Horsing around

Although I really need to get on with that secret goldwork project, I’m having such fun spending a bit more time with Helen McCook’s racehorse that I keep coming up with excuses – the latest one is that the hoop needed for the new project is currently in use holding my Canvaswork sample cloth, and I have to wait for the arrival of two 25cm Nurge hoops (my favourite brand), one 16mm and one 24mm deep. And then of course there will be a further delay until I’ve got round to binding it. So apart from doing some preparatory work for my first proper Canvas class next week, I’m enjoying an equine binge.

The first thing to do since the last update was to get rid of those pesky black outlines which I failed to cover when plunging the couching on the horse’s flank (feel free to let me know if that’s not the right term, I’m not a horse expert). There were a few options including a Jap outline, but in the end I decided to go for a solid filling of chips – for one thing that meant no plunging and oversewing! I chose the thinnest bright check, no.8, and tried to follow the lines as well as possible while still placing the chips in random directions. Chips are never going to make a truly sharp point, and in close-up you can see that the outlines are not smooth (you wouldn’t expect them to be), but when taking in the whole horse from a normal viewing distance I think it blends in well enough.

Visible lines The missed bit filled in with chipping The chipping in the context of the whole horse

On to the remaining bits of the back legs, worked (apart from a small length of pearl purl) in gold and copper rococco. Now the rococco that came with the class kit is big. I mean, really big. I have Very Fine, Fine and Medium rococco in my stash and Medium is as chunky as I would choose to go in any of my own projects. This looks a definite Large. It is an absolute pig to plunge, and I don’t even like the look of it very much because it is very difficult to “synchronise” the waves (the first picture shows it in the horse’s tail). I could have used a smaller size from my stash, but instead I went for check thread, rococco’s modest little sister. Much in the way that I prefer passing to Jap, I prefer check thread to rococco. It gives the same sort of effect, but it’s a lot easier to work with!

Large rococco in the tail Couched check thread The whole horse showing large rococco and check thread

The overview picture also shows my start on the grass. The kit came with bright green 471 thread, which is a bit like a fine passing thread available in lots of colours. Compared to the bottle green fabric that seemed rather too bright and too much towards the yellow end of green. In my stash I found a no. 1½ twist in Opal Green which is a lovely shade, but that was a bit too much towards teal/turquoise. Then, playing with them both at my Embroidery Group meeting (last one before the summer holiday, alas), I had a flash of inspiration: why not combine them? So I did, and I really like the effect of the blended colours and contrasting textures! When I started the second line of grass my first stitch happened to be exactly in line with the couching on the first line of grass, which looked odd, so I took it out and “bricked” it, even though the lines of couching are not directly next to each other, which I felt made for a more pleasing effect.

Two greens Combining two threads and bricking the stitches

By the way, finishing off the grass in the evening was possibly not the best decision. In spite of the floor to ceiling window in our dining room (where I like to stitch on larger and more complicated projects) the gloomy evening sky did nothing to help while couching two shades of green on dark green fabric using a green couching thread… Still, I managed, even if I did almost pull one bright green thread out completely when plunging its second end. Fortunately the unravelled first end consented to be gently persuaded back down the fabric, leaving the thread at the front acceptable if not pristine.

Working in the gloom The horse so far

So what’s left? I’d like to leave the head and neck till last, so the front legs first; they have a fair bit of work in them. I have quite a lot of copper passing left from the kit so I may put that in instead of the copper S-ing along the knee and foot. The angles of the leg are such that the S-ing looks a bit awkward there in the model photograph we were given, and rather loses its stem stitch look. We’ll see what suggests itself once I get to that point!

The model's front leg

A book, a horse, and a lobster’s claw

Although my summer stitching will be more goldwork (I’d tell you more but it’s a secret for now…), for the Certificate I’ve moved on to Canvaswork, and before we break up for the summer I have one class to get it all set up. Last time Angela advised me to get Jo Christensen’s Needlepoint Book and being a dutiful student of course I did smiley. It arrived just before we went away for a short break (by the sea, lovely!) so I’ve only read a little of it so far, but it looks a very informative book.

Jo Christensen's Needlepoint Book

I’ve also been doing some sampling, on a piece of 18TPI canvas I found in my stash. I have no idea why I had it, and I have no recollection of buying it – it may well have come from one of those occasions where someone hands me several bags of odds and ends because they want their mother’s/aunt’s/grandmother’s/great-aunt’s embroidery things to go to a Good Home. However I got it, it’s coming in useful now! Among the things I inherited from my mother-in-law there is a stitch guide with some very useful pictures of canvaswork stitches, and in fact it showed a better way of “slotting together” Dutch stitch (which for obvious reasons appeals to me and which I hope to be able to use in my Certificate piece) to cover the canvas more completely – the importance of which is strongly stressed in the Brief. It also reminded me of Victorian tufted stitch. I doubt I’ll have opportunity to use it, but it was fun to have a go.

Canvaswork sample cloth Dutch stitch in my mother-in-law's book Two ways of slotting Dutch stitch together Victorian tufted stitch

At my weekly Embroidery Group, which is finally meeting again (though with sadly reduced numbers, and for a very short term only) I’ve taken to working on the goldwork racehorse I started two years ago at a 3-day RSN class. You wouldn’t think goldwork would be ideal for a group where chatting and drinking tea is as much part of the fun as embroidery, but oddly enough it works – well, mostly… I want to finish this, but I want it to be fairly relaxed as well, so I decided I wouldn’t worry too much if my couching stitches were not all exactly 3mm apart, or if my S-ing chips were of slightly different lengths. But because the light at our venue is not the best (especially since one of the strip lights conked out and won’t be replaced until the summer holidays) and the design is drawn on dark green fabric in fine black pen, I managed to overlook the fact that my quite nicely plunged bit of couching completely failed to cover the far end of the outline. Oops. I tried to remedy this by extending one of the lines of couching but that just looked silly, so I unpicked it. For now I’m leaving it as it is and I’ll try and think of something to cover it up in an acceptable way.

The flank couched The flank plunged - with visible lines... Essing along the back completed The horse so far

And finally, the lobster’s claw. I know that sounds a bit mysterious, but it is apparently what the shape of an aficot is based on. And if you have no idea what an aficot is, I sympathise – when I first saw the name and a picture of it (in this article by Mary Corbet) I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what it had to do with embroidery. Well, it’s used for polishing satin stitches. It is also, when well-made in lovely wood, a thing of beauty in its own right, almost like an extremely tactile abstract sculpture. I’d been eyeing these (especially the set which includes a matching laying tool) for months, and finally decided that it was worth getting just for the sheer pleasure I’d get out of seeing and touching it, let alone using it in my needlework! After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the various woods available I eventually went for ebony, and here they are: my very own aficot and laying tool. Aren’t they gorgeous?

Safely packaged in tube and velvet bag An ebony laying tool and aficot The aficot fits beautifully in the hand

Drawing the line

That’s what I do for workshops – drawing the line drawing. On the kit fabric. The kits I sell online come with blank fabric and instructions on how to transfer the design yourself, but this would take too long in a 90-minute or 2-hour workshop, so I do them beforehand, with the aid of my trusty lightbox and some fine drawing pens.

Drawing the designs on by hand

But wouldn’t it be nice to get them screen-printed, both for workshops and for general kits? It can look really professional, like King Ethelnute of the Coombe Abbey retreat.

Stylish printing on Ethelnute

There are a few hurdles, however. First of all, people who have found good screen printers for their kits turn out to want to keep this information to themselves. Fair enough, I’ll just have to do my own research. But what about the quality of the screenprinting itself? Ethelnute looked very stylish in his gold outline, and as he was solidly stitched there was no problem about lines showing. But not all embroidery is solid, and in some kits I have bought in recent years this could be a real problem. There were kits with uniformly thick lines which were sometimes difficult to cover completely, like this one from Melbury Hill.

Thick grey lines on a Melbury Hill kit

Its saving grace was that the lines were printed in grey, so that any line showing was not overly noticeable. That couldn’t be said for some of the Sarah Homfray designs, which were printed in quite a bright green. Now let me begin by saying that Sarah’s kits are very well put together and generally a joy to stitch. But the green printing was a bit of a problem especially where lines ran into each other, becoming rather blobby – on the Turaco bird I had to add an extra line of stitching along the leaf edge to make sure everything was covered. In most of the design the printing was nice and crisp and distinct, but it was still quite bold, and working on the fruit trees I found that line stitches like Palestrina stitch did not always cover the whole width of the design line, even with a “spreading” thread like crewel wool.

Some blobby lines on a Sarah Homfray kit The lines are very very green Palestrina stitch does not fully cover

So there were three things I’d have to consider if I wanted to get my kit fabrics printed: I’d have to find a good screen-printer, the colour of the lines would have to be neutral and not too dark, and the lines themselves would have to be quite delicate, especially on designs that are not solidly embroidered or that use fine threads.

The first consideration seemed likely to scupper the process before it properly started as I found it difficult to work out who would be a suitable printer among the bewildering variety of available ones. Another thing was that most of the companies I found would only print on fabrics from their own collection. You can get screen-printing done on linen twill (see the Melbury Hill kit) but I haven’t been able to find out by whom. And then I came across a different process altogether, digital fabric printing. This seems to be used mostly for printing patterned fabric or logos, but surely you could print line drawings? I picked a company that would print samples and uploaded some designs: Whoo Me, the Wildflower Garden, and Forever Frosty.

Whoo Me Little Wildflower Garden Forever Frosty

Now this came with a few complications of its own; like so many printing companies, they would only print on their own fabrics. And they do not print on coloured fabrics – instead, the background colour is printed as well. Not quite as stylish and professional-looking as printing on a separately dyed fabric, but I was willing to see what it looked like. I picked a simple calico for Whoo Me, a plain cotton for the Wildflower Garden (to be printed light blue) and a duchesse satin for Forever Frosty, on the grounds that goldwork deserves something a bit more upmarket and glossy.

Here’s how they turned out:

Digitally printed kit fabric swatches

And I’m quite pleased with them! You may notice that I didn’t take my own advice about using a neutral, not too dark colour for the lines – they are, in fact, black – but this is because I had these printed before I had fully grasped the advantages of the Melbury Hill grey design lines. Anyway, that can easily be remedied if I decide to get them printed in larger numbers. The lines on Whoo Me and Forever Frosty are fairly bold because I forgot to adjust my line drawings – I usually print them quite bold because it makes it easier to trace them through the fabric, so all I need to do is provide the printers with a finer line drawing: they’ll print exactly what I provide.

Especially in the case of quite detailed designs like the Wildflower Garden, the extra cost that printing adds to the workshop kits is at least to some extent off-set by the amount of time I don’t have to spend on hand-drawing them. For the regular kits it is an extra cost on top of the usual materials as they do not usually come with the design pre-transferred; but I think it would definitely add to the user-friendliness of the kits. Let me know what you think – would you be happy to pay a little more for a kit that had the design ready printed on the fabric so you could just pick it up and get started?

Mounting tension

Following my alarming experience with the Jacobean piece going slack after mounting, you will understand I am taking no chances with Bruce – he is going to be stretched to within an inch of his life! (Without stretching any of the gold unduly, of course.) Goldwork classes no.7 and no.8 were scheduled one week apart, because once you’ve begun the mounting process there isn’t an awful lot of homework you can do.

First, however, there was the question of the tail. Would the tutor think the gaps near the tip warranted taking several chips out and re-doing them? Or would a small “prop chip” do the trick? Well, Angela advised me not to unpick any chips as the outlines were really nice and restitching might spoil them; but yes, to try an extra half-chip at the tip to see if that would push things up. I tried, it didn’t, and the line didn’t look as nice, so I took it out again.

The chip that got put in and then got taken out

Rather optimistically, I’d hoped to finish pretty much all the mounting apart from the sateen finish in class, with a bit of time left over to discuss my next module, Canvaswork. It was not to be, and not because of the time taken over that temporary chip. Mounting is slow work anyway, and getting it done as well as possible means taking your time and not rushing things. Canvaswork will still be there next week, or even next month. So I got started by working out what size I wanted the mounted piece to be, and how I wanted the work to be positioned on the mount board.

Marking size and position with pins

Generally in framing you are advised to have slightly more room at the bottom than at the top; apparently this makes it look more balanced when hung on the wall. You will notice that my placement has more room at the top. It felt more natural to have the extra space around the cloud and sun, wide-open skies as it were, and to have the line of grass closer to the edge as it is the ground the kangaroo stands on (well, is suspended above in mid-hop, but you know what I mean).

Next: cutting two identical pieces of mount board, to be glued together for extra strength.

Cutting two identical mount boards

Then calico gets glued to the double mount board, with the glue applied about an inch away from the edge – that is where you attach the embroidery to the calico with herringbone stitch. For goldwork, there is an extra layer, a rather strokable padding called, curiously, bumf. This compensates for all the lumps and bumps of secured plunged ends at the back of the work. The picture shows that layer before trimming it right to the edge of the board.

Gluing calico to the mount board Adding a layer of padding

Time to cut Bruce loose from the frame, with the helping hands of one of my fellow students because you don’t want the fabric to just slump off the frame with the risk of bending some of the gold when you’ve cut one side.

Bruce safely off the frame

The next step is pinning. This is not a one-time process: I ended up pulling and pinning three times before all the slack had been removed from the fabric (the pictures show the first and second round).

After the first round of pinning After the second round of pinning

On to the terrifying part, which is turning the work upside down to work the herringbone stitching. This is done exerting a lot of pull on the stitches, so the mounted piece often jitters around on its bubblewrap frame. Although it’s unlikely to jump off the frame altogether, it may shift enough for the stitching to get pressed against the bubblewrap – and two of the elements near the edges are the S-ing sunbeams and the cutwork tail. It’s the part where you occasionally forget to breathe.

The embroidery attached with herringbone stitch

Part of this herringboning is getting the fabric to fit snugly around the corners, and closing them up with ladder stitch which, ideally, is invisible once you’ve pulled it. On one corner I succeeded completely, on two partly, and on one a stitch is still quite visible however hard I pulled. Oh well.

A successful corner A not quite so successful corner

This was as much as I could manage in class, so the next step had to be done as homework: lacing. When I got Bruce home after class I thought I noticed a small patch of slackness, which I hoped I’d be able to correct with the lacing. But when I examined the fabric closely just before starting the lacing, in very unforgiving sunlight, it actually looked nice and evenly stretched – an encouraging way to start! It took me a few hours, but by the end of Monday afternoon Bruce was fully laced both ways.

The completed lacing

I don’t know if the work looked more evenly and tightly stretched when the lacing was complete – it’s hard to tell from photographs and impossible to tell from memory. But it looked good! This was on a Monday, so I figured that by Saturday it would be clear whether or not the fabric was beginning to slacken. I’d left one end of each direction of lacing unsecured so that it could be tightened if necessary before applying the sateen.

How it looked from the front after lacing the back

Saturday came, and my 8th Goldwork class, and although the silk hadn’t perceptibly slackened, the lacing had. My guess is that the fabric was still held taut by the pins, which Angela had told me not to remove until after attaching the sateen. So I tightened all the lacing (the long side twice) and securely fastened off the ends. Time for the sateen. This is cut to about 5cm larger all around than your board, and then ironed. It is then folded to approximately the right size, and pinned at the corners.

The sateen ironed and folded to size The sateen pinned at the corners

But before the pinning and attaching there was a small job that needed doing first: because of my small frame there wasn’t a lot of spare silk on all sides of the design, and in some places the stitches which originally attached the silk to the calico backing fabric would clearly show up in the edge around the sateen (what the RSN refer to as the rebate). However, the silk was now so securely attached to the mount board in other ways that I could snip away these offending stitches without risk to Bruce’s taut looks.

Stitches that would show up and have to be removed

The sateen is sewn on using ladder stitch, which attaches two pieces of fabric invisibly (ideally…) by scooping up a bit of one fabric, then taking the needle into the other fabric exactly opposite the exit point in the first fabric. Scoop up a bit of the second fabric, and go back into the first fabric exactly opposite the exit point from the second fabric. This forms a little ladder of parallel stitches which, when you pull the thread, miraculously pulls the fabrics together in such a way that the stitches completely disappear from sight, leaving just some discreet indentations. Well, that’s the theory, and I have applied it in previous cases with great success, but for some reason this time I found that when going from the silk into the sateen, the stitches looked skewed even when I’d gone in precisely opposite the exit point. If, on the other hand, I inserted the needle about a millimetre before where I should theoretically insert it, it looked fine. It’s a mystery, but it did make my stitches on the second half look a lot better (no, I didn’t unpick and re-do the first half).

Ladder stitch Ladder stitch partly pulled

When attaching the sateen the aim is to have a uniform rebate; in other words, the amount of silk visible between the edge of the board and the edge of the sateen is equally wide all around. This is clearly not the case in my finished piece, but the variations were within what I deemed acceptable. If you go for perfection on this point, you’re in for a long, long haul. By the way, see the two needles? One semi-circular, one with a much shallower curve. The shallower one is the one I’ve been using for oversewing plunged ends, herringboning and ladder stitching. It looked exactly like the other one when it came out of the packet some months ago. It is a testament to the quality of these particular needles that this one survived an entire module with no worse effect than being bent out of shape – the ones I used before this were either so chunky I could hardly navigate them through the fabric, or so thin that they broke at the slightest provocation. Take a bow, Creative Quilting of East Moseley!

The sateen completely attached, and two identical curved needles

Time to attach my name tape (salvaged from the Jacobean piece when I took the sateen off for lacing it) and (finally!) take the pins out. Then came another fairly labour-intensive part which I unfortunately forgot to photograph: firmly stroking all the edges with a mellor in order to remove the pin pricks. This removed them quite well on two sides, but on the sides where the weave ran the other way they were still quite visible. When you look closely at the silk, it is actually a combination of relatively chunky (and sometimes slubby) green threads and rather thin and fragile black threads – you can see this clearly in the pictures of the corners above. Where the pins had gone in, these black threads had bunched together. Angela suggested stroking them back into place with a very fine needle, which worked for almost all of them, except for a few where the black threads had actually frayed through – no help for that, unfortunately. I entered what I had done and what I couldn’t do in the Project Evaluation notes and prepared to look at the front, which I hadn’t seen since the beginning of class.

Name tape attached Pins taken out

A sigh of relief: nothing crushed, and no puckering or slackness. Hurray!

Proud Mabel posing with Bruce Bruce and Haasje all finished

Bruce was then packed into a well-padded box with all the sample cloths, drawings, source pictures, scribbles and notes, for Angela to take to Hampton Court Palace for assessment. Because of the lockdown backlog it will probably be a few months, but I’ll let you know what they think of Bruce and Haasje when I get the evaluation. And now on to Canvaswork…

No slacking please!

Earlier this year I got back the assessment for my Jacobean module, and you may remember that some of the points I’d lost were in the section on mounting. Particularly, the assessors commented on “the looseness of the linen which needed to be pulled across the board much tighter”.

Assessment comments on my mounting

At the time I wondered what had caused these comments as the piece was very nicely stretched when I handed it in, and I concluded that the fabric must somehow have gone slack while waiting for the assessment. A few weeks later, the postman brought the RSN box with the mounted embroidery and all the other bits and bobs I’d handed in. This is what it looked like. Suddenly the assessors’ comments made more sense.

The Jacobean project has gone slack

Seeing that I will be assessed on mounting for the next three modules as well, I sent the picture to Angela to see what she thought of it. She replied, “I am at a loss seeing your piece and how it has relaxed in such a short time. I remember going through everything with you in the mounting process and it all looked well executed at the time, so I don’t understand why this would have happened in such a short time.” Phew – reassurance. It wasn’t just me thinking well of my work smiley.

But although fortunately it seems it was Not My Fault, nevertheless it still needs the same work as if it were: take the sateen off and lace the fabric for extra tautness. If I were inclined to I could then re-attach the sateen. I can tell you now that I was not so inclined – the piece is going to be framed so the back will be hidden anyway. I will recycle the sateen in some future project should I ever feel that it is vital to cover the back.

Removing the sateen The bare back

In order to make the whole thing so secure that it would never have to be done again, I began lacing at fairly small intervals. I’m afraid my good intentions didn’t last very long, and as you can see the later stitches are wider apart. Rest assured though that they are still close enough to spread the tension evenly and avoid having unsightly dips on the edges.

The lacing spreads a bit...

The thread I used came off an enormous reel I found in my mother-in-law’s sewing cabinet. It had long lost any labels it might once have had but it felt a bit like linen, which is nice and strong. It also held up well to some experimental tugs I gave it. It was a bit twisty to work with but not nearly so much as the buttonhole thread or extra strong topstitching thread I’d normally use, and I was quite pleased when I’d got the horizontal lacing done and set about tightening the stitches. Alas, when I got really serious about pulling things tight (I was bending the mounting board slightly by this time, which should have warned me) this proved to be too much for it. It broke in several places. I eventually patched it with a few knots and an inserted bit of buttonhole thread – I couldn’t face doing the whole thing again! Wise after the event, I did use the buttonhole thread for lacing the long way.

Some extra knots and an insert

So did it work? Yes it did! Although I can still see two areas where the fabric is slightly less taut than everywhere else, it’s only because I know where they are and because I look at them from a distance of about an inch. From a normal viewing distance it is now absolutely fine, and ready to be framed.

No more slack A taut tree

Now for Bruce…

Shading, rays and faces

In my enthusiasm to tell you about Bruce’s tail, I forgot to bring you up to date on other things I did at my 6th Goldwork class. Most of it wasn’t particularly exciting, but it does add a certain something – shading and with that, I hope, a bit of depth. In order to have as many different textures in the whole design as possible, I opted for smooth chipping in the far leg, and bright check chipping in the left-hand tuft of grass. Both are spread out with fabric visible between the chips, and they gradually get further apart to suggest shading.

Smooth purl chip shading on the far leg Bright check chip shading on the grass

Because I wasn’t quite happy with the way the long chips were lying, I also unpicked and restitched the “front” ear. With chips this short it’s difficult to keep them completely uncracked, but I think the overall effect looks good with the change in direction now more gradual and the gaps less noticeable.

The ear restitched

Next up in real time was the tail, but I’ve told you about that already, so on to the controversial S-ing sun rays. Just to show that I did consider an alternative, I sampled a rococco ray. It’s a bit too large but it shows what they would have looked like.

A sampled rococco ray

Then it was on to the real thing. Most of the instructions about S-ing advise you to cut the chips a third longer than the stitch length your aiming for. In other words, if you want your “stem” stitches to look about 4.5mm long, cut the chips to 6mm. When I sampled I found that that made my chips stand up too much, so I decided to go for 6mm chips with a 5mm stitch length. This still made the chips curve up far too much. Then, because the sewing thread automatically pulls the chip into a slight curve anyway, I tried bringing the needle up and taking it down the exact length of a chip apart. This worked much better. Unfortunately, the effect of 6mm chips was too elongated for my liking, so I trimmed all the pre-cut chips to 5mm, unpicked and started again.

Chips for S-ing Measuring the S-ing stitch 6mm chips look too elongated

Here you can see how the mellor is used to keep the sewing thread from tangling. It also guides the new chip into place by gently manipulating the one that it snuggles up to. As planned, the rays all have a compensating half chip at their base but not at the tip, because I wanted that to look pointy. It does mean the last chip doesn’t curve quite so nicely, but I think it’s worth it for the thinner point – if the tip looked like the base, it wouldn’t be nearly so ray-like.

Using a mellor to guide the sewing thread and chip The finished rays

And finally, the faces. It’s rather nice to end with the eyes and facial details instead of the tail actually – it’s what gives Bruce and Haasje their characters and completes the design. For the features (Bruce’s nostril and mouth and Haasjes nose), which are tiny, I sampled two types of gold threads: Madeira Metallic no. 12 (of which I used just 1 ply; orange arrow) and Kreinik’s #1 Jap (red arrow). Both frayed easily while trying to stem stitch a nostril, even when pulling the thread through very carefully from behind on every stitch, but in terms of looks I preferred the Kreinik Jap for it’s more yellowy-golden look. In the end, by the way, the nostril was done in fly stitch; my sampled stem stitch versions were rather too large, and fly stitch causes less fraying than stem stitch.

Madeira no.12 and Kreinik #1 Sampling nostrils

I went through a number of spangles to find the right shape for the eyes; spangles are flattened single coils of wire (hence the little gap/indentation) rather than stamped out of a sheet like sequins, so although you buy them in millimetre increments (2, 3, 4 and 5mm – but I also seem to have picked up some 4.5mm ones somewhere…) each one is a slightly different shape and size. When I found two that I was happy with I could get on with the eyes, Bruce’s the slightly more complicated of the two because of the surrounding chips which had to be very precisely cut and positioned. And now they can see where they’re going, which Haasje is obviously not too keen about (I do like the panicky effect of that big eye).

Bruce's eye Nostril and mouth added Haasje's look of panic

So I’m done, right? Well, no, there’s the mounting. And mounting goldwork is… interesting. You may remember from the Jacobean project that for quite a bit of the mounting process, the piece is lying stitched side down on the table. You can see where I’m going, can’t you smiley? I don’t want anyone to breathe anywhere near Bruce’s tail or the sun’s rays, let alone have these parts in close contact with a hard surface. The solution? A padded frame. That sounds really sophisticated until you realise it’s actually just four bits of rolled-up bubble wrap taped together. The foam core one we made as a back-up, because I won’t have an awful lot of room around the stitching to lean on the squashy bubble wrap, so I thought a more stable frame might be helpful. We’ll see tomorrow!

Two frames to help with mounting

The tale of the tail

Bruce’s tail was going to be the absolute final thing to be stitched – cutwork is generally the very last part of a project because it is quite fragile and easy to damage. But Angela suggested I start on the tail during class so she could cast an eye over it, and once I’d started I thought I might as well finish before moving on to the other remaining parts to keep the momentum going.

The first chip

Cutwork and chipping both use chips, or pieces cut from purls (hollow flexible coils of fine metal wire), and in both cases they are attached a bit like beads, by taking the threaded needle through them and sewing them down. The difference is that in chipwork all the chips are small (ideally square or just a little bit longer than they are wide) and they are attached in random directions, whereas in cutwork the chips are longer, and generally applied in parallel. Whichever you are doing, the first challenge is cutting the purl to size. It’s springy and bouncy and trying to gauge the length when some bits are curved and some straight can be quite frustrating. Below is my small velvet board (meant to combat some of the springiness; it does but only to some extent) with smooth purl on it. This shows an average chip (red arrow), by what tiny degrees you trim a chip that is not quite right (blue arrow), and what happens when the cut end of a chip catches on the sewing thread (green arrow). There are no sound effects or the green arrow would have been accompanied by a loud Aaaaargh!

Cutwork chips

Now there is some cutwork in the project already: Bruce’s ears (of which more in a later FoF) and pouch. They were relatively easy (stress on the “relatively”) because they were almost flat, over a single layer of felt, and because they covered small areas; it also helped in the pouch that the cutwork was straight, with no change of angle. The tail is large, changes angle, and is worked over soft string padding. In the narrower part towards the tip this has quite some height to it, making it difficult to estimate how long the chip needs to be to cover it. Too short and you’ll have gaps where the chips meet the fabric, too long and the chips will buckle and crack, or at the very least make the surface of the shape bumpy; you can see these problems in a picture from a class I took four years ago – I think I’ve improved since then smiley.

Four-year-old cutwork with flaws

Traditionally you work from the middle in order to set the angle, which is why that first chip in the top picture is marooned on a sea of soft string padding. From there I worked down towards the tip, which would be my required 5cm stretch of smooth purl cutwork (the little black mark indicates where the smooth purl has to reach to as a minimum). Now quite apart from getting the length of the chips right (and frustratingly, cutting off even a few coils can suddenly and surprisingly make a chip that was clearly too long, clearly too short) there is the challenge of changing direction. Ideally the chips are at a 45-degree angle to the line of the padding, so if the line changes direction, so do the chips. And as the chips are straight, there will be gaps. The trick is to keep these gaps as small and unnoticeable as possible.

I did not fully succeed in that, especially towards the tip of the tail, which is a challenge in itself. There are gaps. If I had managed to squeeze in an extra chip or two along the entire bottom half of the tail, it would probably have looked better, although the danger is that you start crowding the chips on the inside curve. All in all I’m reasonably happy with how it looks, especially when I remind myself that this photograph was taken very close-up, that it somehow seems to make the yellow of the soft string show up more, and that the chips are only 1mm wide in real life so you can imagine what the gaps look like when viewed from a normal distance. Pity that the assessors do get rather closer than “normal viewing distance”…

The tip of the tail, with some gaps

I had finished class with ten chips attached, but I noticed that there was a slight crack in the second one. Angela pointed out that it was marginally too long and suggested taking it out by cutting the thread from the back. This is possible but fiddly and can end up damaging the chips on either side, so I decided to take out the first two chips, which would also leave me more unpicked sewing thread to secure instead of two very short ends. By the way, I think it’s an indication of how difficult this technique is that one of the cutwork aims in the Assessment Criteria is: “There is minimal damage or cracked thread (no more than 8 cracks in 5cm of smooth purl cutwork)”!

Removing a dodgy chip

Now for the interesting part: the transition between smooth purl and bright check. I had worked out in my full-scale drawing that there was room for a 1-3-2-2-3-1 arrangement, so after a few more smooth purls to make sure I had the required 5cm and a bit over, I started the transition with a single chip of bright check. Can you see the difference in width? It’s only .2 of a millimetre (1mm vs 1.2mm), but it does mean you have to adjust how far away from the previous chip you bring up your needle, which has to be quite accurately judged. It does make for a lovely effect though.

Starting the transition with different-width chips The transition section

And working up, finally I reached the base of the tail. This was never going to be covered by whole chips – the change of direction would be too much, and the chips would be too long. So somehow I had to make the straight cut ends of a few shorter chips follow the curve of Bruce’s backside. I managed by cutting them rather longer than I initially expected, and slightly tucking them underneath the previous chip. There is still some staggering, but on the whole I like the look of this bit.

The base of the tail seen from the top The base of the tail seen from the side

And here is the whole tail. Negatives: the gaps, especially towards the tip. I will ask Angela if there is any way of improving this, if not on this project then for future ones. Positives: the outlines are quite crisp and even, and there is not too much staggering where the tail meets the rump. I’m a happy bunny! (Or should that be a Happy Haasje?)

The complete tail Just the sun and the faces to go!

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