Finishing off a robin

I am itching to start on the rainbow sheep, but the robin was to be completed first, for no other reason than that I had told myself it should and it would feel rather weak-willed to give in to ovine temptation, however colourful. So over the weekend I got to work, completed the shaded herringbone wing (also good practice for my Canvaswork module, as I hope to use the stitch there), and outlined the breast in medium red (left/top) and dark red (right/bottom) stem stitch.

The wing filled in, and the breast outlined

But what to do about the wing outline? I was hoping to find something feathery but inspiration failed to strike so in the end I just went with shaded stem stitch. Then on to the head. There I did want something feathery, and I decided to use fly stitch in one strand.

The wing outlined and the head feathers started

Now in my original version of the robin the head is entirely worked in brown. This works fine as a stylised outline, even though in real life the red of a robin’s breast extends into its head. But as this version is “coloured in” (even though it is still very stylised), I felt I ought to have some red going up the throat, which is why the light brown fly stitches only surround about two thirds of the eye. However, before thinking about how to get the red to flow reasonably naturally from the battlement couching, first I had to do the feathers. It wasn’t easy to get them to lie in the right direction, and in fact I ended up with a rather ruffled robin, but on the whole I was happy with the effect.

Working on the head feathers

Especially when I added in the other two shades of brown, and got the one-strand fly stitch head to blend into the two-strand herringbone wing. For the throat I went with straight stitches in blended light and medum red, with tiny seed stitches in one strand of dark red on top. The legs were done in black stem stitch, the beak in black straight stitch, and the eye in black Rhodes stitch. Finished, right?

Finished?

But the eye didn’t look quite right. Nice and beady, and the Rhodes stitch gives it a bit of extra beadiness by being domed, but even so it needed a little something extra.

A beady eye that needs a a little something extra

That little something extra was a stem stitch outline in one strand of light beige (fortunately I decided against my first choice of bright white), and now he is finished. On to the sheep! (among one or two other things…)

The beady eye outlined

Experimenting on robins and ladybirds

No no, there’s no need to call the RSPB and the RSPCA – only fabric was hurt in these experiments, by being repeatedly stabbed with a needle. In the case of the robin, I was trying out a herringbone variation which I found when researching stitches for the Canvaswork module. I put in a few rather faint guidelines and worked the first row; as the rows intertwine, my idea was to change the colour gradually from 2 strands of dark through one dark with one medium to two medium and so on. But just as had been the case when sampling this on canvas, it was terribly awkward trying to get the needle up underneath the previous row of stitches as per the instructions in my Anchor Book of Canvaswork Stitches.

Pencil lines as a guide The first line of herringbone stitch

Could you perhaps do it differently by going down underneath the previous stitches, which would be easier as you could push those stitches out of the way with the needle when taking it down through the fabric? I tried it on my canvas doodle cloth and yes, it works! The front looks pretty much identical (the blue line shows the stitch done according to the book, the pink line with the alternative way of working it) – any difference in the picture is, I think, the result of having done only two lines the alternative way, which makes it look less dense. It does use more thread on the back (the blue arrow in the second picture points to the tiny stitches on the back when doing it “properly”, the pink arrow to the longer stitches of the not-so-awkward variation) but on the whole I’d say it’s worth it for being much less frustrating and a lot quicker.

Herringbone done in two different ways look the same on the front But on the back they look different

So I gave that a try, and got to the first change in shading (dark/medium blend); then realised that I need to do the tail before continuing with the wing/body as it is further back in the design. I wanted to do it in satin stitch over a split stitch edge, so I have to come up at the body end, which would mess up the body stitching if I left it till later. In order to get the impression of texture in there in spite of the flat stitches, I chose to blend my dark and light brown, skipping the medium.

Blended herringbone A tail needs seeing to first, with a split stitch outline Blended satin stitch to make a perky tail

As for the ladybird, that comes from the needlepainting book I recently got. I’ve been wanting to try needlepainting, if only as a preparation for my Silk Shading module, and I also had some new (and older but not much used) fabrics and some new (and older but not much used) silks to experiment with. Fortunately the book comes with some beginner’s exercises and as there are three I’m going to try them with different combinations of fabric and thread. First up: a ladybird shell in Pipers floss silk on Empress Mills’ 440ct Egyptian cotton.

The first experiment set up

By the way, as I refused to believe that any cotton could have 440 threads to the inch (which is what the count would mean for a counted embroidery fabric like Lugana or Edinburgh linen), I did a bit of digging and found that in cotton for sheets etc. the count includes both the warp and the weft, so 440ct cotton will have 220 threads per inch horizontally and vertically. Still very fine, but not as eye-watering as it sounds at first!

The first, darkest silk for this is appropriately red, but the shading is not going to be subtle – I only have the Pipers silk in about seven jewel-like rainbow colours, so the shell will be worked in red, bright orange and bright yellow. The white will have to be borrowed from another brand of silk. Pipers floss silk is very fine, and being a filament silk it snags easily, which is why you can see the individual filaments in a few bits of the thread. Splitting the stitches took a lot of concentration, and very good lighting! The second picture shows the project with a standard match for scale (and in more accurate colours, having been photographed in daylight). It also shows that my initial row of long and short stitch does not have a very neat bottom edge, so I may unpick that part and start again.

Starting the split stitch outline The project in its 3-inch hoop

And that’s where I am with these two experiments! I hope to be able to finish them over the Christmas period, while also getting some Canvaswork homework in. But for that, I’m waiting for a Christmas present…

Turning back time

Unpicking is sometimes known, more optimistically, as reverse stitching. Fine if you discover your mistake fairly quickly and it’s a manageable number of stitches; but occasionally it’s easier to just cut everything out and start again. Here’s what happened when, having completed the whipped backstitch outline of the glass on my hourglass design, I ignored the project for a few days.

The glass outlined

Picking it up again to work on the stem stitch posts I took the threaded needle that had been left in a corner of the fabric and started stitching, while watching The Repair Shop in the background. The lines of stem stitch looked a bit thin, and I was grumbling to myself that it would take rather more lines to fill the post than I’d expected, but I was more than half concentrating on the restoration of a chess set on the television and just kept going. After three lines I came to the end of the thread, fastened off, fastened on a new thread from my ring of pre-cut cream pearl cotton, worked a few stitches and realised that these stitches were much chunkier, and a much lighter cream, than the ones that were altready there. You guessed it – the threaded needle stuck in the fabric had been threaded with the stranded cotton I’d used for attaching the spangles… There was no help for it, it all had to come out.

Unpicking the wrong threads

Undaunted, I re-started the post in the correct thread, and having finished the bottom half of the post I was about to move on to the top half, when I thought about the intervening space. Should I indicate in some way the outline of the post in the gaps between the spangles? I added single lines, but then realised I had intended the spangles to be like carved balls in the wooden posts, so the outlines of the post would have been “carved away”. Feeling rather like Oscar Wilde in reverse, I removed them. Still, it was useful to see the effect and know for certain that I didn’t like it!

Lines that aren't needed

Not time-related except that chipping is a very time-consuming technique, but I wanted to mention the use of close-up photographs when working stitched models. They are particularly useful when doing chipping because they show up any gaps that you may not notice when looking at the work in the ordinary way. In this case, I’m quite puite pleased with the coverage – it looks good and dense! Unfortunately close-ups also show other details, like those invaders that look like hairs. I can’t think what they are (unusually for the Figworthy household I don’t think they are cat fur) but at least they are pretty much invisible when you look at it with the naked eye. To give you an idea of scale, the photograph covers an area a little less than a square centimetre. I’ll probably get away with it smiley.

A close-up of chipping

Dorset (via Devon), a garden and some gold

Among the various bits and pieces we brought back after my mother-in-law’s funeral there was a piece of red and white stitching on a scrap of blue fabric. It isn’t a full-blown embroidery, it looks more like a trial piece, but it’s unmistakably Dorset feather stitchery. I recognised it as such because some years ago I acquired a book about it, from (as I thought) a charity shop or possibly a car boot sale, describing the characteristics of this instantly recognisable style of embroidery: blanket stitch and chain stitch, both whipped and plain; fly stitch; single and double feather stitch; all worked into scrolls, lines and teardrop shapes.

A Dorset feather stitchery sampler by Elizabeth

When we got home I got the book out to show it to my husband side by side with his mother’s embroidery, only to discover that it very probably didn’t come from a charity shop at all, but from Elizabeth’s collection: her trial piece is an almost exact copy of the book’s Trial and Error Sampler!

Elizabeth's sampler and my Dorset Feather Stitchery book

She didn’t follow the pattern precisely – her top line is whipped chain stitch instead of blanket stitch, while the second-from-the-bottom line is feather stitch instead of chain stich. The teardrop band is flipped upside down, the chain stitch wave has no spikes and the teardrop fillings are not the same either. All that sounds as though it must be quite different, but as you can see from the picture the differences really are very superficial. When I first read the book I’d contemplated doing the sampler but I never got round to it; now that I’ve got Elizabeth’s version I’ve seen the style in action without having to try it myself smiley.

Another of her embroideries which we brought back was very much a complete project: a mixed-media piece inspired by Monet’s waterlilies. The background is, I think, painted rather than dyed, and in keeping with her philosophy (although she’d probably laugh if she heard me call it that) the bridge, flowers and trees are worked in only a handful of different stitches – as far as I’ve been able to make out, straight stitch, French knots, and chain stitch; satin stitch and seeding as well, but they are basically types of straight stitch. And yet for all its simplicity it is remarkably effective. It is a style I could never master, it’s too informal and free for me, but I admire it greatly when I see it done by others!

Elizabeth's Monet-inspired piece

And to change the subject completely – remember my spectacularly unsuccessful attempt at making gold thread? As I was putting together a birthday card for a friend (which may become a freebie in the not too distant future) I noticed that traces of the gold leaf are still clinging to the dining table. That probably means they’re now an integral part of this piece of furniture; a nice conundrum for the experts if future generations ever take it to the Antiques Roadshow…

A daisy-and-ladybird card Silk thread and gold leaf, detaching itself from the paper Gold forever stuck to our dining table

Waste knot, want knot

Most stitchers I know are not enamoured of fastening on and off (and some, like me, therefore choose to use threads that are far too long and by doing so cause themselves more problems than if they’s just fastened on and off a bit more often…) Still, it has to be done, and recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about the various methods I use to fasten on and off, and what determines which one I choose.

First of all a confession. I use knots. At the back of my work. Drum me out of the Society of True Embroiderers if you like, but if I’m stitching a small project that will go into a padded card, standard knots will do me just fine (for fastening on, that is; I fasten off by weaving under previous stitches). Sometimes I use them in larger projects too, if I know the end product is going to be padded, and is not going to be handled or washed or generally fiddled with. So that’s the first method I use, and it is by far my favourite because it is quick and easy.

Knots at the back of my work

Quick and easy partly because I use a method for knotting the end of the thread which I learnt from my grandmother, and which I’ve only recently found out is known in English as a quilter’s knot or a tailor’s knot. Note about the pictures: I realised too late that the needle I’m using has a curved tip – I grabbed the first one that was about the right size and forgot that this was the one my husband bent for me as an experiment to use for ribbed spider’s web stitch. It makes no difference to the knot, but just in case it looks a bit odd in some of the pictures, that’s why smiley.

Anyway, on to the knot. Thread your needle, then place the end of your thread on the needle’s eye. Place your thumb over it to keep it secure, then wrap the thread around the needle a few times. Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger, then very gently pull the needle through, and you’ll end up with a knot at the end of the thread. In effect you’ve just made a French knot without the fabric! Incidentally, the length of the tail after the knot depends on how much the thread overhangs the needle in the first step; I tend to put the very end of the thread onto the eye and so have practically no tail at all, but too little and it may undo itself. On the whole, however, this seems to be a perfectly secure way of making a knot.

Place the end of the thread on the needle's eye Place your thumb over the thread to keep it secure Wrap the thread around the needle a few times  
Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger Gently pull the needle through Pull until a knot forms at the end of the thread The completed knot

However, most books on embroidery will tell you that it is better not to have knots at the back of your work. They may come undone, they may cause lumps and bumps, you may catch them with your needle – and so they advise a knotless way of fastening on. These often start with a knot, but it’s a knot that will get snipped off later, hence its name “waste knot”. Knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down somewhere along the line that you’ll be stitching so that the knot sits at the front of the fabric, then come up at the start of the design line and start stitching towards the knot. When you get to the knot, you can snip it off – but first check the back of your work! With stitches like stem stitch, the stitches at the back may not actually be covering the tail leading to the knot…

Take the needle down somewhere along the design line Work your stitches in the usual way towards the knot When you come to the knot, snip it off But first check that the thread is secured at the back...

This is why a waste knot works best with stitches where the thread at the back of the work are at an angle to the tail you are trying to cover, rather than going in the same direction. The pictures below show a line of Palestrina knots being worked towards the waste knot; as you can see the stitches automatically secure the tail because of the way they are positioned.

Using a waste knot with Palestrina stitch The stitching at the back crosses the thread tail After a few stitches you can snip off the waste knot The tail is secured at the back

When the waste knot method is not ideal, you can use the away knot. This is like a waste knot a long way away instead of on the design line. As before, knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down a good distance away from your starting point (the tail needs to be long enough to thread comfortably in a needle). Work your stitches in the usual way, and after four or five stitches cut the away knot. You now have a tail at the back of the work.

Take the needle down a good way away from your starting point Work your stitches in the usual way Snip off the knot You now have a tail at the back of the work

Thread the tail, then weave the needle behind a few stitches at the back as though you were fastening off. Snip off any excess thread and continue stitching.

Thread the tail Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Take the needle underneath a few stitches at the back of the work Snip off the excess

And finally the method which uses/wastes the least thread of any no-remaining-knot ways of fastening on: anchoring stitches. This is the method they teach at the RSN, and which I’ve been using throughout my Jacobean Tree of Life. It has the advantage that you can start and finish at the front of the work so you don’t have to flip your hoop or frame – particularly useful when working with a cumbersome slate frame on trestles!

Knot your thread, then take the needle down either on the design line or in a nearby area that will be covered later. Work two or three tiny stab stitches (taking the needle straight up and down), then bring the needle up at the starting point. Work a few stitches according to the design, the snip off the knot. To fasten off (not shown in the pictures), work a few tiny stitches snuggled underneath your “proper” stitches or again on a line or in a shape that will be covered, bring the needle to the front and cut the thread.

With the knot at the front make a few tiny stitches on the design line, Come up at the starting point, and after a few stitches snip off the knot

On the whole this works really well, but I have on occasion found myself pulling the thread through if I snipped the knot too quickly, especially with a slippery thread like silk; so if at all possible work a few stitches before cutting the knot.

There are other starting methods out there, like the pin stitch, but these are ones I find myself returning to most. If your favourite fastening on/fastening off method isn’t mentioned here, do champion it in the comments!

Playing with stitches

After overcoming a certain amount of mental resistance, last weekend I finally put the first stitches into the very last part of my Jacobean Certificate piece: Lexi. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to start on her – perhaps because she is a fairly complex piece of stitching in that she is much less formal (and therefore less predictable and rule-based) than the rest of the design. Whatever the reason, I’d been putting it off but with my (admittedly self-imposed) deadline of 22nd April looming, I really needed to get on with it.

Well, she is far from being a complete cat yet, but the two furthest legs are done as is her tummy, and she has an outline – some of it in two strands, as advised by Helen McCook, to make the legs that are to the front of the image stand out more from the two dark legs in the background. With a bit of luck she will get her stripes (and I must not forget the light beige tip of the tail!) next weekend, after which all that remains is the wool wound around her.

An empty cat An partially filled cat

In between trying to get the Certificate finished I’ve been having fun with other people’s designs, like this Sarah Homfray freebie (do have a look at her kits and supplies as well – now is a good time to support our independent designers!)

Someone on the Mary Corbet Facebook group asked me about the stitches I’d used, so I made a diagram like I did for Percy the Parrot (remember him?). The thread I used is Threadworx overdyed Vineyard silk and it’s really a bit too heavy for this size project, which is partly why my original plan for the stem didn’t work. Vineyard silk is two-ply, and the individual plies look rather like a very nice flat silk, so I started by separating the plies and working Palestrina stitch on the left-hand side of the stem, meaning to fill the whole stem with Palestrina, off-setting the knots in consecutive rows. Unfortunately the untwisted plies were not very stable and they kept fraying and breaking, so I had to go back to using the full two-ply silk, which was too thick for my Palestrina plan. Never mind, stem stitch to the rescue!

A silk flower

The other stitches were not planned in any way, I partly followed Sarah’s crewel version (especially in determining open and solid areas) and partly did my own thing, and I used stem stitch far too much smiley – it’s such a versatile and easy stitch that in several places I decided I couldn’t be bothered trying something more decorative but also more complicated! In fact I’ve been playing with a fruit bowl design which I want to do in Bayeux stitch but which I think would also look quite good just outlined in stem stitch, perhaps as a Get Well card; what do you think?

A fruit bowl to play with

The home straight

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

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

A way to match thread colours to reality

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

Running out of thread at an annoying moment The finished rows

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

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

Broad stripes on Lexi

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

Shading on plant parts

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

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

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

Palestrina stitch outline in two colours

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

Shading and outline on the laid work

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

Where to fasten on?

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

Uneven lines will have to do

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

The bullion knot diamond The doodled bullion knot diamond

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

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

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

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

“And James reached the end of his brick”

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

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

Padded buttonhole shell Raised backstitch shell

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

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

Setting up a snail Too dark a body The finished body

On to the shell!

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

The first spoke All the spokes, ready for whipping

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

Two rows of light whipping Changing to medium turquoise

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

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

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

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

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

The finished snail

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

The tree with the now completed snail

More sampling, a block shading lament and a finished tulip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More block shading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knotted stem stitch doesn't work

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

A plain stem stitch outline

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

The tree so far

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

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Maths, visible turquoise and invisible brown

Saturday 9th November 2019

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

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

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

Using protractors for needlework

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

Fastening stitches to be covered by the stem stitch outline

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

Fastening stitches irritatingly NOT covered by the stem stitch outline

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

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

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

As good as it's going to get!

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

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

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

Battlement threads gone AWOL Battlement threads retrieved

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

Tulip before today Tidied tulip