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

What does it all mean?

What do embroidery designs mean? Well, sometimes I don’t think they mean anything much – we stitch a daisy, a mountain lake, a cat, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Tardis, because we like the picture. Sometimes there is a bit more to it; the Tardis might be more than just something from the tv series you enjoyed, it may remind you of watching that series with a loved one who is no longer with you; the daisy may have trumped the rose and the violet because your name happens to be Daisy; the cat may be the spitting (or hissing) image of your own pet.

You might think there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the design I did for my RSN Certificate course, because the subject is decided for you; everyone who does the crewel module stitches a Tree of Life. But that leaves plenty of room for personal input! So what are the reasons and stories behind the elements in my version of the Jacobean tree?

First there’s the tree itself. As some of you will know, I’ve been working on a Tree of Life design on and off for the past few years, and it has now turned itself into a SAL. That tree is not Jacobean, but it does share the stylised nature of the RSN design, albeit in a much simpler form. I love the idea of the Tree of Life, which for me is firmly rooted in the word picture painted of the New Jerusalem in the Bible, and so the opportunity of doing a second Tree was always going to be an attractive one.

The complete design, transferred and with some stitching done

Staying with the flora of the design for the moment, the most noticeable thing is probably the enormous flower at the top. I love the complete lack of proportions in Jacobean designs, they lead to some hilarious pictures – not just the historical squirrels-half-the-size-of-lions, but my poor Rabbit threatened by an enormous Carnation. Because I am Dutch, I thought a tulip would be a good flower to incorporate into my Certificate piece, and I found a particularly beautiful example in a design by Shelagh Amor in the A-Z of Crewel Embroidery. Because of copyright I was going to change it fairly radically, but Angela assured me that as the Certificate piece is a) for my own use only and b) for educational purposes, I could actually use parts of existing designs. Even so, I changed the fillings and also added a frill as I wanted an area that would work for buttonhole stitch with a detached buttonhole edge. In the original tulip there is a lot of orange in the filling stitches; that didn’t quite work within my colour scheme, but the outlines and the fringe will be worked in the two shades of coral in my palette, which should be orange enough to emphasise the Dutch connection.

Carnation frightening a rabbit Shelagh Amor's tulip design The tulip in my RSN Certificate design

Originally I meant to base my large flower on the rather ancient carpet that adorns the children’s corner in the Coffee Shop room at our local Methodist Church, whose chapel we (the local Baptists) are sharing while we are rebuilding our own church. As part of the chapel into which we have been welcomed so warmly, to me it represents the unity of all Christians (I admit that is rather a lot to make an old carpet mean, but it does to me). But then the large tulip rather took over. Even so, I still wanted to use that carpet, and in the end I used the part indicated by the orange arrow as the inspiration for the small “flower” (for want of a better word) on the left of the design.

The carpet on which the small flower is based The small flower as it appears in the Certificate design

Many RSN Certificate Jacobean pieces (Google the phrase, you’ll find lots of pictures!) have some sort of hillock or hillocks at the bottom, and that’s where the design ends. Mine could easily have ended there too. But I wanted a river. Or some sort of water at least. I’ve written about the significance rivers have for me in a previous FoF, but the short version is that they remind me of my mother, who at the end of her life was greatly comforted by the image of the River of Life. According to that description of the New Jerusalem I mentioned earlier, it is where the Tree of Life grows. How could I not have a river?

The river

As an added bonus it gives me the opportunity to use a stitch I first saw in an embroidery by my mother-in-law, fly stitch couching.

Fly stitch couching

Let’s move from flora and inanimate nature to fauna. The brief for the Certificate design says that it must contain at least one animal. Well, that was never going to be enough – I love adding animals to things. It’s only because I thought of it too late that there isn’t a web with a spider in it attached to the tree somewhere!

The first animal is based on a poem by A. A. Milne. It’s called “The Four Friends” and it’s in either When We Were Very Young or Now We Are Six. It contains my favourite line ever from children’s poetry: “James gave the huffle of a snail in danger, and nobody heard him at all”. Over the years, many leisurely moments have been pleasurably spent trying to imagine the sound of that huffle. James was going to be included. He needed a bit of tweaking, though. According to the poem he is “a very small snail”, something that doesn’t work very well in Jacobean embroidery. So James was bulked up a bit. He is also meant to be sitting on a brick, but any brick I tried to design was far too angular to fit in with the rest of the design. In the end I drew something that looked more like a stone, but it will be stitched in the orange shades to make it look a bit more brick-like.

The Four Friends, by Milne The snail

And finally there is the cat. Of course there is a cat. A cat inspired by Lexi, our Bengal/tabby cross, in one of her less ladylike poses – you know the one, front legs stretched full-length, backside in the air and tail curled over her back. I saw her do it in the garden while doodling initial ideas for the Certificate design and I knew I simply had to have her in there, in that pose. I sketched a quick outline, which was just as well as despite numerous attempts to sneak up on her with a camera when she was doing her stretchy pose, I was never quick enough to catch her. Then came the question of colour. In my first colour scheme, I soon realised that the cat would have to be a ginger. Not in itself a problem (Lexi disagreed on this point), as our previous cat, the lovely Alfie, was a ginger, and in fact it would be rather nice to have them both in there, the pose of one with the colour of the other. But later colour schemes actually made it more suitable for the cat to be done in browns – they aren’t quite her colours, but I hope they are close enough to pacify her a bit.

Alfie Lexi The ginger cat The tabby cat

So there you have it, a bit of background to the design I’ll be working on for the next seven or eight months. I hope I still like the various parts of it as much by the time I finish…

Persistent pounce, tremendous trestles and The First Stitch

Last Saturday was the third of my “contact days” for the Jacobean module of the RSN Certificate. I hesitate to call them “classes” because they aren’t really, although we learn a lot; most of it seems to be done in a learning-through-doing sort of way. As ten students were expected we had two tutors this time, Helen Jones and Angela Bishop, but as it happens only six students turned up so we all got even more attention than usual smiley.

It was going to be an exciting day for me, as I would be transferring my pricked design to the fabric and actually Start Stitching! I’ve transferred designs using prick & pounce before, but only small ones like the little silverwork sheep, so this was going to be a bit of a challenge. Using grey pounce (simply a mixture of black pounce – charcoal – and white pounce – ground-up cuttlefish) I carefully went over all the holes, trying to stay away from the edges of the tracing paper. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in the latter. In fact, I got in a mild panic when I noticed that I’d rubbed a fair bit of pounce into the fabric at the bottom of the design (where the pricked lines actually didn’t get that close to the edge of the tracing paper; what on earth was I doing?), but Angela said not to worry, it would all come out just fine.

The pounced design

Except it didn’t. After giving the fabric a good beating from behind with a brush (apparently the accepted method of getting the pounce off while leaving the paint on; it looks a bit brutal but I’m willing to learn) there were two noticeable shadows below the hillocks. More beating, slightly less noticeable shadows but still definitely noticeable. More beating. Same result. Angela said she’d never known it to do this. The mild panic was beginning to grow into something less mild. Pounce can obviously be very persistent.

However, as there was no way I was going to start the whole thing again (prepare a new piece of fabric, dress the frame, prick & pounce, paint) I’d have to think of something. Helen said she thought the traces would actually disappear as I worked on it, and I decided with Angela that I would simply extend the water a bit. It was originally going to be a wavy line roughly parallel to the bottom of the hillocks, now it would be more of a circle segment, deeper in the middle.

My husband claims he can’t actually tell where the shadows are, and I must say I’m finding them hard to spot now unless I take my glasses off, so perhaps Helen is right and I can go back to plan A for the water, but it’s a reassuring thought that I have a plan B.

By the way, painting the design was an interesting experience in itself. It’s remarkable how, the moment you get the slightly thinned gouache on your fine brush and near the fabric, you stop breathing. Trying to draw steady lines, as thin as possible, while not leaning your hand on the not-yet-connected pounce dots requires nerves of steel and intense concentration. Not being in an old building with creaky floors that move when someone walks across the room would also help. As does remembering to breathe every now and then. Still, between moving floors and not breathing I managed to produce an acceptable transfer, with only one or two places where I may have to stitch slightly more heavily to cover the lines (though of course those places would be in one of the more open parts of the design…)

Joining the dots with thinned gouache paint The painted design

Now that the design was firmly on the fabric, we could roll it up slightly for easier access. As I am still getting to grips with the slate frame Angela helped me do this (remind me never to try and join the Boy Scouts; well, for obvious reasons, but in this case mostly because I simply cannot remember how to do a slip knot!) and before long I was finally ready to stitch.

Rolling up the fabric for better access Ready to stitch

My frame, unfortunately, is not quite flat so I had a little trouble keeping it stable on the trestles (this was also the reason I had been told to do my transferring on a table, with a heavy book on one corner of the frame, instead of on the trestles – try as we would, we couldn’t get it to sit right). Helen suggested hanging a heavy weight on the corner that was sticking up, but as we didn’t have any in the classroom I made do with slipping my camera strap over the offending slat; it’s a fairly lightweight camera but it did make a bit of difference.

We’d decided I’d start with the tree trunk, for one thing because in crewelwork (in fact, in most Western types of embroidery) you work a design from the back to the front, so elements that are in front of others get worked later, and the tree trunk is at the very back of the design. It was also one of the elements where I was absolutely sure what stitch I wanted to use, and in what colours. I’d done a stitch plan but there were still a few “To Be Decided” areas, so starting with one of the Definites felt nice and safe.

At this point I will admit I felt almost reluctant to actually put in the first stitch! But after a bit of lunch I really couldn’t put it off any longer, and fortunately I was beginning to feel quite excited about the whole thing. I started with Very Dark brown chain stitch. The die was cast. More lines of chain stitch, of staggered lengths to help with the shading. Even a little jump to the top half of the trunk. Then the realisation that there was too much Very Dark, and I should have made the last line shorter and switched to Dark. On to my first unpicking, and then to adding the second shade, and beginning to shape the triangular void at the foot of the tree which will be filled with Cretan stitch.

The very first stitches The first unpickings Two shades of brown

As it was getting on for 4 o’clock I went through my homework for next time with Helen, and packed up. No stitching time at home, unfortunately, but I did spend a little time getting my Home Stitching Set-Up just right. Two clamps to hold down the two springy corners (in the hope that over time they’ll give up fighting against the clamps and just lie flat), a stool to get me nice and close to my stitching, and the trestles put up several notches so I can stitch without bending my neck all the time.

The set-up at home The set-up at home

And talking of trestles, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Ikea ones actually work better for me than the RSN ones! Because I use the narrower frame, the trestles have to be pushed in quite close, and I kept hitting my left elbow on the upright bar; I also found I had to wriggle around the right-hand upright bar when I wanted to bring my right hand to the top of the fabric. The Ikea frames have no uprights, and my elbows enjoy perfect freedom. Win-win smiley.

Finally a picture of the complete design, with the work done so far. By the next meeting (late September) I hope to have finished at least the trunk, the vine, some of the large flower, and the left-hand hillock with the snail; I also need to decide on the remaining stitches. I have managed to come to a decision about the colour distribution: the cat is going to be a tabby rather than a ginger (Lexi will be pleased).

Where I've got to after the third class

Incidentally, I found it very encouraging to see a male stitcher at the class – Marcel was working on his Diploma Whitework module. I am definitely going to groom the imminent grandbaby to be a manbroiderer!

A slate frame day

Last Wednesday was my second class for the RSN Certificate. And did I get to stitch? Well, that rather depends on your definition of “stitch”…

I stitched on my doodle cloth – I’d done some homework stitching trying out battlement couching and padded buttonhole for my snail’s shell to show to Angela, and while there I tried some fillings for a leaf. Not very successfully, as I still don’t know what I want to use, but at least I stitched!

Battlement couching A snail's shell Doodling a leaf

Then there was a lot of stitching that was sewing rather than embroidering when we got on to dressing the slate frame (after cutting the fabric exactly on the grain). Sewing the fabric to the webbing, sewing herringbone tape to the sides of the fabric, and (using a positively lethal bracing needle) “sewing” the herringbone tape to the side bars. My hands got an awful lot of exercise!

The slate frame parts and my on-the-grain fabric The fabric pinned to the webbing, ready for stitching Lacing the fabric to the frame with a bracing needle Some very very tight fabric

I’d been working as fast as I could while still being accurate (I’d even curtailed my lunch break to 45 minutes instead of an hour, and didn’t have an afternoon cup of tea – quite unheard of, as I tend to live on intravenous tea) but by the time the fabric was taut on the frame there was no way I was going to get the design on. However, I did manage to get my tracing (or rather my cleaned-up version printed on tracing paper) pricked so that next time I can get started on transferring the drawing by pouncing (not an inappropriate term with that cat in the design) and then connecting the dots with paint (trying to keep the lines as fine as possible).

The printed tracing The design ready-pricked

In between getting the fabric on the frame I managed to discuss some of my questions with Angela, and have a look at the colour plans I’d done (two on the computer, one in pencil). Over the next month I’ll have to consolidate these into one which I’m sticking with, and I also need to work out a detailed stitch plan. There are some stitch ideas and indications in these colour plans, but not nearly precise enough.

Three colour plans with stitch indications

Several stitch ideas will have to be tried out first on a doodle cloth; the one I started with is not very big and will soon be full, but my fabric drawers yielded a larger piece of twill (you can doodle on calico or any other material, but I like the idea of seeing how it works on the right fabric with the actual threads I’ll be using) which I got some years ago and managed to scorch slightly when ironing it *oops*. This makes it unfit for a proper project, but perfect for a doodle cloth! So this one will probably see my attempts at curved burden stitch for the cat’s body, detached backstitch for the snail’s shell, various shapes filled with satin stitch, and block shading. I don’t particularly like the look of block shading but it’s one of the obligatory elements; I’ve been trying it out on the crewel rabbit & carnations project, which is proving to be quite a good practice piece for this course.

A larger doodle cloth Starting on block shading

So one month and two contact days into the Certificate, what have I got? I’ve got my fabric mounted on the slate frame, a pricked-but-not-pounced design, several colour plans and half a notebook full of questions, sketches and stitch ideas. It doesn’t sound much, does it? But it’s a start, and next time I am definitely going to get stitching on the real thing!

Alien fibres

Preparing for my second RSN Certificate class tomorrow I had another look through the Assessment form. It states the various criteria by which your work will be judged, and makes for interesting reading.

Especially the very first item on the list.

Assessment criterion #1

This could be tricky…

Lexi loves helping me with all sorts of embroidery; curled up on my lap she encourages me with loud purrs (fortunately she fits under pretty much all my stands – the Lowery, the Aristo lap stand, the Sonata seat stand, the table clamp, and even the lap tray I sometimes use when designing or winding threads), and she closely scrutinises materials, doodle cloths, progress and finished projects.

Lexi helps with goldwork... ...and with crewelwork... ...assesses the progress of projects
Lexi fits well underneath the Lowery... ...and the lap tray... ...and the Aristo lap stand
Lexi judges colour choices... ...works hard to encourage her mistress... ...and scrutinises doodles

Still, I was confident this would all be manageable with a good pair of tweezers and some strong glasses.

And then this happened.

Like her mistress, Lexi finds embroidery very relaxing

I’m doomed.

Colourful post

Well, not as colourful as some of the post I receive (like my Silk Mill silks), but quite exciting nonetheless – yes, the Appletons crewel wools for my Certificate piece have arrived!

The Appleton crewel wools needed for my Certificate piece

Although Angela, the tutor, had said that one skein of each colour would probably be enough, after some consideration I decided to go for the half-hank option offered by Cleopatra’s Needle; after all, I intend to do a lot of trial stitching, not only to determine which stitches work best where but also to see what different colour combinations look like in the various elements of the design, so being able to use the same wools I’ll be using for the final piece is obviously a good idea.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there are three shades of orange in the collection, rather than the two that I’m allowed as my accent colours. This is because Angela was concerned that the two shades I chose initially might be too similar – but the alternative shade is rather darker and also a bit brighter than what I had in mind. On the other hand, I will need some contrast between the two; otherwise they may not create distinctive stripes on the ginger cat.

Talking of which… I’m not sure Lexi likes the idea of being turned into a ginger cat. Having studied the threads she was giving me a look that definitely translated into something like “you’d better use some of those darker browns to represent me, it’s not ideal but at least it’s closer than orange!

Lexi inspects the colours and gives her opinion

I had originally intended to order skeins rather than half hanks of the three oranges; after all, they are my accent colours only, so I’m unlikely to need as much of them as of the others, even with trial stitching. Also, once I’ve decided which of the two darker shades I’ll use, the other one is automatically superfluous. Unfortunately, however, they don’t sell single skeins, and buying those three somewhere else would mean paying a second lot of postage. Anyway, whichever two I choose and however much I have left even of those two, I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with all the surplus orange. I’m Dutch, after all smiley.

So now it’s time to hoop up the doodle cloth, and get trialling!

Doodle cloth at the ready!

Is this a bad time to start thinking about a purple-and-green colour scheme…?