Vintage stash and shop sadness

My mother-in-law Elizabeth, who has been a keen needlewoman all her life, has asked me over the past few years to go through some of the embroidery stash she had no further use for (you may remember some interesting goldwork threads she bestowed on me some years ago). Recently, in view of her failing health, she asked me to sift through the remainder and divide it into things I could use, and things to be passed on to her embroidery group once they are allowed to meet again.

In the drawers of her needlework chest I found a wealth of lovely textured threads and ribbons, some of which I hope to use in my Canvaswork module (the next one after Bruce is finished), as well as a variety of metal threads, something that looks like coloured pipe cleaner (the blue a bit mottled with age), and miscellaneous bits and bobs including some pretty mother of pearl thread winders.

Textured threads and other bits and bobs Silk ribbons Miscellaneous metal threads Coloured metal passing Chenille wire, also known as pipe cleaner

But the biggest haul, going by quantity, was an enormous bundle of vintage Filoselle silks. My guess is that they were originally intended for a tablecloth or a project of similar scope, presumably with a pattern of leaves and flowers – mostly leaves, if the amount of green is anything to go by!

Vintage Filoselle silks (and a darning egg)

Pearsall’s Filoselle silk, which has sadly been discontinued, was produced until relatively recently (I bought some in a sale in Cumbria back in 2012). Judging by the paper wrappers, however, these skeins are likely to be a lot older than that. They may well be the same age as the “Journal of the Embroiderers’ Guild” which I found on one of the bookshelves – Spring 1956, when Elizabeth was four years married and a young mother. Perhaps they were bought for the transfer illustrated on the back cover?

An old issue of Embroidery magazine

One of the things that struck me in the magazine was the names, or rather the titles, of the various “Officers of the Guild” and the Presidents, Chairmen (mostly women, actually), Secretaries and Treasurers. Her Grace the Duchess (two, plus a Baroness, if we count vice-patrons as well); a Countess and a Viscountess; numerous Honourables, Ladies, and Honourable Ladies; a Captain and a Major. I fear the Guild has come down in the world somewhat since then… Still, a more egalitarian Guild may well be a reason for rejoicing; but what saddened me when flicking through the magazine was the advertisements. Such an abundance of shops to buy your needlework materials from! And what has happened to them all?

Francis of Bath Street in Leamington Spa is long gone; Celic in Bedford who advertise as Mail Order Stores are now a “catalogue shop”, but what they offer and whether they in fact still do so is anybody’s guess, as Google declines to throw up any further information. The name of Boynton & Turner, “Designers and Makers of Transfers for Every Kind of Embroidery since 1906”, turns up only on Etsy and eBay and the like where people offer their “vintage transfers”. Art Needlework Industries of Oxford is no more either; one of the few mentions I found was about an old shade card for their wool. Harrods – well, Harrods still exists of course, but I had no idea whether nowadays it has “everything for the needlewoman”, let alone whether “demonstrators” are still “at hand from time to time”. A bit of search engine activity brings up a promising page called “Needle & Thread” on the Harrods website, but this turns out to be a clothing brand. The only remotely crafty things seem to be in the Children’s/Toys section…

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Art Needlework Industries or A.N.I. must have been quite an influential shop – they appear in several more adverts dotted throughout the magazine. As for the other advertisers on the page shown below, the Dundee Heritage Trust has some swatch cards and sample booklets which seem to be the only remnants of Richmond Brothes and their Glenshee Embroidery Fabrics. Like Boynton & Turner, Peri-Lusta turns up only on sites like eBay as vintage materials. Briggs & Co. of Manchester and their “Waffle-Weave Embroidery by Penelope” have been through some changes too – James Briggs & Sons are stil trading, but have nothing to do with needlework now; Penelope seems to be still going although I’m not sure what they stand for now besides the name of a type of canvas. Searching for Aero hoops leads to bicycle parts rather than embroidery, and “Flora Macdonald embroidery needles” once again turn up only in “vintage” sales.

Adverts in Embroidery magazine

Elsewhere in the magazine, Deighton Brothers advertised transfers, “art needlework and needlework accessories” and a book on smocking; they still exist, but only for “on-demand tapestry printing”. Knox of Kilbirnie stopped making their linen embroidery threads (some of which – see below – I found in a charity shop in The Netherlands!) in the 1990s and now produce “industrial and military nets”. The Needlewoman Shop in Regent Street closed in 1985. The Old Glamis Factory in Dundee which produced embroidery fabrics closed in 1984.

Knox linen floss

We still have many amazing manufacturers of threads and fabrics, and we’re not likely to run out of resources any time soon, but it is sad to think of those many, many shops selling beautiful materials which for whatever reason were no longer viable. Fortunately we can still use and enjoy their products, now with the label “vintage”; here is one of each of the Filoselle colours from my mother-in-law’s collection with a square of linen from another of her needlework drawers for a project. A rose, perhaps? Or an E decorated with flowers? Whatever it is going to be, it will be a lovely reminder both of my mother-in-law and of all those wonderful needlework manufacturers.

One of each colour and some vintage linen for a project

The last leg

Ah, if only smiley. But starting from the front I suppose a creature’s hind leg can be thought of as its last leg, so I’ll stick with that! Before I got on to Bruce’s haunch, however, I invisible-couched the grass. Most of the points I managed to get nice and sharp with the aid of the lovely little pliers I was given for Christmas; one blade of grass (indicated by the arrow) would not do what I wanted it to, even after unpicking and re-couching. More unpicking would have damaged the twist to such an extent that I would have had to pick out the entire line and start again, and I did briefly consider that, but in the end decided I could live with one blunt bit of grass.

Grass couching in progress The whole line couched A wayward bit of grass

Now for the leg. On one of the design print-outs I’d pencilled in a rough guide to the way I wanted the Jap to go, with indications where I would likely have to fill in little “pockets” and start new threads. Another thing: you may be able to see from the way the shadows fall on the felt that especially on the thin part of the leg the incline is quite steep! A bit like the legs of Alpine cattle on a mountain side, one half of the pair of Jap threads is going to be significantly lower than the other. Which brings me to another challenge of couching through up to four layers of felt: I must pull the couching thread enough to lie snugly over the Jap, but not so much that it pulls the Jap into the padding. Deep breath, and off we go!

Getting ready for the leg

I started with a loop start in the toe, trying to get it right inside the tip, and then proceeded to couch along the twist outline. After a while I realised I could use the width of the foil wrapping on the Jap to gauge the distance between my couching stitches, which made them much more regular. The next tricky bit was getting the Jap to run smoothly along the edge of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back.

A loop start in the toe Couching along the edge of the mixed couching

I’m happy with the couching around the haunch, that’s nice and regular, but yes, there are a few gaps between the mixed couching on the back and the Jap on the haunch. With a staggered edge I suppose some gappiness is inevitable but in one place I could have taken the back thread a bit further in (see arrow). I bounced this picture off the lovely stitchers in the Facebook C & D group and one of those who had done their Goldwork module already said she thought it was an acceptable amount of gap, which was encouraging.

Gappiness along the edge

On with the foot. Feeling terribly organised and bathed in a virtuous glow I drew up a digital plan (easier to include in my log than pencil scribblings on a printed picture) for filling in the remaining gap by the ball of the foot, and a tentative start on the gap at the ankle.

A plan!

As I was couching I realised that lines drawn on a picture are never going to tell you how the Jap will fit on the actual piece – for one thing the lines are never going to be the exact width of the Jap, and for another there is variability in stitch tension (however much you aim for consistency) and the angle of the padding which you can’t see in the photograph. In the end I had to use some quite short lengths, and rather more plunging than I’d hoped for, to get the foot and ankle filled. Coming down the narrow part of leg, for example, there was only room for one thread so I plunged the second one, took the remaining single through, and added new thread to make a pair again. It was too tight for the planned turn so both were plunged staggered, then a new pair was started with a loop. And so on and so forth. I could have called this post “A twisted ankle” – my goodness it got tight! I’m not completely satisfied, but a stitching forum friend said the resulting triangle looked very much like an ankle bone, and although that was the almost automatic result of the shape of the foot rather than a conscious design decision, I was rather pleased with that comment.

Filling the foot The narrow part of the leg is closed Overview after filling the foot and ankle

One thing you will notice in the close-up below (if only because I’ve drawn attention to it with arrows smiley) is that there are some places where the gold foil does not quite cover the core thread. There is a trick of tightening the Jap by twisting it as you couch, and I’ve done that as much as possible, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. And unlike with wool you can’t keep stopping and restarting with a new, neater thread. However, another message on the Facebook C & D group brought similar reassurance that this is quite normal and to be expected. Phew.

An ankle bone and some separating gold foil

With the lower leg completely covered, it now just remained to keep going round and round the haunch until I had a pleasing shape left in the centre to fill with chipping and a pearl purl border. That sounds nice and straightforward, but there were decisions to be made. To Turn Or To Plunge, for one thing. At first that was an easy one to answer, as the angle down the leg was just too sharp to turn. Ideally I would have plunged everything herringbone fashion, that is to say where the pair of Jap meets itself in the leg, you would first plunge the outer thread on one side, then the outer thread on the other side, then the inner thread on the first side and finally the inner thread on the second side. This makes for a neat line down the centre. Unfortunately I had placed my first couching stitch rather too close to the plunging point for this too work on the first circuit of the haunch, and I’d forgotten to take into account the single plunged thread I mentioned earlier – so the line starts with three consecutive plunges on the left side followed by two consecutive plunges on the right.

Asymmetric plunging down the leg

After that I managed to plunge symmetrically.

Symmetric plunging down the leg

Then I got to the point where I could either plunge or turn, and as I didn’t want to make that decision after several hours of concentrated work, I left it there, to be picked up again this weekend.

Plunge or turn?

But… I hit a snag. Actually, I hit that snag quite a while back, but I eventually decided to ignore it, which may turn out to have been a Very Bad Idea.

So what is it? Well, you will remember that the leg is padded with several layers of felt to give it plenty of lift. Where the leg is narrow, that creates quite a steep slope. And on those sloping sides the pairs of Jap simply will not stay flat. They start out flat, but by the time I come back to that point after another circuit of the leg, one of the pair will have tried to hide underneath the other. It isn’t very obvious when you look at the piece straight on, but when looking from the side (and the assessors will definitely be doing that) you can see the threads slip and buckle.

Jap slipping and buckling

I didn’t immediately and completely ignore the problem. I manipulated the misbehaving threads with my mellor and that would initially look quite promising, but after a while they frustratingly just slipped back again. The mellor having failed me, I tried pulling the couching stitches tighter – but that just dented the padding by pulling the gold threads down into it. I tried looser couching stitches – but then the gold threads just wobbled around. In the end I assumed that this is simply what pairs of Jap do when on a steep incline, and tried not to worry about it.

And then one night I woke up with A Thought. Could it be the rule about angling your needle when bricking Jap? Every goldwork class I’ve attended and pretty much every goldwork book I’ve read mentions this: when couching a stand-alone line of paired threads, the needle goes pretty much straight up and down to make the couching stitch. But when you couch a pair of threads next to an earlier pair, bricking the couching stitches (i.e. staggering them relative to the previous pair to create a brick pattern), you are told to come up on the outside of the pair and then angle the needle underneath the previous pair in order to pull the new pair snugly next to it. Now that works beautifully when the surface is flat or nearly flat, but might it be what caused the slipping and buckling on the steep sides?

Angling the needle when bricking

So here’s the plan: on my sample cloth I will make a four-layer padded oval with fairly steep sides. I will then couch paired Jap all around it, using angled stitches on the left and perpendicular/straight-up-and-down stitches on the right. If they both look the same (i.e. both “bunch up”), I’ll just continue with Bruce as he is. But if the right looks markedly better than the left, then it’s time for some Big Decisions…

The padding for my couching experiment

A Welsh gem and two of my Five-a-Day

For various reasons I haven’t done a lot of stitching lately, although I have made some progress on Bruce which I hope to report on soon (probably after this weekend when I intend to complete the section I’m currently working on – sneak peek below). As you know I am never short of a project or two (or three, or twelve), but none of them particularly appealed to me even when I had the opportunity. So I’ve tried to re-ignite my enthusiasm by planning some sampling, and kitting up a couple of uncomplicated projects.

A sneak peek at Bruce's leg

Two of my long-term projects (and I do mean long-term; we’re talking several years here) which have not had the attention they deserve are Hengest and Llandrindod. In both projects I’m at a stage where there are decisions to be made, and that is always a dangerous point for me. So much easier to just start something new! Hengest has been languishing in his stable because after his mane I need to decide how to stitch his bridle and especially the jewels on it; but as there is still some mane to stitch first I’m hoping to return to him when I’ve reached the point with Bruce where I can’t do anything more until I see a tutor. Llandrindod is a bit more problematic, but I’ve decided that now is the time to tackle it. The challenge is the direction in which the facets of the central diamond are stitched.

The central diamond in Llandrindod

Originally I intended to stitch these facets so that the lines of stitches go around the central part, much like the outer facets on the coloured stones. For some reason I changed my mind a little over a year ago and started working them from the outside edge towards the centre. Unfortunately I failed to make a note anywhere documenting this change – or if I did, I can’t find it – so I have no idea why I discarded the around-the-centre approach in favour if the into-the-centre one. Equally unfortunately I don’t particularly like what I’ve done so far. But I don’t want to unpick it, start again with the other method, find out that there was in fact a fatal flaw in it, and have to unpick again. The solution: a sample cloth! In spite of what the outlines may suggest that doesn’t mean I have to stitch the diamond three times in total, as I won’t have to stitch all the facets to get an idea of what the effect of each method is; at least I fervently hope a few facets on each will do the trick!

A sample cloth set up to try two ways of stitching the facets

With Llandrindod and Bruce both what you might call “concentration projects”, as I really want to get them right and there’s a lot of note-taking going on (although in the case of Llandrindod obviously not quite enough…), it’s nice to have some relaxed projects on the go as well. On rare occasions these can be my own designs when they aren’t intended to become chart packs or kits, like Septimus the Septopus, but generally it’s someone else’s design, whether as a kit (I’ve got a good few waiting in the wings, from wonderful designers like Lizzie Pye of Laurelin, Helen Richman of Bluebird Embroidery and Alison Cole) or as a design only where I get to play with my stash and pick everything myself.

The projects I set up the other day are somewhere in between – a couple of little fruit trees by Sarah Homfray which used to come as a set of four kits but two of which I found last January as printed fabric only. So the fabric has been decided for me, and I don’t have to transfer the designs, but I do get to rummage through my thread boxes and play with colours. The originals were stitched using Madeira Lana, of which I have a respectable collection, but I decided to go with my favourite Heathway Milano crewel wool, which is a little thicker but not so much as to be a problem. And this is what I ended up with:

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool

They were meant to be my relaxing bits of stitching while we were away on family care duty, but I didn’t actually get any stitching done during that week. Never mind, they make lovely little fillers for when I haven’t got the clear mind (and the time) I need for Bruce or when I can’t face anything that involves making decisions. I can just pick them up and stitch. Perfect.