Bad lighting and a medieval Mabel

We all know how important light is in needlework. I loved finding out that medieval Guild regulations forbade owners of embroidery workshops from making their needleworkers stitch by artificial light – they were allowed to work during daylight hours only. In these modern days we have much better artificial lighting available, and Mary Corbet wrote on her blog once that if you were thinking of getting a magnifier or special glasses, she’d suggest looking at your lighting first. Get the right light and you may not need additional magnification at all!

When stitching in the evening (my usual time, Guild regulations notwithstanding) I will admit to needing both if I’m doing very detailed work, but my Serious Readers floor-standing lamp does make a great difference. Even so, much the most comfortable way of stitching is during the day by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden; I still need my special glasses, but it is definitely less of a strain on the eyes.

Stitching by the window using the slate frame Stitching by the window using a seat frame

When I mentioned bad lighting, however, I was actually talking about a different kind of lighting – but like the lack of good lighting to stitch by, it has lead to a substantial amount of unpicking.

This is Llandrindod with all the facets completed on the coloured stones. Very pretty and colourful. Sit back and enjoy before moving on to the facets on the diamond and the surrounding gold. But wait – notice anything about those coloured stones? About how they catch the light?

Progress on Llandrindod

That’s right. The blue, purple and green stones are in agreement, but the red stone has different ideas about where her light source comes from. We are suffering from a case of Llandrindodgy lighting!

Llandrindodgy lighting

And I had paid such attention to the direction of the light when I was designing this and deciding on colours and stitches. I printed out a large coloured version to keep by me as a reference. I must have looked at it hundreds of times over the past months. And I Did Not Notice!!!!

Llandrindod colour plan

There was no help for it – it would have to be unpicked. And split stitch is just about the worst stitch to unpick, so what that meant in practice was that the majority of stitches would have to be cut and teased out, all the while making sure I didn’t catch the satin stitch centre or make the stitches on the edges of the other facets unstable. It took 75 minutes, but I am now ready to put in the correctly lit facets. Well, once I’ve oversewn the cut ends at the back, as they are far too short to fasten off in any other way – after peering at tiny cut stitches for well over an hour I wasn’t going to do that by artificial light, however good, so that awaits some daylight stitching time.

Unpicking Llandrindod Unpicking Llandrindod Ready to re-stitch the facets

To return for a moment to medieval embroiderers, I was delighted to discover from an article in the big Opus Anglicanum book that the first professional embroiderer of whom there is documentary evidence was a Mabel. I obviously chose well when I picked my nom d’aiguille (like a nom de plume but for stitchers). The book tells us that “Mabel of Bury St Edmunds was commissioned in 1239 to produce an embroidered chasuble for the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, at the behest of Henry III. The chasuble, which was embellished with pearls and gold work, and lined with canvas and fine silk, took two years to complete, and must have been extremely elaborate.” Go Mabel! I shall endeavour to live up to her example.

Reading about stitching

Many moons ago, on my 2016 London workshops-at-Ally-Pally visit in fact, I had the opportunity of seeing the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V & A. It was absolutely stunning, and I’d have loved to go twice because there was so much to see and take in that my brain felt quite numb by the time I got to the end of the exhibition. At that time I didn’t buy the catalogue, an enormous hardback book that was A) far too heavy to carry around with me until going home, B) far too expensive and C) far more detailed than I needed. Fast forward three years or so and a fellow member of the Cross Stitch Forum mentions that she has been given this book as a Christmas present, and how wonderful it is.

Could I possibly treat myself? Well, ordering it online would mean a delivery to my door rather than traipsing through London with it. That took care of objection A). A bit of Googling found it on Wordery at £9 less than the RRP, which took care of B). And most importantly, in the intervening years I’ve become much more interested in medieval embroidery in general (I’ve recently been engrossed in Carola Hicks’ excellent book about the Bayeux Tapestry) and Opus Anglicanum in particular (I blame the Coombe Abbey retreat with Angela Bishop and Sarah Homfray); having learnt a bit more about the style and technique and tried it out myself I would now really like to “re-visit” that exhibition. So that was objection C) done with. And yesterday morning it arrived:

Catalogue of the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition

I haven’t had time yet to look at all the large photographs in detail (let alone read everything) but I do hope I will find the embroidery depicting Jesus’ betrayal which shows Judas and the other attackers wearing, according to the explanatory notice beside it, “striped leggings [which] were a marker of their sinful pride and bad character”. Well, they do say clothes make the man!

Two pictures I would like to share with you, and as they are partial pictures and meant to illustrate a point I hope the V & A won’t feel too upset. First of all a certain chap who looks decidedly familiar – surely he is kin (although admittedly larger and rather more detailed kin) to King Ethelnute of Coombe Abbey?

Ethelnute meets a similar king

And secondly a source of inspiration – the dappled horse from the Steeple Aston cope who is the spiritual ancestor of Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. Not having seen the original horse for a while (and not having worked on Hengest for some time either) I was surprised both at how recognisably alike they are, and yet how much Hengest has developed a personality of his own (not least because of that goofy look in his eyes).

Hengest the Medieval Unicorn meets his horsy inspiration

The book also contains a picture of a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout reading Hick’s “life story” of that particular piece of embroidery, I found it quite exhilarating to think that if one of the stitchers of the Tapestry walked into our house, one of the few things she’d immediately recognise would be my Certificate set-up of a slate frame on trestles with wool embroidery on linen. In some ways we who do hand embroidery may be closer to those medieval stitchers than to some of our contemporaries who have no love or appreciation of craft.

How to pack a mug

Thank you to the many people who gave me feedback on the matter of packing my Mug That Cheers kit. On the whole, opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of a single, slightly larger bag. The main argument was that it was more convenient to have everything together, especially if the kit was to be kept for a while before stitching it, or if it was bought as a present. Several people indicated a concern that the envelope, if supplied separately, might get lost.

The contents of the kit, minus envelope

Very valid concerns, and ones I had considered myself. So surely the solution is simple: just get the next size grip seal bag and get on with it. There was just one slight problem with that solution. I didn’t like it.

In a way that shouldn’t really matter; after all, I’m not the one buying the kit! But I simply couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of a baggy kit, with the instructions and everything else just rattling around in it like a child in a hand-me-down from a cousin two sizes larger.

And then there was another issue. A couple of people remarked that they would much prefer no plastic at all. Again, a very valid concern. The suggestion of making cotton bags for the kits was simply not feasible – too labour-intensive or, if bought in, too expensive for my scale of operations (especially if I wanted to make sure they were ethically made without sweatshop labour) – and paper envelopes or bags unfortunately have neither the strength nor the flexibility of the plastic grip seal bags.

But there was another option, and one which I already had in the house: the cardboard boxes I use for the goldwork kits. Because of the fragility of some of the goldwork materials, a squishy plastic bag is simply not a practical way of packing those kits. But they are not just sturdier than the plastic bags, they are also ever so slightly wider. Would they be wide enough to hold the awkward envelope?

Front of the boxed mug kit What's in the boxed mug kit Boxed mug kit, open

Yes they were smiley.

There are a few small points still to work out; for example, how to attach the kit picture to the front without ripples, whether to add tissue paper inside, and how to wrap the box so that it doesn’t exceed the Large Letter postal rate dimensions. And then there is the cost – the boxes are about ten times the price of the grip seal bags, and as they are heavier, postage will increase as well. Still, as people are becoming more and more environmentally conscious, selling the kits in a recyclable and reusable container may well be something that customers are willing to pay a little more for.

Who knows, in the near future all Mabel’s kits may come in those nifty little boxes!

Covering a book

One of the topics mentioned in my email correspondence with the Lady in America (see last week’s FoF) was Lviv, and particularly the way it was turned into a Bible cover. Composing a reply to her I was about to include a link to the FoF post about how the Bible cover (usable for other books as well, of course) was put together, when I found that I never wrote one! This was a bit puzzling, as I remembered the post as distinctly as the one about turning Douglas into a pen holder.

Lviv Bible cover, front Lviv Bible cover, back

Still, no amount of searching for terms like “cover” “Lviv” or “Bible” brought up a post about this particular finishing process, so in the end I was forced to acknowledge that my distinctly-remembered FoF was probably non-existent. Time to remedy that!

For some reason I seem to have saved some of the pictures I took of this finishing method at a much lower resolution than the others, which is why the first four are smaller. Nor do I seem to have photographed the very first stages. It’s rather too late to remedy either of these things, but I hope that even so you will find the sequence of images clear enough to show what I did.

First I measured the book I wanted to cover and drew a diagram with the sizes. I added one centimetre to the height of the cover, but used the exact width (front cover + spine + back cover). Then I decided on the width of the flaps (I went for 5cm, but for smaller or larger books you may want to adapt that) and added that to the overall size. To give a general example, if the book is 20cm x 12.5cm and the spine is 5cm wide, the “book-rectangle” would be 20cm x 30cm; add 5cm either side for the flap, and your final rectangle comes to 20cm x 40cm.

Now I had to work out where on the cover I wanted the stitching to end up, and then backstitch a rectangle of the size I had calculated around my stitching. Because I used two pieces of stitching I had to do two “half” rectangles and whipstitch the two together so they made one big rectangle; that’s what you see in the picture.

Backstitch around the stitching according to the measurements you calculated

The next step is to trim the fabric to about 1.5cm from the backstitch.

Trim the fabric around the backstitching

Here’s the back, to show you how the two bits of fabric were connected using whipstitch – If I did this again I would work out the positions beforehand and stitch front and back on one piece of fabric.

The two parts whipstitched together

I folded over all the edges and pressed them with an iron. The top and bottom folds were stuck down with double-sided hem interfacing; the spine and the flaps were reinforced with regular iron-on interfacing.

Fold the hems and reinforce spine and flaps

For the flaps I used trusty old whipstitch again (shown close up in the first picture; for that project, a bookmark, I worked the stitch in two colours). Fold over the front flap and whipstitch first the top and then the bottom: using the same sort of thread you used for the backstitch, bring the needle up between the two backstitches on either side of the fold, then take your needle underneath the first stitch on the “flap side” and the first stitch on the “book side”. You only go underneath the stitches, you don’t take the needle through the fabric. Go on taking your needle underneath the next backstitch on the flap side and its opposite number on the book side until the flap is fully connected. Do the back flap in the same way.

Whipstitching, close-up Whipstitch the flaps in place The finished cover

And that’s it smiley. All that is left to insert the book!

What does it all mean?

What do embroidery designs mean? Well, sometimes I don’t think they mean anything much – we stitch a daisy, a mountain lake, a cat, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Tardis, because we like the picture. Sometimes there is a bit more to it; the Tardis might be more than just something from the tv series you enjoyed, it may remind you of watching that series with a loved one who is no longer with you; the daisy may have trumped the rose and the violet because your name happens to be Daisy; the cat may be the spitting (or hissing) image of your own pet.

You might think there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the design I did for my RSN Certificate course, because the subject is decided for you; everyone who does the crewel module stitches a Tree of Life. But that leaves plenty of room for personal input! So what are the reasons and stories behind the elements in my version of the Jacobean tree?

First there’s the tree itself. As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a Tree of Life design on and off for the past few years, and it has now turned itself into a SAL. That tree is not Jacobean, but it does share the stylised nature of the RSN design, albeit in a much simpler form. I love the idea of the Tree of Life, which for me is firmly rooted in the word picture painted of the New Jerusalem in the Bible, and so the opportunity of doing a second Tree was always going to be an attractive one.

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

Staying with the flora of the design for the moment, the most noticeable thing is probably the enormous flower at the top. I love the complete lack of proportions in Jacobean designs, they lead to some hilarious pictures – not just the historical squirrels-half-the-size-of-lions, but my poor Rabbit threatened by an enormous Carnation. Because I am Dutch, I thought a tulip would be a good flower to incorporate into my Certificate piece, and I found a particularly beautiful example in a design by Shelagh Amor in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery. Because of copyright I was going to change it fairly radically, but Angela assured me that as the Certificate piece is a) for my own use only and b) for educational purposes, I could actually use parts of existing designs. Even so, I changed the fillings and also added a frill as I wanted an area that would work for buttonhole stitch with a detached buttonhole edge. In the original tulip there is a lot of orange in the filling stitches; that didn’t quite work within my colour scheme, but the outlines and the fringe will be worked in the two shades of coral in my palette, which should be orange enough to emphasise the Dutch connection.

Carnation frightening a rabbit Shelagh Amor's tulip design The tulip in my RSN Certificate design

Originally I meant to base my large flower on the rather ancient carpet that adorns the children’s corner in the Coffee Shop room at our local Methodist Church, whose chapel we (the local Baptists) are sharing while we are rebuilding our own church. As part of the chapel into which we have been welcomed so warmly, to me it represents the unity of all Christians (I admit that is rather a lot to make an old carpet mean, but it does to me). But then the large tulip rather took over. Even so, I still wanted to use that carpet, and in the end I used the part indicated by the orange arrow as the inspiration for the small “flower” (for want of a better word) on the left of the design.

The carpet on which the small flower is based The small flower as it appears in the Certificate design

Many RSN Certificate Jacobean pieces (Google the phrase, you’ll find lots of pictures!) have some sort of hillock or hillocks at the bottom, and that’s where the design ends. Mine could easily have ended there too. But I wanted a river. Or some sort of water at least. I’ve written about the significance rivers have for me in a previous FoF, but the short version is that they remind me of my mother, who at the end of her life was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life. According to that description of the New Jerusalem I mentioned earlier, it is where the Tree of Life grows. How could I not have a river?

The river

As an added bonus it gives me the opportunity to use a stitch I first saw in an embroidery by my mother-in-law, fly stitch couching.

Fly stitch couching

Let’s move from flora and inanimate nature to fauna. The brief for the Certificate design says that it must contain at least one animal. Well, that was never going to be enough – I love adding animals to things. It’s only because I thought of it too late that there isn’t a web with a spider in it attached to the tree somewhere!

The first animal is based on a poem by A. A. Milne. It’s called “The Four Friends” and it’s in either When We Were Very Young or Now We Are Six. It contains my favourite line ever from children’s poetry: “James gave the huffle of a snail in danger, and nobody heard him at all”. Over the years, many leisurely moments have been pleasurably spent trying to imagine the sound of that huffle. James was going to be included. He needed a bit of tweaking, though. According to the poem he is “a very small snail”, something that doesn’t work very well in Jacobean embroidery. So James was bulked up a bit. He is also meant to be sitting on a brick, but any brick I tried to design was far too angular to fit in with the rest of the design. In the end I drew something that looked more like a stone, but it will be stitched in the orange shades to make it look a bit more brick-like.

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

And finally there is the cat. Of course there is a cat. A cat inspired by Lexi, our Bengal/tabby cross, in one of her less ladylike poses – you know the one, front legs stretched full-length, backside in the air and tail curled over her back. I saw her do it in the garden while doodling initial ideas for the Certificate design and I knew I simply had to have her in there, in that pose. I sketched a quick outline, which was just as well as despite numerous attempts to sneak up on her with a camera when she was doing her stretchy pose, I was never quick enough to catch her. Then came the question of colour. In my first colour scheme, I soon realised that the cat would have to be a ginger. Not in itself a problem (Lexi disagreed on this point), as our previous cat, the lovely Alfie, was a ginger, and in fact it would be rather nice to have them both in there, the pose of one with the colour of the other. But later colour schemes actually made it more suitable for the cat to be done in browns – they aren’t quite her colours, but I hope they are close enough to pacify her a bit.

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

So there you have it, a bit of background to the design I’ll be working on for the next seven or eight months. I hope I still like the various parts of it as much by the time I finish…

What do I want a SAL to do?

And, also a pertinent question, what do I not want a SAL to do, especially this particular SAL? Well, for one thing I don’t want it to give the wrong impression, and it might, in view of recent FoFs. So let’s get that out of the way first!

For the first module of the RSN Certificate I am required to stitch a Tree of Life in the Jacobean style, in crewel wool on twill. Although I haven’t quite decided on the final colours (well, I know which colours, but not necessarily where and in what stitch) the design is pretty much done. It’s got a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters.

Colour schemes for the RSN Certificate

As you can read on the SAL information page, the design for this stitch-along is a Tree of Life, and it is described as a very stylised tree, with large leaves, and some critters. This might just lead people to think that the SAL is based on the Certificate course, and from there it might easily lead to some rather too high expectations – let’s make it quite clear, I’m not aiming to get you to RSN Certificate level in 10 easy instalments!

In fact the SAL Tree of Life came into being long, long before I even thought of the Certificate as something I might possibly one day do. It was initially inspired by a tree I saw in a picture of some Indian embroidery which had a sinuous stem and seven leaves. I took it from there, and my Tree does still have a sinuous stem and seven leaves but otherwise doesn’t resemble the Indian tree in the slightest. But – and this is important – nor does it resemble what I might call a Certificate tree. It is not Jacobean (although it could certainly be stitched in crewel wools on twill), and although it will contain many different stitches, it is not nearly as complex and detailed as a Certificate piece is expected to be; a relatively small number of colours is suggested (partly to keep the costs down – see below) but unlike with the limited palette of the Certificate tree, here there are no rules and you can stitch the whole things as a rainbow of leaves if you like.

Sneak peeks at the SAL

So what does the SAL aim to do? Does it have an aim at all? Does it have to? You may know that I am a great believer in never asking of a piece of needlework: “What is it for?” As far as I’m concerned stitching is for enjoying, that’s what it’s for. Even so, when one of the kind friends who gave their opinions and advice about the SAL information page asked me a similar question, it made me take a good look at the whole project. Why did I decide to publish this design as a SAL-with-variations, with all the time and effort that goes into writing the instructions for the extra stitches and 10 blog posts with detailed photographs of the stitching process and so on? And when I put it like that, I realised that my motivation for the SAL was not that much different from the motivation for my taster sessions and workshops. Here is what I replied:

“As with the Hardanger SALs it’s definitely intended for people who want to Have A Go. I hope that those who are more experienced will be kept interested by the variety and choice of stitches, but my ‘target audience’ is those who have never tried freestyle embroidery, or perhaps just dabbled a bit, and would like to see if it’s for them.
If you have been cross stitching for some time you’re likely to have all the threads you need in your stash (if you choose the stranded cotton route) so just add a piece of fabric and some sequins and beads (which you may also already have) and you’re good to go with not much of a financial outlay (another of my main concerns).”

In other words, I’d love people to try something new, or to enjoy something familiar in a slightly different way; to be challenged but not frightened off; to create something decorative; and to be able to do so without having to take out a mortgage smiley. If that appeals to you, do join in!

Getting it wrong and starting again – the joy of designing

Designing can occasionally feel like the famous procession at Echternach, going three steps forward and two steps back. Take Hengest the Medieval Unicorn. No, I’m not talking about the spot debacle – that was just me not paying attention. It’s when something in the design just doesn’t work.

In the case of Hengest it was (among other things) his chest band. In my original design, meant to be worked in silk with a bit of goldwork and gem embellishments, the chest band is bright golden yellow with colourful pip beads all along its length. But then the spots are meant to be “coloured white” – the very lightest shades of various colours. Wool Hengest’s spots are rather more colourful than that, so giving him such gaudy tack simply wouldn’t look right.

Very well then, we need a different chest band. Leather? Gold and leather? That sounds quite good – an outline in golden yellow with brown for the main body of the band; perhaps with a few honey-gold pip beads.

A changed chest band

But as I was working on it, I liked it less and less. Too little golden yellow (it was hardly noticeable once I started adding the brown) and the brown itself was much too dark. Unfortunately the next shade of this brown in my stash is rather light, and I wasn’t at all sure that would look any better.

The dark brown doesn't work But will the light brown be any better?

Still, this darker brown was definitely not working, so out it came, and soon it was reduced to a pile of rejected fluff.

Cutting out the dark brown A pile of rejected fluff

It was getting rather late, but as I was on a roll, I added the extra rows of golden yellow.

Extra gold

And at my next embroidery group meeting I filled in with the lighter brown.

Light brown leather

It is rather a light shade for leather, but with the rest of Hengest being so pale and pastel it does look better on him. However, without the coloured pip beads the effect is a bit more solid than I’d like, and even the honey-gold pip beads don’t really look the part with the wool. Let’s try adding a little swirly pattern in a slightly lighter gold:

A swirly gold pattern saves the day

And that is why Wool Hengest’s chest band looks the way it does. Is it too much to hope that his bridle and mane will work first time round…?

All around the houses

Some time ago one of our nieces and her husband moved house, and as she is the sort of person who appreciates handmade things (she used to make cute cuddly elephants under the name Nelly Button) I decided to stitch a card rather than buy one. Going through my stash I picked a blue chambray fabric (chambray is woven with white in the warp and a colour in the weft – or possibly the other way round) and my collection of Madeira Lana threads; the fabric because it didn’t work for the design I originally bought it for and now I had quite a quantity of fabric-without-a-purpose, and the threads because I only recently got into them and I love them smiley. A quick sketch, use whatever stitch comes to mind, et voilà, a little house with two people, their hair and clothing based on a picture of niece and husband in the garden of their new home.

The original New Home design

Mount it in an aperture card with a bit of wadding behind it, send it off, and that’s that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Several people commented on pictures I posted of the little house, so I put it in my Freebie section with a materials list and stitch suggestions. And that was that. Next project. But wait a bit…

Round about that time I was putting together my workshop proposals for the Kintting & Stitching Show at Ally Pally in October. One of the most popular of my workshops has long been the Little Wildflower Garden, a freestyle design. This is also a freestyle design, but with some different stitches and using a slightly unusual thread. Why not turn it into a workshop/kit? For there is another thing about this design which makes it really good workshop material: it has potential for personalisation. My original design has two people, and they look like my niece and her husband (well, roughly; after all they are only about a centimetre high). But there’s nothing to stop you from having one person, or three, or one with two little people, or a dog or a cat; and if I supply a selection of colours, every person can stitch the clothing of their choice, and change the flowers, or add some where they aren’t charted. This is a great project for teaching people how to play with a design!

Well, K&S picked No Place Like Home (plus the Wildflower Garden and two others), so I needed some stitched models. I try to have three per class, so that with a maximum of twelve people there’s one to every four. It can be really helpful to be able to see and touch a stitched version of what you are trying to create! And in order to encourage variation and play, I decided to make each of them slightly different. As I was starting from scratch (I didn’t think it would be good manners to ask our niece for their card back…) the first one was pretty much like the original. I only changed the clothing a bit, used a variegated thread for the thatched roof instead of the original solid, and two greens instead of one for the grass. I also remembered to make a note of how much of each colour was needed.

The first No Place Like Home version - much like the original

The second one used a lighter blue for the window frames, and added a dog. Well, a four-legged creature. The grass was back to variegated light green only.

The second No Place Like Home version - a dog, and lighter window frames

In the third version one of the people is a child, and there is wisteria growing up the side of the house. The grass is variegated dark green, and the flowers dotting the turf are different colours from the other two versions.

The third No Place Like Home version - a child and wisteria

Finally I mounted them in three differently coloured cards.

No Place Like Home cards

So now all that remains is to print the instructions and put together twelve kits; after the Knitting & Stitching Show I will make the kits available on the website, but don’t worry, the design will still be available as a freebie if you prefer to stitch from stash.

PS One slight snag with this design emerged today: Barnyarns cancelled my back order for a spool of variegated Madeira Lana and on enquiry told me that Madeira has discontinued that particular shade. I’m now trying to find a shop that’s got a spool left so I can stock up – but not much luck so far! (There is a seller on eBay who appears to have plenty left, but he sells it in sets of five spools, and I honestly don’t think I’ll need a kilometre and a half of variegated red Lana…)

A question of copyright (I)

Do you know those sturdy, reusable bags supermarkets sell, the ones that will stand up, with a wide gusset and canvas handles? I have one from a Dutch shop which I picked up on one of our visits a few years ago. For reasons which will become clear further on I won’t show a picture of it, but it’s covered in stylised birds and butterflies. The peacocks are recognisably peacocks, but all the other creatures are just generic birds and butterflies, done in a style reminiscent of a child’s drawing made with one of those hard plastic stencil sheets: simple outlines filled with blocks of solid colour.

Plastic stencils

As I was getting my collection of reusable bags out in preparation for the weekly shop, for some reason I looked at this particular bag more closely and it dawned on me that a few of those birds would make rather nice embroidery designs. Having considered and discarded several as not being quite what I wanted, I picked one and sketched it, adding details to the wing and tail feathers and the feet and changing the twig it sat on. Because of where the shop is located, in a busy shopping centre but right by a public garden, I was going to call it “City Song”. I was making notes on possible stitches and sketching in stitch directions when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and thought, “Hold on – most of my designs become chart packs or kits or workshops. Someone has the copyright to the design of this bag; I need to contact the shop to ask if I can use it!”

Now often when you approach a person or company about using a logo or other publicity image to turn it into an embroidery they’ll be happy for you to do so (assuming we’re not talking Disney or top fashion brands or the like). Sometimes they’ll put some conditions on it (Paco Ciao, the little pop-up café in Leiden I wrote about last month, gave me permission to use their logo as long as the embroidery “didn’t look identical”) but generally they’ll say go ahead and have fun, especially if (like the illustrations on the carrier bag) it is not an image that is immediately identifiable as theirs, or from which they are directly making money themselves.

Unfortunately my original message to the company was sent via their online contact form, and like so many companies they failed to include that message in any of their subsequent replies (I hate it when they do that), and as I forgot to copy and paste the message into a document somewhere for my own files I can’t be sure of the exact wording of my request. But their reply was that they would allow me the use of the bird for one workshop only, as long as neither I nor the students put it to commercial use.

As workshops are generally taught to make money for the teacher (however enjoyable the teaching itself is, doing it for the love of it doesn’t pay the rent) I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by “no commercial use”. Also, as I pointed out in my reply, what with charting the design, stitching one or more models (and the cost of the materials), writing the instructions and drawing the stitch diagrams, it would not be economically viable for me to then use it for one workshop only. Would they consider licensing the particular bird I had in mind so I could turn it into a chart pack or teach it more than once? No they would not. The single workshop use was already a concession they didn’t normally make. End of story.

In a final reply I wrote that it was disappointing as I felt it would have made a good embroidery design, but that in view of their decision I would not use the bird. I may feel it’s a rotten decision; I may even wonder why on earth they would mind my using this bird as a) it’s not their logo or part of their logo, b) it’s one small element within a large, busy design, c) though undeniably charming (which is why it caught my eye in the first place) at no point did it strike me as a groundbreaking piece of graphic design, and d) I’d offered to negotiate a licence – but what it comes down to is this: their copyright, their decision.

So that is that. I can stitch the bird for my own enjoyment – you can always do that – but nothing more. Part of me wished I hadn’t thought of contacting them; how would they ever find out I had used their bird, and would they even recognise it in stitch if they did see it? But either you play by the copyright rules or you don’t; it’s no good saying you will respect copyright until it’s inconvenient to do so.

And yet… it may not be quite the end of the road for this project, or at least some form of it. A bird on a flowering twig is a general enough concept for it to be uncopyrightable in its own right – it can be interpreted in far too many ways. I had already changed the twig on which it sat quite a bit (below on the left is the original shape, on the right what I turned it into) so I may play around with the bird to see if I can keep the idea but turn it into a bird of my own. I will sing my own City Song smiley.

The twig with its flower and leaves The redesigned twig with larger flower and single leaf

Owlish inspiration

A church friend of mine paints owl pebbles. Pebble owls. Well, whatever you call them, they’re adorable, whether on their own or attached to bits of tree.

Some of Trina's owls

She showed me one which was her favourite, painted in brown and turquoise with an orange beak. Does that remind you of anything…?

Yes, me too smiley. Using my RSN project wools, surely I could do a quick little embroidery based on this owl to surprise her?

When I got home I did a quick sketch from memory, then managed to get her to send me a few pictures (the ones above) without letting on what I wanted them for (I can be devious when I have to!) so I could do a more accurate line drawing.

A line drawing based on my sketch and her photos

Now Trina’s owls, being pebbles, do not have toes. But the memory of Yin’s lovely crewel owl which I saw at the RSN class a week ago proved irresistible – bullion toes he had to have.

Yin's owl's toes Trina's owl gets some toes, too

Unfortunately he looked a bit silly with toes that don’t hold on to anything. So a branch was called for.

...and a branch to sit on

Then I realised that although the little pebble owl was painted in brown, turquoise and orange, he wasn’t painted in brown, turquoise and orange only. There is white and yellow around the eyes, and in some of the owls there is some yellow in the chest feathers as well. My stash of Appletons isn’t very large, but a rummage in the depths of the storage tin unearthed white, off-white, a couple of yellows and a dark chestnutty orange from the same range.

Extra Appletons colours

My quick little project was beginning to take rather longer than I thought it would! I’m afraid I do have a tendency to overthink and complicate things. Still, I got everything together and could start plying my needle.

Ready to begin

There were a few unpickings and restitchings, one bit where I couldn’t quite face unpicking and restitching (the eyes – I left gaps for the pupils, and should just have worked solid yellow satin stitch with the pupils worked over the top), an element where I chose to leave something out which I’d originally planned (short lines of whipping or detached buttonhole accents on the wings), a part that took some research (how many toes do owls have? Yin’s had two showing per foot but I’d drawn three without thinking about it), some stitches and parts which have room for improvement (the buttonhole scallops; the rather differently shaped yellow ovals of the eyes) and one bit that I am particularly pleased with: the circles of feathers around his eyes, and especially the ridge that is formed between his eyes by the abutting buttonhole stitches, rather like a barn owl’s.

The finished owl

This owl will, I’m sure, acquire several friends over time. I want to try some in different colours, using different threads (a smaller one in Madeira Lana perhaps?), and also different stitches here and there; the wings in encroaching satin stitch with dark markings in coral or palestrina stitch, for example. And with a bit of luck they’ll be quicker, most of the decisions and choices having been made. But even though this little owl took a lot longer than I expected, it’s been a really good exercise. What with creating a colour plan (albeit tiny), deciding on stitches, working out the best order in which to stitch the various elements and working with crewel wool, it’s great practice for the Big One – as well as making a smile-inducing card!

Stitch plans, colour plans, notes... A smile-inducing owl card