Some of you may remember the dining room chairs that I finally finished about four years ago. The Eucalyptus pattern – which is similar to a frieze I stencilled above the picture rail – is a nod to my husband The Australian, and I have been intending for some time to work some napkins echoing the pattern.
In fact, I found some yellow cotton napkins and bought them some time ago, but didn’t get around to doing the embroidery until now.
I only got around to it now, because my back went into spasm a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been alternating stretches with sitting still in hopes that it would recover. The blanket is too heavy, and I can’t sit upright at a frame, so I’ve been casting around for embroidery to do in the hand….
Since there were four napkins, I’ve done two in a double branch motif, and two in a single branch motif, which I sketched out freehand, and then traced and transferred with prick and pounce.
The singles took an evening each, and I think the doubles took two – instagrammers will have seen them in progress.
What hasn’t worked at all is the photography. The napkins are a lovely bright, warm, golden-yellow, and I’ve not managed to get a true colour from either my smart phone or my camera.
But I assure you, they look delightful, and very appropriate in the dining room, echoing the golden yellow of the walls below the frieze, as they echo the pattern above it…
I’ve started adding more detail with needle and thread. The chevron pattern, the eyes, and the detail on the beak are all made using straight stitches in single strands of Appletons wool. I can’t think where I got a whole series of greys, unless it’s from hand-me-downs. I’m glad I have them now, but it isn’t a colour I much like and I can’t imagine going out and buying them!
For the legs, I have used three different colours of wool in the needle. I can see that for all my staring at photographs and trying to sketch, I’ve not really got a clear or accurate idea of the details of goose anatomy! And somehow, for all my care in placing the cut out felt geese, they’ve ended up attached in not-quite-the-right place.
Still, let’s not despair.
I’ve also added some ground below the the geese. Three strands of different colours of wool, again. I did a sort of loopy knot stitch crossed with a split stitch, which I couldn’t reproduce if I tried. But it produces a very good broken-ground effect, so as long as I don’t decide I need more ground, we’ll be fine.
Then I sat down at the embellisher and tried to blend the fabrics together. This meant quite heavy embellishing, but fortunately the fabrics are none of them dense, so there was room for the fibres to mingle.
When I noticed that the legs weren’t getting caught in, I twisted some more threads around them. That’s better.
Then another pause. Do I add leaves, to match my vague memory, or shall I leave well alone?
I wouldn’t care to do much real hand embroidery on a fabric “doped” (after the fashion of early aeroplane wings!), with the mixture of inktense and aloe gel. Once it had dried, the calico had something of the texture of a cheap printed furnishing fabric, and did not recover well from having holes poked in it. I suspect it would prove rather abrasive on more delicate threads, but in this case I was simply using stranded cotton.
And there were many holes poked in it – one for each of the elements. I turned back one of the two wires at the base of each, to help to support the curves I was trying to set into them, using the wires around the edge. The other wire I poked through a hole which was in turn poked through the fabric using a stiletto. Bending that wire back on itself should have kept the elements in the place, but as with all of my embroidery adventures – it wasn’t quite that easy!
When I fished out the packet of stamens from my second Frostings Box, I found that there were three strands of each of three types, and picked the most delicate gold ones, so as not to overpower the flowers. So that worked out nicely – one strand for each flower! – and caused three more holes in the calico..
The elements were still wriggling a bit, though, so I decided to put some padding behind the clump to help to entrap the wires, and also to enhance the domed effect that I was hoping for. That meant that it made sense to trim the padding and enclose it with the calico, creating a single, “free-standing” clump of violets. The elements are held in place with minimal stitching, the curves nestling together, and the wires and threads entrapped in the padding. It wouldn’t stand up to much handling, but then it won’t get any!
Click on the pictures to see them at full size – I think they give a good sense of the dimension and “loft” I managed to achieve.
Can you tell that I’m rather pleased with my violets?
I’m continuing to think about that quotation from Pliny, and considering how I might bring it to life. In the meantime, I’m trying to develop some familiarity with small-scale dyeing, rather than the huge machinery of my course, so when I heard that The Wild Dyery, not far away, was running an evening of indigo dyeing, I decided to go along.
I found a cotton T-shirt in a charity shot, and proceeded to embroider it using every different white thread I could find. I want to see how the different threads respond, because it occurred to me that I could add to my adventures by embroidering with mordanted threads.
Ever the over-complicatrix of my own life….!
Justine, owner, tutor, and guide in our adventure, kindly hauled everyone’s pieces out of the dyebath for them. As the dyeing process with indigo is an oxidation reaction, incautious splashings in the dyebath, even drips from a piece being removed, can compromise the dyebath by removing dye from it before it has a chance to bond with fabric.
Besides, as she commented – there’s no need for everyone to leave with blue hands!
Brought home, rinsed, hand-washed and then left to dry, the T-shirt came out lighter, blue rather than turquoise, and with a few interesting discoveries made…
Working from the top down…
The herringbone stitch leaf shapes are in Anchor Marlitt, and that seems to have taken the dye nicely. I’d expect that, I think, although the thread is so glossy I might have expect it to have some finishing treatment.
The line of twisted chain stitch is in that frustrating DMC linen. I didn’t enjoy stitching with it, as it it rough, stiff and lifeless. It’s taken the dye in a rather patchy fashion, and I suspect as I wear and wash the T-shirt, the dye will wear off even more.
The next, the circle of chain stitch, is pearl cotton, and this is such a popular thread with the companies that overdye threads that I was expecting it to take the colour much more strongly.
The next photo shows that circle in full, together with the twisted chain stitch in linen thread that curved around it.
The paisley shape in stem stitch is in soft embroidery cotton, and this absolutely astonished me. I was expecting at least some signs of attachment, but there are only the faintest suggestions that the dye was able to attach to the yarn.
Cotton usually takes dyes really well – just think of how easy it is to revive an old cotton shirt with a packet of dye – and if, anything I was expecting it to be one of the darker results. As it is, I think this will wear off in short order!
The line of cable chain stitch is more the colour I was expecting from the soft cotton. It’s a tightly twisted, stiff, mercerised crochet cotton, and it seemed to swallow the dye and hang on to it.
The diamonds of romanian couching stitch are stranded cotton. That has taken the dye well, too, although there are hints that whenever the threads have crossed each other there has been a resist effect, which may show more as the T-shirt is worn.
The feather stitch is pearl cotton and the trail of seed stitch is soft cotton, and they haven’t taken the dye any better than before.
Well, that’s given me something to think about, hasn’t it!
I finally gave myself the necessary encouragement to get back to the Stumpwork Violets.
Er, that is to say, I spoke to myself very severely, and pointed out that it was looming over me and needed dealing with!
I used my new Inktense blocks to experiment with colouring the base fabric on the last few leaves, painting over the top with the aloe vera gel suggested by Deanna over at Eclectic Meanderings as a substitute for textile medium.
I also used the aloe gel on the spare piece of calico I painted as a background for the clump of violets. I don’t intend any of this to be visible. It will just provide some dark green depths underneath the clump, rather than leaving me worrying that the fabric underneath might grin through if the leaves move. As with the clothing on Loading The Felucca, I don’t want to stitch everything down too much, so this will relieve a certain anxiety.
In this context, the effect of painting over the marks with the aloe gel, deadening the marks and blending the colours, is not a problem. I’m not keen on the overly blended effect with ordinary pastels, as it looks a little mannered, but as all I want is that a sense of depth behind the violets, I’m content. Given how much dust those few strokes created, I certainly would not want to have an un-fixed piece of fabric anywhere near the finished Dreams of Amarna panels!
While the aloe-and-inktense blend was drying, I tackled cutting out the elements of the stumpwork.
In spite of all my care – and they do look lovely in the sunlight, don’t they! – I ended up with little white edges on all the pieces.
So, out came the inktense blocks and the aloe gel again, and I spent some time colouring the little white edges and then painting gel on them.
I wonder whether I might be avoiding the assembly process…?
I’ve been gradually accumulating the skills needed to wrangle my embellisher successfully. It was worth buying the extension table that fits around the arm of the machine – that began to make the whole thing seem possible.
Using the net to hold down the fibres made a huge difference, and so did piling up props to keep the weight of the blanket from pulling on the needles. The props then worked better again when I covered them, and the table, with a slippery plastic tablecloth to stop them getting caught up.
I’ve also found that on my wooden sewing table, the embellisher “walks” with the vibration of its movement. Two layers of heavy batting on the table seem to have fixed that particular alarming problem, and then I bought some spare needles (20 of them!) and relaxed a little, which made it easier not to jerk at the fabric and break needles.
So what with one thing and another, I’m beginning to feel as though I might be getting to grips with the embellisher!
I’m also beginning to learn which fabrics work. Obviously, the hexagonal net gets shredded and doesn’t get pulled into the fabric. Dense commercial wool felt doesn’t felt in well, in fact it seems to pull itself back out again; but real wool tweed and the lofty “pre-felt” pieces felt in like a dream, and end up looking almost as though they were part of the fabric.
The fibres seem to remain quite lofty and furry, even after being fairly thoroughly felted in, although the merino becomes flatter than some of the other fibres. The more I work with the embellisher, the more I realise that there is rather more to it than meets the eye!
A lot more….
At the moment, the colours aren’t quite working, but my next stage is to start to add details, and tweak the colours a bit. I need to add the teals and greens that are part of the fabric pattern that gave me the colour-scheme, and also help some of the edges and lines of the pattern to come to life..
But I might also choose to use the back… The spotty, “dithered” effect is very like the overall effect of the fabric I’ve mentioned, so I need to consider whether to continue adding to what is at present the “front”, or to start adding tweaks to the “back”.
I have a picture in my mind of a gaggle of geese, fresco’d on an Amarna wall. Unfortunately, all my rummagings haven’t turned up a reference or any idea where I saw it. So I am going to make it up!
I spent some time online, looking for pictures of geese, and made some sketches. I’ve decided to use my embellisher – this is a sort of “bonus” project, as it won’t go on the main panels.
So the next stage was to cut out some geese from some light grey pre-felt. One of them is to be slightly more upright than the other two, but since needlefelting – like wet felting – reduces the dimensions of the piece, it’s anyone’s guess how clear that will be when I’ve finished!
I’ve tried to create the basic appearance of the goose using fragments of wool – several shades of grey merino, and some of the very wiry white wool from Heligan. It’s all needlefelted into place by hand. Not enough hands – I’m sure I could have done with another pair, or some other way to control the bits I hadn’t managed to deal with yet!
At this point there was a pause for thought… I have neither the inclination nor the patience to add the details with needlefelting, but equally, how much detail will I really need?
I mentioned in the first post about this project that I was planning to use what are technically referred to as “intimate blends” of fibres to create a more subtle colour range. If you click on the picture you will get a better sense of the varieties I am putting together.
If I were planning to spin these blends, I wouldn’t start from here. Some of the colours are lovely silky-smooth, long staple, Falklands merino, and others, labelled “Nepal Wool” in my local shop, are short staple, and very curly and springy. I’ve even got some very wiry undyed Devon and Cornwall Longwool, bought last Autumn at the Lost Gardens of Heligan (go, if you get a chance: we had a wonderful day out there!). So the characteristics are very different, and that matters quite a lot with yarn, although there is a way to do almost anything if you have the time to make it work. It matters less with felting, so some of my blends would make my spinning master splutter something like “Didn’t I teach you anything?”.
Fortunately, what I am attempting is based entirely on the colours.
The blanket became very unwieldy at this point. I’ve since found the label and discovered it weighed four and a quarter pounds before I even began!
However, that wasn’t really the problem. I didn’t want to have pins within the area I was working, because they’d be certain to get caught up and cause more breakages (by the action of what my father refers to as the Law of Maximum Cussedness). The central section is about two foot in diameter, so a lot of as-yet-unattached fibre was rather more free to move under the netting than I would have wished. Furthermore, because of this I was finding myself tensing up and pressing harder on the foot pedal, and that was when I would get out of sync and break a needle or two.
I picked out a whole selection of threads, looked at them, and dismissed them. Partly, it must be said, because I had decided, after all, to use Plaited Braid Stitch, and that uses a lot of thread. I wasn’t sure that I even had enough of some of my choices!
In the end, I decided to use an overdyed pearl cotton in a sort of faience colour. Years ago, my mother managed plaited braid stitch using stranded cotton, but I tend to feel that that is making life unnecessarily difficult, so stranded threads or floppy threads were removed from consideration as soon as I had settled on the stitch…
I must say, I hadn’t expected to find the stitch getting narrower as I became more practised. I had to deliberately broaden the stitch as I got nearer to the start so I had some chance of joining the ends neatly.
And I really don’t think I did too badly – in fact, if it weren’t for the colour change, I think the join would be rather hard to spot!
And by the way – the dreaded Plaited Braid Stitch is no longer dreaded!
Hexagonal net laid over the fibres helps to keep them from around the “foot” for want of a better word, of the embellisher. I’ve pinned it down, inside and outside the ring, and spent a lot of time struggling with a piece of blanket which seems to get larger every time I go back to it.
The challenge with an embellisher is to move the fabric when the needle unit is up, because if the needle unit is down when the fabric moves, needles get broken.
And I can assure you, they break. Eight, I think, by the end of my first serious day of using my embellisher.
The blanket got heavier and more unwieldy, but by the end of the day I was beginning to feel I might be getting the hang of it.
This might be in part because my sewing table was gradually accreting some props. I covered it with plastic tablecloth, to help the material slide, and stretched the plastic tablecloth over a clothes horse.
That in turn helped to raise the main weight of the blanket – the bit I wasn’t working on – so that it was no longer dragging down on the section I was working on.
I even piled up some of the blanket on the windowsill, and I do rather wonder what anyone passing by might have thought of the net curtains swishing tempestuously with no person in sight!
What was definitely not feeling better by the end of the day was that hardworking and hapless net. It doesn’t get felted in – that’s why it’s such a useful addition to the armoury of the user of an embellisher – but it does get pretty thoroughly shredded. This may be in part because I’m not yet experienced enough to know when I can dispense with it, or it may be because I’m working on small parts of the piece at once because it is so big and heavy.
Fortunately I bought a couple of yards of it, for precisely this purpose!