Introducing the 2016 SAL

Remember the Song of the Weather SAL, way back in 2013? If not, have a look at the SAL Gallery and enjoy the wonderful ways in which lots of stitchers interpreted the monthly projects.

Nearly 200 stitchers around the world joined the Stitch-Along, which surprised no-one more than me smiley! And with the reactions all so enthusiastic, it seemed inevitable that there should be another one. In a bout of intense and completely misplaced optimism I thought I could get the second Mabel’s Fancies SAL organised for 2015. Not a chance.

What I did do was gather together a sizeable collection of sketches, notes, ideas, and scraps of fabric with stitch samples (some more successful than others). And at last that collection is big enough and organised enough to base a 12-month project on.

So today I am proud to announce *drumroll…*

The 2016 SAL

The 2016 Mabel’s Fancies Stitch-Along Round in Circles – 12 monthly projects of what you might call Hardanger Plus: Hardanger plus various surface stitches and embellishments, and a little ribbon work as well. And perhaps even a little optional goldwork…?

You can’t actually join yet, but on the SAL page you’ll find more information about the SAL itself and when various things will be happening, like the publication of the materials list. And before you know it, it’ll be January and we can start stitching and filling the new SAL Gallery!

Getting to grips with cats

Some time ago I set out to transfer Kelly Fletcher’s Cats on a Wall design to my chosen fabric, a piece of 40ct Zweigart Newcastle linen in the colour Flax, a stony sort of shade. Unfortunately this was before I had received or even ordered my lovely iron-on pens, or the promising-looking carbon transfer paper I got from Sublime stitching at the same time. Other, more traditional methods were called for.

Newcastle linen and Splendor silks for the Cats on a Wall

Tracing against a well-lit window (the poor stitcher’s version of a lightbox) turned out to be difficult because of the colour of the fabric – even with the sun right behind it, the lines of the design didn’t show up very clearly. Moreover, both the pencil and the micron pen I tried using sometimes got caught in the holes and skipped. This may be because at 40ct the Newcastle is a relatively low count compared to the Gander and Kingston linens, or possibly because it’s a fabric meant for counted thread work; there are linens specifically intended for freestyle embroidery which have a lower count but plumper fabric threads so that they present a nice full surface instead of visible holes to trap pencils.

Would prick & pounce have worked? It may have been lack of courage that kept me from trying (I have all the wherewithal for it – pricking pen & pad, pounce powder, little round felt pouncy thing – but as yet haven’t used it), but I like to think it was because I could see it wouldn’t work very well on this relatively open weave. I did try covering the back of the printed design with 2B pencil, then placing it over the fabric and tracing along the lines at the front (a sort of make-shift carbon paper which I’m sure most people have used at some time or other to copy things), but it left no clear line. Perhaps it’s simply not the right fabric for these sort of transfer methods!

In a last-ditch attempt I went over the filling stitches on the printed design in black pen to make them thicker, so they would be easier to see through the fabric as I went back to the well-lit window method. It was better, but still not altogether successful. Finally I had to ink in some of the filling stitches “free hand” by looking at the printed design and copying the lines by eye, so they are not quite as regular as intended by the designer. I also managed to get the outline of one of the stones in the wall wrong – I may have to cover that up with a single strand of silk in the colour of the linen! Even so, at least it’s been transferred and is now ready to go.

The Cats transferred to the Newcastle linen

And then I decided that I really want to do the Tree of Life first. Or the Leaves. Or the Toadstools. Or the Daisy-and-Bumblebee…

Toadstools and a daisy

Last Thursday we had a church meeting. And a very interesting meeting it was, too, with lots about the proposed new building. Throughout the meeting I paid close enough attention to be able to give a fairly detailed summary to my husband afterwards. I only mention this because I also doodled throughout the meeting, and I wouldn’t like you to get the wrong idea smiley.

Do you do that? Doodle during meetings, or in waiting rooms, or while on the phone? I do – I’m an inveterate doodler. Somehow it seems to help me concentrate better. Sometimes it also produces something usable, as it did in this case. I’d been thinking of toadstool designs for a while; in fact I’ve got a sketch and notes for a goldwork toadstool. And talking of buildings at the meeting brought them to mind (I used to love the toadstool houses that gnomes live in in fairytales). So I sketched a few toadstool shapes on the agenda. (Apologies for the slightly crumpled pictures – I had to retrieve this invaluable record of my designing process from the recycling bin…)

Toadstools initial sketch Separate toadstools Overlapping toadstools

As you can see I drew some separate toadstool shapes first, then decided they’d look better overlapping slightly. When I got home I drew a larger sketch based on the overlapping version. This was then scanned, to be tidied up in my photo editing program.

Larger sketch

While tidying up I decided that the left-hand side looked a bit empty, and as I love little creepy crawly critters as long as they are in needlework rather than in the flesh (or whatever real insects are made from) I added first a caterpillar (my favourite creepy crawly) and then an alternative beetle.

Larger sketch Larger sketch Larger sketch

I’m planning to stitch three versions of this, in three sizes, one outlined in stem stitch only, one mostly outlined and partly filled in using a variety of stitches, and one filled in entirely using long-and-short stitch and ste stitch filling.

As I was getting the toadstools ready to print, I thought I might as well tidy up a sketch I did some time ago of a simple daisy and bumblebee intended for teaching. I haven’t decided how to stitch that one yet; it could work in goldwork, or perhaps in freestyle outlines it would be a good one for another workshop in aid of the building fund!

Larger sketch Larger sketch

Wool again – back to Pearsall’s

Some time ago I treated myself to Pearsall’s starter pack, 30 skeins of their Heathway Merino crewel wool plus two pieces of twill.

Wool from Pearsall's starter pack

Of course they needed to be tried out, and for ease of comparison I used the same design as for the Renaissance Dyeing experiment. Originally I intended to use the same stitches as well, but then I came across the raised chain stitch band which, having worked it in perle cotton and loved the result, I simply had to try out in wool. As it happens, it’s not quite so successful in wool as in perle, although it still has an interesting look. The two wide pink/red bands on the flower cone (what do you call that thing?) are raised chain stitch band, with intentionally varied spacing (just so you don’t think it looks sloppy by accident…).

Starting on the SANQ pattern in Pearsall's wool

The main thing I noticed about Pearsall’s is that it feels and looks a little heavier than the Renaissance Dyeing wool. It’s not a big difference, in fact I sometimes wondered whether I was imagining it, but on the whole I do think there is a difference. It’s most noticeable on the three lines of stem stitch in the stem, and the little lines of stem stitch around the tiny satin stitch leaves. Talking of which, they are very irregular. I know. I was getting a little impatient to finish this because I really want to work on the Shisha Mini and the SAL, and so I wasn’t as careful over my stitching as I would have been if this had been a proper project. (That’s not to say these two Jacobean flowers are improper projects – just that they are more in the nature of samplers, or to hark back to the previous FoF, doodle cloths. Pictorial doodle cloths. I might do more of those, actually! Perhaps I could use some of those leaf outlines I’ve been drawing for one.)

The finished Jacobean flower

Apart from the slight difference in thickness, Pearsall’s crewel wool is really very much like Renaissance Dyeing’s. They work up very nicely, they don’t pill, and they are both so much better than Appleton’s! I like the feel of the Pearsall’s a little better, but on the other hand the RD makes really nice fine lines in stem stitch. Mind you, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t mix them.

Finally, just a few close-ups to show the various stitches used in this project. In the flower cone: raised chain stitch band, seed stitch, French knots (using two different colours in the needle which unfortunately doesn’t show up at all) and long-and-short stitch worked over a split stitch border which is now invisible. In the bluey-green petals: stem stitch (the vein), Portuguese knotted stem stitch (the outline) and bullion knots. In the stem: stem stitch in three shades of green, and French knots with two shades in the needle – here the colours were sufficiently different to show up. In the leaf: stem stitch, Palestrina stitch (the outline) and satin stitch (the little leaves-within-a-leaf).

raised chain stitch band, seed stitch, French knots and long-and-short stitch stem stitch, knotted stem stitch and bullion knots stem stitch shading and French knots stem stitch, Palestrina stitch and satin stitch

And now I can go and play with Shisha minis and SAL doodle cloths – yay!

Doodle cloths with a purpose

In a way I suppose all doodle cloths have a purpose – the purpose of letting you try out stitches to see whether you like them; of practising stitches and so getting familiar with them before using them on a “real” project; of comparing the effects that different types and weights of threads have on a stitch; of showing others how to work a stitch; of having a record (or sampler) of various stitches for future reference. Trial cloths, practice cloths, teaching cloths, reference cloths. In theory you could, presumably, have a purposeless doodle cloth, one that you simply pick up when you would like to do a bit of stitching but can’t be bothered or haven’t got the time to work on any of your projects. But in practice I think it would quickly turn into one of those four types mentioned above.

Ideally, doodle cloths shouldn’t be thrown away. No matter what their original purpose was, they can always be used for reference or to record what you’ve done and learnt over the years. Teaching cloths can be useful when, years later, you are about to teach a similar class or workshop. Colour combinations on a trial cloth may inspire a new design. I have once or twice consigned doodle cloths to the rubbish bin, and regretted it later.

But there is still a fair collection. The two Shisha Minis with four different corner motifs each fall into the reference category, even though strictly speaking they weren’t doodle cloths when I started them – they were mini projects that turned into doodle cloths because I couldn’t make up my mind. I have several cloths with large cut Hardanger areas filled with possible bars and filling stitches (and some impossible ones…) The doodle cloth I used at the shisha workshops (below left) was a teaching cloth from the start. The other picture shows a trial cloth on calico which, besides some stitches in just one version, contains several worked in different threads. It’s also a practice cloth for stitches I’ve never done before, which explains why some of them look distinctly wonky and, let’s be honest, rubbish. But that’s how you learn!

My doodle cloth Doodle cloth on calico

At the moment my most exciting doodle cloth is the one below. It’s 25ct Lugana mounted in a 10″ hoop and I will admit that it doesn’t look very exciting, being completely empty. But over the next month or so it should fill up with stitches to be used in the Round in Circles SAL, which I hope will start in January. Some of them will be counted versions of stitches on the calico doodle cloth, some will be different altogether, some will be familiar to people who did the Song of the Weather SAL, some won’t, but all of them are going to be my secret until 2016 smiley.

Setting up a doodle cloth on lugana

Undesirable effects of ironing

Sometimes finished projects need ironing. Hoop marks that would be visible when framing the piece need to be removed, or perhaps the whole thing would just look that little bit crisper and neater after a go with the iron. And most of the time, that’s not a problem. Just remember to iron from the back, and to put the stitched piece face down on a thick towel (or even several towels) to make sure it doesn’t get flattened. Take care that the iron is set to a temperature that the fabric and threads can take, and if they are different, take your cue from the most vulnerable one – linen fabric worked with silks gets ironed at silk temperature. Bearing all that in mind, what could possibly go wrong?


You might just forget that the project contains sequins.

This is what silver cup sequins are meant to look like. Pretty, aren’t they? Sparkly. Bright. Picking up the colour of the bead and reflecting it.

Cup sequins as they ought to look

And this is what silver cup sequins look like when ironed, ever so carefully, from the back, cushioned and protected by several layers of towel.

Cup sequins after ironing

And it didn’t even really need ironing *sigh*.

Goldwork balloon – felt padding

After a long interval, a small update on the Benton & Johnson goldwork balloon. Let me start with a bit about the instruction booklet. Besides list of what’s in the kit, there is a very comprehensive list of what else you need, in great detail.

Slightly puzzling from reading just the list: there is a gold thread in the kit marked “for couching”, but the list of “Additional Requirements” also lists “Yellow couching thread which matches the gold”, with suggestions for suitable threads. Will some things be couched using the gold thread that comes with the kit, and others using a yellow sewing thread? The answer to that turns out to be “yes” – the gold thread will be used to attach the metallic leather. Not quite couching, but close enough.

This shows that it can be very helpful and illuminating to read through the whole instruction booklet in a kit before starting (as they advise at the beginning of the instructions). From long experience I’d say it is hardly ever disastrous if you don’t, but it can save a lot of trouble and confusion and running out of threads, so it’s time well spent (even though what you really want to do is get stitching!).

The booklet also contains very detailed preparation instructions, about ironing and framing the fabric. Several methods of transferring the design are mentioned, with one (tacking stitches worked through tracing paper) described in more detail. The instructions also state explicitly that the balloon outline is all that needs to be transferred. Beginning stitchers who feel that surely there ought to be more on the fabric before they start stitching will be reassured by this, and hopefully deterred from adding additional lines that might remain visible when the project is completed.

The next section gives tips for starting and finishing, and then it’s on to instructions about attaching the various bits of felt. It was nice to get some actual needlework done on this project at last smiley!

The first layer of felt padding attached to the silk The second layer of felt padding The second layer of felt padding attached

Things I noticed about this part of the project:

  • The instructions are very detailed and helpful. It’s difficult for me to read them as though I’d never done any goldwork at all, but I think someone new to goldwork but with a bit of other needlework experience shouldn’t have any problems.
  • the felt shapes don’t appear to fit quite accurately inside the design transfer, and I can’t get the whole balloon to line up with the two half balloons. The first mismatch may be because I stretched the silk fabric after transferring the design, so the outline is probably a bit bigger than it should be. As for the second, could it be because I ironed the tracings on? That could have pulled the felt slightly out of shape, I suppose. I must check the drawings in the instruction booklet; perhaps photocopy them and then cut them out to see whether everything lines up.

When I next get round to this project, I’ll be attaching some of the gold bits – the gold kid leather, to be exact. Shiny…

Unexpected storage

It is a sad fact of life that Mabel’s Fancies is not my day job. My day job involves accounts, web maintenance, and talking to people on the phone about bits of pre-war automobile in several languages (though not at the same time, obviously). It doesn’t involve needlework, alas, but it’s a nice job. I like it. And sometimes it throws up pleasant surprises. Like answering the phone this afternoon and being greeted with “hello princess!” by an elderly gentleman I didn’t know (I’ve been called “petal” as well, and “ducks” – this royal treatment is definitely a step up).

Another surprise came when I was asked to put together assorted grommet packs. Until we started this business I had no idea what a grommet was, and I am still a little hazy as to what you use them for, although I can see the larger ones making quite a good foundation for Dorset buttons. Putting together packs of them, however, I can do. I opened the two boxes of grommets and… looked at the boxes. They clipped close. They had moveable dividers. They looked remarkably like smaller versions of the large craft storage box I got for my goldwork materials some time back. Not quite such good quality, but perfectly usable. And just the right size for a project box when the project needs rather more threads and bits and bobs than will fit into my usual, small project boxes.

Putting together grommet packs The grommet box

Soon the bags were full and the boxes empty. Now all I need to do is fill them with threads! My Leaves project, perhaps, or the Tree of Life, or…

Unknown silks and a Mexican bird

Recently we were staying with my in-laws where one of the challenges was finding a way for my mother-in-law, a keen needlewoman, to embroider with one hand as her left arm has been fitted with some impressive looking metal scaffolding following a fall. We took my Lowery stand to see whether that would work. Unfortunately it didn’t, or at least not with the embroidery she was working on before the fall. If anyone has any ideas, or experience with this sort of problem, I’d be grateful for your suggestions.

There were some more successful stitch-related moments during our stay, however (quite apart from a good bit of work on the Shisha Mini) – my MIL had been given a box of cones of silk which she said I could have if they were of any use to me. She hadn’t been told what brand the silks were, or what type, or what they had originally been used for. They certainly have a lovely sheen, and the blue-purple-green end of the box immediately made me think of peacocks. I haven’t had a close look at them yet so don’t know whether they are all the same weight/thickness, or even if they are all silk (I have my suspicions about the light blue, which looks like cotton), but aren’t they a pretty collection?

A box of unknown silks

Whether it was thinking of peacocks, or whether I was just looking at their kitchen in more detail now that I was doing the cooking, I suddenly noticed a print that has been there for as long as I’ve visited the house, but which so far had been no more than rather colourful background noise. MIL told me that it came from Mexico and had been a present to herself. With its bold lines and colours it struck me as particularly suitable for embroidery, so I asked if I could copy it. We couldn’t find any tracing paper, but some grease-proof baking parchment did the trick. It’s rather thicker than tracing paper so I couldn’t go for absolute accuracy, but then that didn’t matter particularly as I don’t intend to create an exact copy. When we got home I scanned the drawing and started cleaning it up; it’ll need quite a lot of work, so it won’t be stitched any time soon, but when it does perhaps the silk cones could be incorporated into it – that would be rather appropriate.

A Mexican bird print The Mexican bird tidied up

Leaf motifs and shisha variations

Having tried four different corner leaf motifs for my new Shisha Mini I didn’t really think any of them was going to work; but as I’m still trying to decide which shisha stitch variation to use as well, I decided to work another one with four different corners to try out. First one up (using the original dots on the pattern): a sort of fan of five lazy daisy stitches. This looks quite good, though perhaps a bit large. Keep it in mind and on to the next two options, for which I drew a leaf outline around the pattern dots.

Alternatively arranged lazy daisies, and new pencil marks

The mirror, by the way, is attached using a herringbone variation in #5 perle cotton. The first one I did, last month, was Cretan stitch (also in #5). As for the two leaf shapes, one was outlined using buttonhole stitch (top right) and one filled with fishbone stitch (bottom right). Neither of them looked right. The buttonhole leaf, though I like it in itself, is too clunky (and wonky) for this design. The fishbone leaf I found too solid. Then as I was reading Mary Corbet’s blog I came across a project of hers using pistil stitch (a French knot with a tail). Another useful stitch, not too solid and easy to get into the right shape.

Four more corner variations

Looking at the two varied-corner projects, I wanted to try two of the corner variations on “proper” projects – the fan-style motifs using lazy daisy and pistil stitch. And although with hindsight it would have made more sense to vary only one thing in these two projects (namely the corner motifs) I decided to try out various other things at the same time. First of all the centre shisha bit. And then the threads. I’d ordered three different threads from Tamar Embroideries, all in shade 243 – stranded cotton, brodery or mercerized cotton, and matt cotton. The second one is described on the TE website as “similar to cotton a broder”, the third as “similar in weight to our mercerized cotton but with a softer feel and a matt finish”. From threads I bought from them earlier it seemed to me that the matt cotton is actually a bit heavier than the mercerized cotton, and that both are heavier than the coton à broder I have, which is mostly #25, but they would be interesting to try. What wasn’t noticeable until I stitched with it: the stranded cotton is a bit heavier than the ordinary DMC variety too.

So here is the third attempt, with herringbone variation in #8 perle cotton, two strands of Tamar stranded cotton for the curls and matt cotton for the lazy daisies. I like the central motif, it reminds me of a sunflower; it works better in #8 than in #5, I think. Two strands of stranded cotton makes quite a heavy stem stitch line, and although the lazy daisy fan is a pretty motif the matt cotton is far, far too thick for it.

stranded and matt cotton, and lazy daisies

The fourth version uses a crossed long-armed fly stitch variation in #8 to attach the shisha, one strand of stranded cotton for the curls and mercerized/brodery cotton for the pistil stitches. The mercerized cotton works OK for the pistil stitches, although it is still a little more solid than I had in mind, and the curls are more light-weight but perfectly visible in one strand.

stranded and mercerized cotton, and pistil stitch

So what am I going to use? For attaching the mirror, either Cretan stitch (if I want it to be suitable for beginners) or crossed long-armed fly stitch (for a slightly more challenging version). Although I really like the look of the herringbone version in perle #8, its petal shape is a bit too much like the plaited fly stitch of the Shisha flower I use for workshops. As for the corner motifs, pistil stitch would make sense as I want to use different stitches from the Shisha flower which uses chain stitch for its scrolled stem, and a lazy daisy is in effect a single chain stitch. Unfortunately, I like the look of the lazy daisy fan slightly better than the pistil stitch fan. One option would be to go for French daisies – lazy daisies secured with a French knot.

Now I want to stitch a series of Shisha Minis with all the different shisha variations, at the same time trying out different combinations of threads for the corner curls-and-fans. For example brodery cotton for the curls, and two strands of stranded cotton for the fans (in pistil stitch, lazy daisy or French daisy), or the other way around, or one strand for the curls and two for the fans, or perhaps go back to standard DMC threads after all. I’ll keep the updates coming!