Stitching while…

Do you “stitch while”? Stitch while waiting at the airport or the dentist, stitch while on holiday, stitch while manning a stand or shop when there aren’t that many customers – it’s remarkable how much stitching you can get done while doing other, relatively inactive things. Last week there was a Craft Fair at our church in aid of the building fund, and one of the stands there was mine. One half of the stand was covered in completed projects to demonstrate what you can do with needlework (Bible cover, lap tray, box tops, framed, ornament, cushion, etc.) while at the same time showing some of the designs available from the website, and the other half had items for sale, such as chart packs, kits, cards, bookmarks, coasters and shopping bags.

Mabel's Fancies stand at the Craft Fair, Sale part Mabel's Fancies stand at the Craft Fair, Show part

The Fair attracted a good number of visitors, but around lunch time the attractions of home-made soups, artisan bread and home-made cakes served in the rear hall proved to be a greater lure than the range of unique Christmas presents available in the front hall, and so there was time to do some stitching. In fact I’d been stitching off and on the whole morning, as it makes a nice talking point and offers an opportunity to demonstrate squissors or show a design in action.

Now some time ago I bought some felt “luggage labels” to make into bookmarks, and I got a little felt purse at the same time to experiment with, but I never could decide what to do with it. I’d been thinking of using tissue paper to stitch on felt, and the purse being black I thought it would look rather good with the Little Wildflower Garden on it. It was also a small enough project to do while keeping an eye of the stand – perfect! What I hadn’t considered was that it wasn’t just small, it was also very fiddly; stitching through tissue paper, and trying to manoeuvre needle and fingers inside the purse. Even with the shortest needle I could find fastening off was quite a challenge! But it worked, and here it is:

Little Wildflower Garden stitched on a black felt purse

A couple of days after the Fair I travelled to Holland to visit my mother for a few days, and as she sleeps a good deal because of her illness I knew I’d have a fair amount of time on my hands. Some of that would be taken up with doing the shopping and the washing up and so on, but there would be plenty of time left, and I’d been thinking of a suitable project to take with me, bearing in mind that I travel with hand luggage only so that the Millennium frame plus lap stand were out of the question. It needed to be something small and portable. At the Fair I’d quickly sold out of coasters, and two people had asked whether I could make some more to order in time for Christmas – just the thing to work on both at my mother’s and at the airport! The only problem was that although I bought some embroidery scissors last time I was in Holland, I didn’t have any squissors there, and I didn’t want to risk trying to take a pair through airport security. But then I remembered a fairly plain pair that I was sent as a sample some years ago; its action isn’t as smooth as the titanium-coated ones, but it is serviceable, and more importantly if it were confiscated at the airport I wouldn’t mind very much. Well, it wasn’t, so it now stays at my mother’s for future use, and I was able stitch (and more importantly, cut) my Hardanger projects. I returned last Thursday night with six of them complete and ready to be made into coasters, in time to deliver them at church tomorrow. Another brick for the new building smiley.

Six small Hardanger projects ready to be turned into coasters Six coasters ready to become Christmas presents

The Day of the Trivets

When I ordered the, alas, unsuccessful Stitchmaster seat stand I tried to make the most of the postage by ordering a few other things as well (well, that’s my excuse). Just the usual stuff, you know, a few skeins of soft cotton for the Shisha Clover, a couple of trivets. Trivets? Yes. I’d been sent the Sew & So catalogue and saw them there, looking rather like oversized coasters. As I’m always looking for ways to finish or display projects, I decided to get two to see whether I liked them. Here they are, with three possible projects to fill them: Flora, the green Wedgwood, and Tudor.

Two trivets, and some possible 'fillings'

The trivets are made of quite solid plastic, and each comes with an insert to wrap the stitching around and an adhesive backing which is white on the adhesive side, cork on the other. Having wrapped all three designs around the smaller card and pushed them into a trivet it soon became obvious that Tudor was just a little too big – no breathing space. Both the others worked well, but there was one small problem: the white of the adhesive backing shows through the plastic rim of the trivet, and although it looked just about OK with the coloured fabric of Wedgwood, it didn’t do anything to show off Flora. The solution turned out to be some adhesive black felt which I stuck to the back before attaching the cork backing. A bit fiddly, but I’m happy with the result. Not sure whether I’ll actually put my hot pans on them, though…

Cork backing on the trivet Flora and Wedgwood mounted in the trivets

One finished bag

After all that hemming I still haven’t got much to show for it. Last weekend I got myself settled at the kitchen table with the hemmed projects, bags, ruler, sharp needle, perle cottons, a Poirot audio book and lots of good intentions, and several hours later I had 1 finished bag, 4 projects each assigned to a suitably coloured bag, 1 bag for which it turns out I didn’t have a suitable project, and 4 projects for which I did not yet have suitable bags. I also had a confirmation email from Clever Baggers about an order for more bags, including some chocolate brown ones which they are apparently discontinuing but which would be perfect for Moss Agate, Reindeer Moss and the Coral Cross.

So not a particularly productive afternoon, but then there is no great hurry to get these bags finished, so I can do them at a rate of one a weekend if I like. The only one that did have a deadline of sorts was the one I got finished – a large canvas bag now decorated with Spring Romance, and to be used on my October visit to the London Knitting & Stitching Show. This should be just about big enough to hold two workshops’ worth of kits and squissors as well as my overnight stuff! (It’s a good thing I’m happy to travel light…)

Spring Romance canvas bag

And even more hemming…

Do you have special travel projects? Something small and not too complex, with few ingredients, perhaps? I do, although the latter criterion isn’t always strictly adhered to – last time I visited my mother I took a selection of Shisha minis, with all the beads, sequins and mirrors that entails. Great fun, but not exactly ideal airport stitching.

And talking of airports: there is an additional difficulty when choosing my on-the-go project as I travel with hand luggage only at the moment, so scissors are a no-no. It says at the luggage check that “scissors with blades over 6cm” are prohibited, implying that anything smaller is OK, but I have found the security people to be erratic in these things and I am not risking my favourite squissors or my small, very sharp, very pointy embroidery scissors on their benevolence. So I take this little gadget:

A safe little gadget for cutting threads

And very useful it is, too, for snipping threads, but obviously Hardanger is out of the question. As is hemming. And this time I had decided to take hemming. Lots of hemming, and nothing but hemming.

Six hemming projects

The plan being that I would finally finish this dull but useful work if I had no other projects to distract me. And it wasn’t until the airport that I realised I rely on my very sharp, very pointy embroidery scissors to cut the fabric very close to the hemming, something which is done every time one side is finished. My mother has a pair of serviceable dressmaking shears but they would hardly do for this, so I could see myself returning home with a stack of projects all with one side hemmed, and three-quarters of the work still to do.

Then I had a brainwave. I could buy a pair of sharp, pointy scissors in the Netherlands, use them, and leave them there for next time! I found a useful pair in the local sewing machine/quilting shop and set to.

First up was Cross My Heart, which I worked in blanket stitch. It is a very useful and relatively quick finishing stitch, but it has one drawback – any individual stitch isn’t very secure until the next one has been worked. If you let the tension on the thread relax after finishing a stitch, it Doesn’t Stay Put. This is annoying.

The normal way of working blanket stitch The finished stitch isn't very stable

Now I remembered that there is a blanket/buttonhole stitch variation which is secure the moment you finish the stitch, but I couldn’t remember how it was done, nor what it was called in Dutch, so the local library wouldn’t be any help. Thinking I might go and google the stitch in English at my aunt & uncle’s (my mother doesn’t do computers, let alone internet), I found my mind equally blank in that language. Something like tailored or tailor’s buttonhole, and something with a knot of sorts… I decided to experiment a bit on a scrap of fabric just cut off Cross My Heart, and found that if you take the needle through the blanket stitch loop from the front instead of from the back, the extra little loop formed around the thread keeps it firmly in place once you’ve pulled through and given it a bit of a tug.

The reverse way of working blanket stitch The finished stitch Stays Put

I’m not sure whether this is, in fact, the official way of doing knotted or tailor’s buttonhole/blanket stitch, but it works and it’s pretty much as quick as the ordinary blanket stitch, so I’m happy smiley. BonBon got the looped blanket stitchtreatment, as did Dying Embers and Vienna. I was on a roll!

But I still hadn’t started on the one that I really want to get done. Spring Romance is intended for my big canvas Going-To-London-For-The-Knitting-And-Stitching-Show bag. The problem was that, much though I liked the looped blanket stitch (LBS from now on), I still wasn’t absolutely sure whether to use that or the other finishing stitch I’d been considering, the hemstitch/nun stitch variation. Moss Agate was the only other unfinished piece left so I thought I’d try that in hem/nun stitch to see whether it worked as nicely as the LBS.

It didn’t. I know I liked it originally and I still like the look of it, but what at first seemed an advantage (that the attaching stitches would sit very near the edge) on second thoughts struck me as unwise – a little further in feels much more secure – and although it is a lot faster that four-sided edging (most things are…) it is quite a bit slower and more fiddly than LBS. So I unpicked the few inches of hemming I’d done and finished Moss Agate as I had finished the other four. And when I finally got round to Spring Romance, that got finished in the same way. Not a lot of variation, but then is anyone going to buy several bags and then complain that they all use the same finishing stitch? And using the same stitch for each piece certainly helped to get a rhythm going and speed up the process.

So here they are, 10 recently finished projects plus one I had lying around, some waiting to be put on bags and some waiting for more bags to be put on. I’d better put in another order at the bag shop!

Eleven hemmed projects

PS don’t tell anyone, but I had to do some creative counting on Spring Romance – a slight miscalculation at the start which I didn’t notice until I’d already cut one side of the fabric. But if you don’t mention it and I don’t mention it, I’m sure no-one will ever notice…

More hemming

I’m still patiently (well, reasonably patiently; for me) hemming old projects preparatory to them being attached to shopping bags. My aim was to find a method that looks good, and is both secure and quick to work. Four-sided edging scores well on two out of three – quick it is not. Also, with most of its stitches being double, and the backstitch used to attach it to the bag doubling the single bottom line, it is a bit bulky. Better keep this for bookmarks and other items that are frequently handled.

Four-sided edging, front Four-sided edging, back

Blanket stitch looks a little less “finished” but is a lot quicker to work, and the attaching backstitch will fill in the gaps at the bottom to make it look like a less bulky four-sided stitch. This is definitely one to keep on the list.

Blanket stitch, front Blanket stitch, back

The next one was a bit of an experiment – cross stitch through both layers of the folded edge, but slightly away from the edge. By working this in two rounds the back gets a cross stitch pattern too, although of course this will be invisible once the fabric is attached to the shopping bag. This one will probably be attached with running stitch in the gaps between the crosses, worked in the middle of the line. it’s a bit difficult to explain in words, but it should look a bit like this: x-x-x-x-x-x

Cross stitch edging, first round, front Cross stitch edging, first round, back Cross stitch edging, second round, front Cross stitch edging, second round, back

Finally I tried combination of surface hem stitch and nun stitch. It’s not quite hemstitch, as the “teeth” are pointing outwards and it’s worked away from the edge, and it’s not quite nun stitch, as all the lines are single, not double, but it works, and will be attached by means of backstitch along the open top of the stitches. This means the attaching stitches are closer to the edge than in any of the other methods, so there will be less of a rim to catch on things. The third picture shows a change of direction only noticeable on the back – this stitch can be worked in two different ways, and the one I started out with made turning the corners very difficult if not impossible, so I changed horses mid-stream. It made the corners nice and secure, and will be invisible once the patch has been attached to the bag.

Surface hem stitch edging, front Surface hem stitch edging, back Surface hem stitch edging, back

The cross stitch version was quite fiddly to work so I don’t think I’ll use that one again; the hem/nun stitch is a bit more fiddly than the blanket stitch, but I like the look of the folded edge and the fact that it can be quite securely attached. Probably, then, future hemming projects for bags will use blanket stitch or hem/nun stitch as the fancy takes me. And with a bit of luck I’ll soon have some pictures of finished bags to show you!

Starting some finishing

Remember those shopping bags I bought a while ago? I have now picked out some projects from my completed project folders with which to embellish them, among them Wedgwood (the blue version), Coral Cross, Windmills, Horizon and Spring Romance. But before I attach them to the bags, they need to be hemmed.

Well, I suppose strictly speaking they don’t. I could just attach them straight to the bag with nun’s stitch or something similar, and then fray up to the edges. But there are a few drawbacks to that, although I will readily admit that most of them are to do with my personal preferences. For one thing, I dislike stitching on bags because it’s awkward working with one hand inside the bag, and pre-hemming means the attaching can be done with fewer stitches. For another thing, I don’t really like a frayed finish on a bag. Don’t ask me why – it’s not about things catching when the bag is in use, because you can just as easily catch the edge of a hemmed piece once it’s attached to the bag, especially when it’s attached in the way I generally use. Nor is it about securing the fabric edge; a frayed edge may be a little more likely to start fraying more, but really, if it’s attached with some solid stitching it should be fine. No, it’s just the look of the thing. It’s just me.

Hemming it is then, and I use the word in its very broadest sense to mean anything that will neaten the edge of the fabric and secure it. One of my favourite methods of hemming something that will be handled a lot, like bookmarks, is four-sided edging. Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a book that actually describes how you turn a corner with this type of edging, so I rather had to work this out for myself, but now I’m so familiar with this method of finishing that I can do it almost automatically. And the finish is secure. I mean really secure. Pull it about as much as you will, it’ll stay put. Besides that, it looks attractive, and you can trim the back very close indeed.

Working on four-sided edging for Wedgwood Matchbook kit bookmark

On the other hand, it is extremely labour intensive – and that’s in spite of cheating by starting out with a single line of backstitch rather than a double line. Even then, it takes a long time, however much you get a rhythm going. Also, for something that is going to be secured to a bag by yet another line of stitching, and which is not going to be handled a lot (the bag will, but the stitching itself won’t be that much), it’s overkill. So the blue Wedgwood will be the only one of this lot to be finished using four-sided edging.

What other methods are there? Well, there is buttonhole stitch. I could buttonhole all around the stitching, then cut very close to the buttonholing. Again a good secure finish, and quite attractive (see the Windows on the World bookmarks below), but like four-sided edging it takes a lot of time. And you can charge only so much for the finished bag. So the quest is on for quicker methods which are still secure enough to ensure a usable bag.

Buttonhole edging on Windows of the World bookmarks

So far I’ve decided on three methods, one of which I’ve used before (on a bag with two versions of Delft on it), and two of which are experimental. The first one, shown below, is a relatively widely spaced (4 fabric threads) blanket stitch all around, attaching the patch to the bag by backstitch along the bottom edge of the blanket stitching, which creates a look a little like four-sided edging (though without the scalloped looking edge). The two experiments involve folding over the edge of the fabric and working stitches along the edge through both layers of fabric, but a little way away (only one or two fabric threads) from the fold. This should create a slightly “puffed” edge, especially if I don’t iron or finger-press the fold first. I’ll probably use cross stitch on one, and surface hem stitch on the other, although herringbone stitch may work as well. The biggest problem is going to be turning the corners, which I’ll have to work out from scratch. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Blanket stitch edging on Delft

Finishing an elephant, 2nd attempt

The Wedding Elephant. It got finished in time. Just. And not quite the way I wanted. But I liked the stitching, and the card looked fine in spite of its rocky history, so I wanted one for myself as well – and as a model for Mabel’s Fancies in case anyone else thinks an elephant with a date is rather a nice way of commemorating a special occasion. As with the first Wedding Elephant, the stitching went well. I used Chameleon’s Shades of Africa silks this time, in rather pleasing apple green, coral pink and buttery yellow shades, and being overdyed Soie d’Alger, they are extremely nice to stitch with. But now for the finishing.

I’m going for a slightly different approach this time: I’ve sandwiched together the Normandie-fabric-with-elephant and a green felt backing in a nice roomy hoop, and will work a rectangle of stitches around the elephant. The next step is to add buttons. Unfortunately I have only one of those nice wooden flower buttons left, and I can’t remember where I bought them (well, at the K&S show, but I can’t remember the company), so I had a rummage through my stash and through the button collection of our local fabric shop. I came up with three possibles, all floral: shiny green sequins, largish light yellow pearlescent buttons, and small and fairly plain yellow-shading-into-a-white-centre buttons. Trying them all out with the stitching the sequins were rather too blingy and overpowering, and the pearlescent buttons just that bit too large and noticeable, so I’ll be using the self-effacing little flowers on the right.

The second Wedding Elephant with its felt backing A choice of buttons and sequins

Having attached the buttons I will then take the sandwich out of the hoop, cut the Normandie about ¼” outside the stitched border, and fray it. Unlike the first elephant it should not fall apart whatever stitch I use, as it will be attached to the felt. I like that sort of safety net! Then cut the felt with pinking shears about ½” outside the edge of the fabric, and we should have a Presentable Elephant. Fingers crossed…


Lynn, one of the members of the Embroidery Circle I go to, is of the opinion that anything worth stitching is worth displaying in some form or other, and she therefore heartily disapproves of my habit of consigning most of my completed projects to folders hidden away in dark drawers. In a way I agree with her – when I see some of the lovely projects completed by fellow stitchers I, too, think it’s a shame when I hear they will just be put away and forgotten about. And if I think that about other people’s projects, why not about my own? So I’ve decided to Do Something With Them. Well, some of them.

Obviously I can’t frame them all – there’s quite enough on our walls already. And only the smallest things can be made into coasters or bookmarks. But you can fit quite a variety of sizes on, say, shopping bags. Off I went, therefore, to the Clever Baggers, who as their name implies have lots of different types of bags as well as other items. I got a selection of bags-with-long-handles-and-gusset of the type I’ve used before, and a cushion cover, some tea towels and a napkin (not in the picture) to try out. The big canvas bag is for my own use – it’s roomier than the bag I usually take on my annual London visit so I hope it should be easier to take all the kits and materials, especially as I’m teaching two workshops this year. The next thing to do is go through my folders of stitched models to see what would look good on the various colours. My selfish side would prefer to keep all my stitched models as they are a record of what I’ve designed, but on the other hand there’s no point in them just lying in a drawer collecting dust. And bags were good sellers at the last charity Art & Craft Fair!

Cotton shopping bags in a selection of colours A big canvas bag and a cushion cover

Other good sellers were coasters and bookmarks, so I’ve been stitching up several as in-between projects to stock up for the Art & Craft Fair later this year. An additional set of six coasters was requested by my mother for her birthday, and being a good and dutiful daughter I of course complied smiley. The trouble with these coasters is that although they are quick and easy to stitch up, I am rather remiss when it comes to actually finishing them – ironing on black Vilene, cutting them to size, removing stray cat hairs, poking in any contrary cut ends and fitting them snugly into the acrylic coasters. Having finished the stitching on a dozen of them, it was time to get down to some assembling. The result: one birthday present, and another set of six for the building fund.

Coasters for Mam's birthday and the church building fund

By the way, if your appetite for small projects that make good presents has been whetted by my colourful dozen, I’ve got good news! Our new Coaster Kits are now available from Mabel’s Fancies. The design is similar to the one used in the picture above, and you can choose a single coaster or a pair, in ten different colours.

An elephant unravels – almost

Well, the wedding was festive, the bride lovely, the bridegroom handsome, the weather wet but nobody let that get them down, and the Wedding Elephant was finished in time – though not quite as originally intended.

All went well initially. The elephant itself, including the wording, the date and the decorative lattice, was finished on Tuesday, and apart from the placement of one of the flowers I was quite happy with the result.

The Wedding Elephant finished

On Wednesday evening I wouldn’t have any time to stitch, so I had to snatch some time during the day to do the finishing. A line of pale yellow stem stitch as a border, then cut 3-4mm around that and unravel to make a fringe, then sew onto a card using four wooden floral buttons. That way, no glue or other adhesive would be needed, which might be better if the happy couple decided to keep the card for any length of time. I know that stem stitch (or back stitch, which is what it looks like on the back) isn’t the most obvious stitch to keep fabric from fraying, but as it wouldn’t be handled much I figured it would be secure enough. That was the plan.

A stem stitch border Cutting around the border

And then it all went horribly wrong…

Unravelling stitches

There was no way of saving the stem stitch border, so it had to come out, in the process unravelling the fabric a bit more. A new border was out of the question – not only was there no time, but the fabric was not stable enough to stand stitching so close to the edge. It would have to be double-sided sticky tape after all. This was duly applied to the fabric, right against the fringe, but as so often happens when one thing goes wrong, it now seemed impossible to get anything right. The sticky tape stuck to bits of the card that it shouldn’t stick to, and unpeeling the fabric, however carefully done, only served to curl up the fringed edges and destabilise it even further, until I was a tearful soggy mess trying to think of a place to buy a last-minute wedding card.

Did I tell you that my husband is an engineer and likes solving problems? (He is also very good at comforting hugs and cups of tea.) He suggested Vilene, or iron-on interfacing. So I carefully ironed the elephant flat (sounds like quite an undertaking, doesn’t it?) and applied the Vilene to the back. The rectangle of fabric was by now not at all rectangular anymore, and no amount of ironing could restore its 90 degree angles, so the fringe got snipped off and the fabric trimmed without taking too much notice of the grain. I sewed on the buttons (niece’s stuffed elephant business is called Nelly Buttons, so I felt buttons were practically obligatory) with one of the greens used int he embroidery, then stuck the whole thing to the front of a bright yellow card using double-sided tape, and here it is:

The finished wedding card

If you didn’t know what it was originally meant to look like, you probably wouldn’t notice that this was a last-minute panic alternative finish smiley). And now I’m working on a second, initial-less elephant for my own archives; I was going to do this one outline-first, but in the end decided to do it lattice-first after all, as it does seem to work better in spite of the away knot spaghetti. The elephant turns out to be quite a relaxing project when there isn’t a wedding looming!

A framed bee and a useful gadget

It’s great when you find that you’ve got exactly the right frame for a finished project already in your stash, something which happened to me some time ago with the goldwork watering can; years ago I picked up a frame which I thought would suit a piece of calligraphy I was planning. It didn’t. And then, after years in my chest of bits and bobs, it turned out to be Just Right for that piece of goldwork. It would be nice to be able to say that the same thing happened with my little goldwork bee, but alas, I had to go out and buy something for that. I didn’t want anything too fancy as it is quite a simple piece, and so I decided on an oval flexi-hoop in woodgrain finish. I use flexi-hoops a lot, but really only as hoops; they are, however, actually meant to be dual purpose, in that you can use them to frame what you stitched in them.

The 4 x 5½ hoop turned out to be just the right size (I have a white one in my stash which I used to check whether it would work) so I ordered a woodgrain one from Sew & So. Framing in a flexi-hoop is quite simple, although the amount of time you spend on it depends rather on how nice you want the back to look. First, mount the work in the hoop, and fiddle about with it if necessary until you’re happy with how it looks. Then trim the fabric to within about 3cm of the hoop. Using strong thread, work running stitch all around the fabric, about 2cm from the hoop. Pull the two ends of the thread to gather the fabric, making sure it’s evenly distributed, then knot the ends together to make sure the gathers stay put. You could stop there. Or, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you could cut a piece of felt to the size of the inner hoop, and sew it to the fabric using a curved needle (indispensible, I found – it was fiddly enough even so). And voilà, one framed bee!

The goldwork bee framed in a flexi-hoop The felt-covered back of the framed bee

One thing I’ve discovered doing goldwork and surface embroidery is that my eyes aren’t as good as they were – middle age must be creeping up on me. Actually, my eyes have been really bad from the time I was a child; I am very near-sighted, which can in fact be an asset when doing detailed work, as I can focus on my stitching close-up if I take my glasses off. However, I don’t want to spend a whole evening’s stitching with my glasses off and my nose practically touching the fabric, so I invested in a little gadget: the rather splendidly named Mighty Bright Vusion LED Craft Light & Magnifier. It’s rather a miniature package compared to some of the proper daylight lamps, but then it was a lot more affordable, too! The magnifier comes in handy when trying to unpick things, or gauging where exactly to place a stitch in a complicated part of the design, but the true hero is the LED light. It makes all the difference not having to strain to see, and the colours look better too smiley.

The Mighty Bright Vusion light and magnifier