My primary purchase at Harrogate was a new, floor-standing working light. I’m hoping it will make a difference to working during the poor light of winter, since otherwise whole days go by when it is too dark to embroider.
First of all, if you’re thinking of getting one, think as hard as you can beforehand about what you want it to accomplish and when you will use it. Then if you can possibly go somewhere to meet your potential lights, do so. The technology has been changing a great deal, and there are several varieties on offer. The advantage of doing this at Harrogate was that The Craftlight Company had a whole stand of different types of light, and several people available to talk to.
My choice has now arrived, and I have to say that the early signs are good. The reach of the light from the source is much better than on my old desk-lamp type working light, which would be fine for a desk based form of craft but isn’t so good for embroidering at a floor standing frame or even in an armchair. It was easy to set up, and I’m beginning to learn what adjustments have the better effect. Since the lights are set around a magnifier, I have the option of using it as a standard lamp or as an illuminated magnifier, and I’ve yet to settle on my preferred option.
All this is being complicated by the fact that I have a new prescription for my embroidering glasses!
I do, however, offer one warning – apparently the light is also good for sufferers from SAD. I remember reading once that such lights are most beneficial when used at particular times of day. It’s certainly a very “wake-up” sort of light, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d better not use it after dinner, because the one time I did, I was awake for hours longer than I wanted to be!
Once everything had dried, I could sit back and look at my trees.
This is the first one I did. It used some multicoloured merino in the trunk, and two greens from the beginners felting kit I bought on eBay a while back. They’re not very nice greens, but all I’m doing is investigating the technique.
There are only two or three layers of wool in this one, which means there are gaps in the felt, and the junction of the trunk and the canopy is a bit flimsy. Gaps in the felt for the canopy are no problem at all – they would help to add depth to the finished piece. Since everything will be caught down (somehow – I don’t yet know how!), strong, dense felt isn’t really the aim here.
The second experiment had the addition of some short staple (that is, short fibre length), very crinkly wool. I was hoping it would result in greater shrinkage, which it has a little. It also produced a greater variety of shades in the canopy, lightening and interrupting that rather dull green. This may have promise, and the felt itself seems a little more stable and would be easier to stitch into.
Since the fibres are rubbed and soaped and rolled, and generally beaten up, it’s not surprising that the effects of trying to place the fibre colours to create a particular appearance is, to put it mildly, an inexact science. I wonder whether I could combine needle-felting with wet-felting to make the results more controllable?
In the final experiment, I added crocheted chains and some tangles of yarn as well. Some parts of the chain didn’t felt in quite as well as I might have hoped, but with more crocheted chain and a better understanding of how to felt it in more thoroughly, it might produce a very good effect.
My semi-spun yarn on the trunk has worked, though, and looks even better in real life, although, again, what it needs is the courage of my convictions and rather more of the same.
So, not a completely unsuccessful experiment, and certainly a good basis for further experiments, perhaps with added stitching…
I’ve been struggling with a sore and stiff shoulder for some months now. It’s made me reluctant to go back to Eve In The Garden of Eden because at this stage she demands perseverance in a single, small stitch for the gold groundwork. The Head of Nefertiti has involved more variety, and earlier signs of progress, while the canvaswork is perfect for evenings.
However, my shoulder is beginning to ease and I’m feeling more willing to experiment. So I had a very entertaining morning last week (it was on Instagram and Twitter) having a go at something I saw on someone’s blog a few months ago and thought might have possibilities for the underlayer of my planned Vision of Placidus panel. If what you see looks familiar, please let me know and I will gladly edit the post to give credit!
Now, the Placidus panel is going to be about five foot by four foot, so even using some of the chunky threads I am happy to use (… and may even spin for the purpose!), it will take quite some effort to cover it. So I thought maybe I could wet felt some rough elements – trees, rocks, clouds, the stream, which could then be applied and tweaked, improved and generally titivated with stitchery.
In the absence of a real – waterproofed! – studio, therefore, I was to be found squatting on the kitchen floor, using a Lakeland Limited tray for cleaning oven shelves to contain the splashes and soap. I must have looked distinctly odd, but I’m accustomed to that!
In the case of the final experiment ( I did three), I rummaged for some fine crewel wool and made a crochet chain, with some very slapdash and freeform loops added in, and laid that down first, with a tangle of leftover yarn.
I also fished out my spindle and had a go at spinning and doubling some wool to create a different effect on the trunk. That didn’t work too well – the yarn kept unspinning itself. My shoulder isn’t up to a concerted attempt to crack spinning, so I made do with what I’d got, and backed it with various other wools to hold it together.
At this point – creaking slightly in the lower back – I decided to stop, rinse everything off, and let my trees dry before going any further. .
I decided, as I stared at the printing of this blocky pattern onto gauze, that I wanted to use the transparency of the gauze as part of the finished effect.
I don’t have a destination in mind for this piece which will give me a theme, so I decided that, in order to highlight that one quality, I would use a single thread (as it happened, a variegated silk), and design a fragment that would allow me to experiment with the effect of stitch cover and openness.
I leafed through books about pattern, saw nothing that gave me the combination I wanted, and then evolved the fragmentary organic sketch on the far left to give me the balance of line and form I was looking for. Incidentally, this is quite possibly the swiftest and shortest progression of any sketched design I’ve ever come up with!
It’s astonishingly difficult to trace a design onto a fabric which is essentially invisible, and still harder, I might add, to follow the lines when you have finally put them there!
I used Hungarian Braided Chain Stitch for the stem, satin stitch for the solid side of the leaf, and Jacobean trellis for the flower-head. Clearly that gives me a solid coverage, and a firm line; I was hoping that the Jacobean trellis might offer a sort of half-shade.
A qualified success, I’d say. The printed pattern doesn’t create a shadow, and the Jacobean trellis shadow isn’t a sort of half-depth.
But, my goodness, the shadow of the stem and the leaf work exactly as I hoped! The gauze itself almost disappears, leaving the printed pattern floating above the surface, and the leaf and flower thrown forward by their shadows.
Any book on embroidery will usually tell you about methods for transferring designs to the fabric. In fact, I think some of them are guilty of plagiarism – although from whom, in the best traditions of the circular firing squad, it would be hard to know.
Last week there was a discussion on Twitter relating to the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off and particularly concerned with transferring the design once you’d chosen it, and I suddenly realised that not one of my shelf (ahem, shelves!) of embroidery books actually suggested which method might be most appropriate when, or what hazards or difficulties they present.
So I thought I would pull together what I’ve picked up and found out over the years…
First, Prick and Pounce. This is one of the oldest methods – almost certainly the only one available to the Lady’s Magazine subscribers. I’ve come to it relatively recently, but I use it a lot. It’s not good when my tennis elbow flares up, because pricking holes in the pattern is a slow and repetitive business, perfectly designed to produce a repetitive strain injury. It’s also not good – as I discovered with the pashmina for the Stitch Off – with a mobile fabric which is a little widely sett for the thickness of the constituent yarns. I had to reinstate the lines with a dressmaker’s chalk, which wasn’t nearly as precise as I would have liked!
Next, the Light Box method. Actually, not having a light box, it’s a “tape it to the window and do your best” method. I did this with the Gentleman’s Glittering Nightcap, and it worked fairly well, but it’s limited to the size of your window or lightbox, whereas Prick and Pounce is limited by the size of your table! I also become nervous when using indelible ink such as the (recommended and provided) Pigma pen. I’m always terrified of inadvertently drawing a line somewhere I can’t cover it.
Which leads me on to a caution. I’ve used quilter’s “disappearing” felt pens instead in the past, and had one of the scariest embroidery experiences I’ve ever had. First of all, the lines didn’t last quite long enough for a hand stitcher, and then…
When I washed the piece, the lines reappeared, and what’s more, they kept coming back. I can’t remember what it took to be rid of them, but certainly some prolonged soaking in detergent was involved.
Hair-raising doesn’t begin to describe it, and as mine is nearly a yard long, that’s no joke!
I used a Transfer Pencil for the Map of Amarna. This works nicely – provided you remember to reverse the pattern if it needs it! – if the fabric is a natural fibre. However, it can be hard to keep the transfer clean as you make it, and then there is a risk that you will transfer indelible smudges to the fabric.
I’ve also found that the lines sometimes spread as they transfer, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how detailed the design, and how much unembroidered fabric may be showing. As it always says on the packaging – test the whole process on your fabric before using it for anything important!
In the case of a really tricky fabric, such as the velvet for the Camberwell Panel, Running Stitch through tissue paper works really well. It’s rather time consuming, but then, I don’t think any method is especially swift.
There are soluble fabrics which I know many stitchers recommend, but I’ve only worked one piece using it, and the design drawn on the soluble film was hard to see, so I can’t describe it as an unalloyed success.
In truth, a stable natural fabric such as linen will probably happily accept anything thing you do, and the fragile, “difficult” ones will each require a different response. The trick is to remember to pause before starting, to make sure you pick a sensible method for the fabric and the design!
I don’t usually go to workshops at the Knitting and Stitching Show, but since I’ve taken to going to the Thursday evening opening as well, I thought I would have time this year.
And I did. I went to a workshop on Spinning Silk Mawata with Ruth MacGregor, and came back with my very own drop spindle to play with.
First of all I’ve never been to any fibre related workshop at which there were tubes of handcream on the table! Secondly, although I have – literally! – written a book about spinning, I’ve never held a drop spindle in my life and I had no idea what to expect. My book is about industrial spinning, and the machines always did the difficult stuff…
It turns out that silk mawata is a web of filament that can be drafted (stretched) and spun fairly easily – it’s a forgiving material, and because silk is so strong and the filaments are so long, it’s easy to draft and create fine threads. Of course, that means that spinning heavier threads is going to take a bit more thought and care.
Or – since Ruth taught us how – there is always the possibility of twisting two threads together to make one. In the photo above you can see my early efforts. The two light ones are both fairly simple plied yarns, but speaking as a fancy yarn specialist, the dark one is a slubbed gimp yarn. I just wish I could claim that that was exactly as I designed it to be!
So I came home with a packet of silk mawata caps and some silk tops, so I can play and learn to make the thread I want to make.
Eventually I want to be able to spin in both wool and silk, and use some of my yarns in the Vision of Placidus panel…
This rather fabulous coat was a collaboration. My mother made it for herself to wear at a friend’s wedding in the early nineteen-sixties, and when she began to run out of time, Grandmama stepped in and stitched like a whirlwind to get it finished!
The original outfit was a silk dress and coat combination, a very simple sheath dress, and this edge-to-edge, three-quarter sleeve coat. The front is completely unadorned, because, after all, at a Church wedding people will mostly see each other from the back!
The design of Tiger Lilies is from a transfer. Actually, we think it was three of the same transfer, cut and put together to create a design that fit the coat back. After the darts had been put in…
I’ve seen a few cream running stitches which suggest to me that, rather than using the transfers as transfers, the design was stitched through the paper. Given the sensitivities of silk, that was probably very sensible!
The embroidery is worked in stranded cotton. It’s all very simple stitchery, long and short stitch, stem stitch, French Knots, and a few buttonhole wheels.
It relies for its effect not on complexity of stitching, but on the colour and pattern combination.
If I’m going to be picky, the silk was a bit light for the stitching – although the puckers may be a result of years and cleaning, as I can’t imagine Grandmama, after Miss Hunter’s training, would have stitched with such tension, and no more would my mother, after Grandmama’s training!
Grandmama also contributed assistance in making a pillbox hat, ornamented with swirls of gauze to match the colours, and then they painted a pair of shoes (Rayne, no less!) and a handbag (Marks and Spencer, alas) to match the green gloves which were bought new. A three-strand green stone bead necklace completed the outfit, and my mother remembers receiving a lot of compliments, at that occasion, and several others later.
Many years later still, when I was in the Upper Sixth, with a pale orange sheath dress underneath, I wore this for the Founders Day Service at school. We went into town afterwards, and my goodness, how people jumped to serve us!
Regrettably the coat fits neither my mother nor myself these days, and we’re wondering what to do with it…
Recently we had a visit from some Portuguese friends, who we last saw when we were in the Azores. They had obviously remembered my delight when I found the embroidery shop in the main square at Punta Delgarda, because for their hostess gift, as well as bringing some coffee and olive oil, they brought a set of vintage Portuguese sewing and embroidery patterns!
Although they look like magazines, each one is in fact a large sheet that unfolds to provide drawn-out patterns for a multitude of types of embroidery, including surface embroidery, appliqué, cutwork and drawn thread work, some of it crisp and simple, some of it bright, colourful and really quite ornate. Suggested applications for the designs appear as well, so next time my inspiration flags (er, and I’ve finished the Azorean Cutwork!), I will be able to leaf through these to refresh it!
The coffee was presented in this paper bag, which is printed with a design that our friends told us is inspired by a traditional embroidery pattern from northern Portugal. They said they were disappointed not to have found some embroidery for me, but in some ways, I think this is even better.
One of these days I will be able to play with this design, and maybe reinterpret this traditional style in my own way.
My mother and I are planning a panel for next year’s Christmas Cards, and I went in the loft recently in search of an embroidery frame of a suitable size.
I brought down every bit of wood that looked vaguely embroidery-frame-like, and spent a puzzled hour or so putting them together.
And got a very nasty shock. I’m quite sure I didn’t buy all of these.
Do they breed?
Actually, in my own defence – some years ago a local embroideress died, and her daughter wanted to give away all of her stash and equipment. Preferably all at once, to one person.
So I toddled off, burdened with I-didn’t-know-quite-what, and – not needing any of it at the time – put it in the loft. Then life got very busy and I didn’t get around to doing the stocktake I’d intended.
And the most galling thing of all is that not one of those frames is big enough for the project we have in mind!
There were so many intrigued comments about my Marudai and the braids it made, that I thought I would show you some more of the braids I’ve made.
Kumihimo is a traditional Japanese technique. The braids have a lot of traditional uses in Japan – in fact, an opera singer friend of mine tells me his Samurai costume for his part in a brand-new opera about a crucial part of Japanese history was correct down to properly made kumihimo braids in all the right places!
If you search for Kumihimo on eBay, what you will find, by and large, are bracelets. Now, I’m really not a bracelet sort of girl. I have a few chunky, “statement” bangles, which are worn specifically, explicitly and only when I’m planning nothing more strenuous than lifting a knife and fork. Cord bracelets – no.
However, I do have a lot of heavy, dramatic pendants, and the idea of making cords to point up the colours in the pendants – yes, definitely. I’ve found that sewing machine thread makes a wonderful material for these purposes – it comes in a huge range of colours, and it’s fine, supple and strong. It also lends itself well to heathering – combining several colours in a single strand – and best of all, it’s relatively inexpensive.
The fine green and gold cord is silk, made using some of the thread from the Tudor Rose kit – I used it to trim the Tudor Rose panel.
The next three, and the top, chunky pinky-maroon, are all necklace cords made using sewing machine cotton, although the maroon mookaite pendant I made the two maroon ones for has spurned both of them with scorn. I’ll try again, because I enjoy kumihimo.
The white one is silk, to go with a pearl-mounted enamelled cross pendant given to me by an old family friend, and which I wore on my wedding day. The cord I used then has become grubby over the years, so this one will see me through a few more. The cream and peach usually carries a glass pendant. It’s one of two I’ve tried for that pendant, in fact – but this “making things match” is never quite as easy as we hope, is it!
The round apricot rope is huge – about for or five times the size of the other round cords I’ve done. I might mount it with cord ends and turn it into a choker one of these days..
The stripy one is a fairly fine flat braid in filament silk. I worked this one as an experiment, changing the tension (more or less weight on the end) to see what effect it would have. In the end I came to the conclusion I wasn’t being dramatic enough with my experiments!
These flat braids were given extra texture with saree silk knitting yarns. Again, they tell me that some of my experimentation needs to be a bit more dramatic. I was hoping to emphasize the different textures, but used too many strands of the cotton yarn, so there wasn’t enough difference between the strands.
There’s scope for endless experimentation here – and I haven’t shown you the miles of gold braid I’ve made…