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…

Shading, rays and faces

In my enthusiasm to tell you about Bruce’s tail, I forgot to bring you up to date on other things I did at my 6th Goldwork class. Most of it wasn’t particularly exciting, but it does add a certain something – shading and with that, I hope, a bit of depth. In order to have as many different textures in the whole design as possible, I opted for smooth chipping in the far leg, and bright check chipping in the left-hand tuft of grass. Both are spread out with fabric visible between the chips, and they gradually get further apart to suggest shading.

Smooth purl chip shading on the far leg Bright check chip shading on the grass

Because I wasn’t quite happy with the way the long chips were lying, I also unpicked and restitched the “front” ear. With chips this short it’s difficult to keep them completely uncracked, but I think the overall effect looks good with the change in direction now more gradual and the gaps less noticeable.

The ear restitched

Next up in real time was the tail, but I’ve told you about that already, so on to the controversial S-ing sun rays. Just to show that I did consider an alternative, I sampled a rococco ray. It’s a bit too large but it shows what they would have looked like.

A sampled rococco ray

Then it was on to the real thing. Most of the instructions about S-ing advise you to cut the chips a third longer than the stitch length your aiming for. In other words, if you want your “stem” stitches to look about 4.5mm long, cut the chips to 6mm. When I sampled I found that that made my chips stand up too much, so I decided to go for 6mm chips with a 5mm stitch length. This still made the chips curve up far too much. Then, because the sewing thread automatically pulls the chip into a slight curve anyway, I tried bringing the needle up and taking it down the exact length of a chip apart. This worked much better. Unfortunately, the effect of 6mm chips was too elongated for my liking, so I trimmed all the pre-cut chips to 5mm, unpicked and started again.

Chips for S-ing Measuring the S-ing stitch 6mm chips look too elongated

Here you can see how the mellor is used to keep the sewing thread from tangling. It also guides the new chip into place by gently manipulating the one that it snuggles up to. As planned, the rays all have a compensating half chip at their base but not at the tip, because I wanted that to look pointy. It does mean the last chip doesn’t curve quite so nicely, but I think it’s worth it for the thinner point – if the tip looked like the base, it wouldn’t be nearly so ray-like.

Using a mellor to guide the sewing thread and chip The finished rays

And finally, the faces. It’s rather nice to end with the eyes and facial details instead of the tail actually – it’s what gives Bruce and Haasje their characters and completes the design. For the features (Bruce’s nostril and mouth and Haasjes nose), which are tiny, I sampled two types of gold threads: Madeira Metallic no. 12 (of which I used just 1 ply; orange arrow) and Kreinik’s #1 Jap (red arrow). Both frayed easily while trying to stem stitch a nostril, even when pulling the thread through very carefully from behind on every stitch, but in terms of looks I preferred the Kreinik Jap for it’s more yellowy-golden look. In the end, by the way, the nostril was done in fly stitch; my sampled stem stitch versions were rather too large, and fly stitch causes less fraying than stem stitch.

Madeira no.12 and Kreinik #1 Sampling nostrils

I went through a number of spangles to find the right shape for the eyes; spangles are flattened single coils of wire (hence the little gap/indentation) rather than stamped out of a sheet like sequins, so although you buy them in millimetre increments (2, 3, 4 and 5mm – but I also seem to have picked up some 4.5mm ones somewhere…) each one is a slightly different shape and size. When I found two that I was happy with I could get on with the eyes, Bruce’s the slightly more complicated of the two because of the surrounding chips which had to be very precisely cut and positioned. And now they can see where they’re going, which Haasje is obviously not too keen about (I do like the panicky effect of that big eye).

Bruce's eye Nostril and mouth added Haasje's look of panic

So I’m done, right? Well, no, there’s the mounting. And mounting goldwork is… interesting. You may remember from the Jacobean project that for quite a bit of the mounting process, the piece is lying stitched side down on the table. You can see where I’m going, can’t you smiley? I don’t want anyone to breathe anywhere near Bruce’s tail or the sun’s rays, let alone have these parts in close contact with a hard surface. The solution? A padded frame. That sounds really sophisticated until you realise it’s actually just four bits of rolled-up bubble wrap taped together. The foam core one we made as a back-up, because I won’t have an awful lot of room around the stitching to lean on the squashy bubble wrap, so I thought a more stable frame might be helpful. We’ll see tomorrow!

Two frames to help with mounting

The tale of the tail

Bruce’s tail was going to be the absolute final thing to be stitched – cutwork is generally the very last part of a project because it is quite fragile and easy to damage. But Angela suggested I start on the tail during class so she could cast an eye over it, and once I’d started I thought I might as well finish before moving on to the other remaining parts to keep the momentum going.

The first chip

Cutwork and chipping both use chips, or pieces cut from purls (hollow flexible coils of fine metal wire), and in both cases they are attached a bit like beads, by taking the threaded needle through them and sewing them down. The difference is that in chipwork all the chips are small (ideally square or just a little bit longer than they are wide) and they are attached in random directions, whereas in cutwork the chips are longer, and generally applied in parallel. Whichever you are doing, the first challenge is cutting the purl to size. It’s springy and bouncy and trying to gauge the length when some bits are curved and some straight can be quite frustrating. Below is my small velvet board (meant to combat some of the springiness; it does but only to some extent) with smooth purl on it. This shows an average chip (red arrow), by what tiny degrees you trim a chip that is not quite right (blue arrow), and what happens when the cut end of a chip catches on the sewing thread (green arrow). There are no sound effects or the green arrow would have been accompanied by a loud Aaaaargh!

Cutwork chips

Now there is some cutwork in the project already: Bruce’s ears (of which more in a later FoF) and pouch. They were relatively easy (stress on the “relatively”) because they were almost flat, over a single layer of felt, and because they covered small areas; it also helped in the pouch that the cutwork was straight, with no change of angle. The tail is large, changes angle, and is worked over soft string padding. In the narrower part towards the tip this has quite some height to it, making it difficult to estimate how long the chip needs to be to cover it. Too short and you’ll have gaps where the chips meet the fabric, too long and the chips will buckle and crack, or at the very least make the surface of the shape bumpy; you can see these problems in a picture from a class I took four years ago – I think I’ve improved since then smiley.

Four-year-old cutwork with flaws

Traditionally you work from the middle in order to set the angle, which is why that first chip in the top picture is marooned on a sea of soft string padding. From there I worked down towards the tip, which would be my required 5cm stretch of smooth purl cutwork (the little black mark indicates where the smooth purl has to reach to as a minimum). Now quite apart from getting the length of the chips right (and frustratingly, cutting off even a few coils can suddenly and surprisingly make a chip that was clearly too long, clearly too short) there is the challenge of changing direction. Ideally the chips are at a 45-degree angle to the line of the padding, so if the line changes direction, so do the chips. And as the chips are straight, there will be gaps. The trick is to keep these gaps as small and unnoticeable as possible.

I did not fully succeed in that, especially towards the tip of the tail, which is a challenge in itself. There are gaps. If I had managed to squeeze in an extra chip or two along the entire bottom half of the tail, it would probably have looked better, although the danger is that you start crowding the chips on the inside curve. All in all I’m reasonably happy with how it looks, especially when I remind myself that this photograph was taken very close-up, that it somehow seems to make the yellow of the soft string show up more, and that the chips are only 1mm wide in real life so you can imagine what the gaps look like when viewed from a normal distance. Pity that the assessors do get rather closer than “normal viewing distance”…

The tip of the tail, with some gaps

I had finished class with ten chips attached, but I noticed that there was a slight crack in the second one. Angela pointed out that it was marginally too long and suggested taking it out by cutting the thread from the back. This is possible but fiddly and can end up damaging the chips on either side, so I decided to take out the first two chips, which would also leave me more unpicked sewing thread to secure instead of two very short ends. By the way, I think it’s an indication of how difficult this technique is that one of the cutwork aims in the Assessment Criteria is: “There is minimal damage or cracked thread (no more than 8 cracks in 5cm of smooth purl cutwork)”!

Removing a dodgy chip

Now for the interesting part: the transition between smooth purl and bright check. I had worked out in my full-scale drawing that there was room for a 1-3-2-2-3-1 arrangement, so after a few more smooth purls to make sure I had the required 5cm and a bit over, I started the transition with a single chip of bright check. Can you see the difference in width? It’s only .2 of a millimetre (1mm vs 1.2mm), but it does mean you have to adjust how far away from the previous chip you bring up your needle, which has to be quite accurately judged. It does make for a lovely effect though.

Starting the transition with different-width chips The transition section

And working up, finally I reached the base of the tail. This was never going to be covered by whole chips – the change of direction would be too much, and the chips would be too long. So somehow I had to make the straight cut ends of a few shorter chips follow the curve of Bruce’s backside. I managed by cutting them rather longer than I initially expected, and slightly tucking them underneath the previous chip. There is still some staggering, but on the whole I like the look of this bit.

The base of the tail seen from the top The base of the tail seen from the side

And here is the whole tail. Negatives: the gaps, especially towards the tip. I will ask Angela if there is any way of improving this, if not on this project then for future ones. Positives: the outlines are quite crisp and even, and there is not too much staggering where the tail meets the rump. I’m a happy bunny! (Or should that be a Happy Haasje?)

The complete tail Just the sun and the faces to go!

Planning Canvaswork

After Bruce (yes, there will be an “after Bruce”, and not too far in the future with any luck) the next module for my RSN Certificate is Canvaswork. Surprisingly, even though I haven’t officially started, it’s already been through quite a few ups and downs. First of all I didn’t think I’d do it at all; I just wanted to do Jacobean and Goldwork (and even the Jacobean was mainly because they wouldn’t let me do Goldwork without it). Then I got the various RSN stitch guides and thought it might be rather fun to do Canvaswork after all, especially as some ancient seaside scribbles led to ideas for a possible design.

Early scribbles for a sea shore idea... ...and how it might look in a Canvaswork project

I liked it. I still do. It may one day make it to canvas. But unfortunately it doesn’t fit the Canvaswork brief, which specifies “depth and perspective”. A pity, because not only did I have some photographs from a visit to an aquarium in Brittany some years ago with weird and wonderful and usable creatures, but I’d also had a bit of a splurge on seaside-y textured threads. Fortunately some of these have since come in handy in other projects, for example in Septimus the Septopus.

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery Finished and lit from the side

Keeping the need for perspective in mind, I was tempted by a picture I took at Buckler’s Hard in the New Forest of some oystercatchers foraging. But in order to make them big enough to be both recognisable and stitchable I’d have to zoom in so much that most of the background, and with it any perspective, was lost. Exit the oystercatchers.

The oystercatchers at Buckler's Hard don't quite make the grade

Now from the first two modules you may have gathered that I like having some personal touches in my Certificate projects; beyond the fact that I’ve designed them, I mean. Our very own pussycat made it into the Jacobean project together with references to a favourite poem, Dutchness, and my mother. Bruce and Haasje carry memories of my favourite cuddly toy and a favourite aunt’s bedtime stories. What to put into Canvaswork? Well, there is a place which is very special to me and which, before moving to England, I would visit every year; where I got engaged; and which I remember going to with many special people like my mother, several aunts, and my in-laws: the Keukenhof, that famous Dutch bulb garden. And with its swathes of flowers, trees, ponds, fountains, sculptures and buildings surely there must be suitable scenes with plenty of depth and perspective. This one, for example, which I took myself some years ago:

Lots of perspective but a bit too much detail

Very pretty, I’m sure you’ll agree, and it’s got the different textures of flowers, path and trees, but there may just be a bit too much going on in it. Canvaswork is by its very nature rather more chunky than the other techniques, and it might be challenging to capture all the detail. Moreover, I decided that if I was going to celebrate my Dutch heritage in canvaswork, I was going to go all out. Not just tulip overload, but also a windmill. And the Keukenhof just happens to have a pretty good one smiley.

A floral sweep with a washed-out sky No clutter, but not a lot of perspective Good image, but it lacks sweep Sky, sweep of flowers, path, mill - but landscape orientation

Three of these pictures come from the Facebook page of a travel organisation that specialised in Keukenhof trips, so the first thing to do was ask for their permission to use one of them. They were extremely kind about it and said yes, take your pick, just send us a picture of the embroidery when it’s finished. I warned them that might be a while…

As for which to choose, well, all four have a lot going for them: perspective, different textures and lines, and some large areas in which to show off stitch transitions. They all have their drawbacks too – the first has lots of people and other “cluttery” things like bins and benches in it and the sky is overexposed; the middle two haven’t got the curvy sweep of flowers which draws you into the picture; and the last one again has rather a lot of clutter, and it’s in landscape orientation, which doesn’t fit my small frame quite so well. I may try cropping that one to portrait orientation, getting rid of some of the undesirable elements at the same time (although I’d still have to ask the tutor whether I’d be allowed to ignore that one rather prominent rubbish bin). And in spite of the lack of sweep, I like the third picture because it is nice and bold and hasn’t got too much fiddly detail. Anyway, I’m taking all these pics to class, so in between mounting Goldwork we’ll discuss which one is most likely to work. I’ll let you know!

Knowing when to stop, an invisible join, and visible spaghetti

Right, where were we on Bruce – I’d almost got the couching back to where it was before my class, and I’d filled in a bit of the sun. Although undoing and redoing is part of the learning process and very useful, it nevertheless feels a bit deflating, and it took me a while to work up the motivation to finish those last re-couching stitches and get on with my homework. When I finally did, I succeeded in making things worse… How? Well, it happened while I was continuing with the Jap couching after I’d re-couched the buckling bits.

Continuing with the Jap couching

I finally realised why, when Helen tested my couching stitches, they were so slack. It surprised me at the time, because I’m quite finicky about my couching and I didn’t think my tension had been that loose – but as I was couching the Jap on ever thicker layers of padding, I noticed that whenever I pulled the couching stitches on the present round, this would compact the felt (not much, but just noticeably). Because of that, the stitches on the previous round then loosened – in other words, the couching stitches on previous rounds get looser precisely because I put a sufficient amount of tension on the present round. Was there a way of restoring the tightness of those stitches? Well, you could pull them from the back and secure them, which is what I tried to do.

But it’s not easy to see from the back which stitch tightens what when the couching is so dense, so some things got pulled more than I intended while others didn’t get pulled at all, meaning the surface was now if anything less smooth! Eventually I decided to tighten the worst of them from the front, by “looping” a small stitch around the base of the couching stitches, until it looked more or less acceptable again. I continued with the couching and finally came to the point where I needed to finish off the Jap to leave enough room for the chipping-in-a-pearl-purl-border. I briefly considered two patterns of staggered plunging, but the A pattern was a clear favourite both with me and others I asked, so I didn’t bother sampling them and went straight (or rather, staggered) ahead.

The A pattern of staggered plunging The B pattern of staggered plunging The actual plunging

There is still some buckling on that haunch and on the thin part of the leg, but I’m afraid I will just have to live with that. I have no wish to try another experiment only to see it get worse! You have to know when to stop, and I’d reached that point. No more tweaking. Enough is enough. Instead I’m trying to concentrate on the things I’m pleased with, such as the smooth finish on the Jap’s staggered plunging, the tightness of my couched turns, and the chipping in the sun which is nice and dense and does all the things the brief requires, like covering all the felt, achieving a random effect, and not having any chips stand up perpendicularly.

Couched turns The chipped sun

Next was the pearl purl (PP) border. The brief asks for a closed outline with an invisible join. As I had never tried this before, it seemed a good idea to sample it first. Having decided to use size 1 (which is the slightly thicker one used for the kangaroo leg outlines, with the thinner Super PP reserved for Haasje) I had a go on my sample cloth. When coming to the finish, I cut the PP just a little bit too short, so the join is visible, but for a first go I was not unhappy with it. On to the real thing, remembering to cut the end of the PP just a tiny bit longer than the gap I was trying to fill, and voilà, one nearly invisible join. Hurray!

The sample closed PP border The final PP border

On to the front leg. First, remove the felt for a pristine work surface. Realise that removing felt completely is extremely tricky. Tweezer off most of the fluff caught in the couched twist border. Hope that the couching will cover up any remaining bits.

Removing the felt The nearly pristine fabric

Here two tutor interventions came together. The first was Angela’s suggestion that I should plunge the couching on the front leg in a staggered seam rather than using the tight turns I’d demonstrated on my sample. The second was Helen’s realisation that there was no area of couching-straight-onto-the-fabric (i.e. with no felt underneath) in the design, which was required by the brief. The reason for this requirement is to see how well you cover the fabric without the safety net of golden yellow felt beneath, something which may actually be easier with plunging than with turning, much though I prefer to avoid plunging whenever I can. Actually it’s not the plunging so much, it’s the oversewing on the back which needs a curved needle and can get terribly crowded, but it seemed that plunge and oversew I must. However, first there was the thin part of the leg with the foot, which I did decide to fill with a turn, and I was really pleased with the way the central pair of Jap fitted in snugly and how I managed to brick the stitches relative to both sides. The turn and plunging on the foot was also successful in that very little fabric shines through.

Bricked couching on the front leg

Then it was spaghetti time! Filling the top of the leg was quite tricky, especially towards the middle where the lines became shorter and shorter until each pair was held down with only a single couching stitch. Herringboning the plunging was awkward, particularly at the bottom end where all the unplunged tails obscured the ones that needed plunging first.

Spaghetti time!

But I managed, and didn’t pull out any of the short lengths when plunging (yes, this does happen). At this point some of the Jap did not lie completely flat towards the plunged ends, because some final couching stitches were needed which I couldn’t put in while the ends were unplunged and unsecured.

The front leg plunged

So that meant doing the securing first. It may seem that the spaghetti had disappeared, but alas, it had merely moved. To the back. Trying to fit in all the tails was an interesting puzzle; with about three-quarters done I began to have serious doubts about cramming in the remaining quarter!

The spaghetti has moved Fitting in all the tails

And here is the front leg all done, with the final couching stitches added in. Am I happy with the result? Looking with a critical eye and with the brief in mind, I can see some areas where I will lose points. The top line is not as even as I would have liked, even though I did unplunge and restitch several of them; but more replunging would just have damaged both the threads and the fabric, so this is how it will be. Then a few of the Jap threads are showing their yellow core at the plunge point; you can to some extent counteract this by twisting the thread from behind before oversewing, but in a number of cases this simply didn’t work. On the other hand, there is little fabric showing and I think my couching is quite neat overall. The little gap at the top where the left and right side meet in the middle is too small for even a single thread of Jap to comfortably fit in, so I will suggest to Angela that I leave that as it is.

The front leg finished

My next class is this Saturday and I’m hoping to do a bit more before then – I need to draw a diagram to scale of the cutwork on the tail, and I’d like to get the chipping on the haunch done. But for now here is a picture of Bruce as he is at the moment:

Bruce so far

Back where I started – almost

Have you ever heard of the Echternach procession? Its participants used to progress by taking two steps backward for every three steps forward. The fifth class of my RSN Certificate goldwork module (AKA Bruce) felt more like two steps backward for about one and a half steps forward – I ended up not even back where I started, albeit with a little additional chipping to keep my spirits up.

A little chipping in the sun

We started the class looking at Bruce’s ears. The original stitch plan has smooth chipping there, but the areas are quite small and I wondered whether longer, parallel chips might not look neater. I bounced this idea off the tutor (Helen McCook, with whom I did the racehorse workshop two summers ago) and she agreed that that would be a better idea, and approved the directions I had chosen for the longer chips. So stripy ears instead of spotted ones for Bruce, although not quite yet – first there’s all the couching to finish.

New ear fillings

When I say “finish”, what actually happened was more of a “tidy up”. Having had a look at the foot, Helen suggested a few extra couching stitches closer to some of my plunging, which I put in. Two of them are marked with arrows in the picture, and I cannot for the life of me remember where the third one was, even after comparison with earlier photographs. But they’re there now, hopefully giving extra security to the foot.

Extra couching in the foot

Then we got to the painful bit. Not quite the most painful bit – that came later, at home, and will be fully revealed in a later FoF. But quite painful enough. Helen turned out not to be bothered about the thin part of the leg (which was my worry), but picked up on the underside of the haunch. She said it wasn’t as smooth as the rest (which was true) and that it therefore drew the eye because the rest was so even and smooth. We looked at the sloping sample, then she tested my couching stitches on the actual piece and said the tension wasn’t tight enough. After discussing a few more technical points she suggested that I take out the couching stitches along the bottom curve of the haunch and re-couch. Not a nice thing to hear, but as a very wise stitching friend said, “That is what tutors do. If you can accomplish your task without them, then they don’t have anything to do.” Very true.

Couching unpicked

Incidentally, although I would not wish difficulties on anyone, it was rather reassuring to find that the Diploma (that is, Advanced) goldwork student next to me was wrestling with the same problem: getting pairs of gold threads to lie flat when couching them onto a sloping surface. At least it wasn’t just me!

Anyway, I unpicked the couching from the outermost pair to the first of the mixed pairs, plus a tiny bit on the last two pairs. This was rather more awkward than it sounds – because the couching is so dense, because I couldn’t always tell where I’d started a new couching thread and because towards the leg there are several plunged and oversewn ends which lock everything into place, it wasn’t a simple matter of snipping the thread and then pulling out all the stitches in that row one after the other; they snagged, they dragged, they misbehaved. Still, during the class I managed to restitch from the outer edge up to the mixed couching, and Helen said it looked much better. When I showed it to my husband later that day, he agreed. I’m still not fully convinced. It looks better, yes, but does it look that much better? Still, if it looks better to the tutor’s eye (and therefore hopefully to the assessors’ eyes) then I suppose that’s the important bit!

Recouching the haunch Nearly recouched

There was another snag. Helen picked up on the fact that there was no couching-straight-onto-the-fabric anywhere in my design, even though that is required in the brief. How I managed to miss that I don’t know. How three tutors, all with access to my stitch plan and looking at the actual project, managed to miss it is anybody’s guess. But there it was. After a good long look at the design, and having come to the conclusion that I couldn’t really add another couched area without throwing the design completely off balance, I suggested that I could take out the felt on the front leg. Not an area I would have chosen for “naked” couching if I could help it, as it is small and the shape is quite complex. On the other hand, it’s only one layer, it wasn’t put in there to add height but merely to do what yellow felt does in goldwork, namely make it look better and disguise any gaps (which is of course exactly why the brief specifies an area of couching without this safety net), and most importantly, it hasn’t been couched on yet. So out it will come, after I’m done with the hind leg.

The felt on the front leg

On the plus side, Helen really liked my couched twist and pearl purl outlines, saying (after some rather disconcerting pushing and pulling) that it felt nice and solid, and also approved the bit of chipping I did on the sun. It looks like Bruce is not a completely lost cause after all smiley.

Making waves

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

The last two laps taken out The mixed couching put in

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

Synchronised waves

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

The horror, the horror!

A digital consultation

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

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

The front leg sampled two ways

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

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

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

When to start turning instead of plunging

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

Gaps in Bruce's backside

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

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

Plan for mixed couching

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

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

An inconclusive sample

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buckling on the curves A pretty smooth side

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

Buckling on the leg

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

The state of play before the online consultation