Months before I decided to do the RSN Certificate, my husband gave me an early birthday present in the form of a three-day goldwork class at Hampton Court Palace. As you may know, I take my Certificate classes at the Rugby branch, which is decidedly less glamorous. On the whole I don’t mind, as it’s a lot easier to get to from where we live, and most of the time you’re looking at your embroidery, not the view. Even so, there is something a bit special about doing your needlework in such grand surroundings. Just to give you an idea, here is the view from one of the classroom windows, and a view from the Palace Gardens up to our classroom. Impressive, huh ?
Strictly speaking the class wasn’t goldwork but metal thread embroidery, as the design includes silver, copper and several coloured metallics. The kit was presented in this rather stylish purple bag, and there were seat frames to use for the duration of the course. Unfortunately, this was the week of the heatwave, so we were all very grateful that several fans were also provided!
The seat frame proved a bit of a problem; as I have mentioned before, the tilt on the RSN seat frames does not really suit me when wearing a skirt or dress – and on this occasion I was not only wearing a dress, but a calf-length one at that. Fortunately we were all girls together, so I hitched up my skirts as much as was necessary and managed to use the frame fairly successfully.
The title of the class was “Queen’s Silks”, and the subject a stylised racehorse with its jockey wearing the Queen’s colours. I had worked out from the picture on the RSN website that I was familiar with most of the techniques used, so I would mainly use the class for improving in those, but there was one which I had not used before and had been wanting to try: S-ing. That wouldn’t be tackled until day three, however. Day one started with soft string padding. First we waxed an enormous length of yellow soft cotton, then cut enough lengths to fill the shape that would be worked in raised cutwork (part of the tail). In order to get the shape, you start couching down in the middle and work towards the end, cutting threads as you go (always from the bottom of the bundle) and keeping the cut tapered by pointing the scissors towards the tip of the shape.
You might think that, having completed the padding, we would now cover it, but no – that too would have to wait until day three. First we moved on to couched Jap. Normally you would couch this in a thread as close to the colour of the metal as possible, to keep it almost invisible, but in this design we used coloured couching threads to add shading. I think Helen McCook, the tutor (who actually wrote the RSN goldwork book!) called this Italian shading, but I’m not absolutely sure. It is slightly different from or nué in that the couching stitches are placed in a regular bricking pattern, and the shading is done with the colours only, not with the density or openness of the couching. We used three shades of brown (the first two aren’t easy to distinguish in the pictures) and a golden yellow may be added when I complete the shape.
I am always fascinated by the back of goldwork projects. Normally I don’t look at back of my own or anyone else’s work; I’m happy if the front looks respectable, and the back is just neat enough not to impinge on the front (by means of bulky knots or travelling threads visibly shining through). But goldwork is, I think, unique (except perhaps for stumpwork) in that the back gives very little indication of what the front looks like – a fact which once made a friend use one of my embroideries as a Sunday school illustration .
The next few steps were small and relatively quick: bits of metallic kid leather (the picture shows one of the four hooves and in later pictures you’ll notice the jockey’s cap has been worked in kid as well), two spangles to indicate the pivoting points of the legs (not quite the right word, but I’m sure you know what I mean), and a diamanté gem to give the horse a slightly scary eye. Spangles can be attached in several ways, some more elaborate than others, but here we went for two simple straight stitches. The gem was in a metal claw setting with holes, so it could be attached much like a button.
In the second picture above you’ll have noticed some wavy copper threads in one of the tail sections, couched but not yet plunged. This is rococo, and depending on which supplier’s website you visit or what goldwork book you read is can be spelled with what looks like a random number of “c”s, randomly distributed (roccoco, rococco, roccocco). I’ve decided to go with rococo on the grounds that it saves key presses, looks less complicated, and is the recognised spelling for the period after which it is presumably named.
As day two was drawing to a close, Helen asked us to make sure we had completed the gold pearl purl outline of one of the tail sections, so that the next morning we could start on the chipping straight away. I was finishing plunging my copper rococo, but decided that as couching pearl purl is one of the quicker goldwork techniques (although “quick” will always be a relative term in goldwork) I could probably squeeze in the outline before we had to pack up for the day. Bad move. It was nearly four o’clock, we’d been going since 10am, and it was about 33 degrees in the shade. About three-quarters into the outline, I pulled the couching thread with too little control and kinked the metal.
It was just a little kink. A tiny kink even. Could I just leave it? Helen had a look and advised me to leave it until I’d completed the chipwork (filling the shape with small bits of hollow metal attached like beads) to see whether that would draw the eye away from it. The next morning I came in fairly early, looked at the pearl purl and realised it would forever nag me if I left it, no matter what the effect of the chipping was going to be. I took out the outline and redid it, and felt much happier. On to the chips!
After the chipping it was time to start on the cutwork. This was going to cover the soft string padding in the tail. It’s a tricky technique because the purl (in this case a smooth purl, which is round and shiny; it also comes in rough, which is round and matt – bright check, which is angular and shiny – and wire check, which is angular and matt) has to be cut into pieces (or chips) of exactly the right length to cover the padding, and as the padded shape is not the same size throughout, the chips have to vary in length as well. If the chips are not the right length, you will either have padding showing at the edges (if they are too short), or the metal will buckle and distort (if they are too long). It requires tongue-sticking-out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth concentration, the patience of Job, and the willingness to cut three or four lengths to get it just right (until such time as you develop an eye for it and get them right first time).
Helen said I’d managed a nice crisp edge and good coverage, which was a more positive assessment than I’d feared – towards the tip I noticed a few slight gaps where I’d gradually changed the angle of the chips as instructed, but I was encouraged when I looked at the RSN Goldwork Guide later and saw similar minute gaps in one of the stitched models pictured there. And thinking about it I can see that unless all the chips are parallel, you’re bound to get a little room between them at one end. Even so, I’ll see if I can keep them just a little closer when working along the other half of the padded bit of tail.
The last technique we were shown was the one I’d never tried before, called S-ing (pronounced “essing”). It looks like stem stitch in metal purls, but because you can’t take the purls through the fabric you can’t work it as you would stem stitch. Instead, you cut lots of identical chips of purl (and I can tell you that cutting identical lengths is not that much easier than cutting graded lengths; fortunately “almost identical” seems to work reasonably well) and work each little curved bit separately.
The chips should be a little longer than your stitch length, to give them room to accomodate the chips on either side. Having attached the first one, you come up about half a stitch length ahead of the previous stitch, thread on a chip, and angle the needle half-way underneath the previous chip so you go down into the fabric where the last-but-one chip ends (this is what creates the impression of a continuous metal stem stitch). Pull the working thread through very carefully until the chip gently snuggles underneath the previous chip. Half chips at the beginning and end make the line look even. I really like the look of this stitch and will definitely use it again!
And that was as far as we got. When I showed it to my sister-in-law, with whom I was staying, she was a little surprised and asked “that’s three days’ work?” – but when I explained some of the techniques and what was involved in getting them just right I think she was probably surprised that I’d got as much as this done . When I got home I re-hooped the work – in class we were working in a 10″ hoop, but I found that I could just fit the fabric into a 12″ one, which gives a little bit more wiggle room at the edges. I have no idea when I’ll manage to finish it, what with the Certificate and getting the SAL ready, but it’ll be a very enjoyable project to do bits of work on in between all the other things.