Rainbow choices and a mystery

My rainbow is growing apace! Apart from a couple of evenings this week when we have other things on, I’ve been stitching a band a night, and I like how it’s developing. There have been a few decisions to take along the way, though – not quite the relaxed just-get-on-and-stitch project I first had in mind – but that is part of any project that will eventually become a chart pack or kit. And in a way it makes me concentrate more on the design and how I want it to look.

I wrote earlier about backstitch versus cable stitch in the red band; and for the orange band I had to choose between plain and reverse chain stitch (I went for the latter – easier to start a new thread mid-line). The yellow band threw up another decision; in my provisional notes I’d put it down as diagonal satin stitch, which would mean gradually changing the stitch direction to compensate for the curve. Not impossible of course, but not very relaxed either, and I did want to try and keep it relatively simple. Straight satin stitch then? You’d still need to adjust the stitch direction, but it’s definitely easier than in the diagonal version. Unfortunately that wasn’t the effect I wanted, and anyway I suspected that both diagonal and straight satin stitch throughout would look too solid, with too little texture. In the end I went for blocks of diagonal satin stitch alternating in direction. But would it need a split stitch outline? I started one just in case.

A provisional split stitch edge

The split stitch looked rather messy – I don’t really like doing split stitch in more than a single strand – so I started from the other end of the band without split stitch, tucking the ends under the previous band on one side, and knowing they’d be covered on the other side by the next band. And it looked just fine. Good, I’m all for simplifying things! The incipient line of split stitch was unpicked and the whole band worked without it; split stitch may make an appearance as a proper filling stitch in the smaller version worked in an indivisible thread, but here it isn’t needed.

Alternating satin stitch without a split stitch edge The yellow band finished

The green band, in stem stitch, posed no problem. The blue band, to compensate for this, threw up two.

First dilemma: fly stitch or Cretan? To begin with I was almost certain I’d go for fly stitch, then I doodled both and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. They both looked rather fun!

Fly stitch versus Cretan stitch

After discussing both options with my husband I decided to stick with fly stitch after all; much though I like Cretan stitch, I felt that (in contrast to the original satin stitch band idea) it has too much texture – a bit too fussy for this project. OK, fly stitch. But…

… in which blue? From a practical point of view it makes sense to stick with one brand of silk throughout, but the Splendor blue was a bit lighter than I’d like and the only darker blue of the right sort came from my collection of Caron Soie Cristale.

Which blue to choose

Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk is a 12-stranded silk in a slightly unusual distribution: it consists of three “bundles” of four strands. There are other silks on the market which use the same distribution (Crescent Colours Belle Soie, Gloriana Silk Floss and Thread Gatherer Silk ‘n Colors) and their weight too is pretty much identical, so I’ve long suspected they are really exactly the same silk marketed by four different companies. Ideally, then, I’d find a darker blue in my stash of these brands, but I have a fairly limited selection and moreover they are all overdyed or variegated threads rather than the solid blue I was looking for.

Caron Soie Cristale seemed a good alternative as it is also a 12-stranded thread, although not of the 3×4 type, and the individual strands are of a similar weight to Splendor and its doppelgangers. I cut a length of the darker blue, stripped four strands from it, got ready to thread them, and realised that the four strands together were noticeably thinner then the four strands of Splendor I’d been using. On closer inspection, the thread turned out to consist of 16 thinner strands. Had I misremembered the strand count and weight of Soie Cristale? I checked four or five other bobbins and this is the only Soie Cristale I have which has 16 thinner strands. I am puzzled.

The rogue thread, standard Soie Cristale and Splendor

Oh well, we work with what we have. Six strands of this rogue blue looked to have about the same bulk as four strands of the Splendor, so I got to work with that. Having struggled with six rather wayward strands for several hours I am happy with the look of the stitch, but the colour seems rather dark. Perhaps with hindsight my original Splendor blue would have been better. Unpick it all? That’s a bit drastic. I’ll see if it’s grown on me by the time my next stitching session comes around…

The blue band finished

By the way, exciting news – I’ve got a Certificate class booked at Rugby! Next Wednesday I hope to make a start on mounting the Jacobean tree, and going over my paperwork with Angela.

InspiRussian

Some weeks ago on the Antiques Roadshow someone brought in a Russian tea set and a rather exquisite enamel napkin ring which the expert pointed out was not actually part of it. It was Russian, though, and in fact turned out to be by Fabergé. I really liked the floral pattern on the napkin ring so I paused the programme, took a picture, and used it to make some sketches later. It just cried out to be stitched; silks would be ideal to show the sheen of the enamel but for some reason I saw it in my mind in crewel wools, and as the napkin ring was done in cloisonné enamel the main colour blocks of the embroidery would have to be outlined in some form of metal thread (copper or muted gold) to mimic the fine metal strips in the original.

As I scribbled down all these observations plus some colour ideas I was a little worried about copyright, but after some thought came to the conclusion that anything that age is unlikely to be covered anymore. If anyone knows differently, do please let me know before I start stitching! I’ve already got the design transferred to my favourite linen…

The Russian design transferred to a piece of linen

Having produced my first coloured version of the design, I set about choosing wools. I love choosing threads from my collection of Heathway Milano crewel wool; quite apart from the joy of opening drawer after drawer of glorious colour, they are a delight to handle, beautifully soft and fondleable (yes, that is now a word). I picked five colour families, Old Gold, Madder Pink, Lagoon, Goblin Green and Cornflower Blue. For now I wasn’t too concerned with how light or dark the design was going to be, just with getting the right shades.

First attempts at picking colours

And I wasn’t. Getting the right shades, I mean. The combination of blues and greens I’d gone for in my digital version was always going to be tricky to replicate, and it might have been easier to go with something closer to the original napkin ring, but I’d grown rather fond of my version by now so I was jolly well going to see it through! The problem was the blue – it needed to be just a tiny bit closer to the green end of blue without merging into the turquoise shade. It was obviously time to hit the shops, or rather one shop in particular: Catkin Crown Textile Studio.

Steve and Hazel not only stock the entire range of Heathway Milano crewel wool at a very reasonable price, they are also invariably helpful – I can thoroughly recommend them. This time what I needed from their store of goodies was the Bluebell colour family which is just that bit less pure blue than the Cornflower family. And as I was getting those I might as well get the missing shades in the Madder Pink family, so that I had a wider range to choose from for the flowers. And as I was getting those I was only a few skeins off qualifying for free postage. And so, uhm, well…

The shades I needed The shades I added

Moving on, it was time to compare the Bluebell and the Cornflower combinations to see which one was going to make the final cut. Colour preferences are very personal, but for me the Bluebell version immediately appealed in a way that the Cornflower one hadn’t. Bluebell it is!

The Cornflower combination The Bluebell combination

Since then I have made a few changes to the colours, but only in the way they are distributed, particularly in the flowers, so no need for another purchase smiley. I also turned the black design lines golden yellow to better show the effect of the cloisonné outlining. And that’s as far as I go for the time being – first I have a rainbow to finish (among one or two other things…). But it’s nice to know I won’t run out of things to stitch any time soon.

The revised colour version, dark The revised colour version, light

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking what to call this design. At the moment I’m considering either Exquisite Enamel or Fabergé Floral; but perhaps I should just stick with the title of this post!

Light and hope

I may have mentioned once or twice that I have more than enough projects to keep me going for a long, long time. Works actually in progress (like Llandrindod and Hengest), works ready to go with the design transferred and the materials chosen (like Soli Deo Gloria and Come Rain), and several still in the exciting design stage (like Mechthild, Pickled Garden and the nameless Russian piece). And that’s without the kits and designs by other people that I have on the go or on my shelves!

But sometimes something needs to be stitched.

I’ve been having trouble with my eyes for some time now. Partly the usual thing of getting older and needing longer arms to read things, partly the fact that because of lockdown I haven’t seen an optician for some time and probably need new glasses, and partly because of a progressive condition which causes cloudiness in my left eye. For now that last part is an annoyance rather than seriously getting in the way – it’s a bit like having smudged glasses all the time (and in fact I do keep trying to polish them when I’m not thinking about it). But I have no idea how bad it will get, or how quickly. And that worries me. But (as our minister reminded us in last Sunday’s sermon) worrying is a very ineffective thing to do. And a couple of weeks ago, as I was worrying about the light going out of my eyes I suddenly thought of the Light of the World. And it comforted me. So I grabbed a bit of fabric and a 3-inch hoop and stitched the words in a style which is not really usual for me at all, with gel pen additions. If it speaks to you, feel free to copy it (I’ll keep the pop-up picture a bit larger than usual).

Light of the World

The other design that has elbowed its way to the front of the queue I’ve called Hope. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, a Dutch organisation called Agapè ran a campaign to encourage people to think and talk about faith. Its logo was a rainbow (and I’ve only just now realised it has a reddish purple on the outside instead of pure red) with the words “er is hoop” (“there is hope”).

The 'Er is hoop' logo

I’ve always loved rainbows and they’ve been rather prominent lately; even so, until a week or so ago I hadn’t felt any urge to stitch one. But when I did, and after a few sketches that weren’t what I wanted, I decided that I wanted the rainbow to be based on a circle. Some years ago, when flying to the Netherlands, I saw the shadow of the aeroplane inside what looked like a completely circular rainbow. It is apparently known as a “glory”; to me it looked like a sign of protection and security, and it always stayed with me. The photograph I took isn’t particularly clear but I hope it gives you an idea. With that starting point I sketched what became pretty much the final version of the design, a circular rainbow partly covered by a cloud containing the words “there is Hope”.

Glory around the shadow of a plane The design sketch for Hope Hope transferred onto blue cotton

Now I had to decide on stitches and colours. I wanted each of the colours to be in a different stitch, some line stitches following the arc of the rainbow, some with a different stitch direction or texture. And for the threads, silk. Chunky silk, in bold colours. I went for Rainbow Gallery Splendor, which is 12-stranded arranged in 3 clusters of 4 strands; each cluster should provide good coverage in a design that I chose to stitch a little larger than I would normally go for. Most of the colours were easy to pick, but I had a bit of a dilemma over the green. The one that seemed to fit in best was a very vibrant green, rather brighter than I ideally wanted (I’m not quite sure why I bought that shade in the first place!) But the only other green that would fit was on the dull side. After some comparisons I decided to go with the bright option – hope, after all, is a bright thing!

Splendor silk colours for the rainbow, with two greens

As I was about to start stitching the order of the various stitches from red to purple needed a bit of work, but eventually I was reasonably sure that I’d got them arranged the way I wanted them and it was safe to put the first stitch in.

The stitch plan for Hope

Now this project struck me as something nice and relaxing to do – pretty colourful bands that just need filling in, a whole band in stitch A, then a whole band in stitch B, hardly needs any thought at all. Hmm. This is what I got done the first evening:

First stitches

There were several reasons for my lack of productivity. The red band was planned in backstitch as a bricked filling, so with the backstitch in one line offset compared to the next line, like a brick wall. I started a line of backstitch, with stitches that were far too small. I’m simply not used to producing stitches this large and chunky! So that line was unpicked, and I started again, trying to remember to make the stitches larger while keeping them even.

But then there was the fact that backstitch is quite a wasteful stitch, producing a slightly messy stem stitch on the back of the fabric (blue arrow). How about using cable stitch? This produces the same effect but with less thread waste on the back of the fabric (orange arrow).

Backstitch and cable stitch seen from the back

I unpicked my backstitch and started again in cable stitch. Bad move, as I found it impossible to produce an even arch this way. Unpick again, work the very first line in backstitch (that’s where I got to on that first evening), then cable stitch from there on with the backstitch line as a guide. This worked much better.

First line of backstitch Starting a double line of cable stitch Cable stitch continued

Another option I considered (and tried out on a doodle cloth) was cable stem stitch (yellow arrow), which is quicker to work than cable stitch because you don’t have to gauge the width of your thread every time you place a stitch – like ordinary stem stitch, cable stem stitch is worked along a single line. But the effect lacks the straight lines I wanted in this first band, so I stuck with the combination of backstitch and cable stitch.

Doodling for Hope

And this is where I’ve got to so far. I like the texture of this band, and I look forward to seeing the contrast with the next bands, both in texture and colour.

Hope so far

Later this month we are hoping to visit my mother-in-law and I need a travel project; she is a very talented embroiderer and we like to stitch together, but as we also chat while doing this I need something straightforward. I could, of course, take the Ottoman Tulip, but I think I’ll set up a smaller version of this design, to be worked in only a few different stitches, none of which need a lot of attention (perhaps alternating bands of stem and chain stitch), and using an indivisible thread – either coton à broder (right) or perhaps floche (left), which comes in fewer colours but is lovely to work with. I’ll keep you posted!

Coton à broder and floche

An eventful flower and a mounted rabbit

Half of August has gone and Flights of Fancy have been thin on the ground. So has stitching. And if you ask me why I’m not altogether sure, except that the days seem to fly past rather more quickly than I would like. Still, some embroidery-related things have been happening in the Figworthy household, so I thought I’d fill you in.

One thing you already know about is the Nurge semi-deep hoops; they are now all bound and I’ve been using the 13cm one a couple of times. So is the “grip” better than on a bound shallow hoop? For this size there probably isn’t that much in it – the shallow hoop keeps the fabric about as taut as you can get it without tearing it, so it’s hard to improve on that. But the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to get and above all to keep the tension, so it will be interesting to see whether I notice the difference on, say, the 19cm hoop. On this smaller one I do find it’s easier to hold in my non-stitching hand if I’m not using a clamp or stand; the fact that it’s got just that bit more body to it makes it more comfortable on the fingers.

My semi-deep Nurge hoops bound

I used my smallest semi-deep hoop for yet another last-minute card, this time for a niece who, besides being a whizz with accounts, is a linocut artist (you can see her designs in her Etsy shop Woah There Pickle). Some time ago she gave me permission to use one of her lino designs to turn into an embroidery. So far it hasn’t made it onto fabric, but I decided to use one flower from it to stitch for her as a birthday card. I chose a blue and white chambray linen for the background, which has a slightly mottled effect (not really visible in the picture) caused by being woven with a white weft and a coloured warp; I thought this would make a nice contrast with the deliberately flat colours of the flower. From a stitching point of view this turned out to be a bad idea as the not-solid colour made my eyes go funny after a while! Still, it does look good so on the whole it was worth it (but it did slow me down).

Starting on Vicky's daisy

The picture above shows my progress at the end of day one, a Thursday. The card had to be sent on Saturday morning at the latest, and normally I’d have expected to complete the thing in a fairly leisurely fashion on Friday evening, but that evening we were going to Meet Friends In A Pub Garden, a red-letter event that hadn’t happened since lockdown started way back in March. “I’ll finish the stitching off when we get back”, I said to Mr Mabel, “and then I can put it in a card tomorrow morning before going on my Ladies’ Walk and you can take it to the Post Office” (he goes every day to send off the business parcels, and on Saturday the cut-off point is quarter to eleven, just when our walking group’s walk tends to end).

Do you know that saying about “best laid plans”? The meeting at the pub garden was very pleasant, but on the way back a road closure signposted at the very last moment got us swept off onto the motorway. Not a problem normally, but we were in a 90-year-old Austin Seven, and the motorway at that point is on a slight incline. Modern cars don’t even notice it, but the Austin gets slowed down to about 30 mph, with lighting that isn’t nearly so bright as in modern cars, and lorries thundering past at 60mph. Mr Mabel decided it was not safe, so we pulled into a lay-by and contacted the Highway Authorities, who eventually sent a well-lit vehicle that escorted us to the nearest exit. We got home safe and sound. At a quarter to midnight. No, I wasn’t going to finish the card then smiley. But with some intense stitching early the next morning I fortunately did manage to get it sent off in time. Phew.

The finished flower The flower mounted in a card

Another bit of stitched nature was a lot less eventful, but it was instructive. Remember the crewelwork Rabbit With Carnations I did some time ago?

Setting up the Rabbit and Carnations

Well, I decided to use it for a bit of an experiment. My two SAL Trees of Life are still in a hoop (the wool version) and on a frame (the silk/gold version), waiting to be laced and then framed. Now I usually lace over foam core board, but as the RSN Certificate pieces have to be laced over mount board I thought this might be a good opportunity to practice. I contacted Fosse House Gallery, our local framer who did such a great (and quick!) job on my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday present, and they very kindly gave me some offcuts to have a go with. The lady mentioned that she used T-pins when lacing over mount board so I looked those up online and lo and behold, they were available from Toft Alpacas, who like the framer are within walking distance from where I live!

Mount board and T-pins, both local!

One of the things I like about foam core board is that at 5mm thick it gives you plenty of edge to stick your pins into! Standard mount board or mat board tends to be about 2mm thick, so it’s all a bit more cramped and your aim has to be rather more precise. It’s also a lot easier on the fingers to push pins into foam core board because, well, it’s foam instead of solid cardboard smiley. There is one drawback of foam core board which is very visible in the second picture: its corners and edges get squashed much more easily that mount board, so you have to be careful when storing it or be prepared to trim edges before cutting the board to size.

Mount or mat board and foam core board Mount or mat board and foam core board

There’s definitely no such problem with the mount board which in spite of being an offcut was in perfect condition. The sample of board was cut to the right size for the rabbit embroidery and I set to work. As I expected, it was quite fiddly getting the pins to go centrally into the edge of the board, and several times I was definitely just underneath the outer layer so you could see the contours of the pin. It is interesting that for the RSN mounting process you are instructed to glue together two layers of standard mount board to end up with a thicker piece of board which is then covered in calico – I haven’t got to that part of the module yet, but I can’t help thinking the pins will all end up in the glue layer. I’ll find out when classes start again in Rugby!

The mount board being more solid in texture than the foam core board I predictably found it difficult to push the pins right in, but that may have been at least in part because the T-pins I got were quite long. I’ll see if I can find some shorter, thinner ones. As I was lacing, the board seemed to bend and flex a little more than the foam core I tend to use, and this was on a relatively small piece of about 5½” square – I wonder how much it would flex if I was lacing something the size of the Trees.

The end result looks respectable enough, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the two Trees will be laced over foam core. I contacted Fosse House Gallery and they say they may have some in stock, so time to walk over there and support the local economy. Once they’re laced I’m hoping to get the two Trees framed together in a single tall frame with two circular apertures in the mount. Now for a colour that will work with both…

The Rabbit laced onto mount board

A horse of a different colour

My embroidery has been distinctly equine recently, and I’d like to show you some of my progress (and regress; that is to say, unpicking…) on two horsey creatures.

The first is the goldwork racehorse I started at Helen McCook’s three-day class last year. I’d been doing some couching and plunging but a week or so ago I decided that before I did anything more, something needed seeing to first – his eye. The centre of the eye is a gem, and in the stitched model it is round and makes a good iris. But the gem that was in the kit, although a round cut as well, was set in such a way that it looked quite square. It was also rather larger than in the model (at least partly because of the setting), and quite apart from the fact that it just didn’t look right, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to work the surrounding couching properly with the setting extending beyond the design line in places.

Two different eyes

Time to rummage through my stash and see if I could find an alternative. I remembered some tiny oval flat-backed gems I bought last year – might they work? But alas, even the tiniest was too large. How about a sequin? The 3mm flat ones I have would be too small, but what about a facetted cup sequin held on with a black bead? Would that look like an iris with a pupil? And it would still have some of the facetted look of the original gem.

A slightly too large oval gem A cup sequin-and-bead combination that looks promising

I unpicked the original eye, attached the sequin and bead, and gave a sigh of relief. The eye operation was a success!

A much better-looking eye

Next was a decision about the pearl purl curving around the eye and down the horse’s neck. This was a very fine pearl purl which had also been used in the tail, and I’d noticed there that the gold was very yellow. I didn’t think this would work very well against the copper that outlines the eye, and another rummage produced a much mellower-coloured pearl purl of roughly the same thickness. None of the photographs I took quite picked up on how different the colours were, but it should give you an idea.

Very yellow pearl purl

Since last time I also completed both the colour-graded couching and the plunging on the horse’s backside, and here it is as it looks at the moment (you can see the very yellow purl outlining the chipped section at the top of the tail).

The racehorse as it looks at the moment

On to a horse of a different colour, or rather of many different colours – although the bits I’ve been working on have been mostly grey smiley. For some time now I’d been itching to get back to Hengest the Medieval Unicorn; I hadn’t worked on him since June last year! To ease myself back into it I started with his nose band. Once I’d stitched it I realised that if I stitched the rest of the bridle (if that’s the correct term) in the same light golden yellow (Old Gold #4) as I had planned, it wouldn’t look quite right next to the light yellow spot high up his neck. But I didn’t want to use the darker #6 because that was going to be used in his horn (together with darkest #8) and I needed the contrast. Fortunately I remembered that I also had shade #7 in my stash, so the rest of the bridle will be done in #6, and the horn in #7 and #8. One problem sorted, although putting the solution into practice would have to wait as I wanted to get on with his mane first.

And as I stitched the first two locks, another problem emerged. They were far too dark.

Hengest's mane is too dark

I’d worked it out so carefully, too. Because Hengest is quite cartoonish in look, I didn’t want the shading in the mane to be too subtle. All the rest of him is areas of flat colour, with the only “shading” coming from the direction of the split stitch. The mane would have dark locks and light locks, and each would be done in two shades which I wanted to be visibly different, with the light and dark locks also having to be different enough from each other. The design drawing has black outlines, but the stitched version doesn’t, so the locks had to be delineated by colour difference.

I had therefore decided to have no colour overlap between light and dark locks: for the light locks I chose Silver Grey #1 and #3, and for the dark locks #5 and #6 (the difference between two consecutive shades is not always equally large). But #6 was very obviously too dark compared to the pastel tints of the rest of Hengest. And so I ended up doing something I had strenuously resisted for this project so far – I started a doodle cloth. Five combinations of two greys would be tried out, and I started with the darker one in each of the combinations, then added the lighter shade. #5 plus #3, #4 plus #3 and #4 plus #2 were all options for the darker locks, while #3 plus #1 and #2 plus #1 were possible pairs for the lighter ones. Having studied all the combinations I opted for an overlap after all: #5 with #3 and #3 with #1.

Different shades of grey A doodle cloth with five combinations Starting with the darker shades The lighter shades have been added

Hurray! As tress after tress was added the new shades turned out to work very well together, the individual locks perfectly distinct in spite of the fact that they share shade #3. I’d completely forgotten that the direction of the split stitch would set them apart even if the colour didn’t.

The old mane is unpicked Starting the first locks The new mane is growing The locks are perfectly distinct

And that’s the state of the Figworthy stable to date. I love both its occupants, but I will admit to a soft spot for Hengest. He will never be a racing champion (his inspiration on the Steeple Aston cope is decidedly duck-footed) and he will never be decked out in the Queen’s colours, but I think he holds his own against any racehorse in his polka-dotted eccentricity smiley.

A sheep, a SAL, a mag, and a trio of kits

First of all apologies for the long radio silence here at Flights of Fancies. This was partly to do with the final wrap-up of the Tree of Life Stitch-Along, partly with new tasks and obligations which have sprung up during lockdown, partly with a small project I wanted to do for a friend which took longer than I expected, partly with an article I need to write by mid-June, and partly with me somehow having more trouble than usual to work up the motivation and energy for anything that requires the least mental effort. Comments from friends and family tell me I am not alone in this; perhaps it’s the effects of nine weeks of lockdown.

Fortunately our hobby is one that can be enjoyed even when we don’t get round to stitching much – surely it’s not just me who enjoys looking at, playing with and rearranging threads, fabrics, stitch books and all the other paraphernalia of embroidery!

But as I said I did actually get some stitching done, and it took longer than expected because it was a sheep whose fleece was made up of several thousand French knots. No, I didn’t actually count them, but that’s definitely what it felt like. Still, I was pleased with the resulting fluffy sheep, which you may recognise as the stranded cotton twin to Trina’s silverwork Sheep.

A sheep for Dot

Finishing all the stitching and blog writing for the Stitch-Along felt almost on a par with finishing the stitching on my RSN Jacobean module smiley. It’s been great to see people’s different trees growing leaf by leaf and creature by creature, and a few stitchers have already sent in pictures of their finished trees. Some have even stitched two trees, using different materials for each one – impressive!

Incidentally, although all ten parts of the SAL are now out (you can see my own two completed trees below), you can still sign up until midnight 31st May for immediate access to all parts and the SAL blog with its stitch pictures and extra tips & tricks – after that the Tree of Life will be on the website as a stand-alone design with optional blog access.

Tree of Life in Heathway Milano crewel wool on linen twill Tree of Life in Silk Mill stranded silk and goldwork threads on close-weave linen

Another exciting thing that happened this month (yesterday, in fact) was the publication of Stitch Magazine issue 125, which contains a little willow that may be familiar to regular readers of FoF… It’s odd to think that when I submitted the article to the editor in mid-February we were all still happily going about our business, and that even a month later the Knitting & Stitching Show organisers were sending out their usual request for workshop proposals. I’m delighted to say four of mine were accepted, but whether I’ll actually get to teach them is anybody’s guess!

Stitch Magazine issue 125 with a familiar willow

Still, it keeps me off the streets smiley. As will my lockdown resolution of supporting independent designers and embroidery suppliers – you may have seen the spoils in a previous FoF, and to that impressive pile were added these three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits. My excuse is that they will be good practice for the RSN Certificate Silk Shading module.

Three Bluebird Embroidery silk shading kits

The kits are well presented, each with the design printed on the fabric (which, together with a piece of backing fabric, comes wrapped in tissue paper) in crisp thin lines, and a detailed and richly illustrated instruction booklet.

The silk shading Fox ready to go (after a few other projects) The Fox booklet

The only area where there is room for improvement in these kits (and it is a fairly minor niggle) is that the blue envelope which holds the materials is very difficult to open neatly, and once it is open it is very difficult to get the tissue-wrapped fabric out without it sticking to the envelope’s extremely sticky flap. With the other two kits I decided to slit open the envelopes with a letter opener.

The kits with one of the envelopes containg the materials The envelope has a sticky flap

But as I said, a minor niggle only, and I look forward at having a go at this cheeky fox. First, however, it’s the goldwork racehorse to finish – and if I can resist the temptation to spend all my free time this weekend in the garden with a book, I’ll post an update next week!

A kit(ty) production line

For some time now I’d been running low on kits and making them up as people ordered them, which is really not a good idea. So now that I no longer have the Certificate deadline looming over me (although there are still a few things to finish on the SAL) it was time to get a bit of a production line going once again.

If possible I like to do some of the sorting and assembling in the garden, and as the weather looked set to change after the weekend I had a good incentive to get them done quickly. On Friday all the instructions were printed, and Saturday’s task was folding them, sticking the covers on and inserting them into plastic grip seal bags – just the thing you can do outside!

The lawn was dotted with violets (soon to be decapitated by Mr Figworthy with the lawnmower), an orange tip butterfly landed on the purple lilac bush (fellow to the white lilac bush blooming its head off in the picture), a robin vociferously defended his territory on the fence behind the variegated holly, and Lexi decided that snuggled half underneath my lap tray was just the place for a cat to be.

Putting the paper part of the kits together A feline helper

Unfortunately cutting fabric would be difficult in the garden, so it was back indoors for the next part, taking over the kitchen table to produce a pile of squares of various sizes in blue cotton, Hardanger fabric, muslin backing and wadding. And as it’s impossible to store fabric in such a way that it stays perfectly flat and uncreased, the Hardanger and cotton then had to be ironed. Well, I suppose they don’t have to be, but when you buy a kit the last thing you want to have to do is iron your fabric – you want to start stitching, right? So I do the ironing for you – and as I had the iron out I thought I might as well get the “household ironing” out of the way too!

Cutting squares of fabric And then there's the ironing

On Sunday, after our online church service and the after-service Zoom fellowship chat, I got to the colourful part of the kit production process: threads, cards, beads and various kinds of bling had to be sorted and where necessary put into little bags.

Colourful kit components

First up were the Hardanger needle books. Two needles per piece of felt, match it up with a suitable piece of pre-scored patterned card, fabric, two weights of perle cotton and of course the printed instructions and hey presto, we have a kit.

Materials for a needle book Putting the needle book kits together

Next up was the Little Wildflower Garden. This is generally quite a quick one to put together, provided I have the threads pre-cut and sorted. Which I did, for two of the kits… so first I had to prep some more stranded cotton. Now I’ve devised a cunning method for this which is nice and fast, when it works. That is to say, when all twelve skeins of cotton pull without tangling and I can cut twelve colours into 65cm lengths in one go. Anyone who has worked with stranded cotton more than a few times will now emit a peal of hollow laughter and say “good luck with that!” and it’s true that by the time I’m three-quarters through the skeins there tends to be some unknotting going on as well as straightforward pulling and cutting, but on the whole it’s still a lot quicker than measuring and cutting all twelve colours separately.

Preparing the threads The components of the kit ready for assembling

And finally the two types of Shisha card, Flower and Tile. These were by far the fiddliest to put together with their mirrors, beads, sequins and bits of sewing thread as well as the embroidery threads. It’s fun to choose nice colour combinations though!

Shisha kits in bits

As well as putting together kits that have long been in our range, I also had a go at a design that until now has only been available as a workshop. Yes, it is The Mug That Cheers! Whether your tipple of choice is tea, coffee or hot chocolate, this is the perfect mug of comfort in these challenging times. I first meant to put it on the website as a chart pack only, but I couldn’t resist putting together a few boxed kits as well – don’t they look cheerful?

The Mug That Cheers comes as a chart pack... ...and as a kit... ...in different colours

Incidentally, it is not unusual when providing kits to try and buy a couple of years’ worth of supplies at a time. This has the obvious advantage of not having to go through the whole ordering process very often, but when the last time you ordered stuff was spring 2018, reordering two years later throws up a variety of problems. Shops you used to order from have closed (Sew & So), kit components you used to buy have been discontinued (Craft Creations’ coloured aperture cards), and supplies that are still available have gone up in price alarmingly (Hardanger fabric). That last problem, together with Royal Mail’s annual increase in postal rates, has unfortunately made it necessary to adjust the prices of Mabel’s range of kits. Please rest assured that I will continue to do my best to keep them as affordable as possible, keeping the threshold low for anyone who would like to have a go at a new technique, or while away a few enjoyable evenings stitching up a present or a card for a special occasion.

Playing with stitches

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

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

An empty cat An partially filled cat

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

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

A silk flower

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

A fruit bowl to play with

Free download during the Coronavirus lockdown

We all know that stitching is very therapeutic – so obviously we can never have too many patterns, especially now that many needlework fans have a little bit of extra stitching time!

So for as long as the UK is in lockdown for the Coronavirus, Mabel’s Hardanger design Home Sweet Home will be a free download (everywhere, not just the UK). It’s the full chart pack with diagrams and instructions, and it comes with a little extra chart for the alternative wording Stay At Home.

Home Sweet Home - stay at home!

Enjoy – and do send us pictures of your completed Home Sweet Home!

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.