Class notes, a hillock and a brick

It’s been a few weeks since my last RSN Certificate class so high time for an update. And the update doesn’t go beyond the class, I’m afraid, as I haven’t touched the project since – at the moment, the SAL is taking up most of my Mabel time!

We were a select few on 30th November at the Rugby branch of the RSN – only four of us, three of whom were on the Jacobean module. As always it was extremely interesting to see the other students’ projects, what design choices they had made, how they were handling certain stitches. I also found out that I was on the positive side (to my mind) of a change the RSN had made to the Jacobean brief. The other two crewel students both started a little after I did, and they were told that they could have only one animal in their design (I assume people had been going rather overboard on the animal front; the same thing happened some years back with the number of colours you are allowed to use). I heaved a sigh of relief that I’d started earlier, for how could I possibly have sacrificed either James the snail or Lexi the cat! Phew.

Talking of the cat, you may remember I had sampled the ball of wool that she is entangled in. Angela (the tutor) thought it looked very effective but warned me that the assessors (who, by the way, do not look at your work through a magnifying glass – the person telling me that was fibbing!) might have something to say about the long, unsecured satin stitches on the top. I prodded at them to show her that they were really quite firmly placed but she said normally they would expect satin stitches that long to have a little couching stitch in the middle. This, of course, would ruin the effect I was after, so she advised me to put a note in my log to explain that it was a conscious design decision to have the top stitches long and unsecured, and not just me being ignorant of best practice smiley.

Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch

In preparation for my fifth class I had worked on the gap in the tree trunk and the left hillock. I was going to ask the tutor about my idea of whipping the existing chain stitches bordering the gap, but completely forgot! However, if I do decide to add that whipping it can be done right up to when I finish the project, so I’ve made a note to ask next time. For the Pekinese stitches making up the hillock my pretty little stiletto came in handy once again, especially by the tree trunk where the stitches were threatening to get far too intimately acquainted with each other.

Using the stiletto on the left hillock Two areas of stitches coming together

I’d hoped to complete the hillock before going to class but that was clearly not going to happen unless I got up very early on the Saturday, and I felt I’d probably be doing quite enough stitching that day! So this is where I was at the start of my fifth class:

Before the fifth class

Incidentally, although your are expected to attend eight classes (or contact days) per module, don’t let that give you the idea that you put in your last stitch at the end of class #8. Part of the module is mounting your work, and that generally takes all of your eighth class as well as probably half (or more) of your seventh. Angela advised me to have most of my stitching done by the start of the seventh class, so that a bit of tidying and tweaking is all that’s left, stitching-wise, and then concentrate on the mounting. This includes cutting your own mount board and covering it with calico before you get to what I would usually think of as mounting.

But for now it was mostly checking with Angela that she was happy with the bits I’d done at home, like the lattice work and the long & short leaves; to show her the various samplings and ask her opinion; and to get on with stitching. Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that working on these various aspects of my project from 10am to 4pm (minus about 45 minutes for lunch and stretching my legs, and the odd cup of tea in the classroom) I’d get lots done. I certainly thought that, although previous experience should have taught me otherwise. Let’s face it, if you’re into instant gratification an RSN Certificate is not the way to get it. Stitching this precise is slow, not only because accuracy takes time but also because you stop and consider what you’ve done, judge previous decisions and decide whether to change or re-stitch, and so on. This meant that I finished the class with one completed hillock and a little over half a brick.

After the fifth class

Of course that’s a slightly misleading way of putting it, as I came away from the class with lots of feedback, advice, encouragement and ideas as well – and the pleasure of having seen the start of what is set to become an amazing piece of blackwork (creepy, but amazing) by a Diploma student, and of meeting a lady who to my mind is a stitching hero. Having done nothing more than a few needlepoint kits, she decided she wanted to get some solid embroidery schooling and is now working on the Jacobean module for her Certificate. My husband, when I told him about her, said it sounded like someone who’d got a provisional driving licence and a few lessons and then entered a Formula 1 race. Fortunately the risk of serious injury is not nearly so great in embroidery smiley and that Saturday she was having a lot of fun designing a worm as the animal in her crewel project.

Telling my husband all about the classes afterwards is part of my enjoyment of them, and I also like discussing bits of the design or stitch decisions with him as he knows enough about it to understand what I’m talking about, but because he is not an embroiderer himself he has a different way of looking at these things which can help me see them from a fresh perspective. He also helps me not to get too obsessive about the whole thing. When I confessed to him that I liked the doodle cloth hillock much better than the one on the proper project, and wondered aloud whether I should re-do it, his straightforward engineer’s solution was to threaten to take my doodle cloth away until I came to my senses. I have since come to realise that although they look different, and the shape of the doodle cloth hillock is still, to my mind, more pleasing, the final version is absolutely fine.

Now when I said that this FoF would not look beyond the class I was not entirely accurate. It is true that on Sunday afternoon I packed away the trestles and slate frame to sit idle until the new year, but before that I did do a little bit of work on it – I just couldn’t leave it with the brick only half done. There was a practical consideration to this: it is generally best to work a shape like that in one sitting, if possible, because your stitch tension changes from one day to the next. Imagine how it might change from one month to the next! So before bundling the whole set-up into the craft room I finished James’s brick, and I am really pleased with the smooth outline I managed to get on the satin stitch.

A satin stitch brick

And here is the whole thing as it’s gone into hibernation:

The RSN Jacobean project before hibernation

Roll on 2020!

An entangled cat and a ruffled tummy

I’ve been rather quickly and haphazardly adding to doodle-Lexi’s fur because I wanted to sample the couched thread of wool which winds around her tum. This worked well, and will be connected up with the satin stitch ball of wool when it gets to stitching her on the Big Project.

Cat with couched wool around her

When I showed the sample to my husband, he remarked that there was a very clear line between the light stitching on her tummy and the dark stitching on the rest of her. Drawing my attention to real-life Lexi, who was at that moment lying on her back on my lap, looking adorable and showing off her real-life tummy, he pointed out that on her the line was much more blurred. I pointed out that Jacobean embroidery is not exactly renowned for its accurate and naturalistic way of depicting the animals and vegetation in its realm. Even so, his words remained in the back of my mind. What if I added some angled medium and dark brown stitches to the edge of the dark fur so that they overlapped with and blended into the beige?

I tried quite spiky stitches first, sticking out noticeably from the dark top half and overlapping onto the light belly, but that just looked wrong – the angles were simply too different from the generally horizontal direction of the fur and they were too short. Some long stitches, only slightly more angled than the main ones were called for. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the spiky version, but here is the “milder” one (getting these stitches in was a bit challenging where I had to sneak them underneath the couching – obviously on the real thing they would be done before adding the turquoise – which is why they are not quite as neat as I’d like, but they’ll do as an illustration/sample).

Cat with slightly ruffled fur

And here are the stark-lined original and the slightly blurred new version side by side. It’s a subtle difference, but on the whole I do like the second version a little better. So when I get round to stitching her on the real project, wool Lexi will have her fur ruffled!

Two feline tummies

More sampling, a block shading lament and a finished tulip

Two months between my fourth and fifth RSN Certificate classes – surely I must have finished at least three-quarters of the tree by now? Well, not quite. But I have done a lot of sampling, and some “proper” work too, with a few more parts to follow this week with a bit of luck (and application). One of the things I sampled is the ball of wool which entangles the cat. Having decided to work my brick in straight satin stitch, this will be where I show off satin stitch that is both slanted and padded.

First I made a few sketches of the various options, and eventually I decided on a split stitch outline and padding top left to bottom right (surface satin stitch so it doesn’t create too much bulk at the back), then a complete layer of satin stitch in the darkest shade of turquoise bottom left to top right, and finally an incomplete layer like a band in the middle using the second darkest shade, again from top left to bottom right. And when I stitched it, it actually looked as I had envisaged it! Very encouraging – usually it takes at least a few goes. This may of course mean that the one on the actual Certificate piece is going to be disappointing, but let’s remain optimistic.

Sketches for the ball of wool Split stitch outline and padding First layer of satin stitch Second, incomplete layer of satin stitch Showing the lift that the padding gives

I like having that ball of wool in the design. The Anglo-Saxon word for it is “cleow” (very close to the present-day Dutch “kluwen”) which is said to be the origin of the term “crewel”. How cool to have a crewel cleow smiley.

Next was a couple of sketches for the gap in the tree trunk; Angela had expressed concern that Cretan stitch over the full width of the gap, especially towards the bottom, would be too wide. How to divide it? My idea was to sample one version in three parts, from shaded from medium to lightest turquoise, and another in two parts, with dark shades on the light side of the tree and light shades on the dark side, to create the illusion of a deep hollow in the tree which is just picked out by the light coming from the right.

Sketch for the gap in the tree trunk The gap divided into three parts The gap divided into two, to show depth

The three-part version turned out to be too fussy at the top; I like the look of the dark/light version better, although even there the Cretan stitch looks remarkably like feather stitch at the top where it can’t spread out. But then lots of stitches are really the same thing with only minor variations, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. One question remains: does it need the extra outline I had originally put in my plan? Perhaps I could just whip the chain stitches that border it already. I’ll bounce that off the tutor on Saturday.

On to block shading; I obviously need practice on that (see my previous report) plus I had to try out colours. I like the bold version on the left, but on consideration decided that a lighter version would show up the ball of wool better. The sample on the right uses two browns because the lighter one looked too light on the skein, but it turned out to look better when stitched – so the colour combination on the far right is the one I’ll go with. As for the block shading itself, it’s definitely getting better but I just can’t seem to keep the bands the width I set out with. It’s exasperating! I will have to draw really clear guidelines and stick to them like glue.

More block shading

Finally I managed to do some proper stitching on the actual embroidery: the two large leaves at the bottom of the tulip flower, to be worked in long & short stitch. You may remember from my report about the September class that Jessica Aldred gave her official blessing to what I’d been doing in long & short stitch all along, which was encouraging, so without any further sampling I got on with the Real Thing – split stitch outline in medium (except where they meet the tulip, as there will be later stitching along those lines), and then fill in from the tip in lightest to the base in darkest turquoise.

Split stitch outline and first shade of long and short filling One leaf And another one

Incidentally, all these photographs are upside down because I’m working with the top end of the frame towards me at the moment – I simply can’t reach the top of the design when the frame is the right way round!

Having finished the leaves I decided last Saturday to forgo my usual Ladies’ Walk (it looked like rain anyway…) and spent three solid hours on my Certificate homework, in spite of someone in the neighbourhood using some sort of machinery which emitted a continuous droning noise for the first 90 minutes or so. My tulip bulbs may be languishing in the garden shed instead of being planted, but this tulip was going to be completed!

Having seen effect of the dense turquoise stitching on the leaves, the colour of the frills on the petals decided itself: brown. As with the leaves I decided against sampling, plunged for medium brown for the buttonhole/blanket stitch and dark (not darkest) brown for the detached buttonhole fringe, and got stitching.

Blanket stitch along the tulip's fringe Adding the detached buttonhole frill A 3D frill

The last part of the tulip was the dark orange outline, which according to my stitch plan was to be done in knotted stem stitch (also known as Portuguese stem stitch). I had second thoughts; the lines surrounding the brown battlement couching should, I felt, be like the lines surrounding the turquoise lattice work – plain stem stitch. Fortunately it is a doddle to change from plain to knotted stem stitch and back again within a single line, without any need for fastening off and on again, so I decided to work the bits around the brown central petal in plain, and then switch to knotted once I was clear of that part.

Knotted stem stitch doesn't work

No. Absolutely no. It just looks fussy, and with so much going on in that flower already, the outlines need to be clean and simple and not distract the eye. So unpick the knotted bit, discard the unpicked thread because it did not stand up well to this, fasten on a new one and complete the outline in plain stem stitch all around.

A plain stem stitch outline

And here is the whole thing, right way up – I hope to complete at least the left-hand hillock (and possibly the brick) before Saturday’s class.

The tree so far

PS Don’t forget you can sign up for that other Tree of Life from this coming Friday!

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Many intriguing-looking bits of equipment may be found in a needleworker’s box of tricks, some of them probably covered by the Lethal Weapons Act of 1863, like bracing needles and stilettos, some usually more at home in a toolbox, such as a screwdriver used for tightening embroidery hoops (a nice, compact wooden-handled one my husband found me in his garage).

A bracing needle in the Certificate starter pack An antique bodkin A useful screwdriver

But the tool that really helped me get my lattice stitch straight and even was something left over from my secondary school days – what in the Netherlands is known as a “geometry triangle”, similar to a protractor but, well, triangular. One benefit this by now ancient Dutch tool has over any shiny 21st-century protractor I could have nicked from my step-sons’ pencil cases (or, perish the thought, bought new) is that it has parallel lines on it which are exactly half a centimetre apart. And half a centimetre turned out to be just the right distance for the lattice work on my big tulip. Bingo.

Using protractors for needlework

With the lines all done I turned my attention to the colonial knots; after that, it was the turn of the stem stitch outline. This would cover the fastening-on stitches which were for now visible on the painted design line.

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

Well, in theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice a dark turquoise stitch and a light brown one turned out to be still visible under the orange stem stitch. Mostly when viewed from an angle, it is true, but visible nonetheless – and the RSN assessors are picky. So should I be un-picky?

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

There was no help for it; yes, they would have to be unpicked. But the unpicked ends, pulled through to the back of the work, would be far too short to be threaded into a needle and woven in, and although the twill holds the wool relatively firmly, leaving those tails loose at the back and trusting to fabric-on-wool friction would be too risky in the long run. As the work will be mounted before assessment and the back therefore not open to inspection I decided to oversew the ends with sewing thread. Some very pointy tweezers proved useful in getting rid of any remaining fluff.

Two fastening stitches unfastened Oversewing on the back Removing the last fibres with tweezers

And voilà, a cleaned-up petal – at any rate, this is as good as it’s going to get. Even the fine tweezers can’t get rid of all the stray hairs as this wool (have I mentioned this before…?) is terrible for shedding and fluffing, but unless you’re studying the work with a magnifier the effect is OK.

As good as it's going to get!

This made me think about the second petal, though. That, too, had some dark turquoise fastening-on stitches which looked as though they might cause a problem. A pro-active approach was called for, I felt, and the most noticeable of them were pulled through to the back and oversewn as their fellows in the other petal had been. This gave me a relatively clean design line to work with for the stem stitch outline.

But I still hadn’t got to the end of the problems presented by the inner parts of the tulip. Whereas the outer petals had caused trouble by stitches being visible when they shouldn’t, the central petal, filled with battlement couching, had the opposite problem: some threads that should be visible weren’t! On the whole I was really pleased when I completed my battlement filling; it looked pleasingly regular, and the brown shading worked nicely with the orange couching stitches. But by working my couching stitches from the densely stitched side of the final, lightest brown layer to the open side, instead of the other way round, I had on one or two occasions caught and couched the middle layer as well, with the result that some of the medium brown lines had disappeared.

What to do? Might it be salvageable with a little pushing and prodding? Or should I insert a “cheat thread”, and extra line of medium brown? If the former was successful then it would be infinitely preferable, as the disappearing lines hadn’t disappeared along their entire length, so an extra thread might make the whole thing look uneven and bulky. Fortunately the pushing and prodding did cause the vanished threads to re-emerge, and although they are not quite as prominent as they should be they will do for now. I can always decide to run in an extra line right at the end of the project if it proves to be necessary.

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

So here is my visible progress: one stem stitch outline (and some guidelines for long & short stitch). But it is the invisible progress, the tidying and adjusting which (I hope) will make the finished article look just that little bit more “finished”, which has been my real achievement here. Now to get the next parts right first time…

Tulip before today Tidied tulip

A fruitful class and more sampling

Although there has been the occasional burst of activity on Mabel’s Fancies’ Facebook page it’s been two weeks since the last FoF – high time for an update! The long silence can at least in part be blamed on the SAL, as I’ve been spending rather longer than I thought I would on drawing, editing and writing up the remaining stitch diagrams. However, they are all done now; and although there are still chart packs to write and stitch photographs to take, I’m pretty much on schedule.

And so, finally, a report about my latest RSN Certificate class – more than a month ago now, but still fresh in my memory (helped by some photographs I took on the day). We had the luxury of not one, but two tutors: Angela was being shadowed by Jessica Aldred, who is in the process of becoming a Certificate and Diploma tutor. This meant twice the encouragement and advice – I was very pleased I decided not to cancel after all!

This doesn’t mean that I got a lot of stitching done. You may remember that I started the class with the trunk and the vine completed; well, at the end of a 10am-4pm day I had added a petal, and part of a petal…

The Tree of Life before the September class The Tree of Life after the September class

What I had done, was discuss a lot of my samples with both tutors and bounce ideas off them; I was scribbling notes the whole time, and it was very encouraging to hear, in some cases, that what I’d been doing different from the diagrams in most books was actually right smiley! More about that later; let’s go through the design elements we talked about that day.

First there was the bullion knot square-with-rounded-corners. This was give the thumbs-up. Jessica at first said perhaps to couch the longer ones (making sure that the tension of the couching thread doesn’t dent them) but on feeling how solid the square was said it didn’t seem necessary.

A bullion knot square

Then there was James the Snail. You may remember I sampled his shell in two different stitches: padded buttonhole stitch and raised backstitch. The former is by far the easier to do, and to do neatly. Unfortunately the raised backstitch version is preferred by most people who have seen them together, including Angela and Jessica, and me, for that matter. My homework is to do another sample, with the “spokes” for the raised backstitch sticking out further on the outside so the outer design line is covered, and possibly meshing the spokes on the inside of the coil to get sufficient coverage (at the moment there is a bare channel between the coils which simply will not do). I’ve also decided to try and use four shades of turquoise for the shell instead of the three in the sample.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

Next up was the satin stitch brick. I’ve pretty much decided to use satin stitch rather than burden stitch, and I really like the look of this version. But at my third class Helen Jones said all satin stitch had to be slanted, and I couldn’t see how that would work. Nor could Angela and Jessica. We all agreed the vertical version looked much better than a slanted one would; slanted would also make some of the stitches far too long. The RSN Guide mentioned only slanted satin stitch, but by actually calling it “slanted” it suggested that there was a legitimate straight version as well. In the end Angela promised to enquire into the RSN’s official position on satin stitch, and if they inisisted on slanted I might stick with vertical but write up the decision in my log, and perhaps show I could do slanted satin stitch in sampling. They also pointed out that there will be slanted satin stitch in the ball of wool anyway, so the straight version could just be seen as an extra stitch.

A satin stitch brick

As it happens I later heard back from Angela, who passed on the verdict that “satin stitch is often stitched in a slanted direction mainly for ease and a better finish, but in circumstances such as your particular shape, the vertical direction chosen is preferable because a slanted direction would not enhance your design”. So a vertically satin-stitched brick it is!

Then there were a few quick questions which I bounced off the tutors and which for a change needed only short answers (most of my questions seem to take rather longer to address…) – first, should I “void” the body of the cat where the wool is wound around her? Answer: no, work it over the top. That was a relief, as voiding such a thin line would be quite tricky! Angela also suggested that I couch the thread that comes off the ball of wool and entangles the cat, which would look more natural than the split stitch I had originally intended. Secondly, should I make one of the leaves underneath the big tulip darker than the other (leaving out the very lightest shade in one, and the very darkest shade in the other), to indicate where the light comes from, or have them identical (colour-wise, that is; the shading will be mirrored) as I first drew them? Answer: the latter. No need to be too naturalistic in Jacobean designs!

Where the wool winds around the cat Two leaves of equal darkness

While we were on the question of the petals, I took the opportunity to ask Jessica about long & short stitch. The diagrams in most if not all books (and my own diagrams as well) show a split stitch outline, a first row of stitches which are of two lengths and alternate (some disagreement about whether you come up inside the shape for the first row), and consecutive rows of stitches of equal length. Unfortunately following that to the letter does not give very nice results. It looks a bit regimented. So whenever I’ve used long & short I’ve made my stitches rather more random. And then there is the question of what to do when the stitches are almost parallel to the outline – in that case how do you cover the split stitch line without changing the angles too much? Most diagrams only show scenarios where the filling stitches are at a considerable angle to the outline. So far, I’ve solved this by making the final stitch in a row fairly long and working it practically on top of and in the same direction as the outline, going down only just the other side of the split stitch. I felt a bit guilty about all this; I was obviously bodging my long & short to get the look I wanted.

Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project

Imagine my delight when Jessica told me that I was doing exactly what I should be doing! She dislikes the name “long & short stitch” as it gives the wrong impression, and prefers “painting with the needle”, which allows for some more interpretative stitching. As for stitches that are parallel to the sides, go over the split stitch edge when you can, into it when you have to, and if necessary have a stitch completely outside it. So I can carry on as before smiley.

Jessica's notes on long & short stitch

On to the right-hand leaf, which I’d sampled in a sort of brick stitch. Both tutors liked the look, but we agreed that the way I was working it (in long lines rather than short rows) it wasn’t really brick stitch. After considering and rejecting “bricked backstitch” we decided I’d put it down as “backstitch filling”.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally the gap at the bottom of the tree. I charted that in Cretan stitch, but it’s a little wide – the stitches may get rather too long. I was told to sample it to see if it worked, but when I got home I had a different idea. How about working three very pointy “triangles” of Cretan within the main triangle? Keep the shading vertical (i.e. top to botton, in horizontal stripes) to contrast with the trunk. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The gap in the bottom of the trunk

Recently I had another idea for the ball of wool as well; originally I intended to do one layer of satin stitch, with a partial layer at right angles on top, to show how the wool was wound up. But why not turn this into properly padded satin stitch? First outline the ball in split stitch, then put padding in, then the full layer of satin stitch, and then the partial layer; that should make the ball look quite 3D. Sample to follow!

Scribbles about the ball of wool

Oh, one other thing came up, and it’s one that demonstrates Angela’s comment right at the start of my Certificate course, that the design will probably look quite different from the first drafts when it’s finished. As you may remember, for the Jacobean design the stitcher is allowed two main colours (five shades each) and an accent colour (two shades). My accent or contrast colour is Coral. Unfortunately I realised when having another look at my colour plan that there is rather a lot of it throughout the design, whereas the accent colour and the main colours should not have equal weight. A certain degree of de-oranging was called for. Painful for one Dutch-born and bred, but there it is. So far this is the result:

The previous colour scheme, with too much orange The de-oranged scheme

By the way, the frills on the tulip will actually be the same colour – either both brown or both turquoise.

I have, you will be pleased to hear, done some work on the Tree since the class, but I have hit two snags which are keeping me from getting on with things. I will report on these in a future FoF. So far sampling has been a little more productive, with some work done on my block shading. I’m trying to get the stitch right, but am also using the samples to try out different colour combinations; to this end I’ve divided the hillock into sections. (It’s not actually the right hillock, but I had this one drawn on the fabric and for sampling purposes it doesn’t matter much). This is not the first block shading I’ve done (there was some in the Rabbit & Carnations project where I pretty much winged it without a very clear idea of how the stitch was meant to be worked) but it’s definitely not a stitch I am very familiar with; one rather surprising problem was how difficult it proved to be to keep the line the same height along its entire length!

Dividing the hillock into sections and arcs Long & short stitch in the Rabbit & Carnations project Trouble keeping the line thesame height Trying out a colour combination

And that wraps up my fourth class – number five follows at the end of November. By which time I hope to have completed the big tulip, the left-hand hillock and the brick, and possibly the right-hand leaf. Plus those samples, of course. We’ll see!

A Jacobean vine – adding some colour

Even with the extra stitching time scheduled in before my September Certificate class, it was quite clear I wasn’t going to get all the homework done that Helen Cook had suggested at the end of the previous class. But I was determined to get the vine finished – if only because it meant stitching something that wasn’t brown!

But a little preparation was needed before actually getting some orange and turquoise stitches in; careful though I had been, the voids in the trunk didn’t quite follow the curve I had intended for the vine, so I drew some extra guidelines to make sure the voids were all completely filled while keeping the lines suitably sinuous.

The voids for the vine across the trunk Extra lines to guide the vine stitching

And so on to some colour – the central line of orange to begin with, as I wanted to make sure that it was central, something which would be more difficult to achieve if I started with one of the turquoise shades on the outside of the vine. Using the extra step I’d been taught to use doing chain stitch for these lines of stem stitch as well (that is to say, using my hand at the back of the work to pull the loop left at the front through to the back before pulling the thread completely through to the front) proved helpful in creating nice even stitches with, I hoped, less wear than when using the usual pull-through-in-one-go method.

The first bit of non-brown

Unfortunately not even this extra step could counteract the fluffiness and unevenness of some of the threads. In fact, the thread was not only fluffy and uneven, it had some stiff, lighter fibres in it as well. All this meant that I had to unpick part of the vine because the fluffiness made the stem stitches stick together, losing the definition of the stitch, and the stiff alien fibres stood out both by their colour and their texture. And finding a nicely even length of Appleton’s wasn’t easy – looking at the sample below is it any wonder that very few lengths are used in their entirety?

Fuzzy thread with bits A very uneven thread

Still, eventually the orange centre got done, and I was very pleased with the curvaceousness of it. Now for some turquoise! And then I felt a tangle of thread at the back of the work… Now I can’t quite work out why I didn’t notice this tangle while it was happening. It is true that I start and finish from the front because the slate frame isn’t easy to flip, but for one thing I would have expected to notice that suddenly the thread I pulled through was a lot shorter than it should be (this is how I usually realise that all is not well at the back of the work). True, that doesn’t always register (it obviously didn’t this time), but then normally I don’t work two-handed – whereas on this project my right hand is permanently at the back of the work, pulling the needle through to the back and feeding it back to the front. How did I miss that tangle when my hand must have brushed against it several times??? Fortunately I managed to cut the tangle and weave in the ends without the need for any more unpicking, so not too much of a setback.

The orange part of the vine completed An annoying knot at the back The knot seen to

So finally I did get around to the turquoise surrounding the orange. And then I ran into the opposite problem – the thread I was using was relatively thin, and the stem stitch didn’t fully fill the void. Unpick, find a thicker thread (both the original and the replacement can be seen in the first picture below) and restitch, and it looks much better. One shade down, one to go.

Adding turquoise, which looks a bit thin The turquoise restitched with a thicker thread

Now in the original design, the last bit of the vine had only the darker shade of turquoise, on one side of the orange. If I ever do this design again (not going to happen!) I’d probably use the lighter shade instead, but I’m not seriously unhappy with the darker shade there. What I was unhappy with, was the fact that the change from three colours to two colours seemed a bit stark, happening as it did when the vine was hidden behind the trunk. I decided to add just a little of the lighter shade at the beginning of the top part of the vine, to make the transition a bit gentler.

A second turquoise added An extra bit of medium turquoise

And there you have it: the Tree of Life as it was before my September class. Had it grown much by the end of the class? Wait and see smiley.

The Tree of Life before the September class

A Jacobean trunk – lots of brown

You may remember that I wasn’t at all sure whether I ought to go to my September Certificate class, as I had been able to do very little work on the project over the summer. If you cancel within a week of the date, you don’t get a refund, so I had to decide by Friday 13th at the latest. This is when my husband, who still has delusions of Mabel achieving world domination in embroidery, stepped in and made me schedule an hour and a half off work to stitch on as many days as we could manage leading up to the class.

We run our business from home and my desk is actually in the same room as my slate frame set-up, so logistically there wasn’t a problem. And I agreed that I would have to do some serious stitching if the class was to be more than just an expensive way of buying stitching time. Well, with four 90-minute sessions (with restful cat in the background), a fair bit of stitching over the weekend, and sampling in the evenings I did manage to get enough done to make the class worth while. In fact it was a very fruitful day – but more of that in a later FoF.

Stitching session with cat

Today I’d like to talk about the trunk, and what I’ve learnt from stitching lots and lots of brown chain stitch smiley.

The first thing I learnt (during my previous class) was to work the stitch slightly differently from how I would normally do it. Picture the usual process: bring the needle up, go down in the same hole, leave a loop at the front, come up one stitch length away, catch the loop, pull through. Yes?

No.

Apparently this puts too much strain on the thread. I can’t say I’ve noticed it in other projects, but wool is notoriously shreddy (especially Appleton’s) so the less unnecessary friction the better. And I will admit the noise that the twill and wool produce when doing chain stitch the usual way did make me feel the tutors had a point! The solution is to add a step to the process: after “catching the loop” you don’t just pull through from to the top by pulling the needle, you pull the loop through from the back with your fingers (bit of fumbling until you get into the rhythm) so that the chain stitch looks like a finished chain stitch, then pull the thread through to the front by pulling the needle. In this way, the thread is only ever pulled straight through the fabric (i.e. not at an angle), minimising the amount of friction. It worked so well that I inserted the same extra step when it came to stitching the stem stitch vine.

Because the extra step makes every stitch take just that little bit longer, and because the tree trunk contains a lot of chain stitches, and because I’m trying to keep my stitches as evenly-sized as possible, and because I am not a natural at the slate frame (more about that in a later post too), progress was not particularly quick, and at the end of the third class this was where I’d got to:

After the third class

So far so good, now just keep stitching chain stitches in five shades of brown and Bob’s your uncle. Except there was another lesson to be learnt – the fact that sometimes you can’t tell whether something looks right until you’ve done it. I’d finished the second shade of brown and started the third, when I realised there was too much of shade two in the top part of the trunk. If I left it in, the other three shades would be crowded. I decided to unpick. At the same time I noticed that I could have done with a little more of the first shade where the top half of the trunk meets the side branch. Unfortunately that would mean having to unpick the whole second shade in that top section, and I’m not that dedicated to achieving a perfect result! Technically, the stitching there was fine – my only niggle was that colour-wise it would have looked better with just a bit more of the darkest brown. I will note this in my log, and explain why I didn’t change it.

A bit too much of shade two Unpicked, ready for re-stitching with shade three

The log is an intriguing thing; it can be used to explain all sorts of things you have or haven’t done, especially in conjunction with the samplings. I like my log!

I also learnt… well, no, I had it confirmed (and believe me, this will be a recurring theme) that Appleton’s wool is, shall we say, less than consistent in its quality. In fact, one of the threads I fastened on against my better judgment looked so fluffed up and puffy after only one stitch that I promptly took it out again and discarded it. Because I don’t like throwing thread away I use some of these discards for my samplings, but it’s not ideal – after all, the samplings are meant to give an idea of how a stitch will look in the actual design!

A fluffy puffy thread

One of the things I get a little paranoid about (besides worrying whether my chain stitches are all approximately the same length, and whether my voiding is precise enough) is design lines. The brief specifies that none of the painted design lines must be visible in the finished piece. But with something like chain stitch, which is relatively wide, it often leads to a difficult decision. In the picture below, a bit of design line is definitely still visible (orange arrow). But an extra line of chain stitch will take the stitched area well across the design line, making the branch thicker than it was originally intended to be. Of course, when I say “well across” I need to remind myself that we’re talking millimetres here. So possibly I’m just being a bit too pernickety. Anyway, I added the extra line.

The blue arrow in the second picture above shows yet another learning process. In order to blend in lines that aren’t full-length, a little creativity is needed now and then. Here I am starting the line that will go up the trunk from inside a stitch on the line that curves into the side branch; that way, there will be no very obvious starting point in the middle of the bark.

That isn’t always possible, but however you work it, lines that don’t go all the way must not noticeably end. The easiest way of decreasing the width of a shape like this trunk is to make each line as long as it can be, stopping each one when you hit the design line. If you do it that way, the longest lines will be in the centre of the trunk, and the closer towards the design line you get, the shorter the lines become. The disadvantage of doing it this way is that the outline can look a bit stepped. For this reason I decided to “hide” some of my shorter lines on the inside of the trunk (green arrows) rather than having them on the outside. I try to end each shortened line by tucking it under the previous line or at least having the little holding stitch as close to the previous line as possible. Because chain stitch tends to spread a bit, especially when done in wool, this effectively hides most of the endings.

Can I just get back to Appleton’s for a moment? Most of their colour families come in anything from five to nine shades; the higher the number of a shade, the darker it is, so in a series of nine xx1 will be very very light, xx5 somewhere in the middle, and xx9 very very dark. Now I would expect the difference between each pair of shades to be more or less the same, so that 4 is as much different from 3 as 3 is from 2. But it isn’t. My five shades of brown are 182, 183, 184, 185 and 187 – one number missing between my darkest and my next darkest shade, so you expect a bit of a gap there, and so there is. But whereas you can see a fairly clear difference between the middle three shades, unless you look very carefully the very lightest one is almost indistinguishable from the next one up, making the right-hand side of the tree a rather uniform beige. A bit late now to swap 182 for 181, and anyway the tutors advised me against choosing that shade early on in the course because they said it would be too close to the colour of the fabric. So it’ll have to be what it is now.

The five shades of brown in the trunk

I may be a bit unfair to Appleton’s here; even with my very favourite crewel wool, Heathway’s Milano, the nine gradations within a colour family aren’t always evenly spaced. But even the tutors remarked on the fact that Appleton’s 4, 5 and 6 shades are often so close that they advise students to use no more than two out of the three. Perhaps if Heathway expand their colour range, they might be able to convince the RSN to change over…

But that’s well into the future, if it ever happens, and my Jacobean Certificate piece is now. And Appleton’s or not, I’m quite pleased with how that trunk has turned out!

The finished trunk

Preparatory doodles

When you do the RSN Certificate (and presumably the Diploma is no different) you have to be prepared for a lot of stitching. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of the module, I hadn’t stitched most of the design at least three times over. That’s because pretty much everything has to be tried out first, before committing it to the official fabric. This is done either in the margin of the proper embroidery (if you use a larger slate frame than I do), or on separate bits of fabric. And they all become part of the assessment process, which is a bit scary.

I call them doodle cloths, but the official RSN term appears to be “sampling”. And they have a point. Doodles are spur of the moment things you want to try out, stitches you’re not quite sure of and so on. My Certificate doodles are more planned, less spontaneous – I am trying out options that I’m seriously considering, not just playing and seeing what happens.

So here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been doodling – I mean sampling. First of all some fillings: battlement couching, trellis filling and Bayeux stitch (a type of laid work). You will notice that the leaf/petal/vaguely vegetation-like shape with Bayeux stitch started out as something different at the top; some time ago I saw a picture of a satin stitch or fishbone leaf couched down with wheatear stitch, and it looked really effective. However, the original used a thin metallic thread, which meant the wheatear stitch kept its definition. Wool, however, spreads (and don’t get me started on Appleton’s in particular – we’ll get back to that), so the stitch just looks rather blobby and messy. The Bayeux stitch looks much neater.

Battlement couching Trellis filling Bayeux stitch

The little square with rounded corners at the bottom of the left-hand flower thingy was going to be dark orange, with possibly some pattern in light orange on top. But as I was looking at a goldwork piece which had a square filled with diagonal cutwork in two types of purl, I thought, “I bet you can do that with bullion knots!” Well, you can smiley. And this sampling will be invaluable to the finished article because it has clearly shown me that it is all too easy to let your bullion knots spread. Must make sure to keep it square! I like the effect though, so I’m almost certain this will make the final design. Unless I come up with something better…

A bullion knot square

This hill was meant to look different, but then that’s what sampling does – as you see an element grow, you decide to change things, use different colours, bigger or smaller stitches, all because you can now see what it actually looks like in thread on fabric. Something may look great on paper or in your head, and simply not work when stitched. Here I decided to intersperse the Pekinese stitch with lines of plain backstitch, because the effect of unrelieved Pekinese stitch was going to be very solid. The lines of backstitch make it just that bit lighter and airier.

A hill in Pekinese stitch

The cat I can see is going to cause problems (don’t they always?) I initially intended to do the far legs in dark satin stitch, and I’m happy enough with the colour choice but the satin stitch just didn’t look right. I rushed the last bit of the leg because by then I knew I wouldn’t use satin stitch, but even the bit I took care over isn’t to my liking. At first I was going to unpick it, but on second thoughts I decided to leave it in, because discarded ideas are part of the process, too.

A satin stitch leg - to be dismissed

The long & short stitch on the head I do like. As it happens, I had Lexi on my lap while I was doing that bit, so I could study the direction of her fur – very helpful! I was thinking of doing her stripes in brick stitch, but that didn’t work at all; it’s now a sort of hotchpotch of brick and long & short. This is one bit that needs some sorting out still.

Cat's head and first stripe

I liked the idea of brick stitch, even if it didn’t work on the cat, and so I started looking at the few bits that haven’t had a definite stitch assigned to them yet. One of these was the outline of the right-hand leaf. Strictly speaking what I am sampling here is backstitch worked in a brick pattern – I think brick stitch is worked in staggered rows rather than long lines as I’m doing here. The effect should be pretty much the same, but I’ll bounce this off Angela on Saturday; I’m not even sure either is an eligible stitch to begin with. If it is, and I do include it, the problem is going to be keeping the stitch length consistent. The advantage is that it takes those really pointy changes of direction very well, and not many stitches do.

Brick stitch border on the right-hand leaf

And finally (for this FoF, but by no means for my Certificate sampling) the snail on the brick. This is a part of the design where I have actually tried two different stitches for each element: the snail’s shell is worked in padded buttonhole stitch and in raised backstitch, and the brick in burden stitch and satin stitch. Because I need to include satin stitch somewhere, the brick is most likely going to be done in that; although it will look different from the sample, as Helen Jones reminded me last time that satin stitch must be worked at a 45-degree angle. I do like the look of the burden stitch, and I’m still trying to incorporate it somewhere – perhaps in the cat? For the snail’s shell I’d pretty much decided to go with the padded buttonhole stitch, as I didn’t like the gappiness of the raised backstitch. But then a friend saw the doodle cloths and was so delighted with that version of the shell that I’m having a rethink! Making the foundation stitches on the outer spiral stick out more (i.e. go outside the design line) should allow me to cover more of the shell; I’m still working on how to close the gaps within the spiral. I’ll let you know when (if …) inspiration strikes.

Burden stitch brick and padded buttonhole snail Satin stitch brick and raised backstitch snail

And so I’m off to my next class on Saturday; yes, I decided not to cancel it, partly because it’s Angela’s last teaching session at Rugby for a while and partly because my very supportive husband made me schedule time off work to stitch on several days this week, so that I am not quite so horribly behind as I was. Even so, I think trying to do one class a month is probably a bit too ambitious, so the next one after that will be November. That should give me, well, perhaps not quite plenty of time, but enough not to panic.

Focus, woman!

You may have noticed, in the course of eight years (eight years?!? How did that happen?) of Flights of Fancy that I have a tendency to spread myself. Having just one project on the go is just not something that seems to happen to me. But with both my next Certificate class (21st September) and the first significant SAL date (posting the materials list on 1st November) sneaking up on me at a rather alarming speed, it was time to grab myself by the metaphorical lapels and give myself a good talking-to. Focus. Time to put away all projects except the SAL, the Certificate, and any relevant doodle cloths (the stitches on which may or may not end up being used – no guarantees smiley).

Far too little stitching A doodle cloth Experimenting on a cat Trying out stitches which may (or may not) be used in the SAL Trying out threads and other materials

So it’s goodbye to WIPs Queen’s Silks, Llandrindod and wool Hengest…

The RSN metalwork course project Llandrindod Hengest with his mane as yet undone

…and to not-even-started-but-waiting-in-the-wings projects Soli Deo Gloria, Helen Stevens’ 30s Revisited kit, and silverwork Come Rain (and its goldwork counterpart Come Shine).

Soli Deo Gloria Helen Stevens 30s Revisited kit Come Rain

And that’s without including silk Hengest and Mechthild the Medieval Queen which are in the design stage!

Even so I have almost decided, in consultation with Angela, to cancel my next Certificate class and give myself a bit more breathing space, picking it up again at the next date I’ve got booked at the end of October. I want to do the Certificate, but I don’t want it to become a chore or a burden.

Thoroughbred goldwork

Months before I decided to do the RSN Certificate, my husband gave me an early birthday present in the form of a three-day goldwork class at Hampton Court Palace. As you may know, I take my Certificate classes at the Rugby branch, which is decidedly less glamorous. On the whole I don’t mind, as it’s a lot easier to get to from where we live, and most of the time you’re looking at your embroidery, not the view. Even so, there is something a bit special about doing your needlework in such grand surroundings. Just to give you an idea, here is the view from one of the classroom windows, and a view from the Palace Gardens up to our classroom. Impressive, huh smiley?

View from one of the windows Our classroom seen from the Palace Gardens

Strictly speaking the class wasn’t goldwork but metal thread embroidery, as the design includes silver, copper and several coloured metallics. The kit was presented in this rather stylish purple bag, and there were seat frames to use for the duration of the course. Unfortunately, this was the week of the heatwave, so we were all very grateful that several fans were also provided!

The course kit

The seat frame proved a bit of a problem; as I have mentioned before, the tilt on the RSN seat frames does not really suit me when wearing a skirt or dress – and on this occasion I was not only wearing a dress, but a calf-length one at that. Fortunately we were all girls together, so I hitched up my skirts as much as was necessary and managed to use the frame fairly successfully.

The title of the class was “Queen’s Silks”, and the subject a stylised racehorse with its jockey wearing the Queen’s colours. I had worked out from the picture on the RSN website that I was familiar with most of the techniques used, so I would mainly use the class for improving in those, but there was one which I had not used before and had been wanting to try: S-ing. That wouldn’t be tackled until day three, however. Day one started with soft string padding. First we waxed an enormous length of yellow soft cotton, then cut enough lengths to fill the shape that would be worked in raised cutwork (part of the tail). In order to get the shape, you start couching down in the middle and work towards the end, cutting threads as you go (always from the bottom of the bundle) and keeping the cut tapered by pointing the scissors towards the tip of the shape.

Soft string padding Bending back the threads you want to keep The underlying threads are cut to a taper

You might think that, having completed the padding, we would now cover it, but no – that too would have to wait until day three. First we moved on to couched Jap. Normally you would couch this in a thread as close to the colour of the metal as possible, to keep it almost invisible, but in this design we used coloured couching threads to add shading. I think Helen McCook, the tutor (who actually wrote the RSN goldwork book!) called this Italian shading, but I’m not absolutely sure. It is slightly different from or nué in that the couching stitches are placed in a regular bricking pattern, and the shading is done with the colours only, not with the density or openness of the couching. We used three shades of brown (the first two aren’t easy to distinguish in the pictures) and a golden yellow may be added when I complete the shape.

Couched Jap - the first couching colour Couched Jap - the second couching colour is added Couched Jap - working with the third couching colour

I am always fascinated by the back of goldwork projects. Normally I don’t look at back of my own or anyone else’s work; I’m happy if the front looks respectable, and the back is just neat enough not to impinge on the front (by means of bulky knots or travelling threads visibly shining through). But goldwork is, I think, unique (except perhaps for stumpwork) in that the back gives very little indication of what the front looks like – a fact which once made a friend use one of my embroideries as a Sunday school illustration smiley.

The back of the work

The next few steps were small and relatively quick: bits of metallic kid leather (the picture shows one of the four hooves and in later pictures you’ll notice the jockey’s cap has been worked in kid as well), two spangles to indicate the pivoting points of the legs (not quite the right word, but I’m sure you know what I mean), and a diamanté gem to give the horse a slightly scary eye. Spangles can be attached in several ways, some more elaborate than others, but here we went for two simple straight stitches. The gem was in a metal claw setting with holes, so it could be attached much like a button.

A kid hoof is added Some spangles, a gem and rococo

In the second picture above you’ll have noticed some wavy copper threads in one of the tail sections, couched but not yet plunged. This is rococo, and depending on which supplier’s website you visit or what goldwork book you read is can be spelled with what looks like a random number of “c”s, randomly distributed (roccoco, rococco, roccocco). I’ve decided to go with rococo on the grounds that it saves key presses, looks less complicated, and is the recognised spelling for the period after which it is presumably named.

As day two was drawing to a close, Helen asked us to make sure we had completed the gold pearl purl outline of one of the tail sections, so that the next morning we could start on the chipping straight away. I was finishing plunging my copper rococo, but decided that as couching pearl purl is one of the quicker goldwork techniques (although “quick” will always be a relative term in goldwork) I could probably squeeze in the outline before we had to pack up for the day. Bad move. It was nearly four o’clock, we’d been going since 10am, and it was about 33 degrees in the shade. About three-quarters into the outline, I pulled the couching thread with too little control and kinked the metal.

Pearl purl with a kink

It was just a little kink. A tiny kink even. Could I just leave it? Helen had a look and advised me to leave it until I’d completed the chipwork (filling the shape with small bits of hollow metal attached like beads) to see whether that would draw the eye away from it. The next morning I came in fairly early, looked at the pearl purl and realised it would forever nag me if I left it, no matter what the effect of the chipping was going to be. I took out the outline and redid it, and felt much happier. On to the chips!

The pearl purl outline redone Chipwork

After the chipping it was time to start on the cutwork. This was going to cover the soft string padding in the tail. It’s a tricky technique because the purl (in this case a smooth purl, which is round and shiny; it also comes in rough, which is round and matt – bright check, which is angular and shiny – and wire check, which is angular and matt) has to be cut into pieces (or chips) of exactly the right length to cover the padding, and as the padded shape is not the same size throughout, the chips have to vary in length as well. If the chips are not the right length, you will either have padding showing at the edges (if they are too short), or the metal will buckle and distort (if they are too long). It requires tongue-sticking-out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth concentration, the patience of Job, and the willingness to cut three or four lengths to get it just right (until such time as you develop an eye for it and get them right first time).

Starting the cutwork

Helen said I’d managed a nice crisp edge and good coverage, which was a more positive assessment than I’d feared – towards the tip I noticed a few slight gaps where I’d gradually changed the angle of the chips as instructed, but I was encouraged when I looked at the RSN Goldwork Guide later and saw similar minute gaps in one of the stitched models pictured there. And thinking about it I can see that unless all the chips are parallel, you’re bound to get a little room between them at one end. Even so, I’ll see if I can keep them just a little closer when working along the other half of the padded bit of tail.

Half a tail covered

The last technique we were shown was the one I’d never tried before, called S-ing (pronounced “essing”). It looks like stem stitch in metal purls, but because you can’t take the purls through the fabric you can’t work it as you would stem stitch. Instead, you cut lots of identical chips of purl (and I can tell you that cutting identical lengths is not that much easier than cutting graded lengths; fortunately “almost identical” seems to work reasonably well) and work each little curved bit separately.

The chips should be a little longer than your stitch length, to give them room to accomodate the chips on either side. Having attached the first one, you come up about half a stitch length ahead of the previous stitch, thread on a chip, and angle the needle half-way underneath the previous chip so you go down into the fabric where the last-but-one chip ends (this is what creates the impression of a continuous metal stem stitch). Pull the working thread through very carefully until the chip gently snuggles underneath the previous chip. Half chips at the beginning and end make the line look even. I really like the look of this stitch and will definitely use it again!

S-ing; lots of identical cut lengths Taking the needle down underneath the previous piece of purl The new piece of purl lies flat Pull, and the new piece of purl curls under the previous piece

And that was as far as we got. When I showed it to my sister-in-law, with whom I was staying, she was a little surprised and asked “that’s three days’ work?” – but when I explained some of the techniques and what was involved in getting them just right I think she was probably surprised that I’d got as much as this done smiley. When I got home I re-hooped the work – in class we were working in a 10″ hoop, but I found that I could just fit the fabric into a 12″ one, which gives a little bit more wiggle room at the edges. I have no idea when I’ll manage to finish it, what with the Certificate and getting the SAL ready, but it’ll be a very enjoyable project to do bits of work on in between all the other things.

The state of things at the end of the three days