Knowing when to stop, an invisible join, and visible spaghetti

Right, where were we on Bruce – I’d almost got the couching back to where it was before my class, and I’d filled in a bit of the sun. Although undoing and redoing is part of the learning process and very useful, it nevertheless feels a bit deflating, and it took me a while to work up the motivation to finish those last re-couching stitches and get on with my homework. When I finally did, I succeeded in making things worse… How? Well, it happened while I was continuing with the Jap couching after I’d re-couched the buckling bits.

Continuing with the Jap couching

I finally realised why, when Helen tested my couching stitches, they were so slack. It surprised me at the time, because I’m quite finicky about my couching and I didn’t think my tension had been that loose – but as I was couching the Jap on ever thicker layers of padding, I noticed that whenever I pulled the couching stitches on the present round, this would compact the felt (not much, but just noticeably). Because of that, the stitches on the previous round then loosened – in other words, the couching stitches on previous rounds get looser precisely because I put a sufficient amount of tension on the present round. Was there a way of restoring the tightness of those stitches? Well, you could pull them from the back and secure them, which is what I tried to do.

But it’s not easy to see from the back which stitch tightens what when the couching is so dense, so some things got pulled more than I intended while others didn’t get pulled at all, meaning the surface was now if anything less smooth! Eventually I decided to tighten the worst of them from the front, by “looping” a small stitch around the base of the couching stitches, until it looked more or less acceptable again. I continued with the couching and finally came to the point where I needed to finish off the Jap to leave enough room for the chipping-in-a-pearl-purl-border. I briefly considered two patterns of staggered plunging, but the A pattern was a clear favourite both with me and others I asked, so I didn’t bother sampling them and went straight (or rather, staggered) ahead.

The A pattern of staggered plunging The B pattern of staggered plunging The actual plunging

There is still some buckling on that haunch and on the thin part of the leg, but I’m afraid I will just have to live with that. I have no wish to try another experiment only to see it get worse! You have to know when to stop, and I’d reached that point. No more tweaking. Enough is enough. Instead I’m trying to concentrate on the things I’m pleased with, such as the smooth finish on the Jap’s staggered plunging, the tightness of my couched turns, and the chipping in the sun which is nice and dense and does all the things the brief requires, like covering all the felt, achieving a random effect, and not having any chips stand up perpendicularly.

Couched turns The chipped sun

Next was the pearl purl (PP) border. The brief asks for a closed outline with an invisible join. As I had never tried this before, it seemed a good idea to sample it first. Having decided to use size 1 (which is the slightly thicker one used for the kangaroo leg outlines, with the thinner Super PP reserved for Haasje) I had a go on my sample cloth. When coming to the finish, I cut the PP just a little bit too short, so the join is visible, but for a first go I was not unhappy with it. On to the real thing, remembering to cut the end of the PP just a tiny bit longer than the gap I was trying to fill, and voilà, one nearly invisible join. Hurray!

The sample closed PP border The final PP border

On to the front leg. First, remove the felt for a pristine work surface. Realise that removing felt completely is extremely tricky. Tweezer off most of the fluff caught in the couched twist border. Hope that the couching will cover up any remaining bits.

Removing the felt The nearly pristine fabric

Here two tutor interventions came together. The first was Angela’s suggestion that I should plunge the couching on the front leg in a staggered seam rather than using the tight turns I’d demonstrated on my sample. The second was Helen’s realisation that there was no area of couching-straight-onto-the-fabric (i.e. with no felt underneath) in the design, which was required by the brief. The reason for this requirement is to see how well you cover the fabric without the safety net of golden yellow felt beneath, something which may actually be easier with plunging than with turning, much though I prefer to avoid plunging whenever I can. Actually it’s not the plunging so much, it’s the oversewing on the back which needs a curved needle and can get terribly crowded, but it seemed that plunge and oversew I must. However, first there was the thin part of the leg with the foot, which I did decide to fill with a turn, and I was really pleased with the way the central pair of Jap fitted in snugly and how I managed to brick the stitches relative to both sides. The turn and plunging on the foot was also successful in that very little fabric shines through.

Bricked couching on the front leg

Then it was spaghetti time! Filling the top of the leg was quite tricky, especially towards the middle where the lines became shorter and shorter until each pair was held down with only a single couching stitch. Herringboning the plunging was awkward, particularly at the bottom end where all the unplunged tails obscured the ones that needed plunging first.

Spaghetti time!

But I managed, and didn’t pull out any of the short lengths when plunging (yes, this does happen). At this point some of the Jap did not lie completely flat towards the plunged ends, because some final couching stitches were needed which I couldn’t put in while the ends were unplunged and unsecured.

The front leg plunged

So that meant doing the securing first. It may seem that the spaghetti had disappeared, but alas, it had merely moved. To the back. Trying to fit in all the tails was an interesting puzzle; with about three-quarters done I began to have serious doubts about cramming in the remaining quarter!

The spaghetti has moved Fitting in all the tails

And here is the front leg all done, with the final couching stitches added in. Am I happy with the result? Looking with a critical eye and with the brief in mind, I can see some areas where I will lose points. The top line is not as even as I would have liked, even though I did unplunge and restitch several of them; but more replunging would just have damaged both the threads and the fabric, so this is how it will be. Then a few of the Jap threads are showing their yellow core at the plunge point; you can to some extent counteract this by twisting the thread from behind before oversewing, but in a number of cases this simply didn’t work. On the other hand, there is little fabric showing and I think my couching is quite neat overall. The little gap at the top where the left and right side meet in the middle is too small for even a single thread of Jap to comfortably fit in, so I will suggest to Angela that I leave that as it is.

The front leg finished

My next class is this Saturday and I’m hoping to do a bit more before then – I need to draw a diagram to scale of the cutwork on the tail, and I’d like to get the chipping on the haunch done. But for now here is a picture of Bruce as he is at the moment:

Bruce so far

Back where I started – almost

Have you ever heard of the Echternach procession? Its participants used to progress by taking two steps backward for every three steps forward. The fifth class of my RSN Certificate goldwork module (AKA Bruce) felt more like two steps backward for about one and a half steps forward – I ended up not even back where I started, albeit with a little additional chipping to keep my spirits up.

A little chipping in the sun

We started the class looking at Bruce’s ears. The original stitch plan has smooth chipping there, but the areas are quite small and I wondered whether longer, parallel chips might not look neater. I bounced this idea off the tutor (Helen McCook, with whom I did the racehorse workshop two summers ago) and she agreed that that would be a better idea, and approved the directions I had chosen for the longer chips. So stripy ears instead of spotted ones for Bruce, although not quite yet – first there’s all the couching to finish.

New ear fillings

When I say “finish”, what actually happened was more of a “tidy up”. Having had a look at the foot, Helen suggested a few extra couching stitches closer to some of my plunging, which I put in. Two of them are marked with arrows in the picture, and I cannot for the life of me remember where the third one was, even after comparison with earlier photographs. But they’re there now, hopefully giving extra security to the foot.

Extra couching in the foot

Then we got to the painful bit. Not quite the most painful bit – that came later, at home, and will be fully revealed in a later FoF. But quite painful enough. Helen turned out not to be bothered about the thin part of the leg (which was my worry), but picked up on the underside of the haunch. She said it wasn’t as smooth as the rest (which was true) and that it therefore drew the eye because the rest was so even and smooth. We looked at the sloping sample, then she tested my couching stitches on the actual piece and said the tension wasn’t tight enough. After discussing a few more technical points she suggested that I take out the couching stitches along the bottom curve of the haunch and re-couch. Not a nice thing to hear, but as a very wise stitching friend said, “That is what tutors do. If you can accomplish your task without them, then they don’t have anything to do.” Very true.

Couching unpicked

Incidentally, although I would not wish difficulties on anyone, it was rather reassuring to find that the Diploma (that is, Advanced) goldwork student next to me was wrestling with the same problem: getting pairs of gold threads to lie flat when couching them onto a sloping surface. At least it wasn’t just me!

Anyway, I unpicked the couching from the outermost pair to the first of the mixed pairs, plus a tiny bit on the last two pairs. This was rather more awkward than it sounds – because the couching is so dense, because I couldn’t always tell where I’d started a new couching thread and because towards the leg there are several plunged and oversewn ends which lock everything into place, it wasn’t a simple matter of snipping the thread and then pulling out all the stitches in that row one after the other; they snagged, they dragged, they misbehaved. Still, during the class I managed to restitch from the outer edge up to the mixed couching, and Helen said it looked much better. When I showed it to my husband later that day, he agreed. I’m still not fully convinced. It looks better, yes, but does it look that much better? Still, if it looks better to the tutor’s eye (and therefore hopefully to the assessors’ eyes) then I suppose that’s the important bit!

Recouching the haunch Nearly recouched

There was another snag. Helen picked up on the fact that there was no couching-straight-onto-the-fabric anywhere in my design, even though that is required in the brief. How I managed to miss that I don’t know. How three tutors, all with access to my stitch plan and looking at the actual project, managed to miss it is anybody’s guess. But there it was. After a good long look at the design, and having come to the conclusion that I couldn’t really add another couched area without throwing the design completely off balance, I suggested that I could take out the felt on the front leg. Not an area I would have chosen for “naked” couching if I could help it, as it is small and the shape is quite complex. On the other hand, it’s only one layer, it wasn’t put in there to add height but merely to do what yellow felt does in goldwork, namely make it look better and disguise any gaps (which is of course exactly why the brief specifies an area of couching without this safety net), and most importantly, it hasn’t been couched on yet. So out it will come, after I’m done with the hind leg.

The felt on the front leg

On the plus side, Helen really liked my couched twist and pearl purl outlines, saying (after some rather disconcerting pushing and pulling) that it felt nice and solid, and also approved the bit of chipping I did on the sun. It looks like Bruce is not a completely lost cause after all smiley.

Making waves

Well, couching them anyway! Just a quickie post about the added texture Angela and I agreed I’d incorporate into Bruce’s haunch. The first thing was to remove the two most recent laps of Jap, which fortunately turned out to be a less awkward process than I had feared. Then it was time to work the three pairs of mixed couching: rococco/Jap, double rococco, Jap/rococco. The decision for rococco as the non-Jap thread was one of necessity rather than design – I didn’t want to mix in twist because in the rest of the design that’s used for outlines, and I think it looks better overall to keep it as an outline thread only; and I didn’t want to use pearl purl because that is going to be used to outline the central section of chipping. The only option left was rococco, and actually that is quite serendipitous – as a fellow stitcher pointed out, the mixed section in the haunch now echoes the mixed section on the back rather nicely!

The last two laps taken out The mixed couching put in

But nice though the echoing effect is, I am most pleased and proud about the fact that I managed to synchronise the waves in the paired rococco. Because the couching is worked around a curve, the waves of the inner and the outer thread of the pair slowly get out of sync, but with some judicious twisting of the thread I got them to lie nicely together around the entire lap – yay me smiley.

Synchronised waves

I had planned to make a start on the couched Jap-with-turns, but there was too much going on and I didn’t get around to it. Which was just as well because – and if you are of a nervous disposition may I advise you to look away now – this is what Bruce’s backside looked like a few hours into last Saturday’s class…

The horror, the horror!

A digital consultation

I left you last time with an inconclusive answer to the question of Bruce’s buckling leg, and the hope of some answers from an hour online with my tutor, Angela. Time to fill you in on what happened next!

Beforehand I had emailed Angela the issues I wanted to look at, and sent her some pictures. The question of Bruce’s hind leg, which might get dramatic if the advice was to unpick the whole lot, was kept as the main course; the starter was the two possible arrangements for the front leg. I showed Angela the samples I’d done and she (like most people I’ve shown them to, and in fact like myself) preferred the right hand version. Neat though the other one is, it makes the front leg look like a detached motif rather than a leg that is part of the kangaroo. She did suggest that I don’t turn the Jap, but plunge it staggered (this method seems to go by half a dozen different names including herringbone, fishbone, fishtail and dovetail; any of them will tell you what it looks like) to create a neat seam. As I have demonstrated sharp turns in the hind leg, she said I wouldn’t need them here; I’d been a little worried that there were only a few there, but she seems to be happy that they fulfill the brief.

The front leg sampled two ways

One last-minute question I’d added to my list was about mixed couching. Having seen progress pictures of the goldwork unicorn that a fellow Certificate student is stitching, I became concerned that the smallish area of mixed couching on Bruce’s back might not be quite enough. Could I perhaps add some to the front leg? Angela did think a bit more mixed couching would be a good idea, but suggested that instead of the front leg, which is a relatively small and complicated area, I could add it into the hind leg, which has a rather vast expanse of couched Jap already and more to come. This led neatly into our discussing the thorny question of whether any of that expanse needed unpicking, and if so, how much?

Having looked at the sample, she agreed that the straight-up-and-down method was out; gappiness, she implied, was the ultimate sin in goldwork couching (unless intentional, for effect). When I described in detail how I did the couching on Bruce she said that was exactly what I should do; the only thing she suggested was an occasional little stab stitch, which she said might make the couching a little more secure; she’d been taught that when she was training. I’d never heard of it! And I must say, if the tutors are taught that, I wonder why we students aren’t. All I can think of is that it might be because in the first four classes of this module I’ve had three different tutors, each of whom may have thought the other would have told me.

Be that as it may, having looked at close-ups of the thin part of Bruce’s leg her opinion was that it didn’t need unpicking. Hurray! She said that there was a little slippage in some of the pairs, but nowhere were they actually completely on top of each other, and the overall effect was neat enough. Well, that was obviously a relief smiley. Then we got on to the question of turning versus plunging. So far I’ve been plunging (as symmetrically as possible) when the Jap goes down from the haunch into the leg, but when the curve becomes sufficiently shallow (though still forming an acute angle) I want to start turning the Jap. Not only does it make for another demonstration of my ability to neatly execute a sharp turn, it also means less plunging!

When to start turning instead of plunging

Angela thought that I had definitely come to the point where I could start turning. But then the conversation took a different, erm, turn. This was partly because of the earlier discussion about adding mixed couching, and partly because of something else I had only noticed a few days before the online class, when I happened to be looking at close-up photographs to send to Angela: Bruce’s backside was not as taut as it ought to be – there were gaps…

Gaps in Bruce's backside

There is a reason why you put yellow felt underneath gold couching (and chipping, for that matter). Quite apart from the fact that it gives some lift to the metal and makes it catch the light in nice sparkly ways, it makes any gaps much less noticeable. These ones, as I said, I hadn’t actually noticed at all looking at the work from a normal distance, and even at “working distance” they hadn’t looked particularly alarming. In the close-up photograph, however, they looked positively cavernous! Would I have to unpick after all? Angela, fortunately, didn’t think so; close-up photographs, however useful in studying your work, are cruel in what they show up. She suggested I try and tweak the gappy pairs with a needle or mellor, and I said I could also push them to a small extent with the next pair.

Which brought us to what the next pair would be. We talked about various ways of introducing mixed couching, and having considered a few options (and discarded the ones that included twist, as I want to keep that for outlines only) I decided on a pair of rococco/Jap, followed by a pair of rococco, followed by a pair of Jap/rococco, and then back to Jap only. In order to accommodate this, I would unpick the most recent round of Jap, which hadn’t been plunged yet anyway. This would also help to address the gappiness I just mentioned. Unfortunately it does make it impossible to do a turn instead of plunging when going down into the leg, as each of the three pairs is different.

Plan for mixed couching

When I wrote up my notes after the meeting with this in mind, I had a look at Bruce’s haunch and how much of it has already been filled. I don’t want the mixed couching to get too close to the central area of chipping, and I do want some Jap turnings, so I will take out (in fact by the time you read this I will have taken out) two pairs of Jap, even though that means undoing the secured ends on the last but one pair and “unplunging” them. This will make the position of the three mixed pairs within the leg a bit more balanced, and with a bit of luck still leave a sharp turn when I get back to Jap-only.

Finally, a brief note on online classes. So far I have felt absolutely no inclination to do some or all of my Certificate online; has this one-hour consultation changed my mind? Even though this meeting was very effective in sorting out issues I needed help and advice on, no. There were difficulties. Zoom froze every now and then, and it was difficult to know how much of the previous conversation had been missed, so we would either repeat what the other had already heard, or not repeat enough. It also rather interrupts the flow of your thoughts when you have to keep going back a bit. A Whatsapp video call, which I wanted to use to show Angela close-ups of the work while moving the camera around (more informative than still pictures when trying to show texture, especially in goldwork), wouldn’t connect properly. You might say these are technical problems, and if everything works 100% as it should these classes would be fine. And if that could be guaranteed I could see myself taking the odd online class. But computers and internet connections hardly ever work 100% as they should, so the problems I had today would almost certainly also turn up in a day class. No, for the time being I’ll stick with face-to-face classes as much as I can. Roll on 24th April!

An inconclusive sample

Last time I updated you on my RSN Goldwork module, progress on Bruce’s leg was about to be interrupted by some sampling. To establish once and for all whether the buckling noticeable on the thin, steep part of his leg was caused by angling the needle when couching, I would couch all around a four-layer padded oval, angling on one side and not angling on the other. There was a picture of the felt I’d be using, but before attaching it to my sample cloth I decided I wanted it to be rather narrower, so I trimmed the four bits of felt and then secured my padded shape. Time to get couching! I started with a loop to minimise cut ends at the front (I was definitely not going to plunge and secure on my sampling…)

Trimmed felt for padding The padding is complete, and the Jap attached

I didn’t fill the shape completely – after all, what I wanted was the effect on the sloping sides, so the top was irrelevant – and I was pleased to see the sample had a nice bit of height to it. Just so I wouldn’t forget how to stitch on which side, I marked them on the fabric. This was very helpful as it is easy to get distracted (you can call me bird brain; or, if our Lexi is anything to go by, cat brain).

The 'straight' side of the sample The 'angled' side of the sample A nice bit of height

Remember those words “once and for all”? Well, that didn’t quite work out. There was some difference between the two sides, with the straight-up-and-down couching showing (as I rather expected) distinct gappiness, but the angled side rather let me down.

Distinct gappiness where the couching is straight-up-and-down

You see, although there was noticeable buckling on the tight curves, the side was actually pretty smooth…

Buckling on the curves A pretty smooth side

I hadn’t managed to reproduce the degree of buckling seen on the leg (indicated by the blue arrows), and so in one sense the experiment was a washout. On the other hand, it did clearly show that the only alternative, straight couching, was a definite no-no. It gave me more couching practice as well. And, as any sample cloths are handed in with the assessment piece, it shows the assessors I was willing to spend time and effort trying to find a solution to the problem; so on the whole a fairly useful exercise after all.

Buckling on the leg

And that’s where I was at the start of the one-hour online consultation I’d booked with Angela: an inconclusive sample, and Bruce with ends of Jap sticking out of his thigh. To be continued…

The state of play before the online consultation

The last leg

Ah, if only smiley. But starting from the front I suppose a creature’s hind leg can be thought of as its last leg, so I’ll stick with that! Before I got on to Bruce’s haunch, however, I invisible-couched the grass. Most of the points I managed to get nice and sharp with the aid of the lovely little pliers I was given for Christmas; one blade of grass (indicated by the arrow) would not do what I wanted it to, even after unpicking and re-couching. More unpicking would have damaged the twist to such an extent that I would have had to pick out the entire line and start again, and I did briefly consider that, but in the end decided I could live with one blunt bit of grass.

Grass couching in progress The whole line couched A wayward bit of grass

Now for the leg. On one of the design print-outs I’d pencilled in a rough guide to the way I wanted the Jap to go, with indications where I would likely have to fill in little “pockets” and start new threads. Another thing: you may be able to see from the way the shadows fall on the felt that especially on the thin part of the leg the incline is quite steep! A bit like the legs of Alpine cattle on a mountain side, one half of the pair of Jap threads is going to be significantly lower than the other. Which brings me to another challenge of couching through up to four layers of felt: I must pull the couching thread enough to lie snugly over the Jap, but not so much that it pulls the Jap into the padding. Deep breath, and off we go!

Getting ready for the leg

I started with a loop start in the toe, trying to get it right inside the tip, and then proceeded to couch along the twist outline. After a while I realised I could use the width of the foil wrapping on the Jap to gauge the distance between my couching stitches, which made them much more regular. The next tricky bit was getting the Jap to run smoothly along the edge of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back.

A loop start in the toe Couching along the edge of the mixed couching

I’m happy with the couching around the haunch, that’s nice and regular, but yes, there are a few gaps between the mixed couching on the back and the Jap on the haunch. With a staggered edge I suppose some gappiness is inevitable but in one place I could have taken the back thread a bit further in (see arrow). I bounced this picture off the lovely stitchers in the Facebook C & D group and one of those who had done their Goldwork module already said she thought it was an acceptable amount of gap, which was encouraging.

Gappiness along the edge

On with the foot. Feeling terribly organised and bathed in a virtuous glow I drew up a digital plan (easier to include in my log than pencil scribblings on a printed picture) for filling in the remaining gap by the ball of the foot, and a tentative start on the gap at the ankle.

A plan!

As I was couching I realised that lines drawn on a picture are never going to tell you how the Jap will fit on the actual piece – for one thing the lines are never going to be the exact width of the Jap, and for another there is variability in stitch tension (however much you aim for consistency) and the angle of the padding which you can’t see in the photograph. In the end I had to use some quite short lengths, and rather more plunging than I’d hoped for, to get the foot and ankle filled. Coming down the narrow part of leg, for example, there was only room for one thread so I plunged the second one, took the remaining single through, and added new thread to make a pair again. It was too tight for the planned turn so both were plunged staggered, then a new pair was started with a loop. And so on and so forth. I could have called this post “A twisted ankle” – my goodness it got tight! I’m not completely satisfied, but a stitching forum friend said the resulting triangle looked very much like an ankle bone, and although that was the almost automatic result of the shape of the foot rather than a conscious design decision, I was rather pleased with that comment.

Filling the foot The narrow part of the leg is closed Overview after filling the foot and ankle

One thing you will notice in the close-up below (if only because I’ve drawn attention to it with arrows smiley) is that there are some places where the gold foil does not quite cover the core thread. There is a trick of tightening the Jap by twisting it as you couch, and I’ve done that as much as possible, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. And unlike with wool you can’t keep stopping and restarting with a new, neater thread. However, another message on the Facebook C & D group brought similar reassurance that this is quite normal and to be expected. Phew.

An ankle bone and some separating gold foil

With the lower leg completely covered, it now just remained to keep going round and round the haunch until I had a pleasing shape left in the centre to fill with chipping and a pearl purl border. That sounds nice and straightforward, but there were decisions to be made. To Turn Or To Plunge, for one thing. At first that was an easy one to answer, as the angle down the leg was just too sharp to turn. Ideally I would have plunged everything herringbone fashion, that is to say where the pair of Jap meets itself in the leg, you would first plunge the outer thread on one side, then the outer thread on the other side, then the inner thread on the first side and finally the inner thread on the second side. This makes for a neat line down the centre. Unfortunately I had placed my first couching stitch rather too close to the plunging point for this too work on the first circuit of the haunch, and I’d forgotten to take into account the single plunged thread I mentioned earlier – so the line starts with three consecutive plunges on the left side followed by two consecutive plunges on the right.

Asymmetric plunging down the leg

After that I managed to plunge symmetrically.

Symmetric plunging down the leg

Then I got to the point where I could either plunge or turn, and as I didn’t want to make that decision after several hours of concentrated work, I left it there, to be picked up again this weekend.

Plunge or turn?

But… I hit a snag. Actually, I hit that snag quite a while back, but I eventually decided to ignore it, which may turn out to have been a Very Bad Idea.

So what is it? Well, you will remember that the leg is padded with several layers of felt to give it plenty of lift. Where the leg is narrow, that creates quite a steep slope. And on those sloping sides the pairs of Jap simply will not stay flat. They start out flat, but by the time I come back to that point after another circuit of the leg, one of the pair will have tried to hide underneath the other. It isn’t very obvious when you look at the piece straight on, but when looking from the side (and the assessors will definitely be doing that) you can see the threads slip and buckle.

Jap slipping and buckling

I didn’t immediately and completely ignore the problem. I manipulated the misbehaving threads with my mellor and that would initially look quite promising, but after a while they frustratingly just slipped back again. The mellor having failed me, I tried pulling the couching stitches tighter – but that just dented the padding by pulling the gold threads down into it. I tried looser couching stitches – but then the gold threads just wobbled around. In the end I assumed that this is simply what pairs of Jap do when on a steep incline, and tried not to worry about it.

And then one night I woke up with A Thought. Could it be the rule about angling your needle when bricking Jap? Every goldwork class I’ve attended and pretty much every goldwork book I’ve read mentions this: when couching a stand-alone line of paired threads, the needle goes pretty much straight up and down to make the couching stitch. But when you couch a pair of threads next to an earlier pair, bricking the couching stitches (i.e. staggering them relative to the previous pair to create a brick pattern), you are told to come up on the outside of the pair and then angle the needle underneath the previous pair in order to pull the new pair snugly next to it. Now that works beautifully when the surface is flat or nearly flat, but might it be what caused the slipping and buckling on the steep sides?

Angling the needle when bricking

So here’s the plan: on my sample cloth I will make a four-layer padded oval with fairly steep sides. I will then couch paired Jap all around it, using angled stitches on the left and perpendicular/straight-up-and-down stitches on the right. If they both look the same (i.e. both “bunch up”), I’ll just continue with Bruce as he is. But if the right looks markedly better than the left, then it’s time for some Big Decisions…

The padding for my couching experiment

Assessing an assessment: Jacobean

Last week I got an exciting email: the assessment for my RSN Certificate Jacobean module! Just so you don’t have to skip ahead to the end, I passed smiley. But I thought it might be interesting to show what such an assessment looks like, and also to go through the assessors’ comments to see what I can learn from them.

We were off to a good start with my name being spelled wrong in the general information section; I just hope that won’t cause administrative hassle further down the line. It then shows the range of markings. In practice these turn out to be points from 1 to 5 for each criterion within a section, or a multiple if the section is given more weight. In the Stitches section, for example, the five possible marks are multiplied by three. This means there is no option of awarding, say, 14 points – if you don’t score the perfect 15 it’s down to 12 as the next highest mark.

General comments at the start of the assessment

The assessment proper started with some general comments with quite a bit of appreciative attention paid to The Two Critters. When Lexi found out she was mentioned by name it quite turned her little feline head; I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was actually referred to as Alfie/Lexi. I was really pleased that James’ shell, which was enormously fiddly to do, was praised for being very precisely executed.

Lexi the cat James the snail

Well, what can I say about the First Impressions section except that I am astonished they found no alien fibres! The amount of cat hair I removed from that piece of work in the course of its creation would probably make up at least a small kitten – somewhat surprisingly I must have got rid of it all successfully. I’m pleased they were happy about the thread condition; several times I unpicked things and used a new thread because it started to look fluffy, or was too irregular in thickness to begin with, or had inclusions. It’s nice to know that paid off.

Assessment: First Impressions

On to the Design section. This looks at two aspects of the design: as it was drawn (these are criteria that would apply even if it were never stitched) and as it appears on the fabric (is it straight, is it like the drawing, etc.)

Assessment: Design

Here I lost one point each on three criteria. One of the sides (I’ve asked them to clarify which right side they meant…) is thought to be a bit empty, causing a lack of balance; the accent colour has been over-used; and they would have liked to have seen more stitches from what you might call the “leaf family”. To begin with the second one: fair point. I loved the orange shades and there would have been even more orange areas if I hadn’t restrained myself; notably the fringe on the big tulip, which I changed to brown, and Lexi who was originally Alfie our ginger tom. I still like the way it works in the design, but I agree that it does not comply fully with the brief.

An empty area and a lot of orange

As for the slight emptiness on one side, I’m guessing they mean the area indicated by the purple arrow. I did, in fact, have a flower there in an early stage of the design process (not to mention a bee, with a balancing fellow on the other side), but the tutor thought they made it too busy overall, and I must say I agree with her, it would have looked fussy. Possibly a slightly bolder flower and no bees would have satisfied the assessors while avoiding the over-crowded look.

A flower and some bees

Finally the point about the leaf stitches. It is true that I have used none of the stitches they mention from that particular family. In hindsight this rather surprises me, as I really like fishbone stitch and closed fly in particular for leaves. Possibly this is because there are no smallish leaf shapes in the design that I could have filled that way. On the other hand, for the gap in the tree trunk I used Cretan stitch, which is essentially a shallow feather stitch, so the category has not been completely ignored. But I appreciate their comment about including more different textures, and in future designs will pay extra attention to that aspect when appropriate.

Cretan stitch

The next section is called Stitches, and accounts for the majority of points available (120 out of 205) partly because each criterion is scored in multiples of three points. This was also the section that felt most important to me as it is concerned with the actual thread-on-fabric stitching, and with how well you, the student, have mastered the technique. I was therefore chuffed to bits to have dropped only three points, the minimum you can drop in this section. (Obviously I would have been even more chuffed with a perfect score, but I’m definitely not complaining!)

Assessment: Stitches

Although I was quite pleased with how the long & short stitch leaves on the big tulip had come out, as the assessors point out there is visible banding. Avoiding that is definitely one of the things I find most difficult to achieve in long & short, and I’ll have to do quite a bit more sampling and practicing before I do the Silk Shading module! I’m pleased with the shading on the left-hand flower though, so I hope they were referring only to the tulip. Choosing to work the trunk of the tree deliberately stripy rather than shaded (which I noted in my log) may, in hindsight, not have been the right decision. The hillocks are stripy by the very nature of the stitches, and Lexi is stripy by the very nature of being a tabby, so I can see why they wanted a bit more shading demonstrated.

Slightly stripy shading Better shading

Scoring full points for smooth outlines (purple arrows) and sharp points (green arrows) was very gratifying as I’d worked really hard on those, with a fair amount of unpicking and restitching. Good to know that was worth the effort!

Outlines and points

The final section is Mounting, which accounts for about a fifth of the total points (more than Design, which seems quite a lot). Some of the criteria here are about getting the balance right: pulling the fabric taut, but not so much that you bend the mount board. Others are about accuracy in the securing stitches.

Assessment: Mounting

Well, I’d expected to lose points here, as I had never mounted my work in this way before, and I did. Most of them on the looseness of the fabric, both front and back. And as much as I expected to lose points here, I will admit that this annoys me a little. I’m completely with them as regards their comments about the corners of the linen, some of which were not 100% square, and I’m perfectly willing to take their word for it that the grain was not completely straight to the edges. But both when I had the fabric pinned and when I had finished the mounting Angela did the finger test (pushing your finger along the fabric to see whether it ripples) and pronounced it a good stretch. In fact, I asked her after the initial pinning whether I should let the fabric relax and then re-stretch, as some people do, but having tested the tautness of the fabric she said she didn’t think that was necessary. So I can only assume that the fabric did relax during the longish wait for the assessment, but I’m not sure what I could have done to prevent this.

The mounted piece, front The mounted piece, back

I’m sorry to end the discussion with a bit of a grump, and even more sorry if this makes it sound as though I’m not satisfied with the result. I am most definitely elated to score 94% on my very first module! Next time I will do a re-stretch and see if that makes a difference to the mounting outcome, but on the whole the points that really matter to me are in the Design and Stitches section, and with those I am more than happy. And now on with Bruce the golden kangaroo smiley.

Golden memories

On the day that I should have been at my fifth class, a FoF about what was accomplished at my fourth class, and what I’ve done since. The fourth class, my goodness – I’m half way!

The first thing was to discuss with the tutor (Becky Quine) whether to leave or unpick the couched cloud. She said for rococco you would normally ignore the wave but couch by distance, making bricking easier. That makes sense but I wish I remembered where and when I was told to go by the wave; I’m fairly certain I didn’t just make it up! Becky agreed that the couching on the cloud was a little wide because of my trying to follow the wave but advised leaving it as taking it out might cause damage to the fabric (even though I hadn’t plunged them yet). So I plunged and secured the threads, and we’ll see what the assessors think.

The cloud is finally plunged

The picture above shows the start of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back. I had decided to use alternating pairs of very fine rococco and Jap; Becky said to use the larger rococco only as the very fine doesn’t come in the kit you get at the beginning of the module and it might be an issue in the assessment. I told her that I didn’t get the kit because I had pretty much all the materials already so Angela said to work from stash; and had also approved my using different sizes of rococco because the size isn’t specified in the brief. We agreed that I’d note my decision to use the very fine rococco in my log.

As I was couching a pair of the rococco I noticed the gold wrapping was rather gappy, showing the core thread. It would have annoyed me whenever I saw the piece if I left it, so I took it it out and picked a better bit to replace it with. Towards the end it needed a single very short line of rococco to cover the felt completely, which was fiddly but necessary to make sure it looked neat and tidy. Well, except for the spaghetti ends sticking out everywhere.

Some of the gold wrapping on the rococco was gappy Mixed couching leads to a lot of spaghetti

To practice creating a nice edge I first plunged the side that will be bordered by the couched Jap in the haunch, then the edge that would remain exposed. And that’s what the front looked like at the end of my fourth class.

The first edge plunged And the second At the end of the fourth class

Besides stitching there was a lot of discussing various bits of the design. I asked about the teeny details such as Haasje’s nose and Bruce’s nostril – as I can’t possibly do them in any of the threads in the brief, do I just leave them out or would I be allowed to stitch them in a thin metallic thread? Becky confirmed that for anything this small a thin or stranded metallic like Ophir is permitted. Unfortunately Ophir has been discontinued and I never managed to get hold of any, but in my goldwork stash I have a very thin Kreinik Jap #1 and a Madeira 3-ply Heavy Metallic, 1 ply of which should work well. I’ll take them to my next class to see what the tutor thinks of them.

At home the first task was to secure all the plunged ends of the mixed couching on Bruce’s back; as I mentioned in an earlier FoF, I couldn’t manage with the John James needles and I broke my last curved beading needle after only half the oversewing. Fortunately the Creative Quilting needles arrived not too long after and I could finish it. They are very nice to work with indeed, stronger than the beading needle but a bit finer and more flexible than the JJ ones; just what you need in a dense area such as this.

Bruce's back fully plunged and secured

Next was the front leg. I’d worked out two possible arrangements of the couched Jap, and I felt I couldn’t properly visualise them on paper – some sampling was called for!

Two possible front leg arrangements

Now this sampling was not done as neatly as I hope the real leg will be done, simply because I didn’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time getting it neat when the aim of the sampling was simply to compare the look of the two “layouts”; moreover, in order not to use up lots of precious Jap I used some unidentified Jap of a similar thickness which I rescued from a tangle in my mother-in-law’s work chest, and which is decidedly less than pristine in places. Because of this, it didn’t behave as well in tight turns as the proper stuff will. But it definitely gave me some idea of which I preferred.

The front leg sampled two ways

I expected to like the one on the right best, and I do like the way the lines run in that one (more like the way you would fill in that leg if you were drawing or painting it), but the version on the left is a lot neater. Purely in isolation that would be fine, but I feel that the gold going across the top makes it look cut off from the rest of the body, instead of flowing into it. Hmm, some thought and tutor input needed there.

So that’s where I am at the moment, and the question is, What next? I do need to get some homework done, especially now that my next class may well be a couple of months away. Well, not the front leg. That needs bouncing off the tutor. I was advised to do the line of grass later as it is so close to the bottom of the frame and it might get damaged if I lean on it to get to higher-up bits of the design. Still, I keep it covered when not working on it, I don’t lean on my frame much anyway as it’s so small, and it’s done in couched twist which seems quite sturdy, so as long as I don’t put the chips in I should be OK. I’ll probably do some work on the rear leg as well, as I’ve discussed the arrangement of that (starting with a loop start in the toe) in quite a bit of detail with two tutors. And then? If there’s no class in sight yet, I will put it away and go back to the racehorse – that way I will keep in practice with goldwork, and not risk ruining anything important smiley. And if there are still no classes when the horse is finished, well, I may just possibly have bought two of Alison Cole’s goldwork kits the other day which arrived at unprecedented speed and are therefore winking at me seductively from my craft room desk…

Alison Cole's Pearl Butterfly Alison Cole's Beetle Wing Floral

When we had classes…

A belated Happy New Year to you all! This post was meant to appear earlier this week, and it should have started: “As I’m now halfway between classes, it’s about time I gave you an update on the Goldwork module”. Unfortunately, because of lockdown I am no longer halfway between classes, as they have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Disappointing, of course (especially the fact that assessments are also on hold) but completely understandable, and so we just get on with things as best we can.

But first we must go back. I realise that the last thing I showed you (apart from a couple of looks at the back of the work) was the state of affairs after my November class, so today I’ll show what I did in the run-up to the December class, and next week what was done when I got there. You may remember I’d couched the cloud outline but was leaving the ends unplunged because I wasn’t altogether sure about the bricking, so ignoring that for the moment it was time to couch some pearl purl (PP). To get into it with something not too challenging I started with the outline of the sun.

The sun's outline in pearl purl

The next bits (the far legs) were more intricately shaped, and I wanted the line drawing near so I could keep referring to it. My needle minder was pressed into multitasking as a paper minder, and helped me keep an eye on the outline I was trying to create. You might think surely the paint lines would do that, and most of the time they do. But sometimes the paint lines (remember the smudged pounce debacle?) are not exactly like the line drawing, and although they have to be covered, a bit of careful placing of the wires here and there can improve the outline… I was going to say “considerably”, but in reality I’ll probably be the only one who notices smiley; still, for me that makes it worth the effort.

A way of keeping the line drawing near The far legs completed

For Haasje (worked in the thinner PP) having the drawing there was even more important – after all, it’s essential to the look of the finished piece that I get his expression right. And this was the bit where the pounce had got smudged most. In a couple of places my decision to create the outline I wanted especially for Haasje’s head may have left a teeny bit of paint visible, but I came to the conclusion that whatever the effect on the assessment, making Haasje look the way I wanted him weighed more heavily with me. And I’m happy with the way he’s turned out, even without his big spangle eye. But my goodness some of the smaller and curvier bits were fiddly!

Haasje outlined

The final bit of PP was the inner line of Bruce’s ear, and then it was on to the twist outline. As Helen had said single twist is always couched using the “invisible” method, that’s what I did, including some challenging pointy bits. I also had to work out which bits of Bruce’s outline were behind which other bits, so the overlaps looked as natural as possible. And then I plunged one bit of twist a little too short… fortunately I managed to tease the end back out and plunge it a little closer to the line. Phew.

Bruce's inner ear A pointy ear in couched twist

The first ear was followed by back and tummy, head, other ear, front leg, and finally rear leg with haunch.

Bruce's back and tum outlined And his head And his other ear And his front leg And finally his rear leg

That’s a lot of twist, I can tell you, and at that point I’d reached homework saturation point. It was time to take Bruce and Haasje to class, show them to Becky Quine (who was taking over last minute from Helen Jones), and decide what to do next. To be, as they say, continued!

Proper padding and a little bit of gold

After all the preparations I talked about in last week’s FoF, it was time for the third class in my Goldwork module. The first thing I did there was not concerned with the prep at all, but involved a little tweak to my sampled grass. Helen Jones, the tutor, suggested gently pinching the tips of the blades of grass with tweezers to make a sharper point, and it did make a difference. I still have to sample invisibly couched tips though! I also learnt that twist is always couched using the invisible in-between-the-plies method unless it is part of mixed couching, so both the grass and the kangaroo outline will have to be done in this way.

The tweezered points look pointier

On to discuss the soft string padding. Helen hadn’t seen the design or the extra bit of tail padding before, so we talked about possibly using thicker string or more strands as a documented design decision (as discussed with Angela last time), but when I remarked that I had sampled a blunt ending and moved the tail felt because the tail had to gradually get down to the level of Bruce’s rump, she suggested I cut 20 short lengths of my slightly thicker soft string, wax them, outline the tail on my sample cloth and see whether splayed out the twenty strings might not be enough to cover the base of the tail after all. They were. Helen said the sample I’d done at home was fine so she suggested I move straight on to the real thing. Away with the sampling cloth and out comes the slate frame!

On to the actual padding!

It took several goes and a fair bit of unpicking, because I wanted to get this absolutely right. The cutwork tail is going to be quite an eyecatcher, and having the proper foundation will make it much easier to get the cutwork even. So the tapering had to be gradual, and the securing stitches not stick out. It took most of the class, but then I did have a tail to be proud of! Well, Bruce did smiley.

The tapered end done, now for the chisel end Close-up of the tapered end Working on the chisel end The finished tail

Actually, it was rather nice to be able to spend such a long time just getting an important part of the project done just right. It’s not something you can easily manage at home, but in class, well, there’s nothing else to do but concentrate on your stitching!

And finally, I did manage to get on a little bit of actual gold thread that would be seen – but not without a design change. I was going to use a pair of rococco and Jap for the outline of the cloud, but the Jap looked dwarfed by the chunky medium rococco, so I changed it to a single line of rococco with a pair of Jap couched next to it. I got the rococco on ib class and later that weekend added the Jap and the pearl purl outline of the sun at home.

The first gold

So the first gold is on – yay! Although… I’m not at all sure the bricking on the Jap and the rococco is up to scratch. The irregular nature of rococco when couched in curves makes it difficult to space the couching stitches evenly, which in turn makes it difficult to know where to place the couching stitches on the Jap; bricking based on the rococco will simply make the spacing on the Jap uneven as well, while spacing the couching on the Jap evenly upsets the bricking pattern. For now I will leave plunging and fastening off on the cloud, in case I decide to take it all out after discussing it with Angela. If a thing is worth doing…