Making waves

Well, couching them anyway! Just a quickie post about the added texture Angela and I agreed I’d incorporate into Bruce’s haunch. The first thing was to remove the two most recent laps of Jap, which fortunately turned out to be a less awkward process than I had feared. Then it was time to work the three pairs of mixed couching: rococco/Jap, double rococco, Jap/rococco. The decision for rococco as the non-Jap thread was one of necessity rather than design – I didn’t want to mix in twist because in the rest of the design that’s used for outlines, and I think it looks better overall to keep it as an outline thread only; and I didn’t want to use pearl purl because that is going to be used to outline the central section of chipping. The only option left was rococco, and actually that is quite serendipitous – as a fellow stitcher pointed out, the mixed section in the haunch now echoes the mixed section on the back rather nicely!

The last two laps taken out The mixed couching put in

But nice though the echoing effect is, I am most pleased and proud about the fact that I managed to synchronise the waves in the paired rococco. Because the couching is worked around a curve, the waves of the inner and the outer thread of the pair slowly get out of sync, but with some judicious twisting of the thread I got them to lie nicely together around the entire lap – yay me smiley.

Synchronised waves

I had planned to make a start on the couched Jap-with-turns, but there was too much going on and I didn’t get around to it. Which was just as well because – and if you are of a nervous disposition may I advise you to look away now – this is what Bruce’s backside looked like a few hours into last Saturday’s class…

The horror, the horror!

Projects portable, impromptu and irresistible

When we travelled to Devon for a week to provide care for my mother-in-law Elizabeth in March, I took five projects with me (two of them far too complicated; I don’t know what I was thinking). I managed about three stitches. When we went for another week in early April I wondered whether to bother bringing any embroidery at all – but like most stitchers I get twitchy if I haven’t got a single project with me Just In Case, so I packed the three simple ones, only one of which I had done any work on yet: a Jacobean-style leaf.

Caroline's leaf design

There is a Facebook group for RSN Certificate & Diploma students, with members from all over the world. One of them is Caroline from Australia, and some time ago she posted a picture of a leaf she had designed to do some experimenting with; the picture above is of her original leaf. I really liked it and asked whether she’d be happy for me to stitch a version of it; she very kindly said yes. In an attempt at stash-busting I picked some lovely House of Embroidery hand-dyed perles to work it in, and as for the stitches, I just did whatever felt right at the time – these projects were very much meant to be an easy thing to pick up for a few stitches at a time without having to hunt around for a stitch plan or a diagram. In that nice and relaxing way I managed to complete the leaf to my more-or-less satisfaction by the middle of the week. It also had some unexpected consequences, of which more later!

About halfway, with light pink whipped backstitch on the left The finished leaf, with an extra bit of dark pink

The other two projects I had with me were the printed fabrics of two of Sarah Homfray’s fruit trees; I’d picked some of my lovely Heathway Milano wools and decided to start on the apple tree. Initially I thought I’d just do everything in stem stitch that could be worked in stem stitch, but in practice that felt a bit too relaxing. Bearing in mind my mother-in-law’s axiom in her later life that she could stitch whatever she liked using just the basic stitches, I thought I’d add some variety but without going for anything too fancy. During our stay there I got almost as far as the third picture (I finished about half the leaves at home), with stem stitch for the trunk and branches, reverse chain stitch for the grass, and fishbone stitch for the leaves. Back home I had a think about the apples, and plunged for padded satin stitch – I did consider long & short for a more naturalistic, rounded look, but as the tree is quite stylised anyway, I rather liked this stripy approach! The middle apple isn’t quite finished because (typical, isn’t it…) my medium red thread ran out about 2 stitches short. Oh, the outer green bits are whipped backstitch.

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool The first stitches Three different stitches so far One and three quarter apples

I’m really enjoying this little tree; my only quibble with the printed design is that the screen-printed lines are a bit thick so my crewel wool doesn’t always quite cover them, and as the printing is done in rather a strong bright colour it is a little noticeable here and there. But as this is not going to be a display piece I’m not too worried about that.

Now for the unexpected consequences of the Jacobean leaf: a new convert and an impromptu project smiley! One of the carers who came in to stay with my mother-in-law overnight is a crafter, and when she saw the leaf in its embroidery hoop lying on the coffee table she said, slightly wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to try that but I can’t draw and I wouldn’t know where to start.” Well, I did! On our previous visit I had been sorting through Elizabeth’s threads, fabrics, beads and so on and bagged up whatever I couldn’t use to go to her Embroidery Group. But surely they wouldn’t begrudge a new stitcher a few bits and bobs? So I quickly designed a V for her (the first letter of her name) and put a project together from the bagged up resources. She had a go the very first night after I gave it to her, and a pretty good go too, I’d say!

Sketching a V Transferred design, sample cloth and a selection of threads Vickey's first stitches

And the irresistible part of the title? That came when RSN tutor Heather Lewis (with whom I was fairly certain I did a class some years back) posted on Facebook that her Etsy shop was now open, with her very first kit in it: Elizabethan Beauty. I have too many kits already. They take me forever because I have to fit them in between developing my own designs and working on the RSN Certificate. But it was the stem that did it. It uses a braided stitch which I have attempted once or twice using perle or other relatively easy threads, but never in gold. My dear husband, instead of helping me resist the temptation, told me to get on with it and order the kit. I did (and asked whether it was indeed her who did a one-to-one goldwork class with me). It arrived yesterday in a dinky fabric bag, with a hand-written message to say yes, she did teach me in 2017! One of these days (months? years?) I’ll get around to stitching it. For now I am greatly enjoying looking at it smiley.

Heather Lewis' Elizabethan Beauty kit and its bag Kit content, from Heather's website The design The braided stem

A digital consultation

I left you last time with an inconclusive answer to the question of Bruce’s buckling leg, and the hope of some answers from an hour online with my tutor, Angela. Time to fill you in on what happened next!

Beforehand I had emailed Angela the issues I wanted to look at, and sent her some pictures. The question of Bruce’s hind leg, which might get dramatic if the advice was to unpick the whole lot, was kept as the main course; the starter was the two possible arrangements for the front leg. I showed Angela the samples I’d done and she (like most people I’ve shown them to, and in fact like myself) preferred the right hand version. Neat though the other one is, it makes the front leg look like a detached motif rather than a leg that is part of the kangaroo. She did suggest that I don’t turn the Jap, but plunge it staggered (this method seems to go by half a dozen different names including herringbone, fishbone, fishtail and dovetail; any of them will tell you what it looks like) to create a neat seam. As I have demonstrated sharp turns in the hind leg, she said I wouldn’t need them here; I’d been a little worried that there were only a few there, but she seems to be happy that they fulfill the brief.

The front leg sampled two ways

One last-minute question I’d added to my list was about mixed couching. Having seen progress pictures of the goldwork unicorn that a fellow Certificate student is stitching, I became concerned that the smallish area of mixed couching on Bruce’s back might not be quite enough. Could I perhaps add some to the front leg? Angela did think a bit more mixed couching would be a good idea, but suggested that instead of the front leg, which is a relatively small and complicated area, I could add it into the hind leg, which has a rather vast expanse of couched Jap already and more to come. This led neatly into our discussing the thorny question of whether any of that expanse needed unpicking, and if so, how much?

Having looked at the sample, she agreed that the straight-up-and-down method was out; gappiness, she implied, was the ultimate sin in goldwork couching (unless intentional, for effect). When I described in detail how I did the couching on Bruce she said that was exactly what I should do; the only thing she suggested was an occasional little stab stitch, which she said might make the couching a little more secure; she’d been taught that when she was training. I’d never heard of it! And I must say, if the tutors are taught that, I wonder why we students aren’t. All I can think of is that it might be because in the first four classes of this module I’ve had three different tutors, each of whom may have thought the other would have told me.

Be that as it may, having looked at close-ups of the thin part of Bruce’s leg her opinion was that it didn’t need unpicking. Hurray! She said that there was a little slippage in some of the pairs, but nowhere were they actually completely on top of each other, and the overall effect was neat enough. Well, that was obviously a relief smiley. Then we got on to the question of turning versus plunging. So far I’ve been plunging (as symmetrically as possible) when the Jap goes down from the haunch into the leg, but when the curve becomes sufficiently shallow (though still forming an acute angle) I want to start turning the Jap. Not only does it make for another demonstration of my ability to neatly execute a sharp turn, it also means less plunging!

When to start turning instead of plunging

Angela thought that I had definitely come to the point where I could start turning. But then the conversation took a different, erm, turn. This was partly because of the earlier discussion about adding mixed couching, and partly because of something else I had only noticed a few days before the online class, when I happened to be looking at close-up photographs to send to Angela: Bruce’s backside was not as taut as it ought to be – there were gaps…

Gaps in Bruce's backside

There is a reason why you put yellow felt underneath gold couching (and chipping, for that matter). Quite apart from the fact that it gives some lift to the metal and makes it catch the light in nice sparkly ways, it makes any gaps much less noticeable. These ones, as I said, I hadn’t actually noticed at all looking at the work from a normal distance, and even at “working distance” they hadn’t looked particularly alarming. In the close-up photograph, however, they looked positively cavernous! Would I have to unpick after all? Angela, fortunately, didn’t think so; close-up photographs, however useful in studying your work, are cruel in what they show up. She suggested I try and tweak the gappy pairs with a needle or mellor, and I said I could also push them to a small extent with the next pair.

Which brought us to what the next pair would be. We talked about various ways of introducing mixed couching, and having considered a few options (and discarded the ones that included twist, as I want to keep that for outlines only) I decided on a pair of rococco/Jap, followed by a pair of rococco, followed by a pair of Jap/rococco, and then back to Jap only. In order to accommodate this, I would unpick the most recent round of Jap, which hadn’t been plunged yet anyway. This would also help to address the gappiness I just mentioned. Unfortunately it does make it impossible to do a turn instead of plunging when going down into the leg, as each of the three pairs is different.

Plan for mixed couching

When I wrote up my notes after the meeting with this in mind, I had a look at Bruce’s haunch and how much of it has already been filled. I don’t want the mixed couching to get too close to the central area of chipping, and I do want some Jap turnings, so I will take out (in fact by the time you read this I will have taken out) two pairs of Jap, even though that means undoing the secured ends on the last but one pair and “unplunging” them. This will make the position of the three mixed pairs within the leg a bit more balanced, and with a bit of luck still leave a sharp turn when I get back to Jap-only.

Finally, a brief note on online classes. So far I have felt absolutely no inclination to do some or all of my Certificate online; has this one-hour consultation changed my mind? Even though this meeting was very effective in sorting out issues I needed help and advice on, no. There were difficulties. Zoom froze every now and then, and it was difficult to know how much of the previous conversation had been missed, so we would either repeat what the other had already heard, or not repeat enough. It also rather interrupts the flow of your thoughts when you have to keep going back a bit. A Whatsapp video call, which I wanted to use to show Angela close-ups of the work while moving the camera around (more informative than still pictures when trying to show texture, especially in goldwork), wouldn’t connect properly. You might say these are technical problems, and if everything works 100% as it should these classes would be fine. And if that could be guaranteed I could see myself taking the odd online class. But computers and internet connections hardly ever work 100% as they should, so the problems I had today would almost certainly also turn up in a day class. No, for the time being I’ll stick with face-to-face classes as much as I can. Roll on 24th April!

An inconclusive sample

Last time I updated you on my RSN Goldwork module, progress on Bruce’s leg was about to be interrupted by some sampling. To establish once and for all whether the buckling noticeable on the thin, steep part of his leg was caused by angling the needle when couching, I would couch all around a four-layer padded oval, angling on one side and not angling on the other. There was a picture of the felt I’d be using, but before attaching it to my sample cloth I decided I wanted it to be rather narrower, so I trimmed the four bits of felt and then secured my padded shape. Time to get couching! I started with a loop to minimise cut ends at the front (I was definitely not going to plunge and secure on my sampling…)

Trimmed felt for padding The padding is complete, and the Jap attached

I didn’t fill the shape completely – after all, what I wanted was the effect on the sloping sides, so the top was irrelevant – and I was pleased to see the sample had a nice bit of height to it. Just so I wouldn’t forget how to stitch on which side, I marked them on the fabric. This was very helpful as it is easy to get distracted (you can call me bird brain; or, if our Lexi is anything to go by, cat brain).

The 'straight' side of the sample The 'angled' side of the sample A nice bit of height

Remember those words “once and for all”? Well, that didn’t quite work out. There was some difference between the two sides, with the straight-up-and-down couching showing (as I rather expected) distinct gappiness, but the angled side rather let me down.

Distinct gappiness where the couching is straight-up-and-down

You see, although there was noticeable buckling on the tight curves, the side was actually pretty smooth…

Buckling on the curves A pretty smooth side

I hadn’t managed to reproduce the degree of buckling seen on the leg (indicated by the blue arrows), and so in one sense the experiment was a washout. On the other hand, it did clearly show that the only alternative, straight couching, was a definite no-no. It gave me more couching practice as well. And, as any sample cloths are handed in with the assessment piece, it shows the assessors I was willing to spend time and effort trying to find a solution to the problem; so on the whole a fairly useful exercise after all.

Buckling on the leg

And that’s where I was at the start of the one-hour online consultation I’d booked with Angela: an inconclusive sample, and Bruce with ends of Jap sticking out of his thigh. To be continued…

The state of play before the online consultation

Remembering Elizabeth

I have written recently about my mother-in-law Elizabeth. On Good Friday my husband and I went down to Devon to look after her for a week, which we had been doing alternately with my sisters-in-law for the past couple of months; we returned home last Friday, and yesterday afternoon we received the news that she had passed away. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.

As this is a blog about embroidery, I want to remember her here as the outstanding needlewoman she was – but also as a wonderful mother-in-law, who (apart from perhaps not always being the most tactful person in the world) couldn’t be further away from the usual stereotype. She and I enjoyed many a joint stitching session whenever we visited.

Stitching with Elizabeth

Elizabeth would try anything that involved thread and fabric and some sort of needle or hooked implement. She knitted me a fabulous dress – when I asked if I could have it in beige she said “you’re not old enough to wear beige!” and only budged when I explained that a beige dress could be worn with all sorts of brightly coloured and patterned tights smiley. She crocheted as well, and was a whizz with a sewing machine: when she and her husband moved to the States for three years in the 1970s she sewed their outfits for the square dancing classes they joined.

I don’t have pictures of some of her more experimental embroideries (including an abstract piece with various appliquéd arches in different materials, and a Monet-style waterlily garden), but here are a few of her projects: a Suffolk puff Christmas tree, a canvaswork piece called The Garden of Jersies, a tea cosy with shisha work which she made for one of her daughters, and the quilted patchwork bedspread she made for my husband and me (the back is all in shades of green).

a Suffolk puff Christmas tree A Garden of Jersies canvaswork An embroidered tea cosy A patchwork quilt

For decades she was happy to experiment and try new things, but a few years ago she said to me, “I’ve found that I can embroider anything I want using just a few simple stitches, so I don’t bother with the fancy ones anymore”. Seeing what she could do with stem stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch and French knots, I didn’t argue!