How a kangaroo ousted a seahorse…

…and was in turn endangered by a miniature gecko. The story of how a goldwork design can be influenced by fabric, bedtime stories, and a Baptist minister.

Once upon a time, in 2015 to be exact, I sketched a whole series of ideas for goldwork designs, among them a toadstool, a sort-of-daisy and a seahorse. Forward a year, and on a visit to the Viking Loom I bought some scrumptious hand-painted silk dupion in turquoise, blue and purple shades. Forward another four years, and I’m starting the goldwork module for my RSN Certificate. For which I need to stitch my goldwork design on silk dupion. Well!

Sketch for a goldwork toadstool Sketches for a goldwork daisy and seahorse Hand-painted silk dupion

No-brainer, right? Sea-coloured dupion, seahorse – done! Hmm, not quite. All these sketches were for designs without any rules other than what I liked. But the goldwork module comes with a brief; there are only certain materials you are allowed to use (no kid leather, no smooth passing, no rough purl or wire check, no silver or copper let alone any other colours) and there are certain techniques you have to use (bricked Jap, mixed couching, cutwork over soft string padding), sometimes with a specified minimum area. The seahorse couldn’t quite fit all that in, and I’d have to get rid of some of the materials I’d originally included. No worries (keep that expression in mind…), we can add to it. How about a treasure chest? I worked out that that could be made to include several of the required techniques, so I did some sketching to work out the proportions and positions of seahorse and chest to make them into a coherent design.

Adding a treasure chest to the seahorse

And then, in my pile of sketches, I came across an undated, very basic sketch of a sitting kangaroo with the scribbled note “find good pose. check eye shape” and an indication of padded cutwork along the tail, and some chipping on the haunch/hip joint. (It also had a small sketch of a hot air balloon, but I ignored that.) A kangaroo… well, it would be unusual; I’d found plenty of sea creatures when looking at previous Certificate goldwork pieces, but no kangaroo (although there was a koala). It wouldn’t work with the hand-painted silk dupion, of course – I’d need to buy some more shades to have a good range of options (oh the hardship). As I talked to Hilary at the Silk Route about this I mentioned that it was now between a seahorse and a kangaroo and she immediately plumped for the kangaroo, simply because it was so unusual; and Angela, my tutor, had also greeted my simple sketch with some enthusiasm, not surprising perhaps as she is Australian smiley.

A basic kangaroo

Anyway, I figured there was no harm in finding some more kangaroo pics and deciding on a suitable position, and what about a pouch and possibly a Joey? And then it hit me. Haasje!

Haasje (“little hare” in Dutch) is the cuddly toy my grandmother bought for me before I was born. For various reasons it was a very special welcome into the world, and Haasje became my constant companion. He was also my champion: when an older cousin told me that “earworms” (Dutch for earwigs) would creep into your ears at night and nibble your brains (I had no older brothers, but my cousins obviously did a great job as substitutes), I looked for a solution to keep me safe. One ear was protected by the pillow, but what about the other? Haasje, of course! For several years I slept with him snugly held against my ear; my mother didn’t find out why until I was a grown-up.

Haasje, my constant companion

Now when my favourite aunt lived with us for two years and told me bedtime stories every night, she chose Haasje as the protagonist, and in one particularly memorable series of tales he travelled all the way to Australia, where a passing kangaroo gave him a lift in her pouch. He wasn’t used to hopping that fast and high, so he clung on for dear life while nervously looking down at the ground. That was it. The seahorse was forgotten. I had a design!

Haasje in the kangaroo's pouch

As is always the case the design went through several changes before it was finalised – it gained some grass, and a cloud with the sun behind it – but the basis for me was a panicky Haasje travelling by kangaroo (I hope to convey his wide-eyed look of fear by means of a big round spangle). In class I did some more work on what materials to put where, where to have padding, and which bits to leave open to contrast with the solid gold parts; the cutwork for the tail remained, as did the chipwork haunch, and other techniques and materials were added in, making sure all the requirements of the brief were covered. When I got home I did a mock-up (not easy for goldwork) to give myself a better idea of the balance between open and solid, and I think I’ve got it about right. I also printed the cleaned-up design on tracing paper to make the pricking needed for the prick & pounce transfer process.

The colour mock-up The tracing for prick and pounce

Then in the middle of this whole process, after Haasje had been added but before my class, our minister shared a holiday snap during the Sunday service’s all-age talk of this teeny-weeny little chap (that giant white thing is a teaspoon), almost changing my mind a second time, but although I did find some lovely pictures of miniature geckos in beautifully sinuous positions perfect for goldwork, I decided to stick with Bruce (as I have called the kangaroo) and Haasje.

The miniature gecko shared by our minister

Remember I mentioned getting some more colours of silk dupion? Here is the selection I got, with the two at the top bought specifically for Bruce. The olive shade was not at all what I was looking for, so that became my doodle cloth, but I absolutely loved the shade called Ether. It was a bit of a surprise as the picture on the Silk Route website was rather brighter, but actually this less saturated look was just what I wanted.

A collection of dupion shades

Unfortunately, although the 28cm x 33cm cut was fine as regards size, it had the grain running the wrong way. Well, “wrong” for this particular design. In order to accommodate the design I’d have to use the fabric in portrait orientation, but in that case the grain (which is very visible in silk dupion) runs vertically, and Angela and I both agreed that that would look all wrong. So this piece of fabric will become a second doodle cloth, and I’ve bought a fat quarter of the Ether dupion which is easily big enough to cut a piece of the right size with the grain running horizontally.

This does mean I won’t be able to fully frame up until my next class, as I would much prefer to attach the silk to the calico with a tutor to hand. On the few occasions I’ve attached a piece of silk to backing fabric I’ve ended up with puckers in the silk at the end of the project, so I want to get this absolutely right. Apparently the secret is to baste the two layers together on the design lines when the whole sandwich is under tension.

However, we could get the calico framed up. Angela had never worked with a slate frame this small so it was a new experience for her as well! But apart from everything being rather smaller, the rest of the process is pretty much the same: sew the top and bottom of the fabric to the webbing, sew herringbone tape to the sides, and lace up using the lethal bracing needle (I won’t show you the wounds…)

Sewing the calico to the webbing Lacing the side tapes to the bars

By the way, do you remember the four protective flaps I made for the big slate frame? True, they overlapped quite a bit, but it will give you some idea of the size difference when you see the effect of a single flap attached to the new frame.

Four flaps covering the large slate frame One protective flap is enough

And that’s it so far! I’ve got my homework – getting the silk ironed, sampling some couching and s-ing, creating a tonal plan, pricking the transfer, cutting the layers of felt padding; Angela is definitely keeping me busy smiley. After the next class I hope I’ll be able to show you the silk all framed up and with the design painted on, and who knows even a bit of gold (although all the padding needs to go on first, so it may be a while before I get to play with the bling bits – but there’s always the doodle cloth).

Ready for my homework!

And now we wait…

Those of you who follow Mabel’s Facebook page will know that last week I finished mounting my Jacobean Certificate piece and handed it in for assessment. Definitely a Proud Picture moment, and Angela kindly obliged. Yay me! And now we wait for the assessment to come back, probably some time in January. Patience is a virtue, they say, and I will be getting a lot of practice…

Posing with the now fully finished Jacobean piece

But how did we get to that point? You may remember that at the start of my last Jacobean class I had the twill all herringbone-stitched to the calico, and the sateen cut to size and ironed. As it happens I’d misunderstood Angela and cut a 10cm excess all around, instead of 10cm in total (5cm all around) so some cropping was needed, but then the sateen could be folded to the right size and pinned to the twill in the four corners.

The sateen backing pinned at the corners

Then it was a matter of slip stitching the twill and sateen together. It’s a bit like a ladder stitch really, except with ladder stitch you have two folds that need sewing together and you scoop a bit of both folds alternately. Here the sateen got scooped in the fold, but the twill just got picked up as close to the sateen as possible. Boy do you need a curved needle for this! I hate them with a vengeance because they have a will of their own and are a pain to work with, but I will admit that this sewing would be well-nigh impossible without one.

A slip stitch in the twill A slip stitch in the sateen

You work several slip stitches before firmly pulling the thread (a sturdy buttonhole) to make the stitches disappear into the fabric. In the picture I’m getting near to a corner and am about to pull, so the stitches further away are already neatly tightened away but the ones near the corner are still visible. Which brings me to the invisible even stitches mentioned in the brief – I asked Angela and she explained that although if properly done the actual stitches are invisible, the tension on the fabric shows where they are so you can see whether they are evenly done even if you can’t see the stitches themselves! What do you think, in the second picture – are they even?

Getting to a corner The sateen all attached, pins still to be removed

The final step was to take out all the pins, and then get rid of 140 or so pin holes. Quite a satisfying task, it was rather fun to see them disappear when gently rubbing the edge of the fabric.

getting rid of pin holes

And here it is, fully mounted, front and back view.

The mounted piece, front The mounted piece, back

Irrelevant picture: while pinning I found these two entangled pins in the box. I thought they looked rather sweet smiley.

Entangled pins

Tomorrow will be my first proper class for the Goldwork module, and I’m hoping to frame up the new, small slate frame and finalise the design. Yes, I have a design – not either of the ones I started out with as ideas, but that’s what happens. It’ll change a bit more over the next few weeks I don’t wonder, but I’ve got the general idea plus a personal twist, which I think is very important to have in a project you’ll be working on for many months. I’ve also got my doodle cloth hooped up: one of the silk dupions I got from the Silk Route turned out to be an olive green I am unlikely ever to use for a proper project, so it may as well be put to work in this way.

Sample cloth for goldwork

Incidentally, I finally unlaced the SAL Tree on my Millennium frame – quite a difference in tension, isn’t it! Perhaps slate frames do have the right idea after all smiley.

The Millennium frame all laced up for the SAL Unlacing the Millennium frame at completion of the SAL

The home stretch

Early last February, Wednesday 5th to be precise, I attended my 6th class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. My next class was originally going to be 14th March, but for reasons I can’t quite remember now I changed that to Wednesday 22nd April, with the 8th and final class on 25th April. Both those classes were going to be mostly dedicated to getting my completed project mounted, always assuming that it was completed by 22nd April.

Well, you saw what was coming the moment I mentioned April, didn’t you? Yes, if I hadn’t changed dates I might just have snuck that 7th class in, but it was not to be. At that point no-one had any idea how long this was going to go on for, but even so I decided to try and finish the stitching by the date the class would have been. And I did. The mounting, which I was not going to attempt by means of a Zoom tutorial, would have to wait.

The finished tree

It had to wait until late last month, when the Rugby satellite location opened its doors once again to the Certificate & Diploma students. I was lucky enough to have Angela as a tutor again, both for this class and for the next one I booked at the same time for 7th October. There were four students in total, and everything had been so well arranged that it felt completely safe, while at the same time being very familiar in that we all had a good chat, and even managed to see each other’s work by being careful to switch places with plenty of distance between us.

Angela had asked me to bring my threads in case of any tweaking necessary, so before I could get on with the mounting process she scrutinised my poor tree from all sides (including the back) before handing it back to me saying that was fine, no need for tweaks. I was very pleased about that – I hadn’t touched the embroidery since I finished the stitching last April, and I hadn’t relished the thought of having to get back into it.

Now I could really get started. To begin with I had to decide what size the mounted work was going to be. I was handed two right-angled “half mats” to play with, and after a bit of indecision I worked out what I thought looked best.

Working out the size for mounting

Next was cutting two pieces of mount board to size (measuring them very carefully first, at least twice). These were then glued together and left under a pile of books to set.

Cutting the mount board

While waiting for the glue to set, it was time to take the embroidery off the slate frame. Before cutting the mount board, while the work was still under tension, I had put tacking stitches in the fabric exactly where the centres of the four sides were going to be. Now I took out the lacing threads which provide the horizontal tension and the split pins which provide the vertical tension, and cut the fabric off the bars.

Tacking stitches in, lacing threads out Split pins removed The embroidery is set free

The two glued pieces of mount board were then covered with calico by glueing round the edge of the back board and pulling the calico tight before sticking the edges down; the glue was not quite on the edge because a “channel” of unglued calico is needed for the twill to be attached. Here is the covered board and the upside down embroidery (giving you a rare look at the back of the work) ready to be folded around it.

Ready to start pinning (and a glimpse of the back)

Next, pins. Lots of pins. Far more pins than I’d expected. At a guess, approximately 140 of them by the time I’d pinned as far towards the corners as I could get. The tricky bit was making sure I pinned exactly on the grain; this was definitely a glasses-off close-up job.

The first few pins More pins

I’d been quite prepared to do a second round, as I’d been told at the beginning of the course that it was rarely tight enough after the first pinning, and generally needed another round of pull-and-pin to get it properly stretched, but Angela had a good look at the result of round one, and said I could go straight on to sewing the twill to the calico and mitring the corners. With hindsight, I think I would have preferred a second round after all, but not enough to undo all the sewing I’ve done since!

Angela checks my pinning

The twill is attached to the calico using herringbone stitch, pulling the fabric taut while stitching. What with pushing in 140 or so pins, stretching the fabric and pulling the buttonhole sewing thread tightly at every stitch, after a while my fingers were becoming quite sore (I’d been warned about this). By the end of the class, this is how far I’d got, with Angela having demonstrated how to ladder stitch the corner when moving from one side to the next. Homework: finish the herringbone stitching and the mitred corners, and cut and iron the cotton sateen which will be the final backing.

The state of things at the end of my class

I definitely improved with practice: my first ladder stitch was not quite parallel (although fortunately the corner came out quite nicely even so), but the second definitely looked more even.

Ladder stitch in a mitred corner The corner pulled close More parallel ladder stitch

And here it is, ready for my 8th Jacobean class this coming Wednesday, when I hope to finish the process by attaching the cotton sateen with, as the brief phrases it, “even slip stitches” which are “not visible”. How they assess whether my slip stitches are even or uneven if they’re not visible I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps you get marked down less if your slip stitches are visible but even smiley?

The herringbone and mitring finished The front, still with pins

Shortly after this class I booked another for 14th October (also with Angela), on the grounds that it would keep the momentum going and get me started on that goldwork project – I figured that as long as I could get framed up and with a bit of luck even get the design transferred (this is a teeny weeny bit ambitious as I have yet to decide what exactly the design is going to be…) I would be willing to try some online classes for this particular module. But since then they’ve opened up the November and December classes for booking, and I’ve added two November face-to-face dates – fingers crossed they’ll actually happen!

A significant finish – or is it?

If you follow Mabel on Facebook you will have noticed (it would have been hard to miss…) that I have finished the stitching on my crewel piece for the RSN Certificate Jacobean module. And by the original deadline, too – a very significant finish, you’ll agree.

The finished tree

So why the doubt in the title? Because although the stitching is finished, the piece is not yet ready for assessment; for that it needs to be mounted, and the requirements are very specific and very demanding. The RSN offers one-on-one online tutorials for Certificate & Diploma students during the lockdown but even one-on-one I am not going to attempt mounting for the very first time unless I have the tutor right there with me in the room. You can lose plenty of points on your mounting!

So for now my Tree of Life is in limbo, which in practice means the large quilted bag I use to transport the work to classes, where it will sit, still stretched on its slate frame, until the next proper class.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate! I didn’t quite break open the prosecco, but I have been eyeing a few silk shading kits (purely to get some practice for future modules, of course) which would make a suitable reward. And part of the celebration is to show you the final stages of the stitching – embroidery is so much more enjoyable when we can share it with like-minded people.

All that was left, you may remember, was the cat. How much work can that possibly be? As it turned out, quite a lot! I started with what I will call the background legs, that is to say the ones furthest towards the back. Originally I thought satin stitch would be best for that, to contrast with the long & short stitch in the rest of the cat, but a trial run on the doodle cat showed that to be almost impossible to keep neat, so they were done in long & short as well.

A satin-stitched leg Background legs finished

At this point the background legs looked alarmingly prominent, but I hoped that would change when the foreground legs went in.

That would come later, though – first the tummy: lines of split stitch in the lightest brown. I’d have liked it to be lighter still, and with hindsight I should probably have gone one lighter for my fifth shade of brown as there isn’t that much difference between “lightest” and “light” (noticeable in the tree trunk), but the tutors were concerned that it might blend in with the background too much. Heigh-ho, I wasn’t going to start all over again at this point smiley so wool-Lexi’s tummy is beige.

Tummy finished

On to the outline, worked in the usual single-thread split stitch for most of the cat, but using a double thread where the foreground legs touch the background legs, plus what I tend to think of as the cat’s hip but which anatomically may well be her knee.

An outlined cat

Next were the foreground legs, and the tricky bit was going to be blending the back leg into the rest of the body towards where her backside sticks up. I’d studied Lexi’s stripe pattern which turned out to be surprisingly different from what I’d always thought.

A sketch of Lexi's stripe pattern

I decided that wasn’t going to be easy to replicate in long & short stitch, and as Jacobean Lexi isn’t meant to be particularly naturalistic I decided I’d make up my own pattern to suit the stitching.

The foreground legs

The one thing I was certain of was that I would use the hip/knee outline to create a clear dividing line by stitching closely over the split stitch. But that would have to wait until I’d stitched the body right up to that line, so it was time to start on the head. I’d studied the direction of Lexi’s fur quite closely for my doodle cat so I could work without the model this time. The model turned up anyway, but because she is a cat she chose to pose the wrong way round.

Starting on the head The model, facing the wrong way

After the head came stripes and more stripes, until I reached the hip/knee line. Then it was time to take up the back leg again and join the bits, moving on to the tail. There I diverged from reality even more by giving wool-Lexi a light tip of the tail. I haven’t dared show this to real Lexi yet…

Stripes on the body The tail gets a light tip

I am quite pleased with how she’s turned out: the line between her stripes and the beige tummy isn’t too stark, and the raised line of her hip/knee stands out quite well. Her outlines are nice and smooth, which wasn’t easy to get right with all those curves. There is (did you notice?) a little fluff on her bottom (the brown shades of Appletons seemed to produce more of it than the other colours), but I got rid of that later.

Was that it then? No, there was one last element to do: the wool wrapped around her body, one couched thread of turquoise linking the cat to the ball of wool. The first challenge was to find a nice, even length of wool which was roughly the same thickness all along. Even with the best of the bunch it took a few goes but at last all the paint lines were covered and there was a pleasing sweep of the thread towards the ball. By the way, the middle picture shows how I angled the needle to make it look as though the thread appears from behind the cat.

Choosing an even thread Angling the needle The finished couching

And that was it! As I photographed the tree at various angles and in different light conditions, I also took a few close-ups which I’d like to share with you; they are parts that you’ve seen before, but even so I thought it might be nice to show them again now that you’ve seen them in the completed design.

The flower on the left The leaf on the right The big tulip James the snail

And to end the story, here’s the finished tree once more. The next time you see it it will be mounted and off to its assessment!

The finished tree

Playing with stitches

After overcoming a certain amount of mental resistance, last weekend I finally put the first stitches into the very last part of my Jacobean Certificate piece: Lexi. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to start on her – perhaps because she is a fairly complex piece of stitching in that she is much less formal (and therefore less predictable and rule-based) than the rest of the design. Whatever the reason, I’d been putting it off but with my (admittedly self-imposed) deadline of 22nd April looming, I really needed to get on with it.

Well, she is far from being a complete cat yet, but the two furthest legs are done as is her tummy, and she has an outline – some of it in two strands, as advised by Helen McCook, to make the legs that are to the front of the image stand out more from the two dark legs in the background. With a bit of luck she will get her stripes (and I must not forget the light beige tip of the tail!) next weekend, after which all that remains is the wool wound around her.

An empty cat An partially filled cat

In between trying to get the Certificate finished I’ve been having fun with other people’s designs, like this Sarah Homfray freebie (do have a look at her kits and supplies as well – now is a good time to support our independent designers!)

Someone on the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked me about the stitches I’d used, so I made a diagram like I did for Percy the Parrot (remember him?). The thread I used is Threadworx overdyed Vineyard silk and it’s really a bit too heavy for this size project, which is partly why my original plan for the stem didn’t work. Vineyard silk is two-ply, and the individual plies look rather like a very nice flat silk, so I started by separating the plies and working Palestrina stitch on the left-hand side of the stem, meaning to fill the whole stem with Palestrina, off-setting the knots in consecutive rows. Unfortunately the untwisted plies were not very stable and they kept fraying and breaking, so I had to go back to using the full two-ply silk, which was too thick for my Palestrina plan. Never mind, stem stitch to the rescue!

A silk flower

The other stitches were not planned in any way, I partly followed Sarah’s crewel version (especially in determining open and solid areas) and partly did my own thing, and I used stem stitch far too much smiley – it’s such a versatile and easy stitch that in several places I decided I couldn’t be bothered trying something more decorative but also more complicated! In fact I’ve been playing with a fruit bowl design which I want to do in Bayeux stitch but which I think would also look quite good just outlined in stem stitch, perhaps as a Get Well card; what do you think?

A fruit bowl to play with

A cat-shaped outline

As you may imagine, the Coronavirus lockdown is playing havoc with my RSN Certificate since all classes have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. (Having said that, I’ve just received the workshop schedule for the October Knitting & Stitching Show – stitchers are obviously an optimistic breed!)

The RSN are offering one-on-one online classes with some tutors, but I’ve thought it over and I feel that at the moment it wouldn’t benefit me enough to warrant the fairly high cost. Both mounting the finished Jacobean piece (when it is finished…) and framing up for Canvaswork are things I really do not want to tackle virtually, as it were, even if I could get the right materials.

Fortunately all C&D students have been offered extensions to the time we have in which to complete the courses, so there is no extra pressure. Even so I’ve decided to try and finish the stitching for my Jacobean module according to my original schedule, that is to say by 22nd April. To that end I’ve been doing some work on it over the past few weekends, but my goodness it’s been slow. Still, I think it’s been worth it!

The first bit of work I did was actually some doodling – I wanted to see whether the cat would look better with whiskers. On the whole, I don’t think so; because of the thickness of the wool they are rather too prominent, and I somehow don’t think they’d allow me to use some of Lexi’s real slimline whiskers smiley.

The original cat doodle without whiskers The alternative cat doodle with whiskers

Then it was time to put some stitching into the actual project, and I decided to start with something not too challenging: random French knots underneath the block shading. I temporarily toyed with the idea of doing a pattern, but various trial runs on paper didn’t produce anything pleasing so I abandoned that idea. Back to random. Next thing on the list was the water, and I got as far as putting in the first line of couching before I ran out of time and daylight.

A little bit of work on the Certificate

By the way, although I’m looking forward to not needing the trestles with my new small slate frame, I do enjoy working with a view of our increasingly colourful garden. I will admit that I sometimes get distracted by the view – it’s a good thing my stitching glasses reduce it to a green-and-flower-coloured blur or I’d get more distracted than I do already. But one distraction last weekend was a bit different: a tiny insect had taken up residence in my Cretan stitch, and it proved exceedingly difficult to remove it without hurting it. Eventually I managed to get it to climb onto my needle, and then took it outside before finally getting down to some stitching.

Homework with garden view Homework with garden view An interloper

Although I had started on the water, I decided to work on the ball of wool first. I discussed this with Helen at my last class and based on her comments I put in two layers of full satin stitch padding (instead of the more usual surface satin padding) within the split stitch outline, followed by the full top layer (going over the outline), and finally the partial very top layer. There are one or two minimal irregularities in the outline but I’m happy with the look of the finished ball.

First layer of padding Second layer of padding Full top layer Partial very top layer

Finally it was time to finish the water. In order to determine the waviness of the couched lines I used short pins to try out various possible positions, and when I was happy with them I lightly drew them in. I then started the fly stitch couching, at which point Lexi decided to pose for her portrait, unaware that it wasn’t her turn yet.

Pinning out the lines The lines drawn in Starting the fly stitch couching Lexi poses for her portrait

There was a slight hold-up when I had to remove some black fibre from the Appleton’s wool *sigh*, but I managed to finish the water before the light became too dim.

Black inclusions in Appletons wool The finished water

And so the one thing left that is outline-only is Lexi. I will make a start on her this weekend if all goes well, and finish her next weekend. Surely two weekends should be enough for any cat! After that the project will be stored, still stretched on the slate frame (on the advice of a former RSN tutor and some of the Diploma students), until such time as we can attend classes again. Meanwhile I will be able to put the finishing touches to the SAL stitched models, and then hopefully get back to some of my abandoned projects. Hengest is calling, er, neighing me!

The Tree with only a cat left to stitch

The home straight

Last week I had my sixth class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate, which means that we’re on the home straight. In fact, my homework is to finish the Tree before coming to my seventh class!

As usual, not an awful lot of stitching got done at the class, but there was plenty of learning and information-gathering going on. One student doing her Silk Shading module was trying out colours by cutting a print of the flower petal she was stitching in half, attaching it to her doodle cloth, and stitching the other half to match the photograph – a great idea, which I promptly appropriated (with her permission, I hasten to add) even though it’ll be a couple of years before I need it. Two others were working on silk shading and I picked up some good tips from listening to tutor Helen McCook’s advice to them. It’s never too early to start learning.

A way to match thread colours to reality

I did manage to finish the last row of the block shading on the right-hand hillock (had to start a new thread for the last five stitches or so – annoying!) and Helen said the lines are nice and crisp, so happy with that.

Running out of thread at an annoying moment The finished rows

Going through my notes with her I decided I won’t outline the gap in the tree trunk (it’s neat enough as it is and doesn’t really need it), and that I will add extra padding to ball of wool – Helen suggested using full satin padding instead of the usual surface satin, as the bulk at the back would help create more lift at the front when mounted. I’m all for a more ball-like ball of wool so I’ll give that a go.

Helen also asked me to sample the cat with broader stripes, as the narrow stripes didn’t look very smooth. I said that Lexi’s stripes were narrow and I didn’t want to lose the tabby look (for one thing Lexi would never forgive me); I’ve shown I can do smooth long & short shading in the sepals on the tulip so surely this can just be a bit more, well, furry? She said it wasn’t so much about the shading as the smoothness of the stitching. I agreed to sample some broad stripes. When I showed them to Helen she said, “That’s much smoother. And it looks all wrong, like she’s wearing a striped jumper.” Lexi is back to narrow stripes smiley.

Broad stripes on Lexi

Next was the left-hand floral thingy (not sure what it is, really). I’d intended to start on the Bayeux part but fortunately Helen reminded me that you work back to front so first came the seeding in the back petal. Officially this should be followed by the Palestrina outline, but time was getting on and I wanted to start the laid work on the scalloped part of the front petal. As I was working on this Helen said, “Are you shading from light to dark?” To my mind I was shading from dark to light because I looked at it top to bottom, but she meant looking at it from the base. Apparently (although no-one had thought to tell me this before) traditionally the darker shade is at the base of the flower/plant/petal/leaf, as indeed it is in the tulip sepals. I explained I’d never heard of this and I’d just chosen what looked pleasing to me, and she said that was fine.

Shading on plant parts

I got on with trying to fill very curved scallops with very straight laid stitches, making sure that the edges were crisp and no outline was visible. A challenge. So challenging, in fact, that I unpicked my first five stitches or so three times. It was then that I had a light-bulb moment. One of the reasons why it was extremely difficult to get the edge to look neat and crisp and so on was that my dark thread contrasted very strongly with the fabric. What if I used Helen’s traditional shade order and started with the lightest of my shades? The scalloped edge would probably be no neater, but it would look neater, and the dark shades would be used at the bottom of the shape where there were no nasty curves to navigate. I’m afraid I didn’t take pictures of the top-dark version, but take it from me, the top-light version does indeed look a lot better!

Seeding on the back petal, and the start of Bayeux stitch

That’s where I got to at the end of the class. With my next class not until late April I now needed to put this away for a while and concentrate on the Tree of Life SAL, but I did just want to finish the left-hand flower and the little diamond that connects it to the branch. First, the Palestrina stitch outline of the back petal; on my various colour plans this was sometimes dark orange, sometimes light orange, and on the last one two oranges and a light brown, which was never a good idea. In the end I went with the light direction as shown by the trunk, so the right-facing parts are done in light orange and the others in dark.

Palestrina stitch outline in two colours

On to my Bayeux petal, and time for some shading. I’m very pleased with how that’s come out, and the outline isn’t too shabby either – no need to cover it up. (I’d intially included a decorative outline stitch in the design, but both Helen and Angela said that an extra border stitch around laid work immediately makes the assessors think there is something messy to hide.)

Shading and outline on the laid work

Next was the long couching lines, and an interesting challenge – where to fasten on and off? There is no outline to sneak stitches under, no area that will be covered later… In the end I very gently pushed aside the laid stitches and hid the anchoring stitches underneath.

Where to fasten on?

It was only when I’d completed the two stages of couching (long dark brown lines across the laid foundation held down themselves with tiny beige stitches) that I noticed not all the long lines were the same thickness (Appleton’s – grrrr). Well, I’m not going to take them out; I’m happy with their placement and I don’t want to do it again (pictures in a future FoF will explain why)!

Uneven lines will have to do

Finally, the little orange diamond at the base of the flower, consisting of alternating light and dark bullion knots. It’s not a perfect diamond but it is a little less elongated than the doodle version I did some time ago, and the design lines don’t show on the real project, so I call that progress.

The bullion knot diamond The doodled bullion knot diamond

By the way, what a difference lighting makes – here’s the Tree as it is lit when I’m working on it (light coming from the top and the work nearly horizontal), and photographed with my husband holding it up (facing the window with the work nearly vertical, and at a 45-degree angle towards the window but still vertical).

The Tree, photographed horizontally The Tree, photographed vertically, facing the window The Tree, photographed vertically, angled towards the window

Now on to mounting (a challenge in itself) and then canvaswork – and to encourage the creative process I’ve treated myself to some inspirational threads!

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery

Certificate progress

Tomorrow is my 6th Certificate class, and I have done my homework. Most of it. Some of it. I have finally realised that my estimates of what I will get stitched between classes is ludicrously optimistic so I will just be pleased with whatever bits I managed. For this class they are, in order, a snail, a leaf, a water sample, and part of a hillock.

I wrote about James the Snail in as much detail as anyone is likely to want in an earlier FoF, but I will just show him again here because I’m chuffed to bits with him!

The finished snail

I shouldn’t have started with James, really; he is definitely the crowning glory of the piece so far, so all the other parts will have a hard time living up to him. Heigh ho, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be disappointed smiley.

Next up was the leaf on the right of the tree, which was going to have scattered ermine stitches in the centre. “Scattered” implies “random”, a concept I have had to work on. I am inherently a symmetry nut, so I fully understand people who panic at a workshop when being told to “apply beads at random”. For those people (and for myself, when I’m not in a random mood) I generally provide one non-random pleasing pattern, and one way of being random in an organised manner. The latter method was the one I adopted for the leaf.

That meant drawing the ermine stitches on my sample cloth and stitching them there (also to see whether I could get all five shades of turquoise in – I could!), then tracing them, deciding that some of them needed to be moved, pricking the tracing with those necessary movements in mind, and using the pricked tracing to put guide dots on the fabric.

Drawing the ermine stitches on the sample cloth Tracing the sample Annotating and pricking the sample Guide dots on the fabric

By this method I managed to resist the temptation to put all the ermine stitches in a regimented symmetrical pattern. I still feel the urge to unpick and move some of them to look less random, but I’m ignoring it. This is my scattered leaf!

The finished ermine stitches

You may remember the tutors and I couldn’t quite work out what to call the stitch I was going to use for the border – it wasn’t brick stitch, because it would be worked in long lines instead of rows, but it was bricked. However, I wasn’t sure how consistently I’d be able to keep up the bricking because of the very curvy and pointy bits of the shape I was filling. So we decided on “backstitch filling”, which covered all bases. Compensating for the curves and for the fact that the border isn’t equally wide all around was a bit tricky here and there, and my stitch length definitely isn’t uniform around the leaf, but I’m happy with the overal look of it.

Incidentally, as I was editing the close-up photograph I’d taken of the finished leaf I noticed something I hadn’t seen while working on it: a visible bit of painted outline. Although it is sometimes possible to very gently scrape the paint off the fabric, it seemed a better idea to put in a few extra stitches – it would smooth out the outline at the same time as covering the paint. Fastening on and off was a bit fiddly with no suitable areas nearby, but I managed to sneak them underneath existing stitches to keep them invisible.

The finished leaf - with paint visible The finished leaf really finished

As it is really only possible to work on the actual project by daylight, I put in a little sampling on Saturday evening. Along the bottom of the hillocks there will be a few lines of waves worked in fly stitch couching. Previous samples (not for the Certificate) had been in fairly rigid lines, but I wanted to experiment with lines that would vary in height along their length, and possibly also have an undulating couched line (originally I had intended the v-shapes of the fly stitches to represent the waves, while keeping the lines they were couching straight). As I had a sample cloth with the left-hand hillock on it, I stitched a bit of sea/river along the bottom, and although the fly stitches are perhaps a little higher than I’ll make them in the proper piece, I like the effect of the wavy lines – they are definitely in!

Sampling water

I had hoped to finish both the block shading and the Bayeux stitch floral element, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen. I settled for two-thirds of the block shading (well, it’s more than that actually as the rows get progressively shorter and I’ve done the two longer ones). The first thing I had to decide on was the corners of my rows. The RSN Crewel book shows block shading with straight edges – that is to say, the very first and the very last stitch of the row are horizontal and cover the full height of the row. But my corners are much sharper than the ones in the picture, and it would mean having a sort of fan of stitches there in order to get from the horizontal to the proper stitch angle for the rest of the arc. My worry was that that would get bulky where the fanning stitches met, so I worked some slightly shorter stitches instead, keeping the direction of the stitches near the corner.

Block shading in the RSN crewel book Corners in my block shading

I bounced this off Angela and she said that was the right way to go about it, so on with the rest of the row. Having completed it I was quite happy with it! The top edge is smooth, the corners are neat, the stitches aren’t crowded (something Angela had asked me to concentrate on), the stitch direction changes gradually, and – yay! – the row is virtually the same width all along (unlike my earlier samples).

The first row of block shading Tapering block shading

Unfortunately, because of the nearly horizontal position of the slate frame, I see the work at an angle, and wool stitching having quite a bit of body, that means I can’t actually see the fabric right by the far side of my stitches unless I lean over, which is not a very good stitching position. It meant that I didn’t notice until I was about two-thirds of the way through that the teensiest bit of design line is visible at the top of the hillock. A bit of a dilemma, as this will cost me points in the assessment; on the other hand a dilemma that wasn’t too hard to solve – I’d just produced the larger part of a very respectable-looking row of block shading and there was no way I was going to unpick it all! The risk of ending up with a row that covered the paint line but looked much less nice than this one was too big. It’ll have to stand.

The lift of the wool hides the paint line from view A hint of paint

In between work I found time to complete the second row of shading, with some tricky voiding for the ball of wool; the third row (a light brown) will have to be done at the class, and hopefully that Bayeux leaf as well. For now, this is the state of the Tree at the start of my sixth class:

Two rows of block shading The tree before my sixth class

“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

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?