Shisha day class (and a bit more goldwork)

Last Saturday was my second RSN day class – shisha this time, the Indian style of embroidery that incorporates little mirrors. The tutor was the same as for the goldwork day class, Sarah Homfray. Like last time, it was a lovely day; it’s very relaxing to spend time with other stitchers, improving existing skills and learning new ones. Also very interesting to see some of Sarah’s own work in this style, and some original Indian pieces. I was quite surprised to see that the coverage on these original embroideries wasn’t always as full as I had expected – perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried about the occasional gap!

The kit for the class contained silk fabric with cotton backing, a selection of stranded and perle cottons, five shisha mirrors (a circle, a small triangle, two squares and a heart) and an oval domed “jewel”. Sarah showed us two types of shisha stitch to attach the mirrors, the one that I used in the Shisha box top and another one which is simpler and quicker to work, and two very decorative surface stitches that were variations on feather stitch and fly stitch. There was no design as such, we just each worked on our own personal sampler – a sampler in the original sense of the word, in that it is a tangible reminder of stitches learnt which you can later use as an example. For this reason I worked some of the shisha stitches with foundation threads in a different colour from the surface thread, to make the structure of the stitch more visible; ordinarily you would use the same colour for both, so that any gaps in the surface stitches would be less visible. Below you can see what I managed to do during the class, plus the materials I haven’t used yet.

Shisha embroidery worked in class

I took the embroidery with me to my weekly stitching group to work on it some more; my general aim was to try and pull the various elements together into something looking more like an intentional whole and less like a random collection of stitches. I wanted to add some embellishments (both purchased at the class and from my own stash) and also try one of Mary Corbet’s shisha variations, though without the whipping. It looks very attractive, rather like a daisy. I used it to attach a flat round sequin, with some variegated blue and white stranded cotton from the class kit.

Did it all work as intended? Well, sort of. I remembered to unpick the last stitch of the (pale lilac) fly stitch flower head and re-do it so that it went underneath the first stitch. Not really necessary perhaps, but it offended against my sense of symmetry to have the last stitch go over the stitches on either side of it, rather than over one of them and underneath the other, like all the other stitches. The instructions for this stitch start with a half stitch and end with one as well, but I found that if I remember to tuck under on completing the circle, there is no need for the half stitches.

Shisha embroidery worked at my stitching group

I’m happy with the added sequins, beads, button and French knots, and I like the line of the dark green flower stem of feather stitch (called “little coat hangers” by Sarah’s assistant tutor). As for the shisha variation, I’m not satisfied with the way it looks. I don’t just mean that it is incredibly irregular – I decided to do very little measuring out on this sampler and just stitch free-hand – but the stranded cotton doesn’t cover the foundation threads at all well unless you pack the stitches in really closely (which makes it difficult to have nice defined petals), and the three strands look rather untidy. I was working from memory as I don’t have a tablet or anything like that, but when I looked up the instructions on the website later, I realised Mary Corbet used perle #5; this meant far fewer stitches were needed, and the lines looked much cleaner. And as I noticed there isn’t enough of the blue and white stranded cotton left to complete the stitch anyway, I will probably unpick the straggly daisy and restitch it in perle #5. Or I may try another variation altogether, one that she calls shisha with Cretan stitch (very closely related to feather stitch). It’s quite open compared to the other shisha stitches, but that gives it quite a nice lacy look.

Sarah very kindly brought some goldwork purchases as well; at the goldwork day class I didn’t want to impulse buy, so I researched what I wanted later, and asked Sarah if she could bring the things to this second workshop. For now they are mainly tools: a velvet board for cutting bits of purl on and keeping them in check (pun definitely intended smiley); a pair of serrated goldwork scissors to grip the purl while cutting; a pair of curved tweezers to pinch pearl purl and passing threads into nice sharp corners; a mellor to guide sewing threads over the thread or wire being couched, and to gently push couched threads into shape; and a curved needle for finishing off plunged threads.

Goldwork purchases - velvet board, scissors, tweezers, mellor and curved needle

I’m hoping to build up my goldwork thread and wire collection over time, but for now I just bought a mixed bag of chunky bright check purl (gold, silver and copper), and some finer silver bright check purl (more about that later). And from the many decorative bits and pieces Sarah brought to adorn shisha work with, I couldn’t resist some padded felt shapes and a bag of reddish gold sequins. I admit it, an impulse purchase; but as it was all of £1.25 I don’t feel too bad about it. I resisted some particularly splendid beetle wings as she hadn’t brought the pre-drilled ones, but I may very well get some in the future; Mary Corbet does spectacular things with them in both shisha and goldwork, and while I don’t aspire to the dizzy heights of her expertise and skill I think the wings would make a very attractive addition to less ambitious work too.

Other purchases - bright check purl, padded felt shapes and sequins

Hoping to ask Sarah for a little advice I had brought the goldwork bee. And straight away she corrected my assumption about its body. The reddish bright check purl is not copper, but gold tarnished from long term neglect *oops*. I said I’d thought of unpicking the body and she suggested salvaging the purl, if possible, and combining it with the silver bright check I bought to create stripes. So that’s my aim for when I next pick up this poor neglected insect.

Thinking of goldwork and shisha I was struck by the difference between the two classes. The shisha class was very free – no two projects created that day were the same, even though we were all learning the same stitches and using the same materials. This slightly uncharted and unplanned approach seems to go quite well with the folksy nature of the embroidery, and somewhat to my surprise (I am generally a counted embroidery girl, after all) I really enjoyed this aspect of it. The goldwork class was much more structured, and we all ended up with more or less the same result (apart from choosing different colours for the flowers, or putting some of the secondary swirls in a slightly different place) because we all started with a design drawn on our fabric, and were told which techniques to use where. Of course this is not an absolute difference; you can draw a formal design for shisha work, and many of the stitches will undoubtedly look better if you draw guidelines to keep them regular and tidy. And goldwork, even when starting from a particular design, allows for lots of variation. This was brought home to me when I had a closer look at my latest goldwork scribble, a toadstool with a caterpillar; I wrote down what I am likely to use in the way of materials and techniques, but it could be done in many different ways and would then look quite different.

An idea for a goldwork toadstool and caterpillar

Oh, in case you were wondering: copper pearl purl for the outline of the hood, spirals of couched silver passing (or Japanese thread) for the spots, padded kid for the “collar”, outlined in twist which will also outline the rest of the stem, chipwork under the collar to indicate shade, cutwork of rough purl (or a combination of two purls) for the underside of the hood, couched check thread for the grass with tiny spangles in gold and silver as flowers, and slightly larger spangles attached with stem stitch in gold and silver bright check purl for the catterpillar. With thin gold thread and petite beads for its feelers. Probably. But I may change my mind.

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