Bad lighting and a medieval Mabel

We all know how important light is in needlework. I loved finding out that medieval Guild regulations forbade owners of embroidery workshops from making their needleworkers stitch by artificial light – they were allowed to work during daylight hours only. In these modern days we have much better artificial lighting available, and Mary Corbet wrote on her blog once that if you were thinking of getting a magnifier or special glasses, she’d suggest looking at your lighting first. Get the right light and you may not need additional magnification at all!

When stitching in the evening (my usual time, Guild regulations notwithstanding) I will admit to needing both if I’m doing very detailed work, but my Serious Readers floor-standing lamp does make a great difference. Even so, much the most comfortable way of stitching is during the day by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden; I still need my special glasses, but it is definitely less of a strain on the eyes.

Stitching by the window using the slate frame Stitching by the window using a seat frame

When I mentioned bad lighting, however, I was actually talking about a different kind of lighting – but like the lack of good lighting to stitch by, it has lead to a substantial amount of unpicking.

This is Llandrindod with all the facets completed on the coloured stones. Very pretty and colourful. Sit back and enjoy before moving on to the facets on the diamond and the surrounding gold. But wait – notice anything about those coloured stones? About how they catch the light?

Progress on Llandrindod

That’s right. The blue, purple and green stones are in agreement, but the red stone has different ideas about where her light source comes from. We are suffering from a case of Llandrindodgy lighting!

Llandrindodgy lighting

And I had paid such attention to the direction of the light when I was designing this and deciding on colours and stitches. I printed out a large coloured version to keep by me as a reference. I must have looked at it hundreds of times over the past months. And I Did Not Notice!!!!

Llandrindod colour plan

There was no help for it – it would have to be unpicked. And split stitch is just about the worst stitch to unpick, so what that meant in practice was that the majority of stitches would have to be cut and teased out, all the while making sure I didn’t catch the satin stitch centre or make the stitches on the edges of the other facets unstable. It took 75 minutes, but I am now ready to put in the correctly lit facets. Well, once I’ve oversewn the cut ends at the back, as they are far too short to fasten off in any other way – after peering at tiny cut stitches for well over an hour I wasn’t going to do that by artificial light, however good, so that awaits some daylight stitching time.

Unpicking Llandrindod Unpicking Llandrindod Ready to re-stitch the facets

To return for a moment to medieval embroiderers, I was delighted to discover from an article in the big Opus Anglicanum book that the first professional embroiderer of whom there is documentary evidence was a Mabel. I obviously chose well when I picked my nom d’aiguille (like a nom de plume but for stitchers). The book tells us that “Mabel of Bury St Edmunds was commissioned in 1239 to produce an embroidered chasuble for the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, at the behest of Henry III. The chasuble, which was embellished with pearls and gold work, and lined with canvas and fine silk, took two years to complete, and must have been extremely elaborate.” Go Mabel! I shall endeavour to live up to her example.

Trying out fabrics

Although choosing threads (both the type and the colours) is, to me at least, by far the most enjoyable part of getting materials together for a design, the fabric is also very important – not just because of its contribution to the final look of the piece, but also because the pleasure I get from working on a project can be seriously marred or enhanced by the fabric I’m stitching on. I have a few favourites (like that lovely dense linen I’m doing one of the SAL models on) but I’m always on the lookout for nice fabrics to add to my collection.

A week or two ago I contacted Empress Mills about the weight (gsm) of their lightweight and heavyweight Mountmellick fabrics and they very generously sent me a couple of samples. It’s a cotton sateen, and that type of weave means it looks different back and front, because the weft goes over several warp threads in one leap instead of going over one, under one. The picture shows one side of the heavyweight and the other of the lightweight.

Two weights of Mountmellick fabric

The samples were just big enough to fit into a 3″ hoop, so I decided to try them with my little Quatrefoil flower to see what they are like to work on.

Quatrefoils transferred to the Mountmellick fabric

Both allowed for a well-lit-window transfer (I couldn’t easily get at my lightbox) and both of them have a nice “feel”, but from first impressions I thought the heavyweight would be more suitable for use in kits as it’s nice and sturdy; and would the two weights stand up differently to the goldwork threads being plunged, I wondered?

Using a well-lit window as a lightbox Holding the design and the fabric in place

The lightweight, which I tried first, took it quite well, although the strain put on it by plunging the Jap threads did seem to distort it a bit. It was absolutely fine for the crewel part. It’s quite a dense weave so it’s easy to place the needle just where you want it, and in fact it would be perfectly good fabric for any kits bar the goldwork one, especially with the light calico backing I usually include.

One down, one to go

The heavyweight was next. As they are both Mountmellick fabric/cotton sateen I’d rather expected them to look exactly alike with the only difference being the weight, but the heavyweight somehow looks a little more even and this sample at least is also somewhat straighter on the grain. But would the difference be noticeable in practice?

Yes it was, but really only the difference in weight. The weave on both samples is more or less equally dense, and placing the needle was therefore equally easy. The weight of this sample, however, did sometimes make it slightly more difficult to pull the needle through, especially where there was a lot of previous stitching to get through. On the other hand, it stood up much better to plunging and having the gold threads secured at the back without distorting the front. I think this fabric would work particularly well if you’ve got a project that needs a solid ground but for whatever reason you’d prefer not to use an extra backing fabric. I’d have to try it on a bigger design, but I’d expect it to work just fine with a moderate amount of goldwork, and certainly with anything lighter.

The Quatrefoil on heavyweight Mountmellick

So I ordered some of the heavyweight, as well as half a metre of another fabric they do which is simply called “cotton sateen”, and which is available in all sorts of interesting colours. As Mountmellick is a type of cotton sateen I wondered what the difference was, and when I rang Empress Mills the lady told me it was mostly the weight. The fabrics arrived last week (I showed a picture of them in the previous FoF) and the cotton sateen does indeed feel much like the lightweight Mountmellick fabric. I may get a few more colours, as it looks like a useful kit fabric!

Another book, and being a proud satsuma

A few days ago a lovely surprise came in the post – I’d pre-ordered Lizzy Pye’s Goldwork Embroidery: Techniques and Projects and although we had been warned on her FB page to expect some delay, that delay turned out to be shorter than expected! So here it is, signed and all.

Lizzy Pye's goldwork book Signed by the author

And a first perusal shows it to be a wonderful addition to my stitching library – good photographs, clear explanations, and some interesting facts I didn’t know. And as an unexpected bonus, two of the projects in the book turn out to be designs I had been eyeing up on the Laurelin website: The Holly and the Ivy and the Silk and Goldwork Butterfly. Both very pretty designs, but until now only available as kits, and I could see that I already had all the materials in my stash. So now I can have a go at them whenever I like! (Well, after the SAL, the Certificate, the goldwork race horse, Hengest, Mechthild, the Llandrindod cross, the silk and gold flower, the silverwork umbrella…)

The Holly & Ivy project The Butterfly project

I also received some cotton sateen fabrics, about which I will write more in the near future. These are Empress Mills’ heavyweight Mountmellick fabric (the white) and cotton sateen (the cream). A friend of mine will be using the Mountmellick for her Tree of Life, so I’ll be sure to ask her opinion of it as well.

Two Empress Mills fabrics

And finally, something only tangentially (or tangerine-ly?) stitch-related. I love embroidery and (very un-British of me to say this, but then I’m not British smiley) I’m quite good at it. But I have long since realised and accepted that there are extremely talented people out there who produce work of a kind and standard that I will never produce (take a bow Mary Corbet, among others). And you know what? It doesn’t matter! I do the best that I can, and – very important, this – I enjoy it. And for all of us who are never going to be the absolute best at something, I’ve found an encouraging quotation. Commenting on the fact that small can be beautiful (and I will stretch this to mean that small achievements can be beautiful) the Rev Canon Dr Rob Kelsey remarked “A satsuma is not a failed orange”. It can be inspirational to look at the oranges of this world and admire them, but for those of us who are not, let’s take pride in being jolly good satsumas!

A satsuma is not a failed orange

“And James reached the end of his brick”

Or more accurately, I have reached the end of both James and his brick – yay! And at no point did he feel the need to give the huffle of a snail in danger, in spite of being poked with two types of needle smiley. (If the previous sounds like total gibberish, do read “The Four Friends” by A.A. Milne, it will tell you all about James.)

You may remember that once upon a time I doodled two possible snail shells, one in padded buttonhole stitch and one in raised backstitch (or modified whipped wheel / ribbed spider’s web – they’re all the same thing). I liked the ribbed look of the raised backstitch version, but it was terribly fiddly and difficult to fill completely, so I decided to stick with the padded buttonhole, although possibly a bit more padded than on the doodle cloth.

Padded buttonhole shell Raised backstitch shell

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose!) literally everyone who saw the two together preferred the raised backstitch one, including me. Fiddly or not, challenging or not, it was useless to resist any longer: James was going to have a ribbed shell.

But first he needed a body. That was going to be the simple and relatively quick part: stem stitch outline in the darkest brown, with seed stitch shading in medium and light brown. I positioned the covers to protect the rest of the work and help me focus on the snail (is it just me, or does it look slightly surgical?) and set to work. And I hadn’t done more than fasten on and work the first stitch before it became very clear that this brown was far too dark – it was going to make his body stand out more than I wanted it to (he is, after all, quite a diffident snail and wouldn’t want to be conspicuous). So I unpicked and restitched using dark for the outline and a small part of the seeding, with medium and light for the rest of the seeding. I also decided to couch down the stems of the antennae pistil stitches to make them very slightly curved.

Setting up a snail Too dark a body The finished body

On to the shell!

First it needed the “spokes”, as evenly spaced as possible around the spiral, and all sticking out beyond the design line so that the filling/whipping would cover the line instead of stopping short of it as it did in the doodle version. The first spoke had to be rather longer because the shell widens out there; that would also need some creative manipulation of the whipping to ensure a nice solid filling.

The first spoke All the spokes, ready for whipping

Time to start whipping. Unlike the doodle version, this one would be rather more subtly shaded, using light, medium and dark turquoise. For ease of access I’d have preferred starting with the dark thread on the outside of the spiral, but the stitches would drag to the centre unless I was very careful indeed about tension, and even then it’s not ideal. Light thread starting from the centre was the way to go, changing to medium after two rows. Incidentally, if I did this again (no, don’t worry, I’m not about to unpick the whole thing) I would continue with the light thread a bit longer – as it is the shell as a whole is a bit darker than I had intended.

Two rows of light whipping Changing to medium turquoise

While working with the medium turquoise I added some incomplete rows where the shell was wider to make sure the shading widened with the shell. And as the centre filled up, new rows were started a little further along the spiral where there was still room.

The more the shell filled up, the more difficult it became to manipulate the needle; right from the start the last thing I wanted was to inadvertently catch the satin stitch on the brick and pull it awry or fluff up the threads, but with the ribs of the shell growing there was the added challenge of keeping the needle away from them while looping the thread around the spokes. I had been about to cut my nails that morning because several had split, but I was now very glad I hadn’t, as my thumb nails turned out to be an invaluable tool in guiding the needle safely over any previous stitching.

Using a thumb nail to guide the needle Keeping previous stitching safe

And so on and on and round and round until the whole spiral was filled, and James reached the end of his brick just before I reached the end of my tether!

By the way, it must be the way the light falls onto the fabric, but for some reason the spokes that are at right angles to the light hardly show up, and the shading is much less obvious at the top of the shell than at the bottom, even though the rows of light, medium and dark turquoise are pretty much the same in both places. I’ll see if I can take a photograph with the frame turned 90 degrees and see how that comes out.

The finished snail

With my terribly picky and fussy hat on I can see that the spokes aren’t perfectly evenly spaced, and that they aren’t perfectly evenly covered either; still, this was without doubt the best I could do going round that tricky shape, so I will be happy to show James to the tutor in February!

The tree with the now completed snail

Reading about stitching

Many moons ago, on my 2016 London workshops-at-Ally-Pally visit in fact, I had the opportunity of seeing the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V & A. It was absolutely stunning, and I’d have loved to go twice because there was so much to see and take in that my brain felt quite numb by the time I got to the end of the exhibition. At that time I didn’t buy the catalogue, an enormous hardback book that was A) far too heavy to carry around with me until going home, B) far too expensive and C) far more detailed than I needed. Fast forward three years or so and a fellow member of the Cross Stitch Forum mentions that she has been given this book as a Christmas present, and how wonderful it is.

Could I possibly treat myself? Well, ordering it online would mean a delivery to my door rather than traipsing through London with it. That took care of objection A). A bit of Googling found it on Wordery at £9 less than the RRP, which took care of B). And most importantly, in the intervening years I’ve become much more interested in medieval embroidery in general (I’ve recently been engrossed in Carola Hicks’ excellent book about the Bayeux Tapestry) and Opus Anglicanum in particular (I blame the Coombe Abbey retreat with Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray); having learnt a bit more about the style and technique and tried it out myself I would now really like to “re-visit” that exhibition. So that was objection C) done with. And yesterday morning it arrived:

Catalogue of the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition

I haven’t had time yet to look at all the large photographs in detail (let alone read everything) but I do hope I will find the embroidery depicting Jesus’ betrayal which shows Judas and the other attackers wearing, according to the explanatory notice beside it, “striped leggings [which] were a marker of their sinful pride and bad character”. Well, they do say clothes make the man!

Two pictures I would like to share with you, and as they are partial pictures and meant to illustrate a point I hope the V & A won’t feel too upset. First of all a certain chap who looks decidedly familiar – surely he is kin (although admittedly larger and rather more detailed kin) to King Ethelnute of Coombe Abbey?

Ethelnute meets a similar king

And secondly a source of inspiration – the dappled horse from the Steeple Aston cope who is the spiritual ancestor of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. Not having seen the original horse for a while (and not having worked on Hengest for some time either) I was surprised both at how recognisably alike they are, and yet how much Hengest has developed a personality of his own (not least because of that goofy look in his eyes).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn meets his horsy inspiration

The book also contains a picture of a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout reading Hick’s “life story” of that particular piece of embroidery, I found it quite exhilarating to think that if one of the stitchers of the Tapestry walked into our house, one of the few things she’d immediately recognise would be my Certificate set-up of a slate frame on trestles with wool embroidery on linen. In some ways we who do hand embroidery may be closer to those medieval stitchers than to some of our contemporaries who have no love or appreciation of craft.

I must not stitch and chat

Write 100 times: I must not stitch and chat.

Well, actually, I must – after all, why else do you go to meet other stitchers? Even at classes, where everyone is concentrating on the learning process, there’s usually some chatting going on, let alone at a meeting like our weekly Embroidery Circle where we each bring whatever we’re working on and have a bit of a stitchers’ social.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to choose your project wisely; I wouldn’t work on my Certificate piece (even if I could get it there, trestles and all) because I really cannot chat and do anything meaningful on that at the same time. I did bring my doodle cloths a few times, and that worked well: interesting, but not essential to get it absolutely right as it’s just trying out things.

Last Monday I brought Llandrindod, my little Celtic Cross. I didn’t want to work on the SAL, having done rather a lot of that over the Christmas period. I didn’t feel like working on the Ottoman Tulip, and I’ve rather missed Llandrindod. And (very important) the part of the design that I’m working on at the moment is just filling in facets with split stitch. What could possiby go wrong?

This.

Too much stitching

Doesn’t look too bad, does it? There’s a slight issue with the red slanted satin stitch which I need to do something about, but the split stitch facets are OK, aren’t they?

Yes. Except that the teeny-weeny medium blue facet towards the centre should have been light blue.

That in itself isn’t too much of a problem; after all, I worked the corresponding facet on the red gem in the wrong direction first, and had to unpick and redo it. Unfortunately with this gem I thought it would be easier and save fastening on and off if I did all the medium blue facets in one go, rather than one by one. Which means that every line of split stitch in that small facet is connected to the facet next to it, and (by running behind the satin stitch at the back of the work) with the large facet on the far right. I stopped filling in the small facet the moment I noticed, and as I started at the narrow, pointy end I may be able to just stitch over it in light blue, but it will need a bit of thinking.

Next Monday I will take the Ottoman Tulip. Two large areas left to fill in and both the same colour!

Certificate decisions

Last week I wrote about a significant set of four RSN Stitch Guides and ideas for the Canvaswork module of the RSN Certificate and this means, doesn’t it, surely it must, that I’ve decided to do The Whole Thing after all. As you may remember I set out on this course with the clear intention of doing the Jacobean and Goldwork modules, and then stopping. Several people (including tutors, my very supportive husband and a fellow student) have since encouraged me to do the whole Certificate, and I’ve been keeping this in the back of my mind throughout the first module. The ideas are there – my canvas scribbles and pictures-for-inspiration are fairly obvious indications of that. And yet.

Various ideas for the Canvaswork module

Having stitched for quite a few hours now using the trestle-and-slate-frame combination, I think I can confidently say it is simply not my cup of tea. I find the stitching position uncomfortable and the nearly horizontal orientation of the frame (even after putting the rear of the trestles up another notch to give it extra tilt) puts a strain on my eyes – with my ordinary glasses I can see the further end of the embroidery, but I can’t see the details nearby, while with my stitching glasses I can’t see far enough without things going blurry. When stitching the tree trunk, which covers quite a bit of the height of the design, neither of my glasses allowed me to work an entire row of chain stitch in focus while keeping a comfortable (and healthy!) posture.

The trestles at maximum tilt

But the slate frame is obligatory when doing the Certificate (and the other “big” RSN courses like the Diploma and the Future Tutor programme), and I don’t think it is negotiable. Not for the Canvaswork and Goldwork modules, with A5-sized projects, and not even for the Silk Shading module, where the brief specifies that “overall the piece should be no bigger than 8×8 centimeters (3in x 3in)”. Leaving aside for the moment that 3 inches is even less than 8 centimetres, does this really need a slate frame, even my “small” 18-inch one? I fear that it probably does if it’s part of the Certificate, and that no amount of coin-bouncing off my laced Millennium frame will convince them otherwise. But just possibly the Bling SAL Tree may sneak into my frame bag, come to my February class and show off its drum-taut tension, and then who knows?

Laced Millennium frame

PS Depending on the outcome, would anyone be interested in taking over a hardly-used slate frame in a year or so? With trestles?