes I made were the same type of changes, and I’m fairly sure this holds for most stitchers who change designs – there is a variety of reasons. One reason is that a particular part of the design doesn’t appeal to you, or is not appropriate for the project’s purpose – substituting a stylised cat for a stylised dog in an old-style sampler because you prefer cats, for example, or changing the length of the bride’s dress in a piece to commemorate a wedding so that it matches that of the bride for whom it was stitched. Another reason might be that you only want to use one motif or section from a larger design, either because you don’t like the rest of the design, or because it needs to fit a pre-chosen framing option (card, box lid, footstool).

I’ve done both of these, but not in this Waves design, although I did shrink the design so that it would fit a satin-covered box I had in my stash.

Then there is the material. In a counted design, that could affect the size as well; in a freestyle design such as this, it affects mainly the look of the background and the stitching experience. Instead of a relatively thin cotton, which I would have had to back, I chose a sturdy cotton duck (a light canvas) that I could use on its own. I also like the rather solid look of it. My favourite fabric at the moment is a lovely densely-woven German linen, but I have a limited quantity of that so it gets used only for special projects, like the Llandrindod jewelled cross and one of the SAL versions. Some changes, in other words, may be motivated at least to some extent by what you happen to have in your stash (and what you are willing to use).

Stem stitch on cotton duck

The picture above also shows another change: the outlines of the waves were charted in backstitch, but I chose to do them in stem stitch, for no better reason than that I prefer stem stitch and find it relaxing. So there you have a fourth reason for change: personal stitching preference.

Two further changes which can occur separately but sometimes influence each other are colour and thread. For this particular project I wanted to use a hand-dyed, mildly variegated stranded cotton, because it was just the sort of project in which they work well – very few colours, and no need for three or four matching shades of any of them. The perfect opportunity to give them an airing, in fact. But my choice of thread then affected my choice of colour, as none of my chosen hand-dyed cottons exactly matched the colours of the original (nor would I expect them to). A separate colour decision was made because from the start I envisaged the green fish in orange, startling goldfish unexpectedly tumbling in the waves – a matter of personal taste (the green fish were a bit too “camouflaged” for my liking), and of personal observation (the incongruous goldfish I enjoy watching in a nearby wood pond).

Colour and thread changes

The shading of the foamy wave tips was given a whole FoF all to itself so I will just post the picture here side by side with the original to show the change.

The original wave A shaded wave

What else? Oh, a digression. I stitched the circle outline in split stitch as per the instructions (makes a nice change smiley) in three strands of cotton. Now I like split stitch; Ethelnute the Medieval King was practically nothing but split stitch, and so is Hengest the as yet unfinished woollen Medieval Unicorn. But until now I have always worked split stitch using a single thread, whether crewel wool or one strand of silk. This means that you know exactly what to split, because there is only one thread available. But what do you do with multiple strands? Split one of them? Go in between the strands, especially when working with an even number? I found the whole process rather confusing, and partly because I was working with an odd number of strands I ended up with something closer to the former method than the latter. But I don’t find it ideal, and another time I would probably choose a thicker single thread (for example a perle cotton) rather than using multiple strands, although that has unintended side effects as well – the look of the circle outline would be quite different from the rest of the project. Note to self: try split stitch with four strands, splitting them two and two, and see whether that looks better.

Messy split stitch

And finally, the fish. I kept them right till the end, as my reward for stitching three million colonial knots. The instructions in the chart pack did not mention outlining the fish before satin stitching, so I tried one that way, but I found it almost impossible to keep the outline neat – not for the fins and tail, they were fine, but for the body. I wanted my fish to be just right, so the body was soon unpicked (I’m afraid I forgot to take a picture of the first version), outlined in split stitch and re-satin-stitched. And I am so pleased with them! They pop just like I’d hoped they would, and the split stitch outline gives the satin stitch a bit more lift as well, making the fish more 3D.

Goldfish that pop

There was just one more thing to do, mount it in the box I’d set aside for it. And here it is, ready to be filled with stitching bits and bobs.

A wave on a box The box, open

PS I don’t know whether the designer minded my changes; I emailed her a picture of the finished project but didn’t get a reply. Nevertheless I hope she enjoyed seeing a different take on her design, and hearing how much enjoyment it gave me.

A fruitful class and more sampling

Although there has been the occasional burst of activity on Mabel’s Fancies’ Facebook page it’s been two weeks since the last FoF – high time for an update! The long silence can at least in part be blamed on the SAL, as I’ve been spending rather longer than I thought I would on drawing, editing and writing up the remaining stitch diagrams. However, they are all done now; and although there are still chart packs to write and stitch photographs to take, I’m pretty much on schedule.

And so, finally, a report about my latest RSN Certificate class – more than a month ago now, but still fresh in my memory (helped by some photographs I took on the day). We had the luxury of not one, but two tutors: Angela was being shadowed by Jessica Aldred, who is in the process of becoming a Certificate and Diploma tutor. This meant twice the encouragement and advice – I was very pleased I decided not to cancel after all!

This doesn’t mean that I got a lot of stitching done. You may remember that I started the class with the trunk and the vine completed; well, at the end of a 10am-4pm day I had added a petal, and part of a petal…

The Tree of Life before the September class The Tree of Life after the September class

What I had done, was discuss a lot of my samples with both tutors and bounce ideas off them; I was scribbling notes the whole time, and it was very encouraging to hear, in some cases, that what I’d been doing different from the diagrams in most books was actually right smiley! More about that later; let’s go through the design elements we talked about that day.

First there was the bullion knot square-with-rounded-corners. This was give the thumbs-up. Jessica at first said perhaps to couch the longer ones (making sure that the tension of the couching thread doesn’t dent them) but on feeling how solid the square was said it didn’t seem necessary.

A bullion knot square

Then there was James the Snail. You may remember I sampled his shell in two different stitches: padded buttonhole stitch and raised backstitch. The former is by far the easier to do, and to do neatly. Unfortunately the raised backstitch version is preferred by most people who have seen them together, including Angela and Jessica, and me, for that matter. My homework is to do another sample, with the “spokes” for the raised backstitch sticking out further on the outside so the outer design line is covered, and possibly meshing the spokes on the inside of the coil to get sufficient coverage (at the moment there is a bare channel between the coils which simply will not do). I’ve also decided to try and use four shades of turquoise for the shell instead of the three in the sample.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

Next up was the satin stitch brick. I’ve pretty much decided to use satin stitch rather than burden stitch, and I really like the look of this version. But at my third class Helen Jones said all satin stitch had to be slanted, and I couldn’t see how that would work. Nor could Angela and Jessica. We all agreed the vertical version looked much better than a slanted one would; slanted would also make some of the stitches far too long. The RSN Guide mentioned only slanted satin stitch, but by actually calling it “slanted” it suggested that there was a legitimate straight version as well. In the end Angela promised to enquire into the RSN’s official position on satin stitch, and if they inisisted on slanted I might stick with vertical but write up the decision in my log, and perhaps show I could do slanted satin stitch in sampling. They also pointed out that there will be slanted satin stitch in the ball of wool anyway, so the straight version could just be seen as an extra stitch.

A satin stitch brick

As it happens I later heard back from Angela, who passed on the verdict that “satin stitch is often stitched in a slanted direction mainly for ease and a better finish, but in circumstances such as your particular shape, the vertical direction chosen is preferable because a slanted direction would not enhance your design”. So a vertically satin-stitched brick it is!

Then there were a few quick questions which I bounced off the tutors and which for a change needed only short answers (most of my questions seem to take rather longer to address…) – first, should I “void” the body of the cat where the wool is wound around her? Answer: no, work it over the top. That was a relief, as voiding such a thin line would be quite tricky! Angela also suggested that I couch the thread that comes off the ball of wool and entangles the cat, which would look more natural than the split stitch I had originally intended. Secondly, should I make one of the leaves underneath the big tulip darker than the other (leaving out the very lightest shade in one, and the very darkest shade in the other), to indicate where the light comes from, or have them identical (colour-wise, that is; the shading will be mirrored) as I first drew them? Answer: the latter. No need to be too naturalistic in Jacobean designs!

Where the wool winds around the cat Two leaves of equal darkness

While we were on the question of the petals, I took the opportunity to ask Jessica about long & short stitch. The diagrams in most if not all books (and my own diagrams as well) show a split stitch outline, a first row of stitches which are of two lengths and alternate (some disagreement about whether you come up inside the shape for the first row), and consecutive rows of stitches of equal length. Unfortunately following that to the letter does not give very nice results. It looks a bit regimented. So whenever I’ve used long & short I’ve made my stitches rather more random. And then there is the question of what to do when the stitches are almost parallel to the outline – in that case how do you cover the split stitch line without changing the angles too much? Most diagrams only show scenarios where the filling stitches are at a considerable angle to the outline. So far, I’ve solved this by making the final stitch in a row fairly long and working it practically on top of and in the same direction as the outline, going down only just the other side of the split stitch. I felt a bit guilty about all this; I was obviously bodging my long & short to get the look I wanted.

Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project

Imagine my delight when Jessica told me that I was doing exactly what I should be doing! She dislikes the name “long & short stitch” as it gives the wrong impression, and prefers “painting with the needle”, which allows for some more interpretative stitching. As for stitches that are parallel to the sides, go over the split stitch edge when you can, into it when you have to, and if necessary have a stitch completely outside it. So I can carry on as before smiley.

Jessica's notes on long & short stitch

On to the right-hand leaf, which I’d sampled in a sort of brick stitch. Both tutors liked the look, but we agreed that the way I was working it (in long lines rather than short rows) it wasn’t really brick stitch. After considering and rejecting “bricked backstitch” we decided I’d put it down as “backstitch filling”.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally the gap at the bottom of the tree. I charted that in Cretan stitch, but it’s a little wide – the stitches may get rather too long. I was told to sample it to see if it worked, but when I got home I had a different idea. How about working three very pointy “triangles” of Cretan within the main triangle? Keep the shading vertical (i.e. top to botton, in horizontal stripes) to contrast with the trunk. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The gap in the bottom of the trunk

Recently I had another idea for the ball of wool as well; originally I intended to do one layer of satin stitch, with a partial layer at right angles on top, to show how the wool was wound up. But why not turn this into properly padded satin stitch? First outline the ball in split stitch, then put padding in, then the full layer of satin stitch, and then the partial layer; that should make the ball look quite 3D. Sample to follow!

Scribbles about the ball of wool

Oh, one other thing came up, and it’s one that demonstrates Angela’s comment right at the start of my Certificate course, that the design will probably look quite different from the first drafts when it’s finished. As you may remember, for the Jacobean design the stitcher is allowed two main colours (five shades each) and an accent colour (two shades). My accent or contrast colour is Coral. Unfortunately I realised when having another look at my colour plan that there is rather a lot of it throughout the design, whereas the accent colour and the main colours should not have equal weight. A certain degree of de-oranging was called for. Painful for one Dutch-born and bred, but there it is. So far this is the result:

The previous colour scheme, with too much orange The de-oranged scheme

By the way, the frills on the tulip will actually be the same colour – either both brown or both turquoise.

I have, you will be pleased to hear, done some work on the Tree since the class, but I have hit two snags which are keeping me from getting on with things. I will report on these in a future FoF. So far sampling has been a little more productive, with some work done on my block shading. I’m trying to get the stitch right, but am also using the samples to try out different colour combinations; to this end I’ve divided the hillock into sections. (It’s not actually the right hillock, but I had this one drawn on the fabric and for sampling purposes it doesn’t matter much). This is not the first block shading I’ve done (there was some in the Rabbit & Carnations project where I pretty much winged it without a very clear idea of how the stitch was meant to be worked) but it’s definitely not a stitch I am very familiar with; one rather surprising problem was how difficult it proved to be to keep the line the same height along its entire length!

Dividing the hillock into sections and arcs Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project Trouble keeping the line thesame height Trying out a colour combination

And that wraps up my fourth class – number five follows at the end of November. By which time I hope to have completed the big tulip, the left-hand hillock and the brick, and possibly the right-hand leaf. Plus those samples, of course. We’ll see!

Workshops, a squirrel, a medieval tulip and some kits

Well, the Knitting & Stitching Show is over for another year, and I am back home (in spite of rail upheaval at Euston Station on Saturday), nursing slightly sore feet from all the walking I did outside Show hours (London is full of interesting green spaces!) and being on my feet throughout the four workshops. They all went well, with lots of positive feedback which is always tremendously encouraging. I usually try and take pictures of some of the students’ work, but I’m afraid I forgot most of the time; here are a few pictures just to give you an impression, including the rather colourful demonstration cloth I ended up with.

Appliqué Mug workshop Wildflower Garden workshop Wildflower Garden workshop No Place Like Home workshop
No Place Like Home workshop A participant's project A participant's project A colourful doodle cloth

One thing I will mention to the organisers in my own feedback is the lighting; you would have thought that at something called the Knitting & Stitching Show the setter-uppers (or at least the people deciding on the set-up) would realise the importance of good, bright and even lighting. Instead there were usually two extremely bright lights shining down from the middle of the left and right sides of the workshop booth, which meant that about four seats had splendid light but the further you got from those the dimmer it got. Dim, I mean, by stitching standards. Still, we managed, and most of the students got a fair way with their projects (the pictures above were taken some time before the end of the class).

Of course I had a good look around the show as well, and I saw some lovely kits, silk threads and goldwork stuff but restrained myself from adding either to my already tottering pile of WIPs or to my bulging thread containers. I contented myself with a spool of Madeira Lana in a variegated light green and a bobbin of Golden Hinde’s translucent couching thread in a muted gold (shown in the picture beneath two shades I already had), and felt very virtuous.

2019 Knitting & Stitching Show purchases

As I said I did a lot of walking when I wasn’t at the show, and besides coming across a man walking backwards in Highgate Wood (no, I didn’t ask him why) there was the excitement of being mugged by a squirrel in Holland Park. I’m not sure whether it could smell that I had chocolates in my bag, but it was definitely intending to have a look!

Mugged by a squirrel Bag check

On that same day I also visited Leighton House, where I unexpectedly learnt a bit more about my travel project.

Some time ago I came across a medieval Islamic tile in a museum. It was a bit of a chance find, because it was in one of the drawers underneath the display cases and I only opened a few of those. It was blue and white and it had a tulip on it – irresistible, even though it wasn’t from Delft smiley! As a friend later reminded me, tulips hadn’t made it to Western Europe at that time, but they were known in Persia and neighbouring areas. Well, wherever it was from, it was a very decorative design that just cried out to be stitched. The blobs and dots surrounding the circle in which the tulip sat were a bit irregular, so I evened them out, and also changed the white circles within the blue areas a bit. And because it’s small and only takes three colours, I thought it would make an ideal travel project to take with me to London. I even managed to do some work on it!

The tulip design based on a medieval ceramic tile Progress on the Ottoman Tulip

But what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with Leighton House? Well, in its collection there are quite a few tiles and plates and dishes that were described as Ottoman ceramics, or more particularly as Iznik pottery. And on many of them there were tulips remarkably similar to the one on “my” tile – that same rather elongated, narrow shape and the same sort of overlapping in the petals. I was intrigued, but unfortunately the museum does not allow photography, so I had to memorise them as best I could and make do with what images they have on their website to refresh my memory. With hindsight I should have asked them if I could trace one or two, or even just sketch them (because they may well not want visitors to handle the plates), but I didn’t think of that. Anyway, design-wise I’m happy with the one I’ve got – but following my visit to Leighton House I’ve renamed it from not-very-exciting Medieval Tulip to the more exotic-sounding Ottoman Tulip (Iznik Tulip would have sounded even more exotic, but is probably a bit too obscure).

And finally, a Special Offer smiley. After teaching workshops I usually have a few kits left, but because of their purpose they are a little different from the ones sold on my website. This year, in fact, I have some left that are not on the website at all (or at least not yet).

They are:

  • 1 Wildflower Garden freestyle card kit with the design transferred onto the fabric
  • 1 No Place Like Home (Little House) freestyle card kit with the design transferred onto the fabric
  • 3 Mug That Cheers appliqué embroidery card kits with the design transferred, the appliqué elements backed with Bondaweb and cut out, and one of the elements attached to the ground fabric (see picture below)

The Mug That Cheers appliqué embroidery kit

The appliqué kit will eventually be on the website for £10 including UK postage, but because of the above, and because the envelopes for the cards are missing, they will go for the same price as the other two, £7.50 including UK postage (postage to other destinations on request). If you would like one or more of these kits, email me at

A Jacobean vine – adding some colour

Even with the extra stitching time scheduled in before my September Certificate class, it was quite clear I wasn’t going to get all the homework done that Helen Cook had suggested at the end of the previous class. But I was determined to get the vine finished – if only because it meant stitching something that wasn’t brown!

But a little preparation was needed before actually getting some orange and turquoise stitches in; careful though I had been, the voids in the trunk didn’t quite follow the curve I had intended for the vine, so I drew some extra guidelines to make sure the voids were all completely filled while keeping the lines suitably sinuous.

The voids for the vine across the trunk Extra lines to guide the vine stitching

And so on to some colour – the central line of orange to begin with, as I wanted to make sure that it was central, something which would be more difficult to achieve if I started with one of the turquoise shades on the outside of the vine. Using the extra step I’d been taught to use doing chain stitch for these lines of stem stitch as well (that is to say, using my hand at the back of the work to pull the loop left at the front through to the back before pulling the thread completely through to the front) proved helpful in creating nice even stitches with, I hoped, less wear than when using the usual pull-through-in-one-go method.

The first bit of non-brown

Unfortunately not even this extra step could counteract the fluffiness and unevenness of some of the threads. In fact, the thread was not only fluffy and uneven, it had some stiff, lighter fibres in it as well. All this meant that I had to unpick part of the vine because the fluffiness made the stem stitches stick together, losing the definition of the stitch, and the stiff alien fibres stood out both by their colour and their texture. And finding a nicely even length of Appleton’s wasn’t easy – looking at the sample below is it any wonder that very few lengths are used in their entirety?

Fuzzy thread with bits A very uneven thread

Still, eventually the orange centre got done, and I was very pleased with the curvaceousness of it. Now for some turquoise! And then I felt a tangle of thread at the back of the work… Now I can’t quite work out why I didn’t notice this tangle while it was happening. It is true that I start and finish from the front because the slate frame isn’t easy to flip, but for one thing I would have expected to notice that suddenly the thread I pulled through was a lot shorter than it should be (this is how I usually realise that all is not well at the back of the work). True, that doesn’t always register (it obviously didn’t this time), but then normally I don’t work two-handed – whereas on this project my right hand is permanently at the back of the work, pulling the needle through to the back and feeding it back to the front. How did I miss that tangle when my hand must have brushed against it several times??? Fortunately I managed to cut the tangle and weave in the ends without the need for any more unpicking, so not too much of a setback.

The orange part of the vine completed An annoying knot at the back The knot seen to

So finally I did get around to the turquoise surrounding the orange. And then I ran into the opposite problem – the thread I was using was relatively thin, and the stem stitch didn’t fully fill the void. Unpick, find a thicker thread (both the original and the replacement can be seen in the first picture below) and restitch, and it looks much better. One shade down, one to go.

Adding turquoise, which looks a bit thin The turquoise restitched with a thicker thread

Now in the original design, the last bit of the vine had only the darker shade of turquoise, on one side of the orange. If I ever do this design again (not going to happen!) I’d probably use the lighter shade instead, but I’m not seriously unhappy with the darker shade there. What I was unhappy with, was the fact that the change from three colours to two colours seemed a bit stark, happening as it did when the vine was hidden behind the trunk. I decided to add just a little of the lighter shade at the beginning of the top part of the vine, to make the transition a bit gentler.

A second turquoise added An extra bit of medium turquoise

And there you have it: the Tree of Life as it was before my September class. Had it grown much by the end of the class? Wait and see smiley.

The Tree of Life before the September class

Shading a wave

Remember my weak moment, in which I bought Oh Sew Bootiful’s wave design? I’d initially ordered the fabric pattern pack (instructions plus printed fabric) but then found out via the Mary Corbet Facebook group that they do PDF-only versions as well – I hadn’t spotted those because I ordered through their website and the PDFs are only available in their Etsy shop. I emailed them and they very kindly cancelled my order for the fabric pack so that I could buy the PDF instead (and of course there is absolutely no truth to the rumour that two other designs ended up in my shopping basket at the same time…)

I like design-only options; my craft room is stuffed to the gills with fabrics and threads, and I’m happy to do a bit of transferring myself. As it happens, I wanted the design a little smaller than the original so that it would fit a satin box I’ve got; extracting the design from the PDF and printing it a little smaller took care of that. Next, threads. According to the instructions the design is worked in stranded cotton but (probably just because I could) I picked the appropriate shades from my collection of coton à broder.

So far so good; but when I looked at them I realised that although the original green fish work well enough, what I really wanted was bright orange goldfish, like the ones that inexplicably mingle with the minnows in a pond in a small wood near us. And another thought came to me: this is just the sort of design that works well with mildly variegated hand-dyed threads. So I rummaged through my box of Carrie’s Creations stranded cotton and found a deep teal, a lighter one, and a satisyingly goldfishy orange. The next things was the foamy tips of the waves. In the original, they are the same light blue as the running stitch lines inside the waves. But foam is white, right? They aren’t called “white horses” for nothing! So a slightly off-white white was added (well, the foam is rarely truly white after all). I was ready to go!

Colour schemes

But of course I couldn’t possibly leave it at that. The dark parts of the waves are meant to be worked in backstitch, but I’m not overly fond of backstitch. Stem stitch, on the other hand, I find really relaxing! So stem stitch it was going to be. And it didn’t have to wait until my trip to London either – a weekend at my mother-in-law’s was the perfect occasion.

Changing stitches

This was also where I found out that I shouldn’t have transferred the running stitch lines as dashes; it’s very difficult to draw those perfectly regularly, and so my running stitches had to be a bit uneven to cover the transfer lines. Next time I will just put in dots.

When it was time to start on the French knot wave tips, I was beginning to feel a bit hesitant about my plan to stitch them completely in white. Would they stand out enough? I decided to work them in four stages from water to tip: three strands of light teal, two of light teal with one of white, one of light teal with two of white, and three of white. (I also changed the French knots to colonial knots, for no particular reason).

Shading a wave

And I like the effect! It did surprise me a little how alike the two “mixed” sections look; it’s hard to tell where the two-teal-one-white changes to one-teal-two-white, whereas the other changes (from solid teal to mixed and from mixed to solid white) are much clearer. If anyone can think of an explanation, I’d be very interested.

One more wave tip to go (those knots are hard on the fingers so it’s rather slow going) and then I get my reward: the goldfish. I’ve really enjoyed the whole project, but they are going to be the (very orange) icing on the cake!

PS A thought about the shading that came to me after I’d posted this – when you’re working a stitch with a twist (such as any type of knot) not every strand is going to be equally visible in the finished stitch. When all strands are the same colour this doesn’t, of course, make any difference to the look of the thing. But it’s a different story with blended threads: a knot made with AAB may show hardly any B at all, or have B very prominent on top of the two As. The blended knots are part AAB and part ABB, but AAB-with-prominent-B may well look almost identical to ABB-with-prominent-A. My guess is that that is why the middle part of the foam is less banded than I’d expected.

A Jacobean trunk – lots of brown

You may remember that I wasn’t at all sure whether I ought to go to my September Certificate class, as I had been able to do very little work on the project over the summer. If you cancel within a week of the date, you don’t get a refund, so I had to decide by Friday 13th at the latest. This is when my husband, who still has delusions of Mabel achieving world domination in embroidery, stepped in and made me schedule an hour and a half off work to stitch on as many days as we could manage leading up to the class.

We run our business from home and my desk is actually in the same room as my slate frame set-up, so logistically there wasn’t a problem. And I agreed that I would have to do some serious stitching if the class was to be more than just an expensive way of buying stitching time. Well, with four 90-minute sessions (with restful cat in the background), a fair bit of stitching over the weekend, and sampling in the evenings I did manage to get enough done to make the class worth while. In fact it was a very fruitful day – but more of that in a later FoF.

Stitching session with cat

Today I’d like to talk about the trunk, and what I’ve learnt from stitching lots and lots of brown chain stitch smiley.

The first thing I learnt (during my previous class) was to work the stitch slightly differently from how I would normally do it. Picture the usual process: bring the needle up, go down in the same hole, leave a loop at the front, come up one stitch length away, catch the loop, pull through. Yes?

No.

Apparently this puts too much strain on the thread. I can’t say I’ve noticed it in other projects, but wool is notoriously shreddy (especially Appleton’s) so the less unnecessary friction the better. And I will admit the noise that the twill and wool produce when doing chain stitch the usual way did make me feel the tutors had a point! The solution is to add a step to the process: after “catching the loop” you don’t just pull through from to the top by pulling the needle, you pull the loop through from the back with your fingers (bit of fumbling until you get into the rhythm) so that the chain stitch looks like a finished chain stitch, then pull the thread through to the front by pulling the needle. In this way, the thread is only ever pulled straight through the fabric (i.e. not at an angle), minimising the amount of friction. It worked so well that I inserted the same extra step when it came to stitching the stem stitch vine.

Because the extra step makes every stitch take just that little bit longer, and because the tree trunk contains a lot of chain stitches, and because I’m trying to keep my stitches as evenly-sized as possible, and because I am not a natural at the slate frame (more about that in a later post too), progress was not particularly quick, and at the end of the third class this was where I’d got to:

After the third class

So far so good, now just keep stitching chain stitches in five shades of brown and Bob’s your uncle. Except there was another lesson to be learnt – the fact that sometimes you can’t tell whether something looks right until you’ve done it. I’d finished the second shade of brown and started the third, when I realised there was too much of shade two in the top part of the trunk. If I left it in, the other three shades would be crowded. I decided to unpick. At the same time I noticed that I could have done with a little more of the first shade where the top half of the trunk meets the side branch. Unfortunately that would mean having to unpick the whole second shade in that top section, and I’m not that dedicated to achieving a perfect result! Technically, the stitching there was fine – my only niggle was that colour-wise it would have looked better with just a bit more of the darkest brown. I will note this in my log, and explain why I didn’t change it.

A bit too much of shade two Unpicked, ready for re-stitching with shade three

The log is an intriguing thing; it can be used to explain all sorts of things you have or haven’t done, especially in conjunction with the samplings. I like my log!

I also learnt… well, no, I had it confirmed (and believe me, this will be a recurring theme) that Appleton’s wool is, shall we say, less than consistent in its quality. In fact, one of the threads I fastened on against my better judgment looked so fluffed up and puffy after only one stitch that I promptly took it out again and discarded it. Because I don’t like throwing thread away I use some of these discards for my samplings, but it’s not ideal – after all, the samplings are meant to give an idea of how a stitch will look in the actual design!

A fluffy puffy thread

One of the things I get a little paranoid about (besides worrying whether my chain stitches are all approximately the same length, and whether my voiding is precise enough) is design lines. The brief specifies that none of the painted design lines must be visible in the finished piece. But with something like chain stitch, which is relatively wide, it often leads to a difficult decision. In the picture below, a bit of design line is definitely still visible (orange arrow). But an extra line of chain stitch will take the stitched area well across the design line, making the branch thicker than it was originally intended to be. Of course, when I say “well across” I need to remind myself that we’re talking millimetres here. So possibly I’m just being a bit too pernickety. Anyway, I added the extra line.

The blue arrow in the second picture above shows yet another learning process. In order to blend in lines that aren’t full-length, a little creativity is needed now and then. Here I am starting the line that will go up the trunk from inside a stitch on the line that curves into the side branch; that way, there will be no very obvious starting point in the middle of the bark.

That isn’t always possible, but however you work it, lines that don’t go all the way must not noticeably end. The easiest way of decreasing the width of a shape like this trunk is to make each line as long as it can be, stopping each one when you hit the design line. If you do it that way, the longest lines will be in the centre of the trunk, and the closer towards the design line you get, the shorter the lines become. The disadvantage of doing it this way is that the outline can look a bit stepped. For this reason I decided to “hide” some of my shorter lines on the inside of the trunk (green arrows) rather than having them on the outside. I try to end each shortened line by tucking it under the previous line or at least having the little holding stitch as close to the previous line as possible. Because chain stitch tends to spread a bit, especially when done in wool, this effectively hides most of the endings.

Can I just get back to Appleton’s for a moment? Most of their colour families come in anything from five to nine shades; the higher the number of a shade, the darker it is, so in a series of nine xx1 will be very very light, xx5 somewhere in the middle, and xx9 very very dark. Now I would expect the difference between each pair of shades to be more or less the same, so that 4 is as much different from 3 as 3 is from 2. But it isn’t. My five shades of brown are 182, 183, 184, 185 and 187 – one number missing between my darkest and my next darkest shade, so you expect a bit of a gap there, and so there is. But whereas you can see a fairly clear difference between the middle three shades, unless you look very carefully the very lightest one is almost indistinguishable from the next one up, making the right-hand side of the tree a rather uniform beige. A bit late now to swap 182 for 181, and anyway the tutors advised me against choosing that shade early on in the course because they said it would be too close to the colour of the fabric. So it’ll have to be what it is now.

The five shades of brown in the trunk

I may be a bit unfair to Appleton’s here; even with my very favourite crewel wool, Heathway’s Milano, the nine gradations within a colour family aren’t always evenly spaced. But even the tutors remarked on the fact that Appleton’s 4, 5 and 6 shades are often so close that they advise students to use no more than two out of the three. Perhaps if Heathway expand their colour range, they might be able to convince the RSN to change over…

But that’s well into the future, if it ever happens, and my Jacobean Certificate piece is now. And Appleton’s or not, I’m quite pleased with how that trunk has turned out!

The finished trunk