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.