Horsing around

Although I really need to get on with that secret goldwork project, I’m having such fun spending a bit more time with Helen McCook’s racehorse that I keep coming up with excuses – the latest one is that the hoop needed for the new project is currently in use holding my Canvaswork sample cloth, and I have to wait for the arrival of two 25cm Nurge hoops (my favourite brand), one 16mm and one 24mm deep. And then of course there will be a further delay until I’ve got round to binding it. So apart from doing some preparatory work for my first proper Canvas class next week, I’m enjoying an equine binge.

The first thing to do since the last update was to get rid of those pesky black outlines which I failed to cover when plunging the couching on the horse’s flank (feel free to let me know if that’s not the right term, I’m not a horse expert). There were a few options including a Jap outline, but in the end I decided to go for a solid filling of chips – for one thing that meant no plunging and oversewing! I chose the thinnest bright check, no.8, and tried to follow the lines as well as possible while still placing the chips in random directions. Chips are never going to make a truly sharp point, and in close-up you can see that the outlines are not smooth (you wouldn’t expect them to be), but when taking in the whole horse from a normal viewing distance I think it blends in well enough.

Visible lines The missed bit filled in with chipping The chipping in the context of the whole horse

On to the remaining bits of the back legs, worked (apart from a small length of pearl purl) in gold and copper rococco. Now the rococco that came with the class kit is big. I mean, really big. I have Very Fine, Fine and Medium rococco in my stash and Medium is as chunky as I would choose to go in any of my own projects. This looks a definite Large. It is an absolute pig to plunge, and I don’t even like the look of it very much because it is very difficult to “synchronise” the waves (the first picture shows it in the horse’s tail). I could have used a smaller size from my stash, but instead I went for check thread, rococco’s modest little sister. Much in the way that I prefer passing to Jap, I prefer check thread to rococco. It gives the same sort of effect, but it’s a lot easier to work with!

Large rococco in the tail Couched check thread The whole horse showing large rococco and check thread

The overview picture also shows my start on the grass. The kit came with bright green 471 thread, which is a bit like a fine passing thread available in lots of colours. Compared to the bottle green fabric that seemed rather too bright and too much towards the yellow end of green. In my stash I found a no. 1½ twist in Opal Green which is a lovely shade, but that was a bit too much towards teal/turquoise. Then, playing with them both at my Embroidery Group meeting (last one before the summer holiday, alas), I had a flash of inspiration: why not combine them? So I did, and I really like the effect of the blended colours and contrasting textures! When I started the second line of grass my first stitch happened to be exactly in line with the couching on the first line of grass, which looked odd, so I took it out and “bricked” it, even though the lines of couching are not directly next to each other, which I felt made for a more pleasing effect.

Two greens Combining two threads and bricking the stitches

By the way, finishing off the grass in the evening was possibly not the best decision. In spite of the floor to ceiling window in our dining room (where I like to stitch on larger and more complicated projects) the gloomy evening sky did nothing to help while couching two shades of green on dark green fabric using a green couching thread… Still, I managed, even if I did almost pull one bright green thread out completely when plunging its second end. Fortunately the unravelled first end consented to be gently persuaded back down the fabric, leaving the thread at the front acceptable if not pristine.

Working in the gloom The horse so far

So what’s left? I’d like to leave the head and neck till last, so the front legs first; they have a fair bit of work in them. I have quite a lot of copper passing left from the kit so I may put that in instead of the copper S-ing along the knee and foot. The angles of the leg are such that the S-ing looks a bit awkward there in the model photograph we were given, and rather loses its stem stitch look. We’ll see what suggests itself once I get to that point!

The model's front leg

A book, a horse, and a lobster’s claw

Although my summer stitching will be more goldwork (I’d tell you more but it’s a secret for now…), for the Certificate I’ve moved on to Canvaswork, and before we break up for the summer I have one class to get it all set up. Last time Angela advised me to get Jo Christensen’s Needlepoint Book and being a dutiful student of course I did smiley. It arrived just before we went away for a short break (by the sea, lovely!) so I’ve only read a little of it so far, but it looks a very informative book.

Jo Christensen's Needlepoint Book

I’ve also been doing some sampling, on a piece of 18TPI canvas I found in my stash. I have no idea why I had it, and I have no recollection of buying it – it may well have come from one of those occasions where someone hands me several bags of odds and ends because they want their mother’s/aunt’s/grandmother’s/great-aunt’s embroidery things to go to a Good Home. However I got it, it’s coming in useful now! Among the things I inherited from my mother-in-law there is a stitch guide with some very useful pictures of canvaswork stitches, and in fact it showed a better way of “slotting together” Dutch stitch (which for obvious reasons appeals to me and which I hope to be able to use in my Certificate piece) to cover the canvas more completely – the importance of which is strongly stressed in the Brief. It also reminded me of Victorian tufted stitch. I doubt I’ll have opportunity to use it, but it was fun to have a go.

Canvaswork sample cloth Dutch stitch in my mother-in-law's book Two ways of slotting Dutch stitch together Victorian tufted stitch

At my weekly Embroidery Group, which is finally meeting again (though with sadly reduced numbers, and for a very short term only) I’ve taken to working on the goldwork racehorse I started two years ago at a 3-day RSN class. You wouldn’t think goldwork would be ideal for a group where chatting and drinking tea is as much part of the fun as embroidery, but oddly enough it works – well, mostly… I want to finish this, but I want it to be fairly relaxed as well, so I decided I wouldn’t worry too much if my couching stitches were not all exactly 3mm apart, or if my S-ing chips were of slightly different lengths. But because the light at our venue is not the best (especially since one of the strip lights conked out and won’t be replaced until the summer holidays) and the design is drawn on dark green fabric in fine black pen, I managed to overlook the fact that my quite nicely plunged bit of couching completely failed to cover the far end of the outline. Oops. I tried to remedy this by extending one of the lines of couching but that just looked silly, so I unpicked it. For now I’m leaving it as it is and I’ll try and think of something to cover it up in an acceptable way.

The flank couched The flank plunged - with visible lines... Essing along the back completed The horse so far

And finally, the lobster’s claw. I know that sounds a bit mysterious, but it is apparently what the shape of an aficot is based on. And if you have no idea what an aficot is, I sympathise – when I first saw the name and a picture of it (in this article by Mary Corbet) I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what it had to do with embroidery. Well, it’s used for polishing satin stitches. It is also, when well-made in lovely wood, a thing of beauty in its own right, almost like an extremely tactile abstract sculpture. I’d been eyeing these (especially the set which includes a matching laying tool) for months, and finally decided that it was worth getting just for the sheer pleasure I’d get out of seeing and touching it, let alone using it in my needlework! After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the various woods available I eventually went for ebony, and here they are: my very own aficot and laying tool. Aren’t they gorgeous?

Safely packaged in tube and velvet bag An ebony laying tool and aficot The aficot fits beautifully in the hand

Drawing the line

That’s what I do for workshops – drawing the line drawing. On the kit fabric. The kits I sell online come with blank fabric and instructions on how to transfer the design yourself, but this would take too long in a 90-minute or 2-hour workshop, so I do them beforehand, with the aid of my trusty lightbox and some fine drawing pens.

Drawing the designs on by hand

But wouldn’t it be nice to get them screen-printed, both for workshops and for general kits? It can look really professional, like King Ethelnute of the Coombe Abbey retreat.

Stylish printing on Ethelnute

There are a few hurdles, however. First of all, people who have found good screen printers for their kits turn out to want to keep this information to themselves. Fair enough, I’ll just have to do my own research. But what about the quality of the screenprinting itself? Ethelnute looked very stylish in his gold outline, and as he was solidly stitched there was no problem about lines showing. But not all embroidery is solid, and in some kits I have bought in recent years this could be a real problem. There were kits with uniformly thick lines which were sometimes difficult to cover completely, like this one from Melbury Hill.

Thick grey lines on a Melbury Hill kit

Its saving grace was that the lines were printed in grey, so that any line showing was not overly noticeable. That couldn’t be said for some of the Sarah Homfray designs, which were printed in quite a bright green. Now let me begin by saying that Sarah’s kits are very well put together and generally a joy to stitch. But the green printing was a bit of a problem especially where lines ran into each other, becoming rather blobby – on the Turaco bird I had to add an extra line of stitching along the leaf edge to make sure everything was covered. In most of the design the printing was nice and crisp and distinct, but it was still quite bold, and working on the fruit trees I found that line stitches like Palestrina stitch did not always cover the whole width of the design line, even with a “spreading” thread like crewel wool.

Some blobby lines on a Sarah Homfray kit The lines are very very green Palestrina stitch does not fully cover

So there were three things I’d have to consider if I wanted to get my kit fabrics printed: I’d have to find a good screen-printer, the colour of the lines would have to be neutral and not too dark, and the lines themselves would have to be quite delicate, especially on designs that are not solidly embroidered or that use fine threads.

The first consideration seemed likely to scupper the process before it properly started as I found it difficult to work out who would be a suitable printer among the bewildering variety of available ones. Another thing was that most of the companies I found would only print on fabrics from their own collection. You can get screen-printing done on linen twill (see the Melbury Hill kit) but I haven’t been able to find out by whom. And then I came across a different process altogether, digital fabric printing. This seems to be used mostly for printing patterned fabric or logos, but surely you could print line drawings? I picked a company that would print samples and uploaded some designs: Whoo Me, the Wildflower Garden, and Forever Frosty.

Whoo Me Little Wildflower Garden Forever Frosty

Now this came with a few complications of its own; like so many printing companies, they would only print on their own fabrics. And they do not print on coloured fabrics – instead, the background colour is printed as well. Not quite as stylish and professional-looking as printing on a separately dyed fabric, but I was willing to see what it looked like. I picked a simple calico for Whoo Me, a plain cotton for the Wildflower Garden (to be printed light blue) and a duchesse satin for Forever Frosty, on the grounds that goldwork deserves something a bit more upmarket and glossy.

Here’s how they turned out:

Digitally printed kit fabric swatches

And I’m quite pleased with them! You may notice that I didn’t take my own advice about using a neutral, not too dark colour for the lines – they are, in fact, black – but this is because I had these printed before I had fully grasped the advantages of the Melbury Hill grey design lines. Anyway, that can easily be remedied if I decide to get them printed in larger numbers. The lines on Whoo Me and Forever Frosty are fairly bold because I forgot to adjust my line drawings – I usually print them quite bold because it makes it easier to trace them through the fabric, so all I need to do is provide the printers with a finer line drawing: they’ll print exactly what I provide.

Especially in the case of quite detailed designs like the Wildflower Garden, the extra cost that printing adds to the workshop kits is at least to some extent off-set by the amount of time I don’t have to spend on hand-drawing them. For the regular kits it is an extra cost on top of the usual materials as they do not usually come with the design pre-transferred; but I think it would definitely add to the user-friendliness of the kits. Let me know what you think – would you be happy to pay a little more for a kit that had the design ready printed on the fabric so you could just pick it up and get started?

Mounting tension

Following my alarming experience with the Jacobean piece going slack after mounting, you will understand I am taking no chances with Bruce – he is going to be stretched to within an inch of his life! (Without stretching any of the gold unduly, of course.) Goldwork classes no.7 and no.8 were scheduled one week apart, because once you’ve begun the mounting process there isn’t an awful lot of homework you can do.

First, however, there was the question of the tail. Would the tutor think the gaps near the tip warranted taking several chips out and re-doing them? Or would a small “prop chip” do the trick? Well, Angela advised me not to unpick any chips as the outlines were really nice and restitching might spoil them; but yes, to try an extra half-chip at the tip to see if that would push things up. I tried, it didn’t, and the line didn’t look as nice, so I took it out again.

The chip that got put in and then got taken out

Rather optimistically, I’d hoped to finish pretty much all the mounting apart from the sateen finish in class, with a bit of time left over to discuss my next module, Canvaswork. It was not to be, and not because of the time taken over that temporary chip. Mounting is slow work anyway, and getting it done as well as possible means taking your time and not rushing things. Canvaswork will still be there next week, or even next month. So I got started by working out what size I wanted the mounted piece to be, and how I wanted the work to be positioned on the mount board.

Marking size and position with pins

Generally in framing you are advised to have slightly more room at the bottom than at the top; apparently this makes it look more balanced when hung on the wall. You will notice that my placement has more room at the top. It felt more natural to have the extra space around the cloud and sun, wide-open skies as it were, and to have the line of grass closer to the edge as it is the ground the kangaroo stands on (well, is suspended above in mid-hop, but you know what I mean).

Next: cutting two identical pieces of mount board, to be glued together for extra strength.

Cutting two identical mount boards

Then calico gets glued to the double mount board, with the glue applied about an inch away from the edge – that is where you attach the embroidery to the calico with herringbone stitch. For goldwork, there is an extra layer, a rather strokable padding called, curiously, bumf. This compensates for all the lumps and bumps of secured plunged ends at the back of the work. The picture shows that layer before trimming it right to the edge of the board.

Gluing calico to the mount board Adding a layer of padding

Time to cut Bruce loose from the frame, with the helping hands of one of my fellow students because you don’t want the fabric to just slump off the frame with the risk of bending some of the gold when you’ve cut one side.

Bruce safely off the frame

The next step is pinning. This is not a one-time process: I ended up pulling and pinning three times before all the slack had been removed from the fabric (the pictures show the first and second round).

After the first round of pinning After the second round of pinning

On to the terrifying part, which is turning the work upside down to work the herringbone stitching. This is done exerting a lot of pull on the stitches, so the mounted piece often jitters around on its bubblewrap frame. Although it’s unlikely to jump off the frame altogether, it may shift enough for the stitching to get pressed against the bubblewrap – and two of the elements near the edges are the S-ing sunbeams and the cutwork tail. It’s the part where you occasionally forget to breathe.

The embroidery attached with herringbone stitch

Part of this herringboning is getting the fabric to fit snugly around the corners, and closing them up with ladder stitch which, ideally, is invisible once you’ve pulled it. On one corner I succeeded completely, on two partly, and on one a stitch is still quite visible however hard I pulled. Oh well.

A successful corner A not quite so successful corner

This was as much as I could manage in class, so the next step had to be done as homework: lacing. When I got Bruce home after class I thought I noticed a small patch of slackness, which I hoped I’d be able to correct with the lacing. But when I examined the fabric closely just before starting the lacing, in very unforgiving sunlight, it actually looked nice and evenly stretched – an encouraging way to start! It took me a few hours, but by the end of Monday afternoon Bruce was fully laced both ways.

The completed lacing

I don’t know if the work looked more evenly and tightly stretched when the lacing was complete – it’s hard to tell from photographs and impossible to tell from memory. But it looked good! This was on a Monday, so I figured that by Saturday it would be clear whether or not the fabric was beginning to slacken. I’d left one end of each direction of lacing unsecured so that it could be tightened if necessary before applying the sateen.

How it looked from the front after lacing the back

Saturday came, and my 8th Goldwork class, and although the silk hadn’t perceptibly slackened, the lacing had. My guess is that the fabric was still held taut by the pins, which Angela had told me not to remove until after attaching the sateen. So I tightened all the lacing (the long side twice) and securely fastened off the ends. Time for the sateen. This is cut to about 5cm larger all around than your board, and then ironed. It is then folded to approximately the right size, and pinned at the corners.

The sateen ironed and folded to size The sateen pinned at the corners

But before the pinning and attaching there was a small job that needed doing first: because of my small frame there wasn’t a lot of spare silk on all sides of the design, and in some places the stitches which originally attached the silk to the calico backing fabric would clearly show up in the edge around the sateen (what the RSN refer to as the rebate). However, the silk was now so securely attached to the mount board in other ways that I could snip away these offending stitches without risk to Bruce’s taut looks.

Stitches that would show up and have to be removed

The sateen is sewn on using ladder stitch, which attaches two pieces of fabric invisibly (ideally…) by scooping up a bit of one fabric, then taking the needle into the other fabric exactly opposite the exit point in the first fabric. Scoop up a bit of the second fabric, and go back into the first fabric exactly opposite the exit point from the second fabric. This forms a little ladder of parallel stitches which, when you pull the thread, miraculously pulls the fabrics together in such a way that the stitches completely disappear from sight, leaving just some discreet indentations. Well, that’s the theory, and I have applied it in previous cases with great success, but for some reason this time I found that when going from the silk into the sateen, the stitches looked skewed even when I’d gone in precisely opposite the exit point. If, on the other hand, I inserted the needle about a millimetre before where I should theoretically insert it, it looked fine. It’s a mystery, but it did make my stitches on the second half look a lot better (no, I didn’t unpick and re-do the first half).

Ladder stitch Ladder stitch partly pulled

When attaching the sateen the aim is to have a uniform rebate; in other words, the amount of silk visible between the edge of the board and the edge of the sateen is equally wide all around. This is clearly not the case in my finished piece, but the variations were within what I deemed acceptable. If you go for perfection on this point, you’re in for a long, long haul. By the way, see the two needles? One semi-circular, one with a much shallower curve. The shallower one is the one I’ve been using for oversewing plunged ends, herringboning and ladder stitching. It looked exactly like the other one when it came out of the packet some months ago. It is a testament to the quality of these particular needles that this one survived an entire module with no worse effect than being bent out of shape – the ones I used before this were either so chunky I could hardly navigate them through the fabric, or so thin that they broke at the slightest provocation. Take a bow, Creative Quilting of East Moseley!

The sateen completely attached, and two identical curved needles

Time to attach my name tape (salvaged from the Jacobean piece when I took the sateen off for lacing it) and (finally!) take the pins out. Then came another fairly labour-intensive part which I unfortunately forgot to photograph: firmly stroking all the edges with a mellor in order to remove the pin pricks. This removed them quite well on two sides, but on the sides where the weave ran the other way they were still quite visible. When you look closely at the silk, it is actually a combination of relatively chunky (and sometimes slubby) green threads and rather thin and fragile black threads – you can see this clearly in the pictures of the corners above. Where the pins had gone in, these black threads had bunched together. Angela suggested stroking them back into place with a very fine needle, which worked for almost all of them, except for a few where the black threads had actually frayed through – no help for that, unfortunately. I entered what I had done and what I couldn’t do in the Project Evaluation notes and prepared to look at the front, which I hadn’t seen since the beginning of class.

Name tape attached Pins taken out

A sigh of relief: nothing crushed, and no puckering or slackness. Hurray!

Proud Mabel posing with Bruce Bruce and Haasje all finished

Bruce was then packed into a well-padded box with all the sample cloths, drawings, source pictures, scribbles and notes, for Angela to take to Hampton Court Palace for assessment. Because of the lockdown backlog it will probably be a few months, but I’ll let you know what they think of Bruce and Haasje when I get the evaluation. And now on to Canvaswork…

No slacking please!

Earlier this year I got back the assessment for my Jacobean module, and you may remember that some of the points I’d lost were in the section on mounting. Particularly, the assessors commented on “the looseness of the linen which needed to be pulled across the board much tighter”.

Assessment comments on my mounting

At the time I wondered what had caused these comments as the piece was very nicely stretched when I handed it in, and I concluded that the fabric must somehow have gone slack while waiting for the assessment. A few weeks later, the postman brought the RSN box with the mounted embroidery and all the other bits and bobs I’d handed in. This is what it looked like. Suddenly the assessors’ comments made more sense.

The Jacobean project has gone slack

Seeing that I will be assessed on mounting for the next three modules as well, I sent the picture to Angela to see what she thought of it. She replied, “I am at a loss seeing your piece and how it has relaxed in such a short time. I remember going through everything with you in the mounting process and it all looked well executed at the time, so I don’t understand why this would have happened in such a short time.” Phew – reassurance. It wasn’t just me thinking well of my work smiley.

But although fortunately it seems it was Not My Fault, nevertheless it still needs the same work as if it were: take the sateen off and lace the fabric for extra tautness. If I were inclined to I could then re-attach the sateen. I can tell you now that I was not so inclined – the piece is going to be framed so the back will be hidden anyway. I will recycle the sateen in some future project should I ever feel that it is vital to cover the back.

Removing the sateen The bare back

In order to make the whole thing so secure that it would never have to be done again, I began lacing at fairly small intervals. I’m afraid my good intentions didn’t last very long, and as you can see the later stitches are wider apart. Rest assured though that they are still close enough to spread the tension evenly and avoid having unsightly dips on the edges.

The lacing spreads a bit...

The thread I used came off an enormous reel I found in my mother-in-law’s sewing cabinet. It had long lost any labels it might once have had but it felt a bit like linen, which is nice and strong. It also held up well to some experimental tugs I gave it. It was a bit twisty to work with but not nearly so much as the buttonhole thread or extra strong topstitching thread I’d normally use, and I was quite pleased when I’d got the horizontal lacing done and set about tightening the stitches. Alas, when I got really serious about pulling things tight (I was bending the mounting board slightly by this time, which should have warned me) this proved to be too much for it. It broke in several places. I eventually patched it with a few knots and an inserted bit of buttonhole thread – I couldn’t face doing the whole thing again! Wise after the event, I did use the buttonhole thread for lacing the long way.

Some extra knots and an insert

So did it work? Yes it did! Although I can still see two areas where the fabric is slightly less taut than everywhere else, it’s only because I know where they are and because I look at them from a distance of about an inch. From a normal viewing distance it is now absolutely fine, and ready to be framed.

No more slack A taut tree

Now for Bruce…