Exciting parcels

That feeling of expectation when you know there is something nice on its way to you and then one day the postman hands you the day’s post and among it is a parcel which is obviously That Parcel and you are about to unwrap it – don’t you just love it? I’ve had several such parcels recently, and as they were all stitch-related I thought you might like to see them.

Remember the Filoselle silks I inherited from my mother-in-law? Three shades of rose, a golden yellow and a lot of green. Well, some time ago I was contacted by Sara, who had acquired a selection of Filoselle silks herself and, doing some research, came across my 2015 post in which Pearsall’s unfortunately discontinued silks are mentioned. After a few emails back and forth we agreed a swap, and a little later the pastel beauties on the right arrived. As I said to Sara, because they are discontinued I won’t be able to use them in any designs that will be published, and so I have no idea yet what I’ll do with them, but they are lovely colours to have.

Vintage Filoselle silks (and a darning egg) Swapped Filoselle silks

Around about the same time I spotted a day class at Hampton Court Palace in my RSN e-newsletter: a stumpwork bumblebee. Yes, I know, stumpwork isn’t really my thing; but since the two butterflies I did (one a Sarah Homfray kit, the other off my own bat for a friend) I’ve rather taken a liking to stumpwork insects. And I happen to have a friend who is a beekeeper. Perfect. Well, almost perfect, as beekeepers don’t actually keep bumblebees, but close enough.

Stumpwork butterfly from a Sarah Homfray kit Stumpwork butterfly made for a friend

Unfortunately the class was on a day that I couldn’t do; and even if the date had been convenient, travelling to Hampton Court Palace for the day is quite an undertaking, as well as adding to the strain on the budget. I reluctantly decided it was not to be. But when I mentioned this on the RSN Certificate & Diploma Facebook group, someone who had taken the class in the past suggested I contact the tutor, Rachel Doyle, to see if she had any surplus kits which she might be willing to sell separately. I did, and she had, and here it is!

Rachel Doyle's Bumble Bee kit Rachel Doyle's Bumble Bee kit

And my final treat (final for the moment anyway) – a new slate frame bag. I had one made for my original, humongous slate frame but then I was allowed to use a 12″ frame instead and the bag was ridiculously oversized for that (as you can tell from the picture below it was on the large side even for the original frame). Fortunately it has now found a new home with my middle sister-in-law who uses it to transport her paintings, but it did mean I was left without a bag. Well, not literally, I have plenty of cotton and canvas bags of various sizes, some of them embellished with embroidery, but nothing padded and none that accomodated the frame comfortably. Enter Liz at LoobysBayBags.

The original quilted bag for my large slate frame

Liz was brilliant. The bags she usually makes were not quite the right size for my slate frame (which in spite of being called a 12″ frame is actually a little over 17″ square) so she agreed to make a bespoke one. She found all sorts of fabrics for me to have a look at and hunted out a new fabric for the lining which would go with the patterned ones I picked; she was great at going by what I wanted, not what she thought I should have (she was a little worried that I picked very light colours for what she called “a working bag”). When I explained what it would be used for she reinforced the handles and padded the bottom. And it came out just perfect – it looks beautiful (those ducks are adorable), it’s comfortable to carry, and it is a comfortably snug fit for the frame. As you can tell from the last picture, I’m really pleased with it!

The new slate frame bag A snug fit Modelling the bag

An S-ing dilemma, surprising purl and a finished leg

With my 6th class coming up, there was work to be done – but not all work on Bruce involves putting gold on him, or even on the sampling cloth. There are what you might call the theoretical bits as well. I don’t mean that I will be quizzed on how pearl purl is made or when to use a double waxed thread, but preparatory work as well as decisions, possibly even dilemmas to navigate. At this point in Bruce’s development (desperately trying not to call it a “journey”) it’s a scale drawing of the cutwork that will cover his tail, and a decision about S-ing.

S-ing (pronounced “essing”) is a technique for applying hollow purl in such a way that the resulting line looks like stem stitch. As you can’t take purl through the fabric this is achieved by manipulating short pieces of purl (chips) so that they deceive the eye into thinking it’s one long piece which has been taken through the fabric to create that cord-like look that stem stitch has. I first tried it on the goldwork racehorse, and when deciding on what materials and techniques to use for the sun’s rays in the Certificate design, S-ing was very much my first choice.

S-ing in a racehorse

What was in my mind were drawings I’d seen of suns with pointy wavy rays, and I thought that if I didn’t put in the usual compensating half-length chip at the end furthest away from the sun, that would be really effective. Unfortunately all three tutors were distinctly unenthusiastic about this, with their reactions ranging from “don’t do it, it’s not allowed in the Certificate, it’s a Diploma technique” through “well, it’s your call” to “the assessors won’t like it”.

A wavy sun Samples S-ing

So I scrutinised the brief and found absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be allowed. The brief is very clear about the materials: it says about the threads and wires (in underlined bold print) “The following are the only gold threads that will be used in this basic Goldwork project.” But about the techniques it says: “You MUST include the following”, which to my mind means that you can include other techniques as long as they use allowable materials. On the other hand, do I want to risk being marked down for something I’ve been warned by the tutors that the assessors won’t like (even though I believe they have no reason to)?

There is an alternative – a double line of rococco, one a little shorter than the other. It would be wavy. It would be safe. But it’s not the look I had in mind, for one thing because I’ve already used rococco to represent the billowy outline of the cloud and for another because I like the idea of the sun’s rays having no visible couching threads to detract from their shine. I’m hoping to have Bruce on my wall for a long time and seeing rococco in the sun’s rays instead of the S-ing I envisaged there would niggle me every time I saw it. So I’ve decided to go with my original design decision, and take the consequences.

Right, enough soul-searching; on to something a bit more practical. Bruce’s tail will be covered in cutwork, shorts lengths of hollow purl snugly fitted over the soft string padding with the cut ends just touching the fabric. Well, that’s what we’re aiming for anyway! I’ll be using two types of purl, smooth (a shiny round shape) and bright check (a shiny angular shape). I knew I had plenty of the smooth, but the bright check is used for chipping as well (it’s the stuff used in the sun) and there wasn’t quite so much of it in the little bag in my project box. Fortunately I remembered I had another bag of the right size in my stash, but when I got it out I also remembered that there was a reason why I hadn’t put both in the same bag:

The two bright checks in their identical bags Both bright checks, but different

That’s right, they look different. As you can tell from the bags they both come from the same supplier, but one is noticeably shinier than the other. As I want to make sure there is enough of the less shiny one for the tail, I decided to do the chipping on Bruce’s haunch in the shinier one. The difference between two fairly far apart areas of chipping won’t be nearly so noticeable as it would be to change chips halfway through the tail!

There was more measuring to be done. For homework Helen McC had asked me to draw the chips onto a print-out of the tail at full scale, to show the changes in direction as well as the transition from smooth purl to bright check. To do this I needed to know exactly how wide both purls are. Mr Figworthy to the rescue with his trusty calipers! And what he found was another surprise: although the two purls (smooth and bright check) have the same size number (no.6), the outer diameters came out differently, at 1.0mm vs 1.4mm wide. I wrote to the supplier, Lizzy Pye at Laurelin, and she very quickly replied, “in my experience there has always been some variation between the types of purl. The check is usually a little larger. If you think of how it is made, wrapping the wire around a core – it makes sense that the inside width is the same, but the corners stick out.” Good point. And in fact a re-measure showed that the bright check was actually about 1.2mm wide, so not too much difference. I was ready to start drawing.

Making a start at the arrangement of purls in the tail

It took quite a bit of measuring, drawing, rubbing out, re-measuring and re-drawing, but it turned out to be a very useful exercise indeed. As I mentioned, one of the key things the drawing needs to show is the transition from smooth purl (at the tip) to bright check (by Bruce’s backside). My idea was to use the sort of transition that you see in satin stitch, the shortest version of which is “all A, 1 B, 1 A, all B”. More often it’s the slightly longer one which runs “All A, 1 B, 2 A, 2 B, 1 A, all B”. Although my aim was the next longer version after that, I wasn’t sure whether there would be room for it, as the brief specifies a continuous stretch of smooth purl cutwork that is at least 5cm long. But because all this is drawn to scale, it showed that there is in fact enough space, so it will be a very gradual transition using “All A, 1 B, 3 A, 2B, 2 A, 3 B, 1 A, all B”.

Starting the transition It all fits

And finally, some actual stitching smiley: the chipping on the haunch. Chipping, while not as daunting as all that spaghetti I’ve been dealing with, poses its own challenges – mostly the fact that the chips are tiny (and this is not even the smallest size they could be…) and that they jump around like fleas on acid at the smallest provocation (or none).

A very small chip

Does it sound silly to say that I felt rather emotional seeing the whole thing filled in and complete? That hind leg has been quite an undertaking, and now it is done. I glow with a sense of achievement! And fortunately the difference between the shinier and the not-so-shiny chipping doesn’t seem too obvious.

The chipping section on the haunch The finished leg

The chipping had gone a bit more quickly than I’d expected and I was on a roll so I got on with the long smooth chips on Bruce’s ears, and the mixed cutwork on her pouch. Not as challenging as the cutwork on the tail will be, but good practice! They may, of course, turn out to be no more than practice – I’m not sure they are quite to the standard I’d like to see, so it may be another Echternach moment. On the other hand, Angela may look at them and say I’m being too fussy; now that would be a lovely outcome! But whatever happens tomorrow, all in all I’m very pleased with where I’ve got to before my 6th class.

Long smooth chips on the ears Cutwork on the pouch Where I am before my 6th class

Remembering Elizabeth

I have written recently about my mother-in-law Elizabeth. On Good Friday my husband and I went down to Devon to look after her for a week, which we had been doing alternately with my sisters-in-law for the past couple of months; we returned home last Friday, and yesterday afternoon we received the news that she had passed away. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.

As this is a blog about embroidery, I want to remember her here as the outstanding needlewoman she was – but also as a wonderful mother-in-law, who (apart from perhaps not always being the most tactful person in the world) couldn’t be further away from the usual stereotype. She and I enjoyed many a joint stitching session whenever we visited.

Stitching with Elizabeth

Elizabeth would try anything that involved thread and fabric and some sort of needle or hooked implement. She knitted me a fabulous dress – when I asked if I could have it in beige she said “you’re not old enough to wear beige!” and only budged when I explained that a beige dress could be worn with all sorts of brightly coloured and patterned tights smiley. She crocheted as well, and was a whizz with a sewing machine: when she and her husband moved to the States for three years in the 1970s she sewed their outfits for the square dancing classes they joined.

I don’t have pictures of some of her more experimental embroideries (including an abstract piece with various appliquéd arches in different materials, and a Monet-style waterlily garden), but here are a few of her projects: a Suffolk puff Christmas tree, a canvaswork piece called The Garden of Jersies, a tea cosy with shisha work which she made for one of her daughters, and the quilted patchwork bedspread she made for my husband and me (the back is all in shades of green).

a Suffolk puff Christmas tree A Garden of Jersies canvaswork An embroidered tea cosy A patchwork quilt

For decades she was happy to experiment and try new things, but a few years ago she said to me, “I’ve found that I can embroider anything I want using just a few simple stitches, so I don’t bother with the fancy ones anymore”. Seeing what she could do with stem stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch and French knots, I didn’t argue!

Speedy triplets

Well, a baby in triplicate. Last week we had the lovely news that a baby had arrived safely into the world: little Evelyn. Both the new parents and all three grandparents are church friends of ours (I actually taught the baby’s mum in Sunday school, which makes me feel terribly old), so three cards were needed. I had to find a nice baby motif, and also decide whether to embroidery the name on each card.

Now many years ago in one of the many cross stitch magazines that I used to pick up at car boot sales I found a very pretty pattern of a baby-on-a-frilly-blanket, and I stitched it for a friend’s daughter’s first Christmas. Some years later I stitched it again (with darker hair, to match the baby in question) for the newborn son of friends of ours. That was quite an interesting card to make as there was a power cut halfway through, and as I was going to see the family the next day I finished stitching it by the light of an Aladdin lamp.

Stitching during a power cut Card for baby Rakan

I felt this would be a good motif to use for the three cards needed this time, but doing it in the original cross stitch version would take far too long. Fortunately it wasn’t difficult to turn it into a line drawing and transfer it to three bits of fabric. For the threads I decided on floche with possibly some Blomstergarn (Danish flower threads) – I have a sum total of five skeins of it and tend not to use it much because cream, two yellows and two greens don’t give a lot of scope beyond the odd buttercup or dandelion. But I wanted to make the romper suits different colours so they don’t look like a job lot, and the yellow and green would make a nice bright splash of colour.

The materials for the baby cards

Baby #1 was soon finished and I was particularly pleased with the frilly blanket, but a few tweaks were needed. The eye was too dark, so I took it out and re-did it in a lighter brown after this picture was taken. I also decided that in the other two I would work the face outline in whipped backstitch instead of split stitch – it makes a cleaner line – and use a slightly darker pink. As for the name, the embroidery would have to be very fine and fiddly and take rather a lot of time, so I settled for writing it on the fabric in silver or gold gel pen when mounting them in the cards.

Baby number 1

Baby #2 had the tweaks incorporated, and I did like the face outline better this way. In my quest to make them all different I left out the detailing in the hair and stitched the romper suit in two shades of green with the darker one used at the tummy and the far sleeve; I also added some petite beads.

Baby number 2

Baby #3 was given a yellow romper suit and darker hair; I couldn’t tell from the few photos I’d seen what Evelyn’s actual hair colour is, but her mother is a fair ginger and her father quite dark, so it’s anybody’s guess. This time I added tiny sequins, which I wanted to put in the same arrangement as the beads. Unfortunately I miscounted when getting them out of the bag and I found I was one short, but by that time the bag had been put away in the craft room and Lexi was comfortably curled up on my lap with no intention of moving. Explaining to Mr Figworthy exactly where in the craft room to find a small bag of 2mm sequins was just too complicated, so I re-spaced the sequins I had.

Baby number 3

Now all that remained was to turn all three into cards. I found three aperture cards in colours roughly matching each of the romper suits, but that looked a bit dull so I mixed them up. I added the baby’s name making sure the whole thing still fitted inside the aperture, and then had a think about what to write on the card. “Congratulations” would be the usual thing but for some reason I didn’t like that; you sometimes see “A new baby!” or “It’s a girl!” but that sounded a bit obvious. And then I remembered the baby’s middle name – perfect smiley.

Three babies made into cards

A passing resemblance

Do you find that you have certain favourite materials and stitches for the various types of embroidery? I’ve been doing quite a bit of goldwork recently (you may have noticed…) and certain metals and threads have been steadily emerging as favourites whereas others are on the avoid-if-possible list. The larger sizes of rococco, for example, definitely fall into the latter category (I much prefer the also wavy but finer check thread); and passing thread in its various weights is one I reach for with much more enthusiasm than Jap, with which it shares certain characteristics. It’s a shame that Jap and rococco are required in my Certificate piece, whereas check thread and passing are not allowed.

Rococco and check thread

So what is passing, and how does it differ from Jap? Well, they both have a thread core (silk or cotton); the difference lies in what is wrapped around the outside. In Jap this is a relatively wide strip of metal foil paper, whereas in passing it is a metal wire or a thin strip of metal. This makes passing slightly stiffer, but also more suitable to take around sharp bends – Jap’s foil wrapping sometimes comes away from its thread core if the bend falls right in the middle of a wrap.

Passing and Jap Passing and Jap, close-up

A few weeks ago someone on the Needle ‘n Thread Facebook Group mentioned a shop called Tied to History which, they said, had some great bargains on discontinued threads, among them fine passing. This sounded interesting! I had a quick look, and before long several shades of fine passing had made it into my shopping basket, including a lovely rose gold which you may remember I thought might work for adding wavy highlights to Mechtild’s hair. When they arrived, I was not disappointed – lovely fine threads, much finer than any of the passing I had in my stash.

Passing threads from Tied to History

In fact what it most resembled was an unidentified metal thread I was given by my mother-in-law a few years ago. And like that thread, it seemed to be a bit betwixt and between: relative to the thread’s thickness, the wraps around the core are much narrower than in Jap, but rather wider than in passing. When I asked the seller about this, she said that she wasn’t an embroiderer herself but a maker of historic costumes; she hadn’t been able to find a thin enough metallic in the US, so had begun to source them herself, and eventually found these in India. She said she might well not be using the correct technical term for them. Be that as it may, they are lovely fine threads, and I look forward to using them!

Different weights of passing

But to do that, I need to undo the skeins. I started with one of the silver ones, partly because I bought two of them so if something went wrong I’d still have the other skein. Call me a pessimist, but metallic threads can be unruly and challenging, as I knew only to well after tackling the Jap that came in the bundle of gold threads my mother-in-law passed on to me.

Goldwork materials from my mother-in-law

And yes, before too long I ended up with an almighty tangle. Sigh. I contacted the seller, who said yes, the threads could be challenging to store; she usually popped them around a jam jar and took off as much as she needed, straightening the thread as she went. I can’t quite visualise the jam jar, but over the Christmas period, when the light is rather too bad for any serious goldwork stitching, I hope to take a leisurely afternoon or so to create shiny order out of metallic chaos. Wish me luck!

A passing tangle

A gold surprise, gold spaghetti and gold waste

As I got back from my Certificate class last Wednesday there was a padded envelope waiting for me among the Christmas cards. I opened it to find that it contained… a Christmas card! But there was a reason for the protective wrapping, which became apparent when I looked inside the very pretty stitched card – three little glassine bags containing three shades of gold bright check. What a lovely surprise to have some sparkle added to a dark December afternoon. Unfortunately the Certificate brief means I can’t use any of these kind gifts in Bruce the Kangaroo, but I’m sure I will find a good purpose for them.

A Christmas card and a lovely surprise

One thing the bright check won’t cause is the sort of gold spaghetti I ended up with at the back of my work after plunging the mixed couching on Bruce’s back. I’ll tell you more about the front of the work in a later FoF, but I thought I’d show you the slightly dispiriting sight that greets me at the moment when I turn over a frame whose front looks quite neat and tidy.

Goldwork spaghetti

The curved needles that come with the Certificate starter kit are fairly chunky which makes it difficult to pick up only the backing calico, and oversewing some earlier plunged threads I’d managed to catch the silk as well as the backing so that the sewing thread was visible at the front. This had to be unpicked (fortunately the silk wasn’t damaged) and re-done. I ditched the kit needle and used a curved beading needle I acquired a while ago. Well, I acquired two, but they are rather fragile and I broke one a few weeks ago. Now at the class Becky, the tutor, mentioned that a quilting shop near Hampton Court Palace did curved needles that were thinner and more flexible than the RSN ones, but sturdier than beading needles, so I rang them and ordered a couple of pairs. When they arrive I’ll get all those ends secured, and then Bruce and Haasje will go into hibernation over Christmas.

When I posted the spaghetti picture in a stitching forum, a fellow member asked about the wastage rate of goldwork threads, seeing that they are not the cheapest of materials to buy. Thinking it over, I found that actually it’s not too bad. Wastage in goldwork comes mainly in the couched threads where the ends of the thread get pulled through to the back (plunged) for the purpose of finishing off. The hollow wires that you treat like beads have (in theory at least) no waste at all because you cut them exactly to size; I say “in theory” as this takes a lot of practice, but even when you’re not yet very good at estimating the right length relatively little is thrown away – bits that are a little too long or short can usually be used elsewhere in the project. The same goes for pearl purl which is the only one of the couched materials to be cut to size and not plunged (because it doesn’t have a thread core). In fact, if you restrict your materials to pearl purl and the various flexible hollow purls and checks (and spangles), you won’t see any gold at the back of your work at all!

The back of this goldwork shows no gold at all All the gold is on the front

Anything with a thread core gets plunged, so you leave at least an inch on both sides; I actually tend to leave a little more when I pre-cut lengths, as I did for Bruce’s back where the lines are relatively short. The shorter the couched length, the greater the wastage as a percentage of the length used. But in Bruce’s hind leg, for example, where for the central part I’ll just be going round and round and round, the plunged bits will be a relatively small percentage.

Different lengths of couching

And even then I can’t really think of the plunged ends as “wastage” because, well, you need to finish off! In much the same way that you weave the thread end in when doing cross stitch or Hardanger you need to secure these gold threads. You only oversew about 10 to 15mm but you do need a bit more to pull to the back so you do tend to cut off a few centimetres each time after securing, and those offcuts can’t be used for anything else. Still, on the whole it’s fairly economical with the materials (depending to some extent on the design) – most of the gold is definitely on the front where it is seen!

Goodbye, Ally Pally

Do you remember early March? When the news from abroad was worrying but the UK seemed to be carrying on much as usual for the time being? On 10th March, four months ago today, I got the usual email from the organisers of the Knitting & Stitching Show to submit workshop proposals for the October show at Alexandra Palace (they have to start planning in good time). I sent them a selection of seven or eight workshops four days later, and on 8th April I was sent the workshop schedule with the request to proofread my four entries.

I can’t tell you how odd it felt. Only the week before I had celebrated my 50th birthday in strict lockdown with my husband and the cat instead of looking forward to a big family party in the Netherlands, and proofreading workshops seemed strangely incongruous. Still, the show was six months away and it’s good to be optimistic, so I looked through the text and corrected or amended a few things. I was quite pleased with the workshops they’d chosen: it was a nice combination of the familiar (the Hardanger needle book has been a stalwart in the programme ever since my first workshop in 2013) and the new (this would be the first time the Christmas Wreath was included), and of counted (all of the Hardanger, and the foundation of the Christmas Wreath) and freestyle (No Place Like Home and the Butterfly Wreath).

The four workshops that are not to be

And then I rather forgot about the whole thing as lockdown really took hold, and it didn’t seem likely anything like the Knitting & Stitching Show would be allowed to go on. But a week or so ago I got an email from Wendy, who organises the workshop programme, to say they were planning a show with a difference. Booked tickets only, fewer stands, fewer but longer workshops to minimise traffic from one to the next, sanitising everything that doesn’t move and asking everything that does move (like tutors) to sanitise themselves… I don’t envy them the task because it will be a Herculean effort. And as she pointed out when I wrote back with some questions, they don’t even know yet whether come October they will be allowed to go ahead, but if they don’t start planning now they won’t have a show even if they were allowed to!

Unfortunately that meant that tutors like myself had to decide this week whether we would teach or not. It took a lot of thought and talking it over with my husband and close friends, but in the end I came to the conclusion that I would opt not to teach this year.

For those of you who love the workshops at the Knitting & Stitching Show, especially those of you who have attended one or more of my workshops in the past and perhaps were planning to come to another one this year, I’d like to explain why I made that choice. There is the obvious fact that none of us knows what the situation will be like in October, and making a decision now which involves a fair amount of travel on public transport to attend a show with people coming from all over the country in three months’ time was, I felt, too much of a risk. Although neither myself nor my husband is in a vulnerable or extremely vulnerable (shielding) group, several people I come into contact with are, and I want to be careful.

The other major consideration is the way I teach. As most of my workshops are aimed at beginners, if not of needlework in general then at least of whatever technique I’m teaching there, a lot of my time is spent showing students (either individually or in little clusters) how to work a particular stitch, what the next stage of the design is, or where to bring the needle up to make the next stitch easier; and of course helping them if something has gone wrong. All this would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, while maintaining social distancing, even if the distance has been reduced somewhat by then. I would in effect be offering them a kit with some extra verbal explanation, and that is not the workshop experience I want to give students.

It was a difficult decision, because I will miss teaching and meeting the stitchers there very much. But in the end I think it was the right thing to do this year, and I will just have to look forward to being back next year. And who knows, perhaps we can think of an alternative! If you would normally have come to a workshop but for whatever reason decide not to visit the show in person this year, would a one-on-one kit-and-Zoom-workshop be something you’d consider as an option? Let me know whether the idea appeals to you, and if enough people like it I’ll get my thinking cap on…