A Welsh gem and two of my Five-a-Day

For various reasons I haven’t done a lot of stitching lately, although I have made some progress on Bruce which I hope to report on soon (probably after this weekend when I intend to complete the section I’m currently working on – sneak peek below). As you know I am never short of a project or two (or three, or twelve), but none of them particularly appealed to me even when I had the opportunity. So I’ve tried to re-ignite my enthusiasm by planning some sampling, and kitting up a couple of uncomplicated projects.

A sneak peek at Bruce's leg

Two of my long-term projects (and I do mean long-term; we’re talking several years here) which have not had the attention they deserve are Hengest and Llandrindod. In both projects I’m at a stage where there are decisions to be made, and that is always a dangerous point for me. So much easier to just start something new! Hengest has been languishing in his stable because after his mane I need to decide how to stitch his bridle and especially the jewels on it; but as there is still some mane to stitch first I’m hoping to return to him when I’ve reached the point with Bruce where I can’t do anything more until I see a tutor. Llandrindod is a bit more problematic, but I’ve decided that now is the time to tackle it. The challenge is the direction in which the facets of the central diamond are stitched.

The central diamond in Llandrindod

Originally I intended to stitch these facets so that the lines of stitches go around the central part, much like the outer facets on the coloured stones. For some reason I changed my mind a little over a year ago and started working them from the outside edge towards the centre. Unfortunately I failed to make a note anywhere documenting this change – or if I did, I can’t find it – so I have no idea why I discarded the around-the-centre approach in favour if the into-the-centre one. Equally unfortunately I don’t particularly like what I’ve done so far. But I don’t want to unpick it, start again with the other method, find out that there was in fact a fatal flaw in it, and have to unpick again. The solution: a sample cloth! In spite of what the outlines may suggest that doesn’t mean I have to stitch the diamond three times in total, as I won’t have to stitch all the facets to get an idea of what the effect of each method is; at least I fervently hope a few facets on each will do the trick!

A sample cloth set up to try two ways of stitching the facets

With Llandrindod and Bruce both what you might call “concentration projects”, as I really want to get them right and there’s a lot of note-taking going on (although in the case of Llandrindod obviously not quite enough…), it’s nice to have some relaxed projects on the go as well. On rare occasions these can be my own designs when they aren’t intended to become chart packs or kits, like Septimus the Septopus, but generally it’s someone else’s design, whether as a kit (I’ve got a good few waiting in the wings, from wonderful designers like Lizzie Pye of Laurelin, Helen Richman of Bluebird Embroidery and Alison Cole) or as a design only where I get to play with my stash and pick everything myself.

The projects I set up the other day are somewhere in between – a couple of little fruit trees by Sarah Homfray which used to come as a set of four kits but two of which I found last January as printed fabric only. So the fabric has been decided for me, and I don’t have to transfer the designs, but I do get to rummage through my thread boxes and play with colours. The originals were stitched using Madeira Lana, of which I have a respectable collection, but I decided to go with my favourite Heathway Milano crewel wool, which is a little thicker but not so much as to be a problem. And this is what I ended up with:

Two Sarah Homfray trees with Heathway Milano crewel wool

They were meant to be my relaxing bits of stitching while we were away on family care duty, but I didn’t actually get any stitching done during that week. Never mind, they make lovely little fillers for when I haven’t got the clear mind (and the time) I need for Bruce or when I can’t face anything that involves making decisions. I can just pick them up and stitch. Perfect.

Bad lighting and a medieval Mabel

We all know how important light is in needlework. I loved finding out that medieval Guild regulations forbade owners of embroidery workshops from making their needleworkers stitch by artificial light – they were allowed to work during daylight hours only. In these modern days we have much better artificial lighting available, and Mary Corbet wrote on her blog once that if you were thinking of getting a magnifier or special glasses, she’d suggest looking at your lighting first. Get the right light and you may not need additional magnification at all!

When stitching in the evening (my usual time, Guild regulations notwithstanding) I will admit to needing both if I’m doing very detailed work, but my Serious Readers floor-standing lamp does make a great difference. Even so, much the most comfortable way of stitching is during the day by the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the garden; I still need my special glasses, but it is definitely less of a strain on the eyes.

Stitching by the window using the slate frame Stitching by the window using a seat frame

When I mentioned bad lighting, however, I was actually talking about a different kind of lighting – but like the lack of good lighting to stitch by, it has lead to a substantial amount of unpicking.

This is Llandrindod with all the facets completed on the coloured stones. Very pretty and colourful. Sit back and enjoy before moving on to the facets on the diamond and the surrounding gold. But wait – notice anything about those coloured stones? About how they catch the light?

Progress on Llandrindod

That’s right. The blue, purple and green stones are in agreement, but the red stone has different ideas about where her light source comes from. We are suffering from a case of Llandrindodgy lighting!

Llandrindodgy lighting

And I had paid such attention to the direction of the light when I was designing this and deciding on colours and stitches. I printed out a large coloured version to keep by me as a reference. I must have looked at it hundreds of times over the past months. And I Did Not Notice!!!!

Llandrindod colour plan

There was no help for it – it would have to be unpicked. And split stitch is just about the worst stitch to unpick, so what that meant in practice was that the majority of stitches would have to be cut and teased out, all the while making sure I didn’t catch the satin stitch centre or make the stitches on the edges of the other facets unstable. It took 75 minutes, but I am now ready to put in the correctly lit facets. Well, once I’ve oversewn the cut ends at the back, as they are far too short to fasten off in any other way – after peering at tiny cut stitches for well over an hour I wasn’t going to do that by artificial light, however good, so that awaits some daylight stitching time.

Unpicking Llandrindod Unpicking Llandrindod Ready to re-stitch the facets

To return for a moment to medieval embroiderers, I was delighted to discover from an article in the big Opus Anglicanum book that the first professional embroiderer of whom there is documentary evidence was a Mabel. I obviously chose well when I picked my nom d’aiguille (like a nom de plume but for stitchers). The book tells us that “Mabel of Bury St Edmunds was commissioned in 1239 to produce an embroidered chasuble for the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, at the behest of Henry III. The chasuble, which was embellished with pearls and gold work, and lined with canvas and fine silk, took two years to complete, and must have been extremely elaborate.” Go Mabel! I shall endeavour to live up to her example.

I must not stitch and chat

Write 100 times: I must not stitch and chat.

Well, actually, I must – after all, why else do you go to meet other stitchers? Even at classes, where everyone is concentrating on the learning process, there’s usually some chatting going on, let alone at a meeting like our weekly Embroidery Circle where we each bring whatever we’re working on and have a bit of a stitchers’ social.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to choose your project wisely; I wouldn’t work on my Certificate piece (even if I could get it there, trestles and all) because I really cannot chat and do anything meaningful on that at the same time. I did bring my doodle cloths a few times, and that worked well: interesting, but not essential to get it absolutely right as it’s just trying out things.

Last Monday I brought Llandrindod, my little Celtic Cross. I didn’t want to work on the SAL, having done rather a lot of that over the Christmas period. I didn’t feel like working on the Ottoman Tulip, and I’ve rather missed Llandrindod. And (very important) the part of the design that I’m working on at the moment is just filling in facets with split stitch. What could possiby go wrong?

This.

Too much stitching

Doesn’t look too bad, does it? There’s a slight issue with the red slanted satin stitch which I need to do something about, but the split stitch facets are OK, aren’t they?

Yes. Except that the teeny-weeny medium blue facet towards the centre should have been light blue.

That in itself isn’t too much of a problem; after all, I worked the corresponding facet on the red gem in the wrong direction first, and had to unpick and redo it. Unfortunately with this gem I thought it would be easier and save fastening on and off if I did all the medium blue facets in one go, rather than one by one. Which means that every line of split stitch in that small facet is connected to the facet next to it, and (by running behind the satin stitch at the back of the work) with the large facet on the far right. I stopped filling in the small facet the moment I noticed, and as I started at the narrow, pointy end I may be able to just stitch over it in light blue, but it will need a bit of thinking.

Next Monday I will take the Ottoman Tulip. Two large areas left to fill in and both the same colour!

More haste, less speed; and distracting vestments

We’re back from our holiday in Kent, where we had a lovely time and I did no stitching at all on one of the projects I’d brought, and only a little stitching on the other. (Yes, I took two projects with me. Just in case, you know, that I’d do so much stitching that one project wasn’t enough. Ha.) I did see some lovely stitching, though – none at Chatham Dockyard, not surprisingly, but Ightham Mote, Hever Castle and Penshurst Place all had their fair share of tapestries, garments, fire screens, stumpwork caskets and mirror frames and so on.

Some of it I could get close enough to to be able to look at it without my glasses (as I’m very short-sighted that’s the best way for me to see small details), but most items were frustratingly just too far behind the glass to allow a naked-eye, close-up look. I did ask at one place whether they ever allowed people to study the pieces up close, and they did, but it was obvious from the way she phrased it that this was for serious academic researchers only, not for just anyone who happened to be interested in embroidery. Oh well.

Gold and silk embroidery at Hever Castle Various embroideries at Hever Castle

The last full day of our holiday was Sunday, so we started with early morning Communion at the local church – of which more later – then visited a nearby wildlife reserve which used to be gravel pits, had a picnic in a field, and returned for a quiet afternoon and evening before the journey home on Monday. Just the opportunity to get out my stitching! Well, after I finished the detective novel I had with me… By the time I’d finished that it was not quite so hot outside, so I put a chair out on the lawn, gathered my project and threads and scissors and glasses, sat down, and found the inquisitive wet nose of the resident Alaskan Malamute alarmingly close to my fabric. Fortunately Blade, though enormous and very solid, was extremely friendly; and anyway, he soon decided that my embroidery was not edible and that I wasn’t about to scritch him behind the ears, so he ambled off to find a shady spot.

This left me to do some work on Llandrindod: I was about to put in the surrounding facets on the first jewel. This is done in split stitch, wih all sections worked in a clockwise direction, three of them in the medium shade and three in the light shade (the large centre facets were worked in the dark shade). Unfortunately the medium red doesn’t show up quite as different from the dark red as I’d expected, but I hope that with the light shade and the accents in pearlescent thread which I will add later the overall effect will still be that of a jewel with light playing on it.

Split stitch is slow work, so by the time I’d finished the three medium facets it was nearly time to start cooking dinner (i.e. put the pies we bought at the local deli in the oven). But I really wanted to see what the effect of adding the third shade would be. Now there is a tiny facet right at the bottom of each gemstone which is worked in the light shade, and surely that wouldn’t take long. I’d just quickly put that in and then pack everything away. I did. I looked at the effect of the third shade. And then I realised I’d stitched it in the wrong direction – anticlockwise instead of clockwise.

Facets added to the ruby in Llandrindod

I could have left it, I suppose. It’s a very, very small section indeed. Would anyone notice in the grand scheme of things? Possibly not. But I would. And it would annoy me. So out it came. As you may remember from Hengest, unless it’s confined to the last one or two stitches it’s practically impossible to unpick split stitch; you have to cut the stitches and pick out all the little bits of fluffed-up thread. Fortunately the linen I’m using stands up well to this sort of abuse, so there’ll be no problem when I get round to doing the section again, clockwise this time!

Unpicking, or rather, uncutting A fresh start

I mentioned that we visited the local church on Sunday morning – an 11th-century building rejoicing in the name of St Edmund King and Martyr, a mere three minutes’ walk from us. It turned out to be fairly high church, and the priest’s vestments had a rather interesting design in gold on them. It intrigued me, because I couldn’t see how it was done. For the first part of the service my brain was chewing over this conundrum in the background until I realised that this was not the right preparation for Communion, and cast the matter aside for the moment. Oddly enough, it was while receiving Communion that I found the answer to the problem.

So what was the problem? Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me so I couldn’t ask the priest afterwards if I could take a picture of the vestments, but when we got back to our AirBnB I quickly did a sketch from memory. It looked somewhat like this:

Sketch based on the West Kingsdown vestment

The parts that particularly caught my eye were the thin concentric circles within the wide circle, and the way in which the sides of the outer circle were part of the vertical borders. I was trying to interpret the design in couched pairs of Jap or possibly twist, and the circles looked like a fairly solid outer circle of several pairs of Jap, with a gap the width of one pair followed by a thin circle consisting of one pair, and this gap-and-circle then repeated. In other words, the gaps and the thin circles were the same width. This same effect was also used in the top and bottom parts of the design (the parts with straight sides, concave outer edge and convex inner edge). There was also an interesting weave effect in those top and bottom parts, consisting of short lengths of gold-gap-gold.

There were several things which I couldn’t work out by looking at it from a distance. For one thing, I couldn’t tell where the thin circles were plunged. They seemed perfectly continuous, with no break anywhere in their sheen and sparkle. And talking of plunging, all those short length making up the weave would have to be plunged individually – that’s a lot of plunging and a lot of bulky gold to get rid of at the back of the work! And then there were the parts where the wide circle intersected wit the vertical borders; there should be a change of reflection there, as the curved lines of Jap met the straight vertical ones, but there wasn’t. There should also be a noticeable break, unless the embroiderer working on this garment had attained such a degree of perfection in her plunging that you literally couldn’t see the joins.

A problem if you couch the design

It was as I received Communion and looked up at the priest and saw the vestment close-up that I realised my problem was caused by an incorrect assumption. I had assumed that the design was made up of lines of couched gold thread, but it wasn’t – it was cut from solid gold fabric and presumably appliquéd on. Cutting and applying the thin circles and other thin lines must have been quite a fiddly job, but not nearly so fiddly as trying to do it this neatly in couched Jap. (Incidentally, I didn’t work all this out while taking the bread and wine – I just stored the information away for later contemplation. Important as embroidery is, one has to get one’s priorities right!)

So there it is, a lovely design but probably not really suitable for working in couched threads, which is the way I would want to do it. I will probably try the wide-circle-with-voids-and-thin-circles motif some day, just to see if it is possible to make the plunging practically invisible. Perhaps as part of the RSN goldwork module…?

Welsh inspiration

Almost every year my husband and I travel to Wales for a weekend around the end of March, to participate in the rally organised by the Light Car & Edwardian Section of the Vintage Sports-Car Club (usually sensibly abbreviated to LC&ES). We all meet up on the Friday, do a navigation rally on the Saturday, and there is a trial (a type of competition) on the Sunday at which we generally marshal. It’s not like some events where people dress up in period clothing, but a few years ago I couldn’t resist smiley.

The Welsh rally in 2016

That’s our 1925 Austin 7 Chummy. Unfortunately it is in need of a lot of TLC at the moment, so our transport this year was a bit grander – here she is with Eldest and his bride last year (Lily the Lagonda does make a splendid wedding vehicle). My mother used to say the car made her feel like royalty, so that it felt almost compulsory to wave graciously as you pass people.

Our transport for this year (minus bride and groom)

We’re usually dressed up in waterproofs and/or thermals (it’s not exactly warm in an open car in Wales in March) so I’m afraid we don’t really live up to Lily’s glamour, but that doesn’t dampen our enjoyment! The rain sometimes does… this year, however, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather.

With Lily the Lagonda at Usk reservoir

You may wonder what any of this has to do with stitching. Well, the Welsh rally splendidly demonstrates how all sorts of things can inspire an embroidery design. Some years ago, for example, we passed several banks of blackthorn on our way there. They had only just come out, their blossom pristine and white, like a frothy wave or yards and yards of crumpled up lace. I sketched a few ideas, and the result was Blackthorn.

Blackthorn

The rally is based in Llandrindod Wells, and every year on the Sunday morning we go to early morning Communion at the local church before rejoining the vintage car gang to help at the trial. The vicar and several members of the congregation know us by now, and we joke that we’re regulars at Holy Trinity – we attend regularly once a year.

As is usual, we are always handed a service sheet, and last year I noticed for the first time a line drawing of a Celtic cross on the front. The shape appealed to me, and I took the sheet with me. Back home that evening I made some sketches and scribbled a few notes, and over the months various ideas were added. Possibly partly because of the rather rough lines of the drawing I got the impression it was based on a stone cross, but from the start I envisaged it with colour in it, and possibly goldwork. It wasn’t until a week or so ago that I took my drawing and tentatively put some facets into some of the shapes. I liked the effect, and a jewelled cross called “Llandrindod” was born! (This year the vicar explained to me that the cross is the logo of the Church in Wales in general, not of their parish in particular, but to me it will always be associated with Llandrindod Wells.)

The colour model for Llandrindod

Some of the colours I’d picked were similar to the ones in Soli Deo Gloria, so that was easy – I had the Soie d’Alger colours to hand! I didn’t really want to try and find the right shades for the emerald and the diamond, remembering the trouble I had just to get the right blue dye lot recently, so I had a rummage in my collection of Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor silk, and found some that would do very well. A few shades of Petite Treasure Braid will add a bit of sparkle.

Materials chosen and design transferred

And here is the project in progress! The centre of the gems will be done in padded satin stitch, and in the picture below the outlining and about half of the padding has been done but the top layers are as yet missing. That is because I wanted to take the cross to Llandrindod to show to the vicar, and I wanted it to have some more colour than just the light gold of the four quarter circles (which would normally be the first bits to be stitched). It also made for a good travel project that way – the split stitch outlines were done at home before we left, so I could fill in the padding without the need for magnification or special lighting, as it doesn’t have to be particularly precise (well, not as precise as the top stitching, anyway).

Llandrindod in progress

Often when I take a travel project (and I’m sure many of you will recognise this) I come home with it looking exactly as it did when we left, but this time I actually had time for some embroidery – while acting as Driving Standards Observers on the Saturday rally there were several lulls, during which I could put in a few quick padding stitches. And how is this for a stitching spot smiley?

An unusual stitching spot