Turning back time

Unpicking is sometimes known, more optimistically, as reverse stitching. Fine if you discover your mistake fairly quickly and it’s a manageable number of stitches; but occasionally it’s easier to just cut everything out and start again. Here’s what happened when, having completed the whipped backstitch outline of the glass on my hourglass design, I ignored the project for a few days.

The glass outlined

Picking it up again to work on the stem stitch posts I took the threaded needle that had been left in a corner of the fabric and started stitching, while watching The Repair Shop in the background. The lines of stem stitch looked a bit thin, and I was grumbling to myself that it would take rather more lines to fill the post than I’d expected, but I was more than half concentrating on the restoration of a chess set on the television and just kept going. After three lines I came to the end of the thread, fastened off, fastened on a new thread from my ring of pre-cut cream pearl cotton, worked a few stitches and realised that these stitches were much chunkier, and a much lighter cream, than the ones that were altready there. You guessed it – the threaded needle stuck in the fabric had been threaded with the stranded cotton I’d used for attaching the spangles… There was no help for it, it all had to come out.

Unpicking the wrong threads

Undaunted, I re-started the post in the correct thread, and having finished the bottom half of the post I was about to move on to the top half, when I thought about the intervening space. Should I indicate in some way the outline of the post in the gaps between the spangles? I added single lines, but then realised I had intended the spangles to be like carved balls in the wooden posts, so the outlines of the post would have been “carved away”. Feeling rather like Oscar Wilde in reverse, I removed them. Still, it was useful to see the effect and know for certain that I didn’t like it!

Lines that aren't needed

Not time-related except that chipping is a very time-consuming technique, but I wanted to mention the use of close-up photographs when working stitched models. They are particularly useful when doing chipping because they show up any gaps that you may not notice when looking at the work in the ordinary way. In this case, I’m quite puite pleased with the coverage – it looks good and dense! Unfortunately close-ups also show other details, like those invaders that look like hairs. I can’t think what they are (unusually for the Figworthy household I don’t think they are cat fur) but at least they are pretty much invisible when you look at it with the naked eye. To give you an idea of scale, the photograph covers an area a little less than a square centimetre. I’ll probably get away with it smiley.

A close-up of chipping

Time flies and memory lies

Because I have been working mostly on The Project That Must Not Be Talked About, and haven’t been adding anything interesting to my stash lately, it’s been a bit quiet on the FoF front. But here is a design that I can tell you about! It’s still in progress, but I thought you might like to see one of the many different ways in which a design comes about and develops.

It all started with a Christmas present, an Inspiration Pack from Paint Box Threads (I’m afraid they don’t appear to have any for sale at the moment, but their threads and fabrics are available separately). By the way, you may recognise one of the threads from Septimus the Septopus – it was used for some of his tentacles. Because I wanted to use the various fabrics and threads in the box for some small projects, I decanted the entire contents into a project box that was parked in a hopeful fashion on the shelf underneath the table by my comfy chair. And there it remained.

Paint Box Thread's inspiration pack, decanted

But lately I wanted a project to work on in the evenings, and it seemed a good idea to use the bits in the box. My plan was to start with the dark brown mottled fabric, and do something simple and outline-y in the cream thread. And a week or so ago, something in a sermon made me think of time and then of hourglasses. I did a quick sketch, just to get the idea down on paper.

The first sketch

I photographed the sketch and transferred it to my editing program to produce a usable design. First of all, as I wrote on the sketch, I wanted it “lengthened” or rather, made higher and therefore relatively thinner. Then, looking at some pictures of hourglasses online, I decided I wanted some decoration on the uprights (posts?), as though they were carved. I put in lighter lines to indicate things that could only be seen through the glass, and three small circles (well, ellipses because of perspective) on the top to show where the posts are attached. This was the first digital version I saved as a chart.

Version 1

But the posts looked spindly compared to the rest. So I widened them. Just before saving this as a separate version I remembered to widen the little ellipses on the top to match the new posts. Version 2.

Thicker posts

Then I felt the top and bottom looked rather flat compared to the rest, as though they were just circles cut out of paper. So the next change was to add a bit of a 3D effect to show that they were actually circles of wood (probably) with some depth to them. Version 3.

A bit more depth

There was still something odd-looking about the design. I printed out the first three versions and realised that another lighter see-through-the-glass line was needed, namely the one at the back of the bottom of the glass itself. I had also failed to notice that the top and bottom parts of the hourglass had lines separating them from the little funnel bit in the middle, so those sections of their outlines were removed. Version 4.

Lines added and removed

My original idea had been to add some words in a curve on either side of the hourglass, so I added a temporary circle to help with placement of the lettering. I’d been looking through the Bible for a quotation about using time wisely, but couldn’t find anything expressing that sentiment in a single pithy verse. Some verses from Ecclesiastes (“He has made everything beautiful in its time” and “He has planted eternity in the human heart”) were lovely but wouldn’t fit in the limited space. In the end I went for Psalm 31, with an alternative using the expression “time flies” in English and Latin in case someone preferred a secular version.

Preparing for the words Psalm 31 Time flies

All this had got me rather a long way away from the simple outline I had originally envisaged. So I returned to Version 2 and simplified it a bit further. I printed it out at 10cm high and 12cm high and then realised neither would fit the brown fabric I wanted to use, or rather, they wouldn’t fit comfortably inside the 13cm hoop which was the biggest I could use with that cut of fabric. Fortunately I’d printed all versions on a sort of contact sheet at 9cm high, so I used that.

A simplified version

All this activity, and not a stitch put in! But now it was time to transfer the design to the fabric, and decide what stitches to use. For this, the “contact sheet” came in handy again as I could scribble on it and sketch out different stitch directions for the sand and so on.

Stitch directions

But as I got the cream perle thread from my project box I got a bit of a shock. It wasn’t cream! It was more like a very pale shell pink. Very pretty, and it would still work, but quite different from what I’d remembered. By then I had also found out that none of the three speciality threads in the box were anything like the string-of-beads look which I remembered very clearly. That was a bit of a shame because I’d intended to use that as the sand pouring through the hourglass gap. Still, if I didn’t have a speciality thread that looked like a string of beads, I did have some very pretty petite beads in a colour called Champagne, which has just enough of a hint of pink in its gold to be a good match for the perle cotton.

An unexpected pink and some champagne beads

Now Mr Figworthy had been suggesting a goldwork version, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of that recently and I wanted this to be a project I could easily pick up of an evening to do a few stitches while watching the telly – not something you do with goldwork. But those decorations on the posts… well, they were rather crying out for spangles. Remember this version of the design had to be relatively small because of the size of the fabric? Because of that the 5mm and 4mm spangles which are the biggest in my stash, although not quite big enough to cover the bulbous decorations on the drawing, would just about work onthe embroidery itself if I only indicated their position with a dot, rather than drawing the outline. The final bit of material was a stranded cotton to match the perle thread; DMC 950 turned out to be quite close. I was finally ready to go!

All the materials together

I will work this mostly from back to front, that is to say start with the lines and shapes that are behind everything else and work my way forward. But I just couldn’t resist putting the spangles in first; I needed that little sense of achievement! Then the back of the bottom of the frame, in backstitch outline to represent a not-very-visible line; by contrast the visible parts of the frame will be solidly filled, and the outline of the glass will done in whipped backstitch, which will make a smooth, unbroken line. But that is for another evening. Watch this space (and ignore the cat hair…)

Finally some stitching!

An old Dutch saying and a framed tree

The Dutch have a saying: “uithuilen en opnieuw beginnen”, which roughly translates as “have a good cry and start afresh”. Don’t worry, no actual tears were shed, but over the weekend it became clear that a fresh start was indeed called for.

I’d been working on my pair of designs and the stitching was all fine, but some of the design lines were not quite as balanced as I would ideally like, in spite of some early-stage tweaking to correct the worst of it. I thought I could ignore it, and then my husband commented on it as well. It was obviously noticeable to other eyes than just mine! Add to that that I was getting increasingly dissatisfied with the fabric I was working on (which I’d chosen three or four years ago when the designs were first taking shape) and it was time to bite the bullet and cut my losses (to add a couple of English sayings). The die was cast! (Latin saying.) The two fortunately only very partially stitched models were taken out of the hoops, folded up and put in my goldwork drawer as a record of how the design process doesn’t always run smooth, and then I cut and ironed two new pieces of calico backing, ready for the new fabric and the new design lines.

Empty hoops and new calico

Now deciding on new materials and browsing the various fabric shops is, of course, a very pleasant way to while away the odd Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to be disciplined and first get those design lines right! I rotated and flipped and erased and re-drew and found, oddly enough, that perfect symmetry in the parts I was tweaking looked wrong. Eventually I ended up with a slightly asymmetrical but much better balanced pair of designs, which I will be happy to transfer to the new fabrics when they arrive.

And what are the new fabrics? Well, colour-wise they are similar to the original ones. I like the slightly unusual combination and so does the editor, whom I bounced my design and fabric dilemmas off before doing anything too drastic. But instead of a cotton-linen mix I’ve decided to go with silk dupion – the same type of fabric that Bruce was stitched on. The only difference is that for Bruce I used handwoven silk dupion, which is quite textured and slubby, whereas for this pair I’m going with the smoother powerwoven version. You can see the difference between the Bruce fabric on the left, and my new doodle cloth (a piece of powerwoven silk I happened to have in my stash) on the right. Just hooping up that sampling piece of silk convinced me I’d made the right decision. Remember my mentioning that it was very difficult to get the Essex linen taut in the hoop? Well, this could do duty as a tambourine at a revival meeting – brilliant!

Handwoven, textured silk dupion The new powerwoven doodle cloth

Incidentally, just as the original soft pink doodle cloth bore no colour resemblance to the project fabrics, neither does this rather startlingly bright blue. I’m not quite sure why I got it in the first place; it’s a gorgeous colour, but I can’t imagine what I thought I’d use it for! Still, it comes in very handy now – even if the new colours I ordered take a while to arrive, I can sample some elements while I wait.

The other excitement this weekend was picking up my Jacobean Certificate piece from our local framer’s. It had taken me a while to decide how I wanted to have it framed, and in the end I went for a simple frame with no mount, with the dark brown picking up the darkest of the brown wool shades. I’m really pleased with it, and it is now adorning my craft room.

The Jacobean tree finally framed The framed Jacobean hanging in the craft room

One problem about framing more of my needlework (which I used to do quite rarely in the past) is that we’re running out of wall space (there are a fair number of paintings dotted around the house as well). I’ll have to impose a sort of seasonal rotation on what goes on the walls – oh well, at least I won’t get bored looking at the same embroideries year after year smiley.

Stabling a horse and keeping a secret

Since Queen’s Silks was finished, people have been asking me The Question That Must Not Be Asked But Always Is: “What are you going to do with it?” Well, I was going to stable it in my goldwork folder, safely encased in tissue paper. But the general outcry at what was perceived as dire neglect, worthy of a letter to the RSPCA or the British Horse Society, made me think again. Perhaps I ought to frame it after all. Much would depend on what happened when it was taken out of the hoop – fabric with dense or heavy embroidery on it (and it doesn’t get much denser and heavier than goldwork) can pucker up alarmingly when the tension is taken off. If the puckering is too serious, even severe lacing may not get rid of it altogether, in which case there was no way I was going to be looking at it day after day. This morning I slackened the hoop and placed the fabric on a flat surface. No puckering, not even in harsh direct sunlight. It’s crumpled where the hoop was, of course, but we can work around that. So it looks like the racehorse will grace our walls after all!

A non-puckered horse

Remember I told you my next project is one I can’t write about for now? I’m finding that really hard, because writing FoFs about how designs develop really helps me, well, develop them! So I’ll have to just keep a design development diary and bounce things off Mr Figworthy (ouch). I can tell you (because it doesn’t really give anything away smiley) that one of the pair looks set to have some plastic surgery done in the rib area…

And there are other things about starting a project that I can share with you. Like my as yet unused doodle cloth; it’s the same type of fabric as the main pair, though a different colour.

Doodle cloth ready to try out some stitches

I can also show you the surprising cat hair which turned up on the back of my otherwise pristine, newly-hooped fabric. How do they do it?!?

Cat hair on a newly hooped up project

Talking of hooping up, the first thing I found is that the linen/cotton mix I am using is difficult to get as taut as the silk dupion used for the racehorse, or the densely woven linen I’ve used for other projects. I may have to do some tweaking before starting the serious stitching. But as I’m working this pair of designs simultaneously it’s also a great opportunity to see whether there will be a noticeable difference over time between Nurge’s 16mm and 24mm hoops. Does size matter? I’ll let you know!

Comparing hoops of different depths

Finally there is something which I’m sure we’ve all encountered when embarking on a new project: the absolutely essential items which are missing from your stash. I was certain I had silver pearl purl and wire check of the right size in my goldwork box. I didn’t. Laurelin to the rescue! The copper wire check just happened to make its way into my shopping basket at the same time. Very persuasive stuff, copper wire check.

Stash that was absolutely necessary. Most of it.

A Welsh gem and two of my Five-a-Day

For various reasons I haven’t done a lot of stitching lately, although I have made some progress on Bruce which I hope to report on soon (probably after this weekend when I intend to complete the section I’m currently working on – sneak peek below). As you know I am never short of a project or two (or three, or twelve), but none of them particularly appealed to me even when I had the opportunity. So I’ve tried to re-ignite my enthusiasm by planning some sampling, and kitting up a couple of uncomplicated projects.

A sneak peek at Bruce's leg

Two of my long-term projects (and I do mean long-term; we’re talking several years here) which have not had the attention they deserve are Hengest and Llandrindod. In both projects I’m at a stage where there are decisions to be made, and that is always a dangerous point for me. So much easier to just start something new! Hengest has been languishing in his stable because after his mane I need to decide how to stitch his bridle and especially the jewels on it; but as there is still some mane to stitch first I’m hoping to return to him when I’ve reached the point with Bruce where I can’t do anything more until I see a tutor. Llandrindod is a bit more problematic, but I’ve decided that now is the time to tackle it. The challenge is the direction in which the facets of the central diamond are stitched.

The central diamond in Llandrindod

Originally I intended to stitch these facets so that the lines of stitches go around the central part, much like the outer facets on the coloured stones. For some reason I changed my mind a little over a year ago and started working them from the outside edge towards the centre. Unfortunately I failed to make a note anywhere documenting this change – or if I did, I can’t find it – so I have no idea why I discarded the around-the-centre approach in favour if the into-the-centre one. Equally unfortunately I don’t particularly like what I’ve done so far. But I don’t want to unpick it, start again with the other method, find out that there was in fact a fatal flaw in it, and have to unpick again. The solution: a sample cloth! In spite of what the outlines may suggest that doesn’t mean I have to stitch the diamond three times in total, as I won’t have to stitch all the facets to get an idea of what the effect of each method is; at least I fervently hope a few facets on each will do the trick!

A sample cloth set up to try two ways of stitching the facets

With Llandrindod and Bruce both what you might call “concentration projects”, as I really want to get them right and there’s a lot of note-taking going on (although in the case of Llandrindod obviously not quite enough…), it’s nice to have some relaxed projects on the go as well. On rare occasions these can be my own designs when they aren’t intended to become chart packs or kits, like Septimus the Septopus, but generally it’s someone else’s design, whether as a kit (I’ve got a good few waiting in the wings, from wonderful designers like Lizzie Pye of Laurelin, Helen Richman of Bluebird Embroidery and Alison Cole) or as a design only where I get to play with my stash and pick everything myself.

The projects I set up the other day are somewhere in between – a couple of little fruit trees by Sarah Homfray which used to come as a set of four kits but two of which I found last January as printed fabric only. So the fabric has been decided for me, and I don’t have to transfer the designs, but I do get to rummage through my thread boxes and play with colours. The originals were stitched using Madeira Lana, of which I have a respectable collection, but I decided to go with my favourite Heathway Milano crewel wool, which is a little thicker but not so much as to be a problem. And this is what I ended up with:

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool

They were meant to be my relaxing bits of stitching while we were away on family care duty, but I didn’t actually get any stitching done during that week. Never mind, they make lovely little fillers for when I haven’t got the clear mind (and the time) I need for Bruce or when I can’t face anything that involves making decisions. I can just pick them up and stitch. Perfect.

Counting down in Latin

Remember the rainbow birthday card I stitched for a girl who had her birthday during the second lockdown? Well, her younger brother will soon have his birthday during this third lockdown, so their mum has asked people to send him birthday cards as well. He likes dinosaurs, which are very much not my cup of tea, but fortunately he likes sea creatures too, and as he turns seven:

Meet Septimus the Septopus!

The first sketch The tidied-up design

Now from the start this octopus-with-a-leg-missing and his surroundings suggested something very textured to me. So a great opportunity to rummage through my stash of lumpy, bulky, fuzzy, stretchy threads and any other bits and bobs I could think of to create tentacles, sand, seaweed, coral and the like. I don’t know about you, but whenever I go on a rummage like this invariably there are things that I was sure were there, but which aren’t. I thought I had some small round and square stone-coloured buttons, and also a very lumpy red thread. I don’t. But I found plenty of other things so I’m good to go!

Possible ribbons, threads and beads

And what will all this be attached to? I decided to go for a blue cotton to give an instant watery background. Unlike the cotton duck and heavy sateen I’ve been using for the recent baby cards, this does need a backing fabric, especially with heavyish threads and beads couched all over it; some time ago I bought an Egyptian muslin which because of its fairly open weave unfortunately doesn’t work as a backing for any detailed designs, so it’s good to be able to use it up in projects like these. Next step was to transfer the design, and play with placing the various threads on the fabric to see what they look like all together.

What goes where?

Sometimes with projects like these you need to get creative. One of the things I thought I had was a blueish wavy thread which would work for the surface of the sea right at the top of the design. Well, I have the wavy thread, but it’s grey. However, as the fabric is blue I think I can get away with grey, especially if I combine it with a very fluffy white thread. After all, when you look at the sea (especially the North Sea, which is the one I grew up going to for beach trips) it is rarely blue, and in fact grey is probably a lot more realistic. Also, there’s going to be plenty of colour in other parts of the design to compensate. In the previous picture, did you notice the red variegated thread? That’s going to make a bit of coral, and as it is not a lumpy thread as I originally though, I’ll use it with a lumpy stitch instead!

Combining threads

As I prepared to start stitching, there was one last decision to make: after creating this one and sending it off to the birthday boy, is it going to be a “commercial” design? If so, I need to take notes, think of the instructions, make sure I use only widely available threads… No. Although most of the threads and bits & bobs I’m using are available (though some of them not what you would call widely), others are unlabelled or I can’t remember where I got them from, and really I just want this project to be fun. I want to play around with what I’ve got while creating something that will hopefully bring some cheer to a lockdown birthday.

This meant I could relax and just get on with stitching! I will mention the materials I used, partly for my own benefit (“what on earth did I use for that coral?” I may wonder as I look at photographs of this project years down the line) and also for reasons which will become clear later. By the way, apologies for the quality of some of these pictures, I took them as I was stitching in the evening by artifical light.

First up was the sea surface, couching grey Rainbow Gallery (RG) Fluffy Fleece twisted together with white RG Arctic Rays. The seabed consists of three lengths of a beige RG Ultra Suede, also couched. There’s a lot of couching in this design, which does make it relatively quick!

Sea surface and seabed

Next came the seaweed, and more couching. On the left a variegated thick silk from The Thread Studio; I think I picked this up at a Knitting & Stitching Show some years ago. The shade I’m using here, Marble, doesn’t appear to be part of their range anymore. The other bit of seaweed is a nameless silk ribbon from my silk ribbon bag. I did look at some hand-dyed Au Ver à Soie ribbon, but the colour changes didn’t quite work for this short a length so plain green it was, couched down in twists. For the rocks I used some rose gold pebble beads (appropriate name); I bought these online for a children’s project years ago, and found them infuriatingly uneven in shape and size. In this project, that was a bonus!

Seaweed and rocks

The coral was the first thing to be stitched rather than couched; using a thick spun silk from Oliver Twists (again bought at one of the Knitting & Stitching Shows) my first idea was to use either Palestrina stitch or (possibly the most obvious choice) coral stitch, but the rather complicated shape I’d drawn and the thickness of the thread made that too complicated, so it’s a combination of French knots, small straight stitches, and some knotted stitches that I made up as I went along. Septimus’ head is outlined and shaded in stem stitch using two shades of RG Treasure Braid Petite (21 Copper and 27 Ice Pastels). I chose that blend because it seems the best match for the metallic in the thread I’ll be using for his tentacles.

Coral and a head

The moment I started planning an octopus/septopus I thought of one of the speciality threads from the Paint-Box Threads Inspiration Pack I got for Christmas as being ideal for the tentacles. The metallic part snaking in and out does a great job of suggesting suckers! Unfortunately it turned out to be too thick and fussy to do all the tentacles in it – they would have been impossible to tell apart – so three of them were worked in doubled Anchor metallic perle #5 (white/gold). For the eyes plain DMC was an option but I wanted them to stand out so I opted instead for Kreinik #4 braid 5760 Marshmallow and RG Treasure Braid Petite 05 Black, both in satin stitch. The white is stitched across the ovals, the black pupils lengthwise.

What's in the box in detail The eyes done, but what about the tentacles? Tentacles in two different textures

The last part was the figure 7 in bubbles, for which I used unbranded iridescent beads (probably a size 8) They got a bit close to the sea surface, but I think they still work. What surprised me, though, was how different the beads and other parts of the project looked with different lighting! Below is the finished piece, once photographed with the light coming from the right, and once with the light coming from the bottom.

Finished and lit from the side Finished and lit from the bottom

And so on to finishing. From memory I thought the aperture in the card I had in mind for this was 10cm square, and because I wanted a tight fit that’s the size at which I printed the design transfer. Unfortunately the aperture is 9.6cm… So a slightly tighter fit than intended, but with a bit of fiddling I got it all in. Phew.

It will fit...just The finished card

And now it’s over to you – whether you’re making a birthday card (add the desired age in bubbles) or just a Cheer Up! card, get out those odds and ends in your stash and start experimenting. The Septimus Freebie download has the design in two versions, the original Septimus and a more traditional octopus with the full complement of tentacles. Enjoy!

Babies galore

Another baby! Unlike baby Evelyn, baby Noah is known to us only through his paternal grandparents, who are members of our Small Group (groups within our church that meet for Bible study, chat, support, prayer, encouragement and so on, all by Zoom at the moment) so just one card needed this time. But not simply a repeat of Evelyn’s motif; that would just feel like a production line!

What then? Well, with a baby called Noah what could it be but an ark? I grabbed a scrap of paper to sketch a quick idea (and only afterwards noticed it had some scribbles on it for last week’s group meeting – how appropriate). The smudgy lines at the top are a rainbow, the circle outline is the size of the aperture of the card I want to use.

Sketch for Baby Noah's card

Then it was a matter of tidying it up in my image editing program, where I also added a cloud and some words. I didn’t draw in the individual rainbow lines; instead, I intended to do the top line in red, the bottom line in purple, and then work inwards from both ends spacing the colours out more or less (as it turned out definitely less) evenly. At this point I didn’t decide whether to go for a solidly filled rainbow or just thin lines of colour, but thought it would probaby be the latter as the rest was going to be outline-only as well. The cloud would have a detached buttonhole frilly edge, possibly in a fluffy thread like the clouds in the Hope designs.

The tidied-up design

Just because I could I printed the design out in three sizes, and found aperture cards to go with the two larger sizes. And then I decided that although the smallest size would probably look really nice done in one strand of cotton, the detail would be easier to show in the largest size, stitched using two strands. I would keep the smallest one to stitch in one strand at some later time, but for now go with the version I could be reasonably sure would work.

Which size to pick?

Time to start stitching! Cotton sateen again, as it doesn’t need a backing fabric, and this time simply good old DMC stranded cotton; it has so many colours to choose from, which makes a nice change from some of the speciality threads.

Picking the colours The transferred design and the colours

As you can see I pre-wrote “BOY” in silver gel pen, intending to stitch “it’s a” on top of the rainbow; I mean, on top of the stitching. That was clearly not going to work but I pushed that problem away for the moment and got on with the rest of the design. I do like this non-solid way of stitching the rainbow, though!

First progress shows the rainbow lettering won't work

Eventually I wrote the additional words in a very fine blue drawing pen, and outlined the silver letters. Then I added a frilly edge to the cloud. I caught the thread once or twice so it’s not as neat as I would have liked it to be, but then clouds aren’t regular, are they? Inside the card I quoted a children’s song that was part of our online Sunday service only a few days before he was born: “The Lord was good, the Lord was strong / And Noah lived his life for Him”.

The main stitching finished with the writing in the cloud With the fluffy cloud edge Made into a card

By now the card has been delivered, but I’m still playing with the design and tweaking it here and there. The boat definitely needs some colour besides the three browns, but the ones I used were a bit too different from the rest of the design. I will try using colours from the rainbow, or slightly lighter shades from the same series. I also picked a slightly lighter green for the rainbow and lowered the windows a bit. The fluffy cloud detached buttonhole edge works OK in the larger version but for the smaller version I’ll go with stem stitch in fluffy thread, and I may also try simply stem stitching the outline without any fluff at all. And when I’m happy with them I’ll write the instructions and pop it on the website for you to create your own celebratory ark!

Trying out the tweaked design in two sizes

Golden curls for a brunette

Some time ago I finally got the book that accompanied the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition which I was lucky enough to visit in 2016. I’ve been dipping into it off and on (it’s not really a book you read from cover to cover in one sitting!) and last night I got to the final exhibit, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ Pall. This is a beautifully embroidered coffin cover which was used at Guild members’ funerals. It features several depictions of St Peter, who was their patron saint, and of their coat of arms which is supported by an armour-clad merman and a mermaid holding a mirror. I’m afraid for reasons of copyright I can’t post pictures here, but you can see the pall and several other pieces in this V&A article. Have a particular look at the mermaid.

The Opus Anglicanum book shows her in a full-page close-up, which shows some wonderful details. For example, the mirror she is holding shows her reflection – how is that for attention to detail! But what really drew and held my attention was her hair. Let me post a close-up of a small segment of it, which I think is allowable for illustrative purposes:

The mermaid's hair

Can you see how the hair is stitched? I can’t be be absolutely sure just from the picture, but it looks to me as though the embroiderer worked a background of yellow silk (probably in split stitch, as that is the stitch most commonly used in Opus Anglicanum) and then couched gold threads on top in wavy curls. The result is wonderfully effective and 3D and tactile!

I was reading this and studying the picture at about 10.30pm, so setting up a bit of a doodle cloth and having a play was not really practical, although I was sorely tempted. And today unfortunately Bruce the kangaroo’s felt-padded leg took priority, and tomorrow her tail needs doing in time for Saturday’s class. But I definitely want to have a go at stitching hair like that, and for a very particular reason: Mechthild.

Remember Mechthild? She is going to be (when I get round to her…) the royal companion to Ethelnute the medieval king. She also has long flowing locks with just the sort of wave that the mermaid’s hair has.

Mechthild

There are a few things to consider. Challenges, possibly even snags. The least of which is the fact that Mechthild is a brunette, and gold couching is going to show up to rather more startling effect than I really intend. Nowadays some goldwork threads come in many colours, but I don’t think smooth passing (which is the obvious choice of thread for this) does; and even if it did, it would not be in keeping with the period at all. Silver would, and copper possibly, but neither would really solve the problem. She may just have to have a peroxide bleach. More problematic, however, is her size.

Working from a picture taken at an angle and some not very helpful measurements, my best guess is that the mermaid is at least 15cm from the top of her head to the bottom of her tummy (where her tail begins), and that her head (top to chin) is about 6cm. Mechthild is about 7cm high from crown to bosom, and 3cm from the top of her head to her chin. It would take some very fine passing to create the same effect.

And you know what? About a week ago I just happened to order some fine passing from America, among which there is a lovely rose gold, and which according to Royal Mail’s tracking information is at the moment in Langley (near Slough, my husband informs me). Once I’ve got Bruce’s padding out of the way, I feel a bit of goldwork hairdressing coming up!

Four shades of fine passing

Stretcher bars, eyes and rainbows

Some days ago I found myself saying to my husband, “More threads isn’t always the answer”. Yes, I know – heresy! But I have redeemed myself by ordering a pair of longer side stretchers for my Millennium frame. As I was commenting on a fellow member’s Cross Stitch Forum post about Millennium frames and Lowery stands I wrote “with hindsight I would have chosen the slightly longer side stretchers” and then thought, well, why not actually get them! The idea is that with the larger stitching area I could use it as a sampling set-up for the RSN Certificate goldwork module, mimicking the slate frame set-up better than a hoop can.

Now Needle Needs, known for their excellent craftsmanship and their beautiful, sturdy and effective frames and stands, are unfortunately also known for slow delivery and less than ideal communication. Personally I’ve never had any problems, possibly because I just ring them instead of emailing, but I know other people have had difficulties. I’m not in a frantic hurry for these stretchers (I’ve managed very well without them so far, after all) but in view of wanting to use them for the goldwork module it would be nice to have them before I finish! So I rang them to ask for a time frame – and found that the gentleman I spoke to remembered me (and my husband’s vintage Austins) from when I visited their workshop to try out the Aristo lapstand back in 2015!

Trying out the Aristo lap stand

Anyway, he said he would be making some stretchers of the right size in the next few days, and yesterday I got an email to say they would be delivered by 9th November, exactly one week after I ordered them. There may, of course, still be glitches, but it all looks promising!

Until then I continue to do my sampling on the spare silk mounted in a hoop, which works well enough. Today I heard that next Saturday’s Certificate class will go ahead, with only two students which should make it nice and safe, so I’m glad I managed to do most of my homework to show Angela. Part of that involved “mixed couching”, where instead of using a pair of the same threads you couch a pair of dissimilar threads, for example rococco paired with twist. Because rococco is by far my least favourite goldwork thread I decided to practise mainly with that, starting with it combined with twist, and then trying to work a pair of rococco and Jap right next to it, bricking the couching stitches as much as possible.

Mixed couching

“As much as possible” turned out to be not very much – one of my questions for Angela will be how on earth you evenly brick anything that has rococco in it, with its wave that should be regular but in practice turns out not to be even when stitched in a straight line, let alone on a curve. Oh well, I’m meant to be learning so it’s just as well I have questions smiley. (The picture also shows some improvement in my stitching already: there is a definite gap between the two pairs where I start on the left, whereas they are much better abutted as I went on. Reassuring to know sampling helps to sort these things out.)

Another thing I’ve been sampling is kangaroo eyes. That rather sounds like a buffet I don’t want to try, but actually it was a very useful exercise. In the design drawing, the kangaroo’s eye is roughly triangular, and my original idea was to use chips of smooth purl to somehow fill in that triangle, either with the chips all running vertically (with the front one slightly curved) or with some used as outlines (another idea of making them all run parallel with the top sloping line never even made it to the sampling stage). As you can see both these options looked awful. So then I started playing with the idea of a spangle with two chips of smooth purl for the top and bottom outline. That effect was much more like it, and after some experimenting with spangle sizes and placement of the securing stitches I eventually decided on the one indicated by the orange arrow: a 2mm spangle with the slit facing forward and one securing stitch facing backward.

Lots of kangaroo's eyes

And finally, remember the rainbow project I called Hope? I’ve been stitching quite a lot of variations on the theme (including a personalised one for a young girl facing a lockdown birthday) and was hoping to put the chart pack on the website this month, but the design was taken up by a magazine for publication which means I can’t publicise it myself until after that issue of the magazine has come off the shelves (some time next spring). I think I can probably get away with a teeny-weeny sneak peek though…

Five rainbows

How a kangaroo ousted a seahorse…

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

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

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

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

Adding a treasure chest to the seahorse

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

A basic kangaroo

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

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

Haasje, my constant companion

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

Haasje in the kangaroo's pouch

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

The colour mock-up The tracing for prick and pounce

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

The miniature gecko shared by our minister

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

A collection of dupion shades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for my homework!