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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, those were the materials, and here is what I managed to do during the 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.
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.
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!
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).