Planning Canvaswork

After Bruce (yes, there will be an “after Bruce”, and not too far in the future with any luck) the next module for my RSN Certificate is Canvaswork. Surprisingly, even though I haven’t officially started, it’s already been through quite a few ups and downs. First of all I didn’t think I’d do it at all; I just wanted to do Jacobean and Goldwork (and even the Jacobean was mainly because they wouldn’t let me do Goldwork without it). Then I got the various RSN stitch guides and thought it might be rather fun to do Canvaswork after all, especially as some ancient seaside scribbles led to ideas for a possible design.

Early scribbles for a sea shore idea... ...and how it might look in a Canvaswork project

I liked it. I still do. It may one day make it to canvas. But unfortunately it doesn’t fit the Canvaswork brief, which specifies “depth and perspective”. A pity, because not only did I have some photographs from a visit to an aquarium in Brittany some years ago with weird and wonderful and usable creatures, but I’d also had a bit of a splurge on seaside-y textured threads. Fortunately some of these have since come in handy in other projects, for example in Septimus the Septopus.

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery Finished and lit from the side

Keeping the need for perspective in mind, I was tempted by a picture I took at Buckler’s Hard in the New Forest of some oystercatchers foraging. But in order to make them big enough to be both recognisable and stitchable I’d have to zoom in so much that most of the background, and with it any perspective, was lost. Exit the oystercatchers.

The oystercatchers at Buckler's Hard don't quite make the grade

Now from the first two modules you may have gathered that I like having some personal touches in my Certificate projects; beyond the fact that I’ve designed them, I mean. Our very own pussycat made it into the Jacobean project together with references to a favourite poem, Dutchness, and my mother. Bruce and Haasje carry memories of my favourite cuddly toy and a favourite aunt’s bedtime stories. What to put into Canvaswork? Well, there is a place which is very special to me and which, before moving to England, I would visit every year; where I got engaged; and which I remember going to with many special people like my mother, several aunts, and my in-laws: the Keukenhof, that famous Dutch bulb garden. And with its swathes of flowers, trees, ponds, fountains, sculptures and buildings surely there must be suitable scenes with plenty of depth and perspective. This one, for example, which I took myself some years ago:

Lots of perspective but a bit too much detail

Very pretty, I’m sure you’ll agree, and it’s got the different textures of flowers, path and trees, but there may just be a bit too much going on in it. Canvaswork is by its very nature rather more chunky than the other techniques, and it might be challenging to capture all the detail. Moreover, I decided that if I was going to celebrate my Dutch heritage in canvaswork, I was going to go all out. Not just tulip overload, but also a windmill. And the Keukenhof just happens to have a pretty good one smiley.

A floral sweep with a washed-out sky No clutter, but not a lot of perspective Good image, but it lacks sweep Sky, sweep of flowers, path, mill - but landscape orientation

Three of these pictures come from the Facebook page of a travel organisation that specialised in Keukenhof trips, so the first thing to do was ask for their permission to use one of them. They were extremely kind about it and said yes, take your pick, just send us a picture of the embroidery when it’s finished. I warned them that might be a while…

As for which to choose, well, all four have a lot going for them: perspective, different textures and lines, and some large areas in which to show off stitch transitions. They all have their drawbacks too – the first has lots of people and other “cluttery” things like bins and benches in it and the sky is overexposed; the middle two haven’t got the curvy sweep of flowers which draws you into the picture; and the last one again has rather a lot of clutter, and it’s in landscape orientation, which doesn’t fit my small frame quite so well. I may try cropping that one to portrait orientation, getting rid of some of the undesirable elements at the same time (although I’d still have to ask the tutor whether I’d be allowed to ignore that one rather prominent rubbish bin). And in spite of the lack of sweep, I like the third picture because it is nice and bold and hasn’t got too much fiddly detail. Anyway, I’m taking all these pics to class, so in between mounting Goldwork we’ll discuss which one is most likely to work. I’ll let you know!

A freebie, some sampling and a variety of oranges

Recently we’ve been having a bit of Bruce overload, I’m afraid. Time for a break from Bruce – only a short one, what with the finishing line so close, but a break nonetheless. Time for daisies, gemstones and oranges!

A little over a week ago I mentioned a birthday card I’d stitched for a friend, and said it might become a freebie. If you occasionally glance at Mabel’s Facebook page you may already have seen this, but indeed, Daisy & Ladybird can now be downloaded from the Freebies page. Enjoy having a play with it, and do send us pictures of your handiwork – remember, just because I chose to use crewel wool and filled in the whole thing doesn’t mean you have to do the same. You could stitch only the outline of the flower in perle cotton stem stitch and solidly fill the ladybird for contrast; you could work the petals in silk and the flower centre in bright gold chipping; you could use ribbons; it’s completely up to you.

A daisy-and-ladybird card

Last Monday was an exciting day – with the easing of lockdown restrictions the weekly Embroidery Circle I’ve been attending for years was allowed to meet again! There were only six of us rather than the usual twelve, but it was lovely to sit there and chat and stitch together. As I rather expected there would be a fair amount of chatting, I needed a project that didn’t take too much concentration. I took two, just to have a bit of choice, but stitched just the one: a sample cloth for Llandrindod. You may remember I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the stitch direction in the facets of the central gem, and I couldn’t remember why I had rejected the option which initially looked the most obvious. Time to try both.

Sampling some facets

Now my first idea had been the one on the left, with the stitches in the facets going around the centre. Then for some reason I decided it would be better to use satin stitch at right angles to the central facet, radiating outwards, as in the sample on the right. But as you can see, this makes the individual facets indistinguishable. This is not quite as much of a problem as it seems, as I will be outlining the facets in very fine metallic thread anyway, but even so it looked rather too homogenous. The final verdict: temporary brain fog when deciding to switch. Back to the original plan.

The other project I took to Embroidery Group (but neglected) was Sarah Homfray’s orange tree, a companion to the apple tree I did a while ago. All the browns and greens are done, and I’m down to the oranges, in both senses of the word. As these are circles, I thought I’d go with split stitch filling – after all, I’ve had lots of practice doing split stitch circles with Hengest.

Lots of spots

The only difference with these circles was the shading. I worked two of them from the outside in, and then one from the inside out (not quite finished, as you can see). And they look nice. But there are nine oranges in total, and even the excitement of working one of these three in the opposite direction couldn’t disguise the fact that doing nine of them in circular split stitch was going to be rather samey for a project that is meant to be a bit of fun. A little more variety is needed to spice things up.

Shading oranges using split stitch A lot more oranges

Conveniently, the oranges are arranged in three clusters of three, so it’s easy enough to simply switch to a different stitch when moving to the next cluster. For now I’m thinking of woven wheels with the centre off-centre (I hope that makes sense) and long & short stitch working from the perimeter inwards; with the latter it may be a bit tricky getting three shades into these small shapes, but it will definitely keep stitching them interesting. I’ll let you know how these other oranges work out (remind me if I forget)!

An S-ing dilemma, surprising purl and a finished leg

With my 6th class coming up, there was work to be done – but not all work on Bruce involves putting gold on him, or even on the sampling cloth. There are what you might call the theoretical bits as well. I don’t mean that I will be quizzed on how pearl purl is made or when to use a double waxed thread, but preparatory work as well as decisions, possibly even dilemmas to navigate. At this point in Bruce’s development (desperately trying not to call it a “journey”) it’s a scale drawing of the cutwork that will cover his tail, and a decision about S-ing.

S-ing (pronounced “essing”) is a technique for applying hollow purl in such a way that the resulting line looks like stem stitch. As you can’t take purl through the fabric this is achieved by manipulating short pieces of purl (chips) so that they deceive the eye into thinking it’s one long piece which has been taken through the fabric to create that cord-like look that stem stitch has. I first tried it on the goldwork racehorse, and when deciding on what materials and techniques to use for the sun’s rays in the Certificate design, S-ing was very much my first choice.

S-ing in a racehorse

What was in my mind were drawings I’d seen of suns with pointy wavy rays, and I thought that if I didn’t put in the usual compensating half-length chip at the end furthest away from the sun, that would be really effective. Unfortunately all three tutors were distinctly unenthusiastic about this, with their reactions ranging from “don’t do it, it’s not allowed in the Certificate, it’s a Diploma technique” through “well, it’s your call” to “the assessors won’t like it”.

A wavy sun Samples S-ing

So I scrutinised the brief and found absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be allowed. The brief is very clear about the materials: it says about the threads and wires (in underlined bold print) “The following are the only gold threads that will be used in this basic Goldwork project.” But about the techniques it says: “You MUST include the following”, which to my mind means that you can include other techniques as long as they use allowable materials. On the other hand, do I want to risk being marked down for something I’ve been warned by the tutors that the assessors won’t like (even though I believe they have no reason to)?

There is an alternative – a double line of rococco, one a little shorter than the other. It would be wavy. It would be safe. But it’s not the look I had in mind, for one thing because I’ve already used rococco to represent the billowy outline of the cloud and for another because I like the idea of the sun’s rays having no visible couching threads to detract from their shine. I’m hoping to have Bruce on my wall for a long time and seeing rococco in the sun’s rays instead of the S-ing I envisaged there would niggle me every time I saw it. So I’ve decided to go with my original design decision, and take the consequences.

Right, enough soul-searching; on to something a bit more practical. Bruce’s tail will be covered in cutwork, shorts lengths of hollow purl snugly fitted over the soft string padding with the cut ends just touching the fabric. Well, that’s what we’re aiming for anyway! I’ll be using two types of purl, smooth (a shiny round shape) and bright check (a shiny angular shape). I knew I had plenty of the smooth, but the bright check is used for chipping as well (it’s the stuff used in the sun) and there wasn’t quite so much of it in the little bag in my project box. Fortunately I remembered I had another bag of the right size in my stash, but when I got it out I also remembered that there was a reason why I hadn’t put both in the same bag:

The two bright checks in their identical bags Both bright checks, but different

That’s right, they look different. As you can tell from the bags they both come from the same supplier, but one is noticeably shinier than the other. As I want to make sure there is enough of the less shiny one for the tail, I decided to do the chipping on Bruce’s haunch in the shinier one. The difference between two fairly far apart areas of chipping won’t be nearly so noticeable as it would be to change chips halfway through the tail!

There was more measuring to be done. For homework Helen McC had asked me to draw the chips onto a print-out of the tail at full scale, to show the changes in direction as well as the transition from smooth purl to bright check. To do this I needed to know exactly how wide both purls are. Mr Figworthy to the rescue with his trusty calipers! And what he found was another surprise: although the two purls (smooth and bright check) have the same size number (no.6), the outer diameters came out differently, at 1.0mm vs 1.4mm wide. I wrote to the supplier, Lizzy Pye at Laurelin, and she very quickly replied, “in my experience there has always been some variation between the types of purl. The check is usually a little larger. If you think of how it is made, wrapping the wire around a core – it makes sense that the inside width is the same, but the corners stick out.” Good point. And in fact a re-measure showed that the bright check was actually about 1.2mm wide, so not too much difference. I was ready to start drawing.

Making a start at the arrangement of purls in the tail

It took quite a bit of measuring, drawing, rubbing out, re-measuring and re-drawing, but it turned out to be a very useful exercise indeed. As I mentioned, one of the key things the drawing needs to show is the transition from smooth purl (at the tip) to bright check (by Bruce’s backside). My idea was to use the sort of transition that you see in satin stitch, the shortest version of which is “all A, 1 B, 1 A, all B”. More often it’s the slightly longer one which runs “All A, 1 B, 2 A, 2 B, 1 A, all B”. Although my aim was the next longer version after that, I wasn’t sure whether there would be room for it, as the brief specifies a continuous stretch of smooth purl cutwork that is at least 5cm long. But because all this is drawn to scale, it showed that there is in fact enough space, so it will be a very gradual transition using “All A, 1 B, 3 A, 2B, 2 A, 3 B, 1 A, all B”.

Starting the transition It all fits

And finally, some actual stitching smiley: the chipping on the haunch. Chipping, while not as daunting as all that spaghetti I’ve been dealing with, poses its own challenges – mostly the fact that the chips are tiny (and this is not even the smallest size they could be…) and that they jump around like fleas on acid at the smallest provocation (or none).

A very small chip

Does it sound silly to say that I felt rather emotional seeing the whole thing filled in and complete? That hind leg has been quite an undertaking, and now it is done. I glow with a sense of achievement! And fortunately the difference between the shinier and the not-so-shiny chipping doesn’t seem too obvious.

The chipping section on the haunch The finished leg

The chipping had gone a bit more quickly than I’d expected and I was on a roll so I got on with the long smooth chips on Bruce’s ears, and the mixed cutwork on her pouch. Not as challenging as the cutwork on the tail will be, but good practice! They may, of course, turn out to be no more than practice – I’m not sure they are quite to the standard I’d like to see, so it may be another Echternach moment. On the other hand, Angela may look at them and say I’m being too fussy; now that would be a lovely outcome! But whatever happens tomorrow, all in all I’m very pleased with where I’ve got to before my 6th class.

Long smooth chips on the ears Cutwork on the pouch Where I am before my 6th class

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

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

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!

Projects portable, impromptu and irresistible

When we travelled to Devon for a week to provide care for my mother-in-law Elizabeth in March, I took five projects with me (two of them far too complicated; I don’t know what I was thinking). I managed about three stitches. When we went for another week in early April I wondered whether to bother bringing any embroidery at all – but like most stitchers I get twitchy if I haven’t got a single project with me Just In Case, so I packed the three simple ones, only one of which I had done any work on yet: a Jacobean-style leaf.

Caroline's leaf design

There is a Facebook group for RSN Certificate & Diploma students, with members from all over the world. One of them is Caroline from Australia, and some time ago she posted a picture of a leaf she had designed to do some experimenting with; the picture above is of her original leaf. I really liked it and asked whether she’d be happy for me to stitch a version of it; she very kindly said yes. In an attempt at stash-busting I picked some lovely House of Embroidery hand-dyed perles to work it in, and as for the stitches, I just did whatever felt right at the time – these projects were very much meant to be an easy thing to pick up for a few stitches at a time without having to hunt around for a stitch plan or a diagram. In that nice and relaxing way I managed to complete the leaf to my more-or-less satisfaction by the middle of the week. It also had some unexpected consequences, of which more later!

About halfway, with light pink whipped backstitch on the left The finished leaf, with an extra bit of dark pink

The other two projects I had with me were the printed fabrics of two of Sarah Homfray’s fruit trees; I’d picked some of my lovely Heathway Milano wools and decided to start on the apple tree. Initially I thought I’d just do everything in stem stitch that could be worked in stem stitch, but in practice that felt a bit too relaxing. Bearing in mind my mother-in-law’s axiom in her later life that she could stitch whatever she liked using just the basic stitches, I thought I’d add some variety but without going for anything too fancy. During our stay there I got almost as far as the third picture (I finished about half the leaves at home), with stem stitch for the trunk and branches, reverse chain stitch for the grass, and fishbone stitch for the leaves. Back home I had a think about the apples, and plunged for padded satin stitch – I did consider long & short for a more naturalistic, rounded look, but as the tree is quite stylised anyway, I rather liked this stripy approach! The middle apple isn’t quite finished because (typical, isn’t it…) my medium red thread ran out about 2 stitches short. Oh, the outer green bits are whipped backstitch.

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool The first stitches Three different stitches so far One and three quarter apples

I’m really enjoying this little tree; my only quibble with the printed design is that the screen-printed lines are a bit thick so my crewel wool doesn’t always quite cover them, and as the printing is done in rather a strong bright colour it is a little noticeable here and there. But as this is not going to be a display piece I’m not too worried about that.

Now for the unexpected consequences of the Jacobean leaf: a new convert and an impromptu project smiley! One of the carers who came in to stay with my mother-in-law overnight is a crafter, and when she saw the leaf in its embroidery hoop lying on the coffee table she said, slightly wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to try that but I can’t draw and I wouldn’t know where to start.” Well, I did! On our previous visit I had been sorting through Elizabeth’s threads, fabrics, beads and so on and bagged up whatever I couldn’t use to go to her Embroidery Group. But surely they wouldn’t begrudge a new stitcher a few bits and bobs? So I quickly designed a V for her (the first letter of her name) and put a project together from the bagged up resources. She had a go the very first night after I gave it to her, and a pretty good go too, I’d say!

Sketching a V Transferred design, sample cloth and a selection of threads Vickey's first stitches

And the irresistible part of the title? That came when RSN tutor Heather Lewis (with whom I was fairly certain I did a class some years back) posted on Facebook that her Etsy shop was now open, with her very first kit in it: Elizabethan Beauty. I have too many kits already. They take me forever because I have to fit them in between developing my own designs and working on the RSN Certificate. But it was the stem that did it. It uses a braided stitch which I have attempted once or twice using perle or other relatively easy threads, but never in gold. My dear husband, instead of helping me resist the temptation, told me to get on with it and order the kit. I did (and asked whether it was indeed her who did a one-to-one goldwork class with me). It arrived yesterday in a dinky fabric bag, with a hand-written message to say yes, she did teach me in 2017! One of these days (months? years?) I’ll get around to stitching it. For now I am greatly enjoying looking at it smiley.

Heather Lewis' Elizabethan Beauty kit and its bag Kit content, from Heather's website The design The braided stem

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