Working on the SAL

November is getting nearer, and so I’m starting to get just a little bit twitchy. The whole SAL has been charted and half has been stitched, but that still leaves 6 projects to finish with only 10 days to go until the Materials List is due. Oh well, nothing like a challenge.

It still surprises me how you can completely miss things about charts you’ve drawn yourself until you actually stitch them. So far I have corrected missing bars, elements that aren’t quite lined up, and Kloster blocks with the stitches going in the wrong direction.

And of course there are the usual things which crop up whenever I work a stitched model – in one design I stitched part of the border only to find that I really disliked the way it looked. So one of the two speciality stitches in it was ruthlessly cast aside, and the border now consists of two off-set rows of the other speciality stitch.

Then I realised that two types of bar which I thought were part of the SAL had in fact not got into in any of the designs. Some quick recharting was called for, which took a bit of doing as I didn’t really want to start making changes to any of the months that I had already stitched!

While stitching one of the models I started wondering whether it would be possible to incorporate beads in bars, but instead of being sensible and experimenting on a scrap of spare fabric I just tried it out in the model I was working on. It didn’t work. Unpicking beads from bars is not easy … Even so I’m not giving up the idea entirely; I still think it may work with a different type of bar. Watch this space.

Quite a few things may still change in the designs for July to December, but as they stand now the whole series will contain (besides Kloster blocks and other typical Hardanger satin stitch elements) six types of bars, 11 filling stitches, three different ways of using beads, one ribbon stitch and 26 or so speciality stitches. I hope you will enjoy them!

The Knitting & Stitching Show

Last week I went on my annual gallivant (as my husband calls it) to London to visit the Knitting & Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace. Well, I did some other things as well – I attended an opera lecture about L’Elisir d’Amore with my sister-in-law (and managed not to embarrass her by singing along), went for a lovely contemplative walk in Brompton cemetery, saw beautiful jewellery (including some that is typical of regional Dutch costume) at the V&A, and had lunch at my favourite Lebanese restaurant Le Comptoir Libanais. But the main reason or excuse was the K&S show, and I had a wonderful time there.

Some of the things I did there were Mabel-related; distributing flyers about the forthcoming SAL, delivering a sample kit to the lady who organises their workshops, and scouting out new threads and other materials. I found some lovely shades of hand-dyed fabric at Sparklies, but as Kate usually doesn’t bring any 25ct I tend to just make notes and order later. This time she did have one new shade with her, though, so I snapped it up. It’s called Caribbean and is a lovely light purply turquoisy blue. I also couldn’t resist a pair of Oliver Twists silks, although they are really too thick to use on my usual fabric. I may try them on 18ct and see how that works. Then there were some Miyuki seed beads – I usually use Mill Hill, but for some time now I have wanted to try Miyuki beads to compare them, and I found a lovely shade which happened to tone beautifully with the silks. How is that for serendipity! Some gold and silver pearl purl (wonderful name), a Japanese braiding implement, two tiny scissor charms and two strong magnets completed my purchases. Quite restrained, I thought!

Bits and bobs bought at the Knitting & Stitching Show

You may have noticed that the magnets aren’t in the photograph. That’s because they were already in use when I took it, stuck to my Lowery workstand and holding on to my scissors and needles. They really are remarkably strong and keep everything quite secure. The only problem is that my scissors have gone slightly magnetic and keep picking up the needle I’m working with …

Magnets at work on my Lowery stand

I always try to do at least one workshop when visiting the show, and if I do more than one I like to have at least one which is completely new to me. This year I did two, one on goldwork and one on bobbin lace. I did a RSN goldwork workshop two years ago (and must shamefacedly admit that I still haven’t finished the bee project) and thought this might refresh my memory. The bobbin lace workshop was going to be my big challenge, as I have never done anything like it and the thought of all those pins and bobbins makes my head spin. As it was it turned out to be easier and much more enjoyable than I’d expected, at least in part because the tutors had come up with a simple project that was not too scary for a complete novice, and that could actually be finished within the 1-hour slot! With the rather thick threads and no added twists it looks remarkably like weaving, which I suppose it is in a way. We turned it into a sort of flower or rosette which could be stuck to a birthday card. The goldwork dragonfly, as you can see, did not get finished on the day.

Bobbin lace and half a goldwork dragonfly

However, I didn’t want the dragonfly to languish like the bee, so I took it to my stitching group and finished it there. I’m really quite pleased with it and am now determined to finish the RSN bee as well some time this year!

The goldwork dragonfly in all its glory

Ways of starting (II)

In my last post I looked at the waste knot and the away knot as a method of fastening on your working thread. Here are two more methods, or to be precise two methods plus a variation. The first one I’m sure you’re all familiar with; it’s the one I’ve been using ever since I started doing cross stitch and I’m not even sure it’s got a name. I call it the Tail method because you start by bringing the needle up through the fabric, leaving a tail at the back of the fabric (picture 1). Then start stitching, making sure you over the tail as you go (pictures 2 & 3). All three pictures show the back of the work.

Fastening on with a tail (1) Fastening on with a tail (2) Fastening on with a tail (3)

A great favourite of mine, and a great one to keep your back tidy, is the loop start. It only works when working with an even number of threads or strands, unfortunately, but when it works it’s very neat. It can be worked in two ways, one of which is even cleverer than the other! Both start by doubling your strand or strands and threading the needle with the cut ends (picture 1, below). The difference is whether the loop is left at the front or the back of the fabric. If you leave it at the back (that is to say, you bring the needle up for the first stitch as usual) you need to turn your work over to catch the loop. With the "front loop" method everything happens at the front of your work.

To begin, take the needle down the fabric at the beginning of your stitch, where you would normally bring the needle up. Don’t pull it all the way through but leave a loop at the front of the fabric. Then bring the needle up at the other end of the stitch (picture 2). Take the needle through the loop (picture 3) and pull the thread right through (picture 4). Take the needle down the same hole in which you came up, making sure you catch the loop (picture 5). Pull the thread right through, so that the loop gets pulled to the back of the fabric. Voilà, one anchored stitch (picture 6).

Fastening on with a loop start (1) Fastening on with a loop start (2) Fastening on with a loop start (3)
Fastening on with a loop start (4) Fastening on with a loop start (5) Fastening on with a loop start (6)

I suddenly realised there is another method which I use quite often but haven’t mentioned yet – and I haven’t got pictures of it either, but I hope a verbal description will be clear enough. This method only works if you’ve already done some stitching, and I tend to use it in Hardanger to fasten on the perle #8 for the bars and filling stitches after I’ve worked the Kloster blocks. At the back of the work I take the needle behind one or two Kloster blocks, ending up near where I want to start stitching; then I loop the thread round the last of the stitches that I’ve passed under. This anchors it very effectively.

If I’ve missed any really efficient ways of fastening on, do let me know – I always like to learn new methods!

Ways of starting (I)

As I was stitching one of the Guildhouse course models (the silk sampler) I got distracted into thinking about ways of starting a thread. Most instructions I have read over the years tend to say breezily "fasten on your thread" before moving swiftly on to the much more interesting matter of how to work the design or stitch. I will admit to doing so myself in Mabel’s chart packs, although in a good number of the stitch diagrams I do add something like "fasten on behind a Kloster block", and the diagram will show where; and of course in the Beginners’ Kits I specifically describe how and where to fasten on. But generally speaking, it is left to the stitcher to decide what method she or he will use.

And there are quite a few methods on offer, some with variations. You probably know several of them already, but I thought it might be helpful to have them all described. I’ve even produced some pictures! In fact I’ve produced rather a lot of pictures, so I’ll show the Waste Knot and the Away Knot today, and the Tail start and Loop start in the next post

The Waste and Away Knot methods are really two variations on a theme: both involve a knot that sits at the front of your work for a bit and is then snipped off and discarded. Several sites refer to the Away Knot as the Away Waste Knot, showing that they regard it as a type of waste knot. So what is the difference?

Let’s start with the waste knot. This is particularly useful if you are going to work a number of stitches in one direction. Tie a knot in the end of your thread and take the needle down the fabric a little way away from where you will start stitching (picture 1), making sure that you will be stitching in the direction of the knot. Work your stitches (picture 2 – I’m doing some fairly raggedy satin stitch). Picture 3 shows the back of the work, covering the thread. When you reach the knot, pull it up a little and snip it off. The cut end will disappear into the fabric, and you can continue stitching.

Fastening on with a waste knot (1) Fastening on with a waste knot (2) Fastening on with a waste knot (3)

But what it you’re stitching a few random French knots, or a stitch where there is very little thread at the back of the work so you would have to keep turning over your work to check that you are actually covering and anchoring the thread? Well, you could try an away knot. It starts in the same way, with a knot at the end of your thread – but this time you take the needle down about 4" / 10cm away from where you will start stitching, and in the opposite direction to where you will be going (picture 1). Start stitching; I worked a number of French knots. At the back of the work you can see where I travelled from French knot to French knot, and you can also see the thread stretching to my away knot (picture 2). Now snip the knot at the front of the fabric, turn the work over and thread the needle with the loose end. Take the needle under some of the stitches to secure the thread (picture 3).

Fastening on with an away knot (1) Fastening on with an away knot (2) Fastening on with an away knot (3)

One note of caution about the away knot – it is very easy to underestimate the length of thread you will need to be able to comfortably secure it later, and few things are more exasperating than threading a cut end that turns out to be too short to work with. 4" is really about as little as you can get away with! This does make it probably the most wasteful method of fastening on, and so it is unlikely to become anyone’s default method, but it’s a useful one to have in your repertoire.

January has been charted and stitched!

General rejoicing and all-round jubilation! Having had a stack of pencil sketches and scribbled notes stare at me accusingly from my desk for the past few months I have finally got the first of the SAL designs charted and even *gasp* stitched – only 11 more to go …

I was slightly hampered by the fact that I have lent my only 6" hoop to one of the students at the Guildhouse course, and it’s the 6" hoop I need for these 12 small designs. Fortunately I remembered that somewhere in the back of a drawer of my stash cabinet there were a few Siesta bar frames which I picked up at the Knitting & Stitching Show a couple of years ago, and one of them was a 6" one. They work by slotting the four sides together and stapling the fabric to it; doesn’t do the edges of the fabric much good but it’s fine for projects that are small enough not to have to be moved around.

Bar frame, front Bar frame, back

You will notice the fabric in the picture is empty. I’d have liked to show you the finished January project, but as it’s supposed to be a Mystery SAL that will have to wait until next year. However, it’s beginning to look like I will be able to put up the complete materials list on 1st November as planned, which is encouraging!

Model stitching for the Guildhouse course (III)

The models for week 3 (Hardanger/ribbon) and week 2 (silk) were stitched out of sequence, but I’m back on track with week 4 which will be miniature work on silk gauze. I’ve chosen a 40ct gauze, so 40 stitches to the inch. That sounds impossibly fine, but because of the open weave it is actually a lot more "visible" than you’d expect. Another advantage of silk gauze is that the weave is interlocking, so the fabric threads don’t move. This means you can work petit point on it without having to worry about your working thread slipping between the fabric threads.

The open weave does mean that you cannot trail threads across parts that won’t be stitched, because they will be very visible indeed from the front. And on this small scale it is definitely difficult to keep your stitches regular; especially if you choose to do full cross stitch rather than petit point, as I did because I like the coverage better. And even more when there are only one or two stitches of a colour which you need to squeeze in among other colours, as in the "eyes" on the tail! But fortunately that is only really noticeable in close-up, especially in close-up photographs. So I hope you appreciate my courage in showing you just that, a close-up photograph of a mini peacock:

Miniature peacock on silk gauze

And just to give you a sense of scale, here it is with a standard-sized match. I am offering students the option of going for a 28ct evenweave or a 20ct aida if they find the silk gauze a bit too much of a challenge …

Miniature peacock next to a match

PS for those who would like to try miniature work on silk gauze: it is available in a range of counts, from 32ct to 112ct (no, I haven’t tried that one yet). It tends to be sold in small pieces, sometimes mounted in a card frame, but occasonally you find a shop which sells it in larger cuts. Janet Grainger and Nicola Mascall are good for small to medium-sized cuts, Willow Fabrics stock 13" square cuts in four different counts, and the Dutch shop Kunst & Vliegwerk sells a large piece (about 10" x 20") of 40ct at a ridiculously low price.

Model stitching for the Guildhouse course (II)

Two more models for the course have been completed, and neither of them changed very much! But before I tell you a bit more about one of them, here is some work the students did in the first week:

Student blackwork Student blackwork Student blackwork

On to week 2, when they were going to get to grips with silks. I love silks, and I’m always happy to point people in the direction of stash they didn’t know they needed. So the project was a proper, old-fashioned sampler – a piece of stitching that shows samples of threads or stitches or patterns that the stitchers wants to keep for future reference. Six different stitches (Rhodes heart, leaf stitch, colonial knot, satin stitch motif, chain stitch and cross stitch in two sizes) and six different silks, yielding 36 possible combinations. And having all those combinations in one piece will show very effectively which silks look best in which type of stitch.

The silks used are Carrie’s Creation stranded silk (red), Vinyard Silk Classic (blue), Caron Soie Cristale (yellow), Eterna stranded silk (green), Thredfairy silk cord (cream) and Midori Matsushima Japanese flat silk, 10 suga (purple). I thought all these threads were still available but have just found out that Eterna silk, that affordable flat stranded silk which came in about 500 colours, is no longer available. A sad day for silk lovers. Here, however, it is "in action" with its five fellow-silks.

Silk project for 2012 course

It was lovely to stitch this sampler and feel all the different textures; Carrie’s is a twisted silk, Vineyard consists of two flat and slightly fuzzy plies, Caron is very lightly twisted and has a bit more body than Carrie’s, Eterna is a 12-stranded silk whose strands are practically flat, Thredfairy is a tightly twisted perle thread, and the Japanese silk is so soft and flat and beautiful that just stroking it is a pleasure! It snags on absolutely everything, but a few gentle strokes with finger or needle and it’s ready to go again. The difference between the six silks show up more clearly in real life, I’m afraid, but photographing the sampler with flash helps a bit to show the different textures and the way they catch the light.

Silk project for 2012 course, flash

So were there no changes at all to this design before it got used in class? No, but there are two things I will probably change if I ever use it again. First of all I would probably use a soft silk like Crescent Colour Belle Soie or Gloriana Silk Floss instead of the Caron thread, which doesn’t contrast enough with Carrie’s silk. Secondly I would replace the chain stitch with a flower made up of lazy daisy stitches, as I found that this section was very challenging for a number of the students. And there will have to be a third change as well – I’ll need to find a good substitute for Eterna!

Model stitching for the Guildhouse course (I)

One of the interesting parts of preparing to teach a needlework course is stitching the various projects beforehand. I can’t imagine teaching a class about a project which I haven’t stitched myself – for one thing I’d be terrified that I’d overlooked something vital and would find out half way through the class that part of the design is impossible to stitch!

It also gives me some idea of how long a project will take to stitch, and of course how much thread needs to be included in the materials packs. Although it is possible to design projects that can be completed within the 2 hours allotted to each class, they would have to be very simple indeed, and very small. Instead I tend to use slightly larger and more complex designs which are started in class but finished at home. The idea is that if a design includes four identical or similar chain stitch shapes, I will explain chain stitch, and the students will stitch one of the shapes, then we move on to the next stitch and the other three get finished at home, or at the end of the class if there’s time. In addition the last class in the course is dedicated to finishing off projects, asking questions, practising challenging stitches and so on. It seems to work. It seems to work.

The first class of the course I’m teaching at the moment looked at blackwork, and more specifically at ways in which you can "shade" blackwork from dark to light. We did this by using different thread weights, and by gradually simplifying the repeated motifs. There was some metallic thread included as well, showing the difference between blending filament and #4 braid. The result will eventually be made into a card.

Blackwork project for 2012 course

The interesting thing about stitching a model is that often it will change considerably in the process, sometimes because something doesn’t look right, sometimes because it turns out to be too complicated, sometimes for very practical reasons. This blackwork design started out square, but as I was working it in the 4" hoop that the students would be using I realised it was getting very difficult to work towards the corners, so I left some of the pattern out and turned it into an octagon. And you know what? I actually like it better that way!

When I’d finished the blackwork, the logical thing would have been to start the week 2 project, which is a silk sampler; but I decided to do the Hardanger & ribbon work for week 3 first, as it is a bit more challenging. Did any changes get made to this project? Yes, one – if you look very carefully you will note that the "spokes" for the ribbon rose stick out a bit, so I shortened them on the chart that the students will be using.

Hardanger and ribbon work project for 2012 course

Note to self: it is extremely difficult to get ruched ribbons the same width, even when you start out with identical bits of ribbon. I haven’t quite decided yet whether the result is "sloppy" or "charmingly uneven" – a bit like an asymmetric smile is said to be quite attractive.

Literary embroidery

Earlier this week we were visiting friends in Chawton. If you are at all fond of early 19th-century literature, that may make you prick up your ears, because once upon a time Jane Austen lived in Chawton, and the house is now a museum. I studied English a couple of decades ago and although I am by no stretch of the imagination a "Janeite" I do enjoy her novels very much, so whenever we visit our friends I’ve been meaning to visit the house. And this time, it finally happened.

It’s definitely worth a visit, with many period items and even some interactive displays; I had a go at writing with a quill pen and oak gall ink (and have the stained fingers to prove it), and the Austen-themed Snakes & Ladders in the garden was rather fun. But for me as a stitcher the nice thing was that there were several bits of embroidery in the collection, as well as two gorgeous dresses, one of which I was allowed to touch to inspect the inside – it had raised dots on the outside which I had always assumed (when I’d seen this sort of decoration in pictures) were French knots or something like it, but in fact they are tiny tufts of thread, cut very short, and as far as I could see not held in by any sort of anchoring. We live and learn; I’d have thought the decoration might work loose in the wash or even during everyday activities, but then the ladies wearing it would not be engaging in vigorous exercise, and their delicate muslins would be cleaned most carefully. Perhaps it’ll teach me to be less worried about washing my stitching!

The most interesting things were pieces of stitching worked by Jane Austen herself, or relatives (sister, nieces); suddenly she is not just a much-admired author, but a fellow stitcher. There were some flowers in needle painting embroidery, and a lovely bit of lace – well, the card said it was lace, but it looked more like a sheer fabric applied to netting and then cut away. However it was done (and I seem to remember seeing this technique in a book some time ago) it looks lovely and delicate.

Lace worked by Jane Austen

I knew that the late Victorians were mad about perforated paper (they used it for cards, bookmarks, needlebook covers and just about everything else) but I hadn’t realised it had been around before that. If Wikipedia is correct in saying that the material was first available in 1820, Jane Austen won’t have made this little workbox herself but it could well have been created by one of her nieces.

A little workbox made from perforated paper

The item that really caught my eye, however, was a little purse or bag. It was worked entirely in Hardanger! Well, something uncannily like it, anyway. From what I could see (and it’s not easy to study needlework in detail when it is shut away in a glass display case) a very large square was bordered and then cut, and the entire thing finished with woven bars in two colours. If Frozen Flower is anything to go by, it must have taken forever!

A Hardanger purse

Not at Jane Austen’s but at our friends’ house I found another interesting bit of embroidery, which was being used as a laptop cover. I forgot to ask where it came from, but it strikes me as South American. It shows a stylised bird (a cockerel perhaps?) and is worked free-hand in a variety of stitches including chain, straight, herringbone and stem. It’s such a cheerful piece with its bold lines and colours, and made me realise once again what a very effective stitch chain stitch is. I was going to use it in the class on Shisha embroidery anyway, but don’t be surprised if it pops up a bit more often in future.

Embroidered cockerel Embroidered cockerel, close-up