Finishing off a robin

I am itching to start on the rainbow sheep, but the robin was to be completed first, for no other reason than that I had told myself it should and it would feel rather weak-willed to give in to ovine temptation, however colourful. So over the weekend I got to work, completed the shaded herringbone wing (also good practice for my Canvaswork module, as I hope to use the stitch there), and outlined the breast in medium red (left/top) and dark red (right/bottom) stem stitch.

The wing filled in, and the breast outlined

But what to do about the wing outline? I was hoping to find something feathery but inspiration failed to strike so in the end I just went with shaded stem stitch. Then on to the head. There I did want something feathery, and I decided to use fly stitch in one strand.

The wing outlined and the head feathers started

Now in my original version of the robin the head is entirely worked in brown. This works fine as a stylised outline, even though in real life the red of a robin’s breast extends into its head. But as this version is “coloured in” (even though it is still very stylised), I felt I ought to have some red going up the throat, which is why the light brown fly stitches only surround about two thirds of the eye. However, before thinking about how to get the red to flow reasonably naturally from the battlement couching, first I had to do the feathers. It wasn’t easy to get them to lie in the right direction, and in fact I ended up with a rather ruffled robin, but on the whole I was happy with the effect.

Working on the head feathers

Especially when I added in the other two shades of brown, and got the one-strand fly stitch head to blend into the two-strand herringbone wing. For the throat I went with straight stitches in blended light and medum red, with tiny seed stitches in one strand of dark red on top. The legs were done in black stem stitch, the beak in black straight stitch, and the eye in black Rhodes stitch. Finished, right?

Finished?

But the eye didn’t look quite right. Nice and beady, and the Rhodes stitch gives it a bit of extra beadiness by being domed, but even so it needed a little something extra.

A beady eye that needs a a little something extra

That little something extra was a stem stitch outline in one strand of light beige (fortunately I decided against my first choice of bright white), and now he is finished. On to the sheep! (among one or two other things…)

The beady eye outlined

Stitching a memory

After my mother-in-law Elizabeth died earlier this year and we were clearing out her apartment, my daughter-in-law Andreea asked if she could have the jacket Elizabeth wore at her wedding. Not because it was her colour or her size or her style, but to be made into a memory bear.

The wedding jacket

I’d never heard of memory bears so I looked them up – it’s rather a lovely idea, turning a piece of clothing or a blanket or some other piece of fabric belonging to a loved one into a keepsake bear. Well, last month the bear arrived.

The memory bear

Andreea showed him to us when we were visiting, and asked whether I could embroider something on him to identify him as a memento of Elizabeth. I was a bit taken aback – it’s quite scary being part of making a memory! Can you imagine getting it wrong… But it was also an honour to be asked, so we talked about what she would like embroidered, and where. We decided on “Granny”, to be stitched onto the sole of one of his feet. After we got home I thought it would be rather a nice idea to stitch it in Elizabeth’s handwriting, but when I asked Andreea she said she didn’t think they still had any of her correspondence. I sent out an appeal to the other grandchildren, and Issy (her of the door hanger) found a letter which she photographed for me.

A sample of Elizabeth's handwriting

Then the handwriting needed to be tidied up into a nice dark outline that would be easy to transfer. Mind you, I’m not sure how I’m going to transfer it to the bear’s foot – a lightbox is not going to work, is it? So I may have to go for some sort of prick & pounce, or dressmaker’s carbon paper.

Elizabeth's handwriting tidied up

It then struck me that it would be rather appropriate to use some of the vintage silk I inherited from Elizabeth; in spite of the claims on the label it may not be 100% colourfast, but then the bear is unlikely to be washed.

Elizabeth's vintage Filoselle silks (ignore the darning egg)

So there’s the start of the project: I’ve measured his foot and have printed the handwriting in three possible sizes to see which would look best (probably the middle one – how very Goldilocks smiley), and I’ve picked two colours of silk, which will need to be narrowed down to one before I start stitching. Then transfer the lettering, and work out how one stitches whipped backstitch straight onto a bear’s pad. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll stitch the word on a patch (possibly of the Irish linen I also inherited) and sew it on, but I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. Wish me luck!

A few sizes printed and silks chosen

Experimenting on robins and ladybirds

No no, there’s no need to call the RSPB and the RSPCA – only fabric was hurt in these experiments, by being repeatedly stabbed with a needle. In the case of the robin, I was trying out a herringbone variation which I found when researching stitches for the Canvaswork module. I put in a few rather faint guidelines and worked the first row; as the rows intertwine, my idea was to change the colour gradually from 2 strands of dark through one dark with one medium to two medium and so on. But just as had been the case when sampling this on canvas, it was terribly awkward trying to get the needle up underneath the previous row of stitches as per the instructions in my Anchor Book of Canvaswork Stitches.

Pencil lines as a guide The first line of herringbone stitch

Could you perhaps do it differently by going down underneath the previous stitches, which would be easier as you could push those stitches out of the way with the needle when taking it down through the fabric? I tried it on my canvas doodle cloth and yes, it works! The front looks pretty much identical (the blue line shows the stitch done according to the book, the pink line with the alternative way of working it) – any difference in the picture is, I think, the result of having done only two lines the alternative way, which makes it look less dense. It does use more thread on the back (the blue arrow in the second picture points to the tiny stitches on the back when doing it “properly”, the pink arrow to the longer stitches of the not-so-awkward variation) but on the whole I’d say it’s worth it for being much less frustrating and a lot quicker.

Herringbone done in two different ways look the same on the front But on the back they look different

So I gave that a try, and got to the first change in shading (dark/medium blend); then realised that I need to do the tail before continuing with the wing/body as it is further back in the design. I wanted to do it in satin stitch over a split stitch edge, so I have to come up at the body end, which would mess up the body stitching if I left it till later. In order to get the impression of texture in there in spite of the flat stitches, I chose to blend my dark and light brown, skipping the medium.

Blended herringbone A tail needs seeing to first, with a split stitch outline Blended satin stitch to make a perky tail

As for the ladybird, that comes from the needlepainting book I recently got. I’ve been wanting to try needlepainting, if only as a preparation for my Silk Shading module, and I also had some new (and older but not much used) fabrics and some new (and older but not much used) silks to experiment with. Fortunately the book comes with some beginner’s exercises and as there are three I’m going to try them with different combinations of fabric and thread. First up: a ladybird shell in Pipers floss silk on Empress Mills’ 440ct Egyptian cotton.

The first experiment set up

By the way, as I refused to believe that any cotton could have 440 threads to the inch (which is what the count would mean for a counted embroidery fabric like Lugana or Edinburgh linen), I did a bit of digging and found that in cotton for sheets etc. the count includes both the warp and the weft, so 440ct cotton will have 220 threads per inch horizontally and vertically. Still very fine, but not as eye-watering as it sounds at first!

The first, darkest silk for this is appropriately red, but the shading is not going to be subtle – I only have the Pipers silk in about seven jewel-like rainbow colours, so the shell will be worked in red, bright orange and bright yellow. The white will have to be borrowed from another brand of silk. Pipers floss silk is very fine, and being a filament silk it snags easily, which is why you can see the individual filaments in a few bits of the thread. Splitting the stitches took a lot of concentration, and very good lighting! The second picture shows the project with a standard match for scale (and in more accurate colours, having been photographed in daylight). It also shows that my initial row of long and short stitch does not have a very neat bottom edge, so I may unpick that part and start again.

Starting the split stitch outline The project in its 3-inch hoop

And that’s where I am with these two experiments! I hope to be able to finish them over the Christmas period, while also getting some Canvaswork homework in. But for that, I’m waiting for a Christmas present…

Baa, Baa, Rainbow Sheep

…have you any rainbow wool? Well, Catkin Crown Textile Studio do, and until Christmas Eve they offer 15% off their beautiful Heathway Milano crewel wools (25% if you’re a subscriber to their newsletter). I have pretty much all the shades I want plus spares of many of them, but fortunately I found a good excuse to make use of their generous sale even so: a sheep, and a sheep-mad friend.

You may remember Trina, who was the inspiration for both Whoo Me (by means of her painted pebble owls) and Trina’s Sheep (by means of being sheep-mad smiley).

An owl inspired by Trina A sheep inspired by Trina

Well, recently I came across another embroidered sheep, or rather a pair of sheep (well, rams) – Tanya Bentham’s Bayeux-stitched Bertie & Bartram. They are both fun but I just fell for Bartram (or should that be Baa-rt-ram?) with his rainbow fleece. And what better to stitch him with (in the absence of the more correct-for-the-period naturally dyed wools Tanya uses) than my very favourite Heathway Milano wools? And what better belated birthday present for above-mentioned friend than a companion sheep?

Tanya Bentham's two Bayeux sheep

So I had the fun of making up two project packs – one in more muted shades on Tanya’s invitingly soft wool fabric for me, one in brighter shades on vintage Irish linen (inherited from my mother-in-law) for her. By the way, the reason why her hoop/fabric combo is smaller than mine is that for some reason best known to herself my mother-in-law cut up the linen into very long narrow strips, and this is the biggest hoop I could fit it into; fortunately there’s just about enough room to manoeuvre. As for the threads, as you can see I haven’t got entire skeins of some of the shades, but, erm, did I mention something about a sale?

Threads for two rainbow sheep Two fabrics, with transferred designs

Oh, and I got a few more spares at the same time…

When you shop in a sale, you have to take advantage of it...

Finishing up, and a festive robin

In previous FoFs I have showcased some of my students’ work as they progressed through the course, but before showing you their last project here’s what I’ve been stitching all those weeks – not nearly so nice as theirs, but I like keeping these demonstration/doodle cloths as a record of classes and workshops. They are actually quite decorative in their own messy way!

Demonstration cloth

But how did the students do? Well, I got to see some impressive Quatrefoils – here are two of them:

Quatrefoil stitched by one of the students Quatrefoil stitched by one of the students

And quite a few projects already made up into cards!

Finished student project - Shisha flower Finished student projects - Quatrefoil and Shisha flower Finished student projects - Butterfly Wreath, Quatrefoil, No Place Like Home and Wildflower Garden

The 6th session had no project of its own planned; it was meant for the students to work on anything they hadn’t finished and ask questions about whatever they’d like to know about embroidery (I didn’t promise I’d be able to answer everything…). But as some of the students had got on so well, to the point of having already mounted some of their finished work, I thought it would be nice to have a bonus project. For each of them I put together a square of cotton sateen with the rather seasonable Robin freebie transferred onto it, and a bundle of stranded cottons consisting of black, two shades of red, and three shades each of green and brown, which I gave to them at the end of the fifth session. And then I encouraged them to just have a go using their newly acquired skills, stitch it any which way they like and have fun!

Materials for a Robin The Robin freebie mounted in a box

As I had a spare transfer (I drew one of the legs too long, so I kept that one back) I decided to follow my own advice, going for the naturalistic look by giving him a battlement couching chest – not such an inappropriate choice perhaps, seeing that they are fiercely territorial little birds smiley.

A battlement-chested robin

That encouraged a few of the students to have a go at that stitch as well, and although they found it tricky to get the spacing right, a little more practice should easily sort that (the student whose robin is shown below has also taken to blending with enthusiasm). Other students asked for some help with kits they had bought, and after getting into the rhythm of the raised stem stitch one practically finished her Christmas Wreath.

One student started her robin in class Another worked on her Christmas Wreath kit

I’ve really enjoyed teaching this course. Encouraged by the positive feedback from my students, and having been asked about a follow-up course, I’m busily thinking up class ideas for next year. Keep an eye on the Workshop page to find out when this materialises!

Can we canvas? Yes we can!

Until recently I didn’t really “feel” Canvaswork, so I approached my first proper class (which initially had been planned for last July, but got postponed several times for various reasons) with some trepidation. I came armed with two outlines which I knew to be far too detailed, a framed-up canvas which I knew wasn’t tight enough (but which by this time did at least have the required rectangular running stitch outline in sewing thread), a few samplings in the wrong sort of thread, and about one idea. I did not feel confident.

Two detailed tracings Framed up, but not quite tightly enough (and as yet minus outline) Possible stitches Some sampling

The tutor assigned to this class was Angela, and I’d been looking forward to seeing her and perhaps having a little Bruce chat with her, but unfortunately she had gone down with Covid (apparently feeling rather rough with it, poor her) and so the class was taken by Helen Jones. With only four students we each had plenty of time to discuss things with her, and for me the first thing was indeed to get that canvas tightened. I unlaced part of it, turned the bottom roller once and re-laced. It is now most definitely taut as a drum, but as that is difficult to photograph you’ll have to take my word for it!

The next thing was to simplify the outline. I was surprised at how far you take this process in canvaswork, and I fear mine probably still has too much detail (especially in the windmill) but this was as simple as I felt comfortable with, and Helen OK-ed it. To make it easier to transfer she suggested tracing the pencil lines in marker pen; this was also a good opportunity to get the horizon level. In the photograph the furthest edge of the paved area which forms the strongest horizontal line in the piece is actually slightly curved, but making it perfectly level would help to “anchor” the design when transferring it – if the horizon didn’t follow a straight line of holes on the canvas, I’d know I had to reposition it.

Simplifying the outline Tracing the outline and levelling the horizon

Having got used to prick & pounce and paint for transferring the design at RSN classes, canvaswork is a bit of a wayward module. There is no way the canvas would take the pounce in any meaningful way, and as you have to transfer the design when the canvas is on the frame you can’t just bung it onto a light box either. Instead, you build a squat tower of books with the design on top of it, place the frame over it so that the canvas rests on the design, and then trace what you can see of it through the holes with a permanent marker. It then becomes abundantly clear why the outline has to be simplified so much: the canvas simply will not take any great level of detail. It is also surprisingly difficult to manipulate the traced design if its position is slightly off, sandwiched as it is between the books and the frame. But eventually I got that nice straight horizon to line up with a row of holes, and drew it on.

Propping up the frame The horizon is in!

I can’t guarantee that what eventually ended up on the canvas is exactly like the design outline – some of the squigglier lines were difficult to trace precisely – but again it got the OK so perhaps I was being a bit too fussy. What definitely did need addressing was the fact that I managed to leave off an entire hedge, which I didn’t notice until I got home and showed the canvas to Mr Figworthy! It has since been added in.

Outline minus hedge Outline with hedge

Because it felt silly to do absolutely no stitching at all in class, I did do a tiny bit of sampling: it’s a herringbone variation which takes shading rather well, and which I hope to use to bring texture to the green bits that aren’t worked individually. It is rather fiddly, as you have to bring the needle up underneath previous stitches half the time, but I think it will be worth the effort.

Herringbone variations sampled

My next class is in January; until then I’ll be colouring in a print of the outline (officially “making a colour and shading plan”), choosing stitches and doing a lot of sampling. I’ve got some ideas for the two large tulips in the foreground and various other bits and have sketched and scribbled a few ideas (yes, my handwriting is atrocious) to be translated into sampling at some point.

A few sketches

Due to canvaswork being the Mary Mary Quite Contrary of embroidery, those two big tulips will be worked first. In all other techniques you work the background first, and then the things that are a bit nearer to the viewer, and so on, until you reach the things in the foreground. If parts of the design overlap you stitch the overlapping bit last, which looks more natural and convincing. But in canvaswork you stitch the foreground first, and end with what is furthest away in the picture. As far as I understand, this is because the further back in the design you go, the smaller the stitches get – and it is much easier to work small stitches around large ones than fit large ones into a background made up of small stitches!

Having to end with lots of green and a big expanse of sky after doing all the interesting foreground bits may sound like starting with the fireworks and going downhill from there, but I rather like it – I think those tulips will entice me into a technique which is entirely new to me and feels unfamiliar and challenging. Let’s hear it for the Tempting Tulips!