Horsey decisions

One of the exciting things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. One of the scary things about an embroidery project is the choices you have to make. Both statements can be equally true, but they tend to apply to either your own design or at least a chart rather than a kit. When purchasing a kit (or attending a workshop, which tends to come with a kit) most of the choices are made for you: what to stitch, which stitch to use, and what materials in which colours – it’s all been mapped out in advance.

Even the order in which you work the elements is only free to some extent; very often it is determined by either the order of teaching, the design, or what is considered the usual progression of techniques and materials. Left to my own devices with the metalwork racehorse I started at the RSN 3-day class last summer, for example, I would probably have left the padded cutwork in the tail till last, purely because it minimises the risk of damage to that very prominent domed golden curve while working on the rest of the design; but it was taught on the second day of the class and so at least half a padded gold tail has been courting danger for the past year.

Pretty much the only decision I expected to be fully my own in this particular project was whether to plunge as I go or leave it all until the end. (Plunge as I go, definitely. I dislike plunging and there is a lot of it in this design which I don’t want to be left with when all the stitching at the front of the work is done and I should be celebrating.) And that is not a decision which affects the way the finished piece looks.

The jockey's jacket with ends waiting to be plunged

Even so, the end result will never be quite like the model, for a variety of reasons. Here is Helen McCook’s original stitched model, of which we were given an enlarged photograph for reference. You will notice that the background colour is different from mine – when she first started teaching this class she offered both the olive green of the model and the darker green I’m working on, but when absolutely no-one chose the olive green she abandoned that colour. Other tutor-made changes are the change from purple to blue for the body of the jockey’s jacket, and a different metal thread used for the red sleeve. Originally this was intended to be worked in a red version of the blue of the jacket and the black of the boot, a couching thread known as 371 thread (no, I have no idea why) which is similar to a smooth passing thread but coloured and without any precious metal content. I can’t quite remember why the change was made to a six-stranded metallic thread but I’m sure there was a good reason for it.

Helen McCook's stitched model The jockey's arm in red 6-stranded metallic thread

Sometimes differences are unintentional – the one shown below occurred because, on a roll couching silver pearl purl, I failed to pay attention to the stitched model and couched the jockey’s hand with the same sort of angle as his face. That line abutting the sleeve should not have been there. I am definitely not unpicking it, though! Unless I show people the picture of the stitched model side by side with my version, no-one will know. (Yes, I realise that you know now, but I’m sure you won’t tell.)

A different hand

Other differences are, in a sense, originated by the tutor but the stitcher has some choice in interpreting them. In the instances shown below, I couldn’t work the line as shown in the stitched model because the design lines pre-drawn on the kit fabric would have been visible if I had. The horse’s jaw is a single curve in the model, followed by a gap and then the curve of the muzzle. The design line showed a shorter jaw curve, a gap closer to the front of the muzzle, and a line between them. I chose to couch that element separately in pearl purl. The jockey’s elbow is quite rounded in the stitched model (which would be a lot easier to stitch) but the design lines give him a very pointy elbow. I have tried to adjust the couching to these pointy lines, but you may just be able to see that a little of them is still visible; I had to decide whether it was worth the effort unpicking the whole sleeve and working it afresh starting from the pointy elbow (with no guarantee that it would look any neater). I decided it wasn’t – I know the lines are there, but they are fairly faint and won’t be very noticeable when viewing the finished piece from a normal distance.

A different jaw A different elbow

And finally even with a workshop kit there are some things the stitcher can decide all by herself – especially if she happens to have a reasonably abundant stash of goldwork materials… Some of these you know about already, like the horse’s eye (originally a gem in a squarish mount, now a silver cup sequin with a black bead) and some of the gold pearl purl in his head and neck. You may remember I didn’t like the bright yellow gold of the pearl purl that came with the kit and used a slightly finer one from my stash which was a rather mellower colour. This brought with it another dilemma, however. There is quite a bit of gold pearl purl in the design; did I really want to use up my nice, fine, mellow pearl purl and be left with a goodly amount of bright yellow pearl purl that I would be unlikely to want to use in future projects? No. So I used up the remains of the length I’d snipped off my stash purl in the jaw and in a small V-shape inside the rear leg, and I’ll use the kit purl for the other lines. In fact I rather like the effect of the two colours and thicknesses combined in the leg – an unintended bonus smiley.

A mixture of gold pearl purls

And that’s where the racehorse is now. There are several projects clamouring for attention at the moment but I may just get him finished first; I’ve just received an email to say RSN classes in Rugby will be starting again in the not too distant future, and after mounting my Jacobean piece the next module will be goldwork, so any practice I can get in before then is a good thing!

The racehorse at the moment

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 little bit of progress

So did I manage to get any work done on Queen’s Silks, the goldwork racehorse started last summer at Hampton Court Palace during a heatwave? Yes, I did; not a great deal, but at least I’m getting into the goldwork routine again.

And some of my first foray back into metalwork was routine indeed – plunging! There is an awful lot of couched Jap and passing in this project, and consequently an awful lot of plunging. Not my favourite part of goldwork, and therefore best undertaken in small doses. Here I could have finished filling the complete shape first, but it looked like such a jumble that I felt I’d like to get the ends out of the way first. I also finished the chipping on a nearby shape. The first picture shows the state of play in this area of the design when I got the racehorse home last July, the second what it looks like now.

Where I left off in July last year Some chipping and plunging

Before I started the plunging there was one thing I did need to do; I noticed that part of the design line was still visible on the right-hand side of the lower end of the couched area, and this would have to be covered. Fortunately I had cut the Jap fairly generously at that end, so I could continue to couch a single thread to cover the design line and still have enough left (albeit only just) to plunge and finish off.

A visible design line A single line of couching

And that’s where we are now! It’ll clearly be a while before this horse passes the post smiley but that’s fine – I’m in no hurry. Just very pleased to be working on something shiny again!

Shiny

A significant finish – or is it?

If you follow Mabel on Facebook you will have noticed (it would have been hard to miss…) that I have finished the stitching on my crewel piece for the RSN Certificate Jacobean module. And by the original deadline, too – a very significant finish, you’ll agree.

The finished tree

So why the doubt in the title? Because although the stitching is finished, the piece is not yet ready for assessment; for that it needs to be mounted, and the requirements are very specific and very demanding. The RSN offers one-on-one online tutorials for Certificate & Diploma students during the lockdown but even one-on-one I am not going to attempt mounting for the very first time unless I have the tutor right there with me in the room. You can lose plenty of points on your mounting!

So for now my Tree of Life is in limbo, which in practice means the large quilted bag I use to transport the work to classes, where it will sit, still stretched on its slate frame, until the next proper class.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate! I didn’t quite break open the prosecco, but I have been eyeing a few silk shading kits (purely to get some practice for future modules, of course) which would make a suitable reward. And part of the celebration is to show you the final stages of the stitching – embroidery is so much more enjoyable when we can share it with like-minded people.

All that was left, you may remember, was the cat. How much work can that possibly be? As it turned out, quite a lot! I started with what I will call the background legs, that is to say the ones furthest towards the back. Originally I thought satin stitch would be best for that, to contrast with the long & short stitch in the rest of the cat, but a trial run on the doodle cat showed that to be almost impossible to keep neat, so they were done in long & short as well.

A satin-stitched leg Background legs finished

At this point the background legs looked alarmingly prominent, but I hoped that would change when the foreground legs went in.

That would come later, though – first the tummy: lines of split stitch in the lightest brown. I’d have liked it to be lighter still, and with hindsight I should probably have gone one lighter for my fifth shade of brown as there isn’t that much difference between “lightest” and “light” (noticeable in the tree trunk), but the tutors were concerned that it might blend in with the background too much. Heigh-ho, I wasn’t going to start all over again at this point smiley so wool-Lexi’s tummy is beige.

Tummy finished

On to the outline, worked in the usual single-thread split stitch for most of the cat, but using a double thread where the foreground legs touch the background legs, plus what I tend to think of as the cat’s hip but which anatomically may well be her knee.

An outlined cat

Next were the foreground legs, and the tricky bit was going to be blending the back leg into the rest of the body towards where her backside sticks up. I’d studied Lexi’s stripe pattern which turned out to be surprisingly different from what I’d always thought.

A sketch of Lexi's stripe pattern

I decided that wasn’t going to be easy to replicate in long & short stitch, and as Jacobean Lexi isn’t meant to be particularly naturalistic I decided I’d make up my own pattern to suit the stitching.

The foreground legs

The one thing I was certain of was that I would use the hip/knee outline to create a clear dividing line by stitching closely over the split stitch. But that would have to wait until I’d stitched the body right up to that line, so it was time to start on the head. I’d studied the direction of Lexi’s fur quite closely for my doodle cat so I could work without the model this time. The model turned up anyway, but because she is a cat she chose to pose the wrong way round.

Starting on the head The model, facing the wrong way

After the head came stripes and more stripes, until I reached the hip/knee line. Then it was time to take up the back leg again and join the bits, moving on to the tail. There I diverged from reality even more by giving wool-Lexi a light tip of the tail. I haven’t dared show this to real Lexi yet…

Stripes on the body The tail gets a light tip

I am quite pleased with how she’s turned out: the line between her stripes and the beige tummy isn’t too stark, and the raised line of her hip/knee stands out quite well. Her outlines are nice and smooth, which wasn’t easy to get right with all those curves. There is (did you notice?) a little fluff on her bottom (the brown shades of Appletons seemed to produce more of it than the other colours), but I got rid of that later.

Was that it then? No, there was one last element to do: the wool wrapped around her body, one couched thread of turquoise linking the cat to the ball of wool. The first challenge was to find a nice, even length of wool which was roughly the same thickness all along. Even with the best of the bunch it took a few goes but at last all the paint lines were covered and there was a pleasing sweep of the thread towards the ball. By the way, the middle picture shows how I angled the needle to make it look as though the thread appears from behind the cat.

Choosing an even thread Angling the needle The finished couching

And that was it! As I photographed the tree at various angles and in different light conditions, I also took a few close-ups which I’d like to share with you; they are parts that you’ve seen before, but even so I thought it might be nice to show them again now that you’ve seen them in the completed design.

The flower on the left The leaf on the right The big tulip James the snail

And to end the story, here’s the finished tree once more. The next time you see it it will be mounted and off to its assessment!

The finished tree

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

A cat-shaped outline

As you may imagine, the Coronavirus lockdown is playing havoc with my RSN Certificate since all classes have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. (Having said that, I’ve just received the workshop schedule for the October Knitting & Stitching Show – stitchers are obviously an optimistic breed!)

The RSN are offering one-on-one online classes with some tutors, but I’ve thought it over and I feel that at the moment it wouldn’t benefit me enough to warrant the fairly high cost. Both mounting the finished Jacobean piece (when it is finished…) and framing up for Canvaswork are things I really do not want to tackle virtually, as it were, even if I could get the right materials.

Fortunately all C&D students have been offered extensions to the time we have in which to complete the courses, so there is no extra pressure. Even so I’ve decided to try and finish the stitching for my Jacobean module according to my original schedule, that is to say by 22nd April. To that end I’ve been doing some work on it over the past few weekends, but my goodness it’s been slow. Still, I think it’s been worth it!

The first bit of work I did was actually some doodling – I wanted to see whether the cat would look better with whiskers. On the whole, I don’t think so; because of the thickness of the wool they are rather too prominent, and I somehow don’t think they’d allow me to use some of Lexi’s real slimline whiskers smiley.

The original cat doodle without whiskers The alternative cat doodle with whiskers

Then it was time to put some stitching into the actual project, and I decided to start with something not too challenging: random French knots underneath the block shading. I temporarily toyed with the idea of doing a pattern, but various trial runs on paper didn’t produce anything pleasing so I abandoned that idea. Back to random. Next thing on the list was the water, and I got as far as putting in the first line of couching before I ran out of time and daylight.

A little bit of work on the Certificate

By the way, although I’m looking forward to not needing the trestles with my new small slate frame, I do enjoy working with a view of our increasingly colourful garden. I will admit that I sometimes get distracted by the view – it’s a good thing my stitching glasses reduce it to a green-and-flower-coloured blur or I’d get more distracted than I do already. But one distraction last weekend was a bit different: a tiny insect had taken up residence in my Cretan stitch, and it proved exceedingly difficult to remove it without hurting it. Eventually I managed to get it to climb onto my needle, and then took it outside before finally getting down to some stitching.

Homework with garden view Homework with garden view An interloper

Although I had started on the water, I decided to work on the ball of wool first. I discussed this with Helen at my last class and based on her comments I put in two layers of full satin stitch padding (instead of the more usual surface satin padding) within the split stitch outline, followed by the full top layer (going over the outline), and finally the partial very top layer. There are one or two minimal irregularities in the outline but I’m happy with the look of the finished ball.

First layer of padding Second layer of padding Full top layer Partial very top layer

Finally it was time to finish the water. In order to determine the waviness of the couched lines I used short pins to try out various possible positions, and when I was happy with them I lightly drew them in. I then started the fly stitch couching, at which point Lexi decided to pose for her portrait, unaware that it wasn’t her turn yet.

Pinning out the lines The lines drawn in Starting the fly stitch couching Lexi poses for her portrait

There was a slight hold-up when I had to remove some black fibre from the Appleton’s wool *sigh*, but I managed to finish the water before the light became too dim.

Black inclusions in Appletons wool The finished water

And so the one thing left that is outline-only is Lexi. I will make a start on her this weekend if all goes well, and finish her next weekend. Surely two weekends should be enough for any cat! After that the project will be stored, still stretched on the slate frame (on the advice of a former RSN tutor and some of the Diploma students), until such time as we can attend classes again. Meanwhile I will be able to put the finishing touches to the SAL stitched models, and then hopefully get back to some of my abandoned projects. Hengest is calling, er, neighing me!

The Tree with only a cat left to stitch

A manageable frame

If you’ve been following my RSN Certificate progress you may have picked up a hint or two (or three, or four…) that I do not like working with the slate frame. Well, that’s not absolutely true, I do greatly appreciate the excellent tension you get on a slate frame, and I rather enjoy doing embroidery in a way that connects me with stitchers from many centuries ago; what I do not like was its size, which means you have to use it with trestles, which in turn means that even with considerable added tilt, the work is still at a near-horizontal angle.

A near-horizontal slate frame

This seems to work for some, maybe even most people (although I have heard from at least one RSN graduate that she hardly ever uses a slate frame anymore because it “did her back in”) but I am hampered by my eyesight. Not only am I very short-sighted, I have protein deposits in one eye which cause blurring. Together they make it impossible for me to see the whole slate frame in focus when it is positioned on the trestles. I could reasonably comfortable work on the bottom third of the design, and also on the top third by the simple expedient of turning the frame round. It was when working on a particularly challenging part right in the middle of the design that I found the only way I could see well enough to do the stitching with the required level of accuracy was to stand up and bend over the frame. Doing my back in? I’ll say!

Back-breaking work at the slate frame Back-breaking work at the slate frame

It was very clear to me that I needed a smaller slate frame. The RSN don’t do anything smaller than my present 18″ one, but several other people do, among them Jenny Adin-Christie, a former tutor and studio embroiderer at the RSN and therefore well-acquainted with what is required of a slate frame. It just remained to convince the RSN that I could, in fact, do the next three modules on a 12″ slate frame as the size requirements were so much smaller than for the Jacobean module (A5 max instead of A4). Initially they were not happy with the idea; it took a fair few emails (including mentioning that I would not be able to continue with the Certificate in the present set-up) and a promise that I would discuss it with my tutors, but in the end they did agree and the very next day I ordered my smaller frame.

A smaller slate frame

It’s difficult to tell the size when seeing it in isolation, so here it is (with pinned lengths of herringbone band to help it keep its shape) on top of the old one – once on top of the covers and once showing my Jacobean piece, which actually very nearly fits!

The new slate frame on top of the old The smaller frame would almost accommodate the Tree!

The main thing about getting this smaller slate frame was that I could dispense with the trestle set-up. But it’s obviously too big to hold – it needs a stand of some sort. On her site, Jenny Adin-Christie says this size can be used with a Lowery, although it will need support on the unclamped side. Well, that’s not going to be a problem – remember this?

A Meccano solution (with cat) The Meccano prop in place

But the Lowery is not ideal from a portability perspective. To use this frame at my classes it would be really helpful if it worked with the Aristo lap stand, the arms of which in their natural state are not quite long enough to support the slate frame at full stretch.

The arms of the Aristo lap stand are not quite long enough

Once again, Meccano and Mr Mabel’s engineering expertise to the rescue! (He has modestly requested I show only his hands, not his face.)

Picking useful bits of Meccano Putting things together

And here it is, ready for use when I start my Canvaswork module (whenever that may be…)

The finished extension in place The finished extension in use

PS By the way, the conversations with my tutors about the slate frame were interesting. One said that it was unusual but she had no doubt I’d manage as long as I could find a stand to use it with in class (sorted, see above); with the other, the conversation went as follows: “I’ve been allowed to work on a smaller frame.” “Yeah, that’s fine.” “No, but a much smaller frame.” “Yes, OK.” “I mean, 12-inch small”. “Yes, fine.” Well, that was obviously a big problem smiley.

The home straight

Last week I had my sixth class for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate, which means that we’re on the home straight. In fact, my homework is to finish the Tree before coming to my seventh class!

As usual, not an awful lot of stitching got done at the class, but there was plenty of learning and information-gathering going on. One student doing her Silk Shading module was trying out colours by cutting a print of the flower petal she was stitching in half, attaching it to her doodle cloth, and stitching the other half to match the photograph – a great idea, which I promptly appropriated (with her permission, I hasten to add) even though it’ll be a couple of years before I need it. Two others were working on silk shading and I picked up some good tips from listening to tutor Helen McCook’s advice to them. It’s never too early to start learning.

A way to match thread colours to reality

I did manage to finish the last row of the block shading on the right-hand hillock (had to start a new thread for the last five stitches or so – annoying!) and Helen said the lines are nice and crisp, so happy with that.

Running out of thread at an annoying moment The finished rows

Going through my notes with her I decided I won’t outline the gap in the tree trunk (it’s neat enough as it is and doesn’t really need it), and that I will add extra padding to ball of wool – Helen suggested using full satin padding instead of the usual surface satin, as the bulk at the back would help create more lift at the front when mounted. I’m all for a more ball-like ball of wool so I’ll give that a go.

Helen also asked me to sample the cat with broader stripes, as the narrow stripes didn’t look very smooth. I said that Lexi’s stripes were narrow and I didn’t want to lose the tabby look (for one thing Lexi would never forgive me); I’ve shown I can do smooth long & short shading in the sepals on the tulip so surely this can just be a bit more, well, furry? She said it wasn’t so much about the shading as the smoothness of the stitching. I agreed to sample some broad stripes. When I showed them to Helen she said, “That’s much smoother. And it looks all wrong, like she’s wearing a striped jumper.” Lexi is back to narrow stripes smiley.

Broad stripes on Lexi

Next was the left-hand floral thingy (not sure what it is, really). I’d intended to start on the Bayeux part but fortunately Helen reminded me that you work back to front so first came the seeding in the back petal. Officially this should be followed by the Palestrina outline, but time was getting on and I wanted to start the laid work on the scalloped part of the front petal. As I was working on this Helen said, “Are you shading from light to dark?” To my mind I was shading from dark to light because I looked at it top to bottom, but she meant looking at it from the base. Apparently (although no-one had thought to tell me this before) traditionally the darker shade is at the base of the flower/plant/petal/leaf, as indeed it is in the tulip sepals. I explained I’d never heard of this and I’d just chosen what looked pleasing to me, and she said that was fine.

Shading on plant parts

I got on with trying to fill very curved scallops with very straight laid stitches, making sure that the edges were crisp and no outline was visible. A challenge. So challenging, in fact, that I unpicked my first five stitches or so three times. It was then that I had a light-bulb moment. One of the reasons why it was extremely difficult to get the edge to look neat and crisp and so on was that my dark thread contrasted very strongly with the fabric. What if I used Helen’s traditional shade order and started with the lightest of my shades? The scalloped edge would probably be no neater, but it would look neater, and the dark shades would be used at the bottom of the shape where there were no nasty curves to navigate. I’m afraid I didn’t take pictures of the top-dark version, but take it from me, the top-light version does indeed look a lot better!

Seeding on the back petal, and the start of Bayeux stitch

That’s where I got to at the end of the class. With my next class not until late April I now needed to put this away for a while and concentrate on the Tree of Life SAL, but I did just want to finish the left-hand flower and the little diamond that connects it to the branch. First, the Palestrina stitch outline of the back petal; on my various colour plans this was sometimes dark orange, sometimes light orange, and on the last one two oranges and a light brown, which was never a good idea. In the end I went with the light direction as shown by the trunk, so the right-facing parts are done in light orange and the others in dark.

Palestrina stitch outline in two colours

On to my Bayeux petal, and time for some shading. I’m very pleased with how that’s come out, and the outline isn’t too shabby either – no need to cover it up. (I’d intially included a decorative outline stitch in the design, but both Helen and Angela said that an extra border stitch around laid work immediately makes the assessors think there is something messy to hide.)

Shading and outline on the laid work

Next was the long couching lines, and an interesting challenge – where to fasten on and off? There is no outline to sneak stitches under, no area that will be covered later… In the end I very gently pushed aside the laid stitches and hid the anchoring stitches underneath.

Where to fasten on?

It was only when I’d completed the two stages of couching (long dark brown lines across the laid foundation held down themselves with tiny beige stitches) that I noticed not all the long lines were the same thickness (Appleton’s – grrrr). Well, I’m not going to take them out; I’m happy with their placement and I don’t want to do it again (pictures in a future FoF will explain why)!

Uneven lines will have to do

Finally, the little orange diamond at the base of the flower, consisting of alternating light and dark bullion knots. It’s not a perfect diamond but it is a little less elongated than the doodle version I did some time ago, and the design lines don’t show on the real project, so I call that progress.

The bullion knot diamond The doodled bullion knot diamond

By the way, what a difference lighting makes – here’s the Tree as it is lit when I’m working on it (light coming from the top and the work nearly horizontal), and photographed with my husband holding it up (facing the window with the work nearly vertical, and at a 45-degree angle towards the window but still vertical).

The Tree, photographed horizontally The Tree, photographed vertically, facing the window The Tree, photographed vertically, angled towards the window

Now on to mounting (a challenge in itself) and then canvaswork – and to encourage the creative process I’ve treated myself to some inspirational threads!

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery

Certificate progress

Tomorrow is my 6th Certificate class, and I have done my homework. Most of it. Some of it. I have finally realised that my estimates of what I will get stitched between classes is ludicrously optimistic so I will just be pleased with whatever bits I managed. For this class they are, in order, a snail, a leaf, a water sample, and part of a hillock.

I wrote about James the Snail in as much detail as anyone is likely to want in an earlier FoF, but I will just show him again here because I’m chuffed to bits with him!

The finished snail

I shouldn’t have started with James, really; he is definitely the crowning glory of the piece so far, so all the other parts will have a hard time living up to him. Heigh ho, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be disappointed smiley.

Next up was the leaf on the right of the tree, which was going to have scattered ermine stitches in the centre. “Scattered” implies “random”, a concept I have had to work on. I am inherently a symmetry nut, so I fully understand people who panic at a workshop when being told to “apply beads at random”. For those people (and for myself, when I’m not in a random mood) I generally provide one non-random pleasing pattern, and one way of being random in an organised manner. The latter method was the one I adopted for the leaf.

That meant drawing the ermine stitches on my sample cloth and stitching them there (also to see whether I could get all five shades of turquoise in – I could!), then tracing them, deciding that some of them needed to be moved, pricking the tracing with those necessary movements in mind, and using the pricked tracing to put guide dots on the fabric.

Drawing the ermine stitches on the sample cloth Tracing the sample Annotating and pricking the sample Guide dots on the fabric

By this method I managed to resist the temptation to put all the ermine stitches in a regimented symmetrical pattern. I still feel the urge to unpick and move some of them to look less random, but I’m ignoring it. This is my scattered leaf!

The finished ermine stitches

You may remember the tutors and I couldn’t quite work out what to call the stitch I was going to use for the border – it wasn’t brick stitch, because it would be worked in long lines instead of rows, but it was bricked. However, I wasn’t sure how consistently I’d be able to keep up the bricking because of the very curvy and pointy bits of the shape I was filling. So we decided on “backstitch filling”, which covered all bases. Compensating for the curves and for the fact that the border isn’t equally wide all around was a bit tricky here and there, and my stitch length definitely isn’t uniform around the leaf, but I’m happy with the overal look of it.

Incidentally, as I was editing the close-up photograph I’d taken of the finished leaf I noticed something I hadn’t seen while working on it: a visible bit of painted outline. Although it is sometimes possible to very gently scrape the paint off the fabric, it seemed a better idea to put in a few extra stitches – it would smooth out the outline at the same time as covering the paint. Fastening on and off was a bit fiddly with no suitable areas nearby, but I managed to sneak them underneath existing stitches to keep them invisible.

The finished leaf - with paint visible The finished leaf really finished

As it is really only possible to work on the actual project by daylight, I put in a little sampling on Saturday evening. Along the bottom of the hillocks there will be a few lines of waves worked in fly stitch couching. Previous samples (not for the Certificate) had been in fairly rigid lines, but I wanted to experiment with lines that would vary in height along their length, and possibly also have an undulating couched line (originally I had intended the v-shapes of the fly stitches to represent the waves, while keeping the lines they were couching straight). As I had a sample cloth with the left-hand hillock on it, I stitched a bit of sea/river along the bottom, and although the fly stitches are perhaps a little higher than I’ll make them in the proper piece, I like the effect of the wavy lines – they are definitely in!

Sampling water

I had hoped to finish both the block shading and the Bayeux stitch floral element, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen. I settled for two-thirds of the block shading (well, it’s more than that actually as the rows get progressively shorter and I’ve done the two longer ones). The first thing I had to decide on was the corners of my rows. The RSN Crewel book shows block shading with straight edges – that is to say, the very first and the very last stitch of the row are horizontal and cover the full height of the row. But my corners are much sharper than the ones in the picture, and it would mean having a sort of fan of stitches there in order to get from the horizontal to the proper stitch angle for the rest of the arc. My worry was that that would get bulky where the fanning stitches met, so I worked some slightly shorter stitches instead, keeping the direction of the stitches near the corner.

Block shading in the RSN crewel book Corners in my block shading

I bounced this off Angela and she said that was the right way to go about it, so on with the rest of the row. Having completed it I was quite happy with it! The top edge is smooth, the corners are neat, the stitches aren’t crowded (something Angela had asked me to concentrate on), the stitch direction changes gradually, and – yay! – the row is virtually the same width all along (unlike my earlier samples).

The first row of block shading Tapering block shading

Unfortunately, because of the nearly horizontal position of the slate frame, I see the work at an angle, and wool stitching having quite a bit of body, that means I can’t actually see the fabric right by the far side of my stitches unless I lean over, which is not a very good stitching position. It meant that I didn’t notice until I was about two-thirds of the way through that the teensiest bit of design line is visible at the top of the hillock. A bit of a dilemma, as this will cost me points in the assessment; on the other hand a dilemma that wasn’t too hard to solve – I’d just produced the larger part of a very respectable-looking row of block shading and there was no way I was going to unpick it all! The risk of ending up with a row that covered the paint line but looked much less nice than this one was too big. It’ll have to stand.

The lift of the wool hides the paint line from view A hint of paint

In between work I found time to complete the second row of shading, with some tricky voiding for the ball of wool; the third row (a light brown) will have to be done at the class, and hopefully that Bayeux leaf as well. For now, this is the state of the Tree at the start of my sixth class:

Two rows of block shading The tree before my sixth class

“And James reached the end of his brick”

Or more accurately, I have reached the end of both James and his brick – yay! And at no point did he feel the need to give the huffle of a snail in danger, in spite of being poked with two types of needle smiley. (If the previous sounds like total gibberish, do read “The Four Friends” by A.A. Milne, it will tell you all about James.)

You may remember that once upon a time I doodled two possible snail shells, one in padded buttonhole stitch and one in raised backstitch (or modified whipped wheel / ribbed spider’s web – they’re all the same thing). I liked the ribbed look of the raised backstitch version, but it was terribly fiddly and difficult to fill completely, so I decided to stick with the padded buttonhole, although possibly a bit more padded than on the doodle cloth.

Padded buttonhole shell Raised backstitch shell

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose!) literally everyone who saw the two together preferred the raised backstitch one, including me. Fiddly or not, challenging or not, it was useless to resist any longer: James was going to have a ribbed shell.

But first he needed a body. That was going to be the simple and relatively quick part: stem stitch outline in the darkest brown, with seed stitch shading in medium and light brown. I positioned the covers to protect the rest of the work and help me focus on the snail (is it just me, or does it look slightly surgical?) and set to work. And I hadn’t done more than fasten on and work the first stitch before it became very clear that this brown was far too dark – it was going to make his body stand out more than I wanted it to (he is, after all, quite a diffident snail and wouldn’t want to be conspicuous). So I unpicked and restitched using dark for the outline and a small part of the seeding, with medium and light for the rest of the seeding. I also decided to couch down the stems of the antennae pistil stitches to make them very slightly curved.

Setting up a snail Too dark a body The finished body

On to the shell!

First it needed the “spokes”, as evenly spaced as possible around the spiral, and all sticking out beyond the design line so that the filling/whipping would cover the line instead of stopping short of it as it did in the doodle version. The first spoke had to be rather longer because the shell widens out there; that would also need some creative manipulation of the whipping to ensure a nice solid filling.

The first spoke All the spokes, ready for whipping

Time to start whipping. Unlike the doodle version, this one would be rather more subtly shaded, using light, medium and dark turquoise. For ease of access I’d have preferred starting with the dark thread on the outside of the spiral, but the stitches would drag to the centre unless I was very careful indeed about tension, and even then it’s not ideal. Light thread starting from the centre was the way to go, changing to medium after two rows. Incidentally, if I did this again (no, don’t worry, I’m not about to unpick the whole thing) I would continue with the light thread a bit longer – as it is the shell as a whole is a bit darker than I had intended.

Two rows of light whipping Changing to medium turquoise

While working with the medium turquoise I added some incomplete rows where the shell was wider to make sure the shading widened with the shell. And as the centre filled up, new rows were started a little further along the spiral where there was still room.

The more the shell filled up, the more difficult it became to manipulate the needle; right from the start the last thing I wanted was to inadvertently catch the satin stitch on the brick and pull it awry or fluff up the threads, but with the ribs of the shell growing there was the added challenge of keeping the needle away from them while looping the thread around the spokes. I had been about to cut my nails that morning because several had split, but I was now very glad I hadn’t, as my thumb nails turned out to be an invaluable tool in guiding the needle safely over any previous stitching.

Using a thumb nail to guide the needle Keeping previous stitching safe

And so on and on and round and round until the whole spiral was filled, and James reached the end of his brick just before I reached the end of my tether!

By the way, it must be the way the light falls onto the fabric, but for some reason the spokes that are at right angles to the light hardly show up, and the shading is much less obvious at the top of the shell than at the bottom, even though the rows of light, medium and dark turquoise are pretty much the same in both places. I’ll see if I can take a photograph with the frame turned 90 degrees and see how that comes out.

The finished snail

With my terribly picky and fussy hat on I can see that the spokes aren’t perfectly evenly spaced, and that they aren’t perfectly evenly covered either; still, this was without doubt the best I could do going round that tricky shape, so I will be happy to show James to the tutor in February!

The tree with the now completed snail