Goldwork with a view

Two weeks ago, before getting into the whirl of teaching four workshops in two days at the Knitting & Stitching Show, I had treated myself to a three-hour one-on-one goldwork tutorial at the Royal School of Needlework. My tutor Heather Lewis and I were at a table by a window in a cubby-hole leading to a storage room. But then you don’t need much room to embroider, and anyway this was not just any cubby-hole – this was a cubby-hole with A View!

Embroidery with a view

I’d asked specifically for the tutorial to concentrate on attaching fabric to fabric in such a way that it doesn’t wrinkle or pucker, and on soft string padding. The former because I simply cannot seem to get smallish bits of beautiful fabric attached to large bits of useful calico backing and have the same tension on both, and the latter because it is a technique I’d never tried and I liked the 3D look of it. Heather gave me some good advice about attaching fabrics (the main one: don’t have too much tension on your ground fabric when applying the top fabric) but as you will see from the pictures, I need a bit more practice – the green silk for the leaf is definitely not completely flat!

An applied leaf, and soft string being couched

You can see a bit of the other technique in there as well – soft string padding uses, unsurprisingly, soft string (in yellow as padding for gold, and white or grey for silver) which is couched down in a bundle and cut gradually from below to fill the desired shape, in this case the leaf stem. You start with the full bundle at the widest part of the shape, then cut one or two threads at a time from the bottom of the bundle (hence flipping it over as in the picture above) depending on how quickly the shape becomes thinner. Below you can see the stem all cut and couched into shape; this will be covered in cutwork, but first the leaf was outlined in double couched Jap. I chose to couch in visible green rather than invisible gold, a choice I regretted just a little bit as any irregularities in your couching are so much more noticeable in colour.

Soft string padding complete, and Jap being applied

You’ll have noticed that the stitches attaching the silk leaf to the background are not quite covered by the double line of Jap. Another line is needed, but as I’ve done a fair bit of couching before Heather and I decided I could do that at home, even though strictly speaking it should have been finished before starting the next bit. There was enough Jap in the kit to do another line, bricking the stitches as is traditional, but I’ve decided I’d like a different, wavy effect so I will do the inner line using either rococo, check thread or milliary wire (which I described to my husband as “the goldwork equivalent of Toblerone”). I’ll probably add some spangles of different sizes as well. A bit of extra bling never hurt anyone!

Plunging the Jap threads Possible wavy threads

So on to the cutwork. This uses small lengths of purl (in this case smooth purl, but rough, wire check or bright check can also be used) which are attached much as you would beads, by taking the needle through them. The trick is to cut them to exactly the right length to cover the soft padding, and to handle them as little as possible. It is fiddly and time-consuming, and I didn’t manage to finish it all, but on the whole I am not dissatisfied with my first attempt.

Sewing on the cut lengths of purl Cutwork covering part of the padding

So here is the leaf as it was at the end of the tutorial; and now to finish it. The bits nearer the ends of the stem are going to be more tricky and no doubt some re-cutting will occur. I’ll probably do the wavy inside line of the leaf before completing the top end of the stem so that I’m doing it as much as possible in the “proper” order, and then spangles to round the whole thing off. With some spare time this weekend and next it shouldn’t be too long before I can show you the finished article!

The leaf at the end of the tutorial

Half a day class

We had a lovely weekend planned, my husband and I. Separately, it is true; he was to go on a vintage car trial in Scotland with a friend, I was to attend my RSN goldwork day class, a belated birthday present to myself. It didn’t quite go to plan. Stomach flu intervened, and if you’ve ever had it you will know that it is not an intervention you can easily ignore. Scotland had to be given a miss altogether, and although I did go to the class I had to hoist the white flag after a couple of hours. Oh well, it can’t be helped; at least I got a little bit done, and had the kit to take away with me to finish at home.

Work done on the goldwork boot during the class

As this was another beginners’ class (like the watering can I did some years back) there weren’t any techniques in the design which I hadn’t come across before, so I’m reasonably confident I’ll be able to produce a creditable Victorian ankle boot! I may add a few extra flourishes just to use some of my goldwork stash though…

The tutor for this workshop was Angela Bishop, who funnily enough recognised me from the previous day class when she assisted Sarah Homfray. The kit was very nicely presented in a neat little box, which held general notes on goldwork, instructions for this design, and of course all the threads and wires and bits and bobs. (The cat was not part of the kit. She’s just being nosy.) The third picture shows you most of the materials in close up: a pretty little heart-shaped bit of beeswax, a sparkly snaky length of bright check purl (sometimes known simply as bright check) to be used for chipwork, wavy Rococco thread, a piece of stiff-but-pliant pearl purl (great name), and three spangles (which can be told from sequins by the little indentations, caused by being made from a flattened coil). I’d already used most of the Jap thread, so that’s not shown, and you can see the remnant of a piece of yellow felt (used to pad the toe of the boot) in the box.

The workshop kit came in a neat box The contents of the box, with cat Goldwork threads, wires and spangles

I still haven’t finished the Jacobean flower, but I may try to complete the boot first, just so it doesn’t get put away in a drawer and forgotten for several years (it’s not been unknown…). Updates to follow, hopefully soon!


Tucked away in a drawer somewhere is my RSN (Royal School of Needlework) folder; in it are the kits I got at the one-hour workshops I’ve done at various Knitting & Stitching shows. There are five in total, and I was pleased to see that I had actually finished most of them (a one-hour workshop is never enough to finish the project there, so there’s always homework) – the goldwork dragonfly I’ve shown here before, plus crewelwork, blackwork and silk shading.

RSN crewelwork project

RSN blackwork project

RSN silk shading project

I vaguely remember having done a stumpwork class as well but I can’t find it, and I’m not sure that was a RSN one. The only unfinished project in the folder was the little goldwork bee I mentioned last time, and I will definitely finish it some time soon; it’s got an area of chipwork (more about that later) I’m looking forward to trying. But oh dear – the cutwork (more about that later, too!) that’s there already is really rather embarrassing, and I may undo it and start over again.

All this talk of chipwork and cutwork leads neatly to what is really meant to be the subject of this FoF, the RSN goldwork day class I attended last Saturday. I’ve got lots of pictures of all the beautiful sparkly materials, and of some of the techniques we’ve been learning, although the merest glance at some of the work Sarah Homfray, the tutor, had brought along for us to see was enough to bring on severe self-doubt about showing any of my own. Fortunately Sarah turned out to be a great teacher who managed to correct while encouraging – brilliant.

Let’s start with the pack we used for the class. It was well-presented, everything bagged up in little acid-free paper bags, good picture of what we were meant to produce, and stitch instructions to remind us when finishing the work at home. Just opening all the little bags and feeling the materials (goldwork must be one of the most tactile forms of embroidery) was enormously enjoyable; and we hadn’t done a single stitch yet!

RSN goldwork pack

The “basic” supplies (apart from the fabric which I didn’t photograph unused) were various needles, some of them very fine, some sewing thread in a yellow-gold colour, and a piece of beeswax. Proper beeswax is apparently better for goldwork than the synthetic version whose name I can’t remember for the moment.

needles, thread and beeswax

Having taken everything out of the pack, we were given advice on how to put the fabric in the hoop (pushing the inner ring into the outer ring from the back; this made it really taut but unfortunately wouldn’t work with the flexi-hoops I tend to use), and shown the first of the techniques we would be using. The instructions were very clear and delivered in manageable chunks, with information about the materials as well as the stitches. Here’s a little goldwork nugget: you plunge thread, but not wire.

Plunging, in case you’re wondering, has nothing to do with necklines but everything with taking your threads through to the back of your fabric for finishing off. And one of the threads we would have to do that with is Japanese thread (which Sarah told us on no account to call “Jap”, as some people do). It’s a core of silk or cotton with a long strip of gold wrapped around it. Well, not 100% gold, obviously. About 2%, apparently, down to ½% for more affordable threads. But it looks very effective and gold-like nonetheless!

Japanese thread

The next thread isn’t a thread but a coiled wire, and it’s my favourite goldwork material so far, if only because of what it’s called. It rejoices in the gloriously silly name of pearl purl. Like most of these materials it comes in several thicknesses; the gold in the picture is what came in the RSN pack and is, I think, a #2, the silver is from my stash and according to the label a #3. The bit at the end that looks different is where I’ve pulled it apart. You’re meant to do that, by the way, though not quite as far as this.

pearl purl

Then there were sparkly bits; beads and coloured sequins, and spangles. The spangles are interesting: they are still made in the traditional way by flattening little loops of metal. Because of this, each one is slightly different, and they have a gap which you have to bear in mind when stitching them down.

spangles, beads and sequins

Two more types of wire: bright check and smooth purl. The bright check is triangular in cross section and very sparkly, the smooth purl is, well, smooth. The coloured bits are a very fine bright check.

bright check and smooth purl

And finally two threads which I haven’t actually tried yet. We were shown how to use them at the end of the class, so there wasn’t any time to get stitching with them. But as they are applied in the same way as the Japanese thread they shouldn’t present any great problems. The wavy thread is called Rococo (spelled with varying numbers of “c”s depending on which website you visit), the other one is called Twist for the obvious reason that it is three gold-covered threads twisted together. It apparently frays like anything.

gilt rococo and gilt twist

Well, those were the materials, and here is what I managed to do during the class:

What I managed to finish during the goldwork class

The three main techniques used in it are chip work, cut work, and laid work. For chip work you cut bright check into little pieces, as square as you can manage, and then attach them much as you would beads. The direction of the pieces should be random for maximum sparkle. I’m not sure whether you can do chip work with any of the other wires – I must ask some time. Cut work is like chip work but with longer pieces. In proper goldwork it is attached over felt or string padding (which I did do in the dragonfly and bee) and the big challenge is to cut your wire to exactly the right length needed to cover the padding; too long and it buckles, too short and the padding is visible. Both these errors are in evidence in my earlier pieces. Bright check, by the way, like smooth purl, is in effect a tube, so they are attached by taking a fine needle through the pieces, very carefully so you don’t damage the tube by pulling the coil apart or poking your needle through it. The smooth purl especially can pretty much unravel on your needle. Approach with caution.

chip work cut work

You can use cutwork in a different way as well, with deliberately long bits that stand up in a loop for example, in this case to create flower petals. The sequins and spangles can be attached with plain stitches (which I haven’t done here), with a bead, or with a chip of bright check.

cut work, spangles and sequins

The watering can is laid work, which as far as I can make out is anything couched onto the fabric or over a base of felt or string padding. The main body of the can is double Japanese thread, and it is couched down with a single thread in a brick pattern. In the corners you couch the two strands separately to make a nice crisp turn. This part was worked from the outside in, and somehow I managed to end up with a triangular shape in the centre, so I plunged the two strands separately and filled in the little gap with chipwork. Ideally I’d have kept it rectangular all the way through and filled it completely with Japanese thread. Oh well. The spout and handle are worked in couched pearl purl. You start by pulling it, a little at a time because if you overstretch it you can’t push it back. When it no longer coils when you let go of it, it’s ready to use. You couch at an angle between the coils so the thread slips down and is invisible, although in “free” goldwork you can overstretch deliberately and couch very visibly with coloured threads for effect. Will definitely try that some time!

Watering can - couched Japanese thread and pearl purl

This was just a day course, and so we only scratched the surface of all that is possible in goldwork. For a look at a proper, full-blown RSN project, have a look at this great set of blog posts which follow one stitcher’s project from the very start to the final assessment (the posts are in reverse date order).