Archive for craft

Meet the Empress

Posted in Embroidery, Needlework, out and about with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by suetortoise

I’ve got some catching up to do. I’ve got several finished pieces to show you, but I shall talk about just two for now, and my trip to Stitching for Pleasure.

This is the stitched box I started a while back (here’s the first post I made on its progress). It took almost forever – all that metallic thread, very hard on the fingers! The last stitch went in just at the end of February. I call this one “Empress of Mars”.

Here’s a close up of the lid, to show off the texture and the central decoration. The pink cut-glass beads came from an old necklace. I attached them with strong thread, before hiding that with metallic thread on top.

On Friday, I went to Stitching For Pleasure at the NEC, once again meeting up with Rachel from Virtuosew Adventures, for a natter and a look around the stalls and the exhibitions. Rachel’s superb piece “Leaving the Tyne” was on show in the Embroiderers’ Guild display of their “100 Hearts”. I was pleased to see it was one of three given pride of place right at the front entrance.

On my wants list this year were some more colours of Gütermann Sulky Cotton 12 – which I found on the Barnyarns stand, Some Stef Francis Superfine silk thread from the Silk Mill stand, a couple of fat quarters from Bombay Stores, and some offcuts of evenweave from Fabric Flair which I think was on the Yorkshire Book Company stand. I was remarkably restrained and didn’t buy anything not on my list, this year, despite temptation. Although I did come home with a portable, rechargeable LED lamp. I was only intending to look at the different models this visit, but i made my mind up quite easily. I’ll talk about that on another post, as I haven’t yet tried it out properly. All in all, a very successful and enjoyable day out, but very tiring.

There’s nothing like a day spent looking at supplies and lovely finished pieces to get the old fingers itching to try things out. Needless to say, I ended up spending much of this weekend making yet another bookmark. This one is on a piece of 28 count cotton evenweave from my Fabric Flair purchases at the NEC. It’s printed with pale blue random ‘clouds’ and is stitched with one strand of a slightly darker blue stranded cotton (two strands for the buttonhole stitch edging). Stitches used include double cross, tiny eyelets, a big spider eyelet and something like a double leviathan stitch. I’m quite pleased with this one. I think it’s made something quite delicate out of a somewhat unprepossessing piece of fabric.


A Strange Little Picture

Posted in Embroidery, museum, shrewsbury with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2012 by suetortoise

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

When I caught a glimpse of this picture in the dark depths of the picture storeroom at Shrewsbury Museum in Rowley’s House, my first thought was: “Surely that’s not a piece of Jacobean stumpwork over there, is it?” Lifting it out into the light, I soon realised that it was not 17th Century embroidery, but was a most unusual imitation of the style; with paper filigree replacing metal thread embroidery and cut ribbon work instead of silk stitchery. As I put it carefully back onto the shelf, I noticed a nearly label pasted on the back. It was nearly illegible, but a date caught my eye among the writing – 1860.

I could not stop to examine the picture that morning, but I knew I wanted to spend time looking at it closely and recording it, and that most of all I wanted to share this quaint and curious little image with my readers on Tortoise Loft. Shrewsbury Museum have very kindly given me permission to do that, and I want to thank them.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

The label is in very faded ink but I have made out most of the writing. It says:

 This Picture was given to me in Shrewsbury August, 21st 1860 by Mrs
John Lawrence [?th]at was a Cousin’s Widow who got it from my deceased aunt Margaret Bowdler who resided with her and who brought it from her Father’s House at Munslow – and is the only relic preserved.
It is said [underlined] to have been in the family 300 or 400 years.
Rich\d Bowdler
Kirkham – Lancashire
Mr Edw\d Hughes of Shrewsbury has portions of ?Furniture made from very old timber – grown on the Marton Estate.

I don’t know if the mention of old timber refers to the frame? There are various branches of the Bowdler family in Shropshire, going back to medieval times. It would be interesting to know where Aunt Margaret’s family lived. Munslow is a parish near Church Stretton, including the village Ashford Bowdler, There is also a Hope Bowdler just south of Ludlow. There are several places called Marton in Shropshire, but I don’t know of one near Munslow. 

Let’s have a look at some details of the picture.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

The paper filigree (a craft sometimes called ‘quilling’) is made of paper with gold-leaf edges. The heyday of this craft was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bookbinders would sell the strips already gilded and cut, ready to be rolled or crimped and glued into place. A few coils are missing, but the glue used must have been good – the vast majority are still firmly in place. One of the four corners of the design has much less paper and more ribbon flowers than the other three. I wonder if the maker of the picture was running short of gold-edged paper? In the opposite corner, red ink or paint has been used on the board beneath the pattern. The dark marks around the top-left edge appear to be damage rather than deliberate tinting.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

The flowers and leaves are neatly cut from coloured ribbon and glued into place.  You can see from this damaged red and white flower that the petals of the main flowers  were assembled on a circle of paper before being fixed to the backing board.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewbury Museums

The cornflower is a common motif on seventeenth century embroidery, the carnation, and roses too, are very typical. This leads me to wonder if the artist adapted the design from an old piece of embroidery. Perhaps it was the original of this piece that was in the family for many generations? I would be surprised if this picture itself was more than 100 years old in 1860, but the craft of paper filigree was known in Jacobean times, so maybe…?

On the central figure, you can see the only stitching used in the piece – a few stitches to catch down the silk hair and the scraps of metal-thread braid used on the costume. Some of the ribbon has a fine pinstripe, some has neatly graduated shades (used to good effect on the cloud above the figure’s head, along with ink wash), and there is a white ribbon with a patterned weave used on the dress. All the other ribbon is in plain colours. Some red ink can be seen on the face and costume, as well as the black ink. There is also some paint, or ink, that is a light blueish-grey, used on some of the filigree papers and in spots on the ribbon-work. The figure’s hands are cut from pink paper, and there are two small birds near her head which appear to be cut from printed paper. The birds have been further coloured with red and black ink. Apart from the paper filligree, all the other details are made from ribbon. The edge of the board is also covered with ribbon.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

I am fascinated by this little picture (it measures 28cm wide and 35cm high, excluding the wooden frame). I have never seen anything else quite like it. Can anyone shed any more light on it? Who made it? Where? When?

All the pictures in this article are Copyright Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums, 2012. Used by permission. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited. For further information please contact Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

Floss Cotton and the Honeybees of Smooth

Posted in Embroidery with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2012 by suetortoise

No this isn’t exactly a story. Call it a learning experience with attached musings and explanations. And yes, we’re talking embroidery again, but don’t let that put you off. Meanwhile, in other news, I have some part-time work again. Only temporary, but it’s good to be in paid employment once more.

Back to the two Yellow Mats of my last-but-one posting. Yellow Mat One – that’s the finished one, this one –Yellow Mat Onewas beset with problems. The main problem was the thread, which was not robust enough to go through the closely-woven linen without fluffing up. Particularly as I didn’t always get the needle in exactly the right place first time, so was undoing a lot of stitches. (Sometimes it seemed I was working backwards more often than forwards. It gets like that some days!) I was using a single strand of stranded cotton – you may call it cotton floss, sticktwist, mouliné, it’s all the same stuff. I wasn’t using an economy brand, this was DMC thread and the thread was in good condition. But I struggled to stitch with it, even after I started making sure that I was working with the nap of the thread, not against it.

Stranded cotton has a nap?

No, not that kind of nap, Flossie!

Yes, it does. It’s not a very noticeable nap with good brands. (I’d never paid any attention to which end of the thread went into the needle before. I’ve never needed to. It’s never made any visible difference to the finished stitching before.) Yellow Mat One showed me that even that tiny difference could matter when the going gets tough.

How do you find out which end is which? Well, the simplest way is to run a strand between your fingers – in one direction it will run very smoothly, in the other direction it’s just not quite so smooth. It’s nothing like as noticeable as stroking a cat’s fur the wrong way (I’ve never yet had a strand of thread turn around and claw my hand, either). But when it matters, you want have the nap running from the end that goes into the needle to the end that you stitch into the fabric; so that as you pull it through the fabric, the fabric is not rubbing the fibres the wrong way.

This may sound horribly time-consuming, but once you’ve found the nap on one of the six strands in a length of cotton, all rest will run the same way, and other lengths cut from the same end of the skein will also run the same way. How you store cut lengths so that you know which way up they are when you get them out of your sewing bag is up to you. My current best idea is to keep them in a loose hitch, as I usually do, but leave the two legs of the hitch unequal lengths – the long one is the tail and the short one is the needle end. It’s not a perfect storage solution. Suggestions welcome!

Okay, back to the story. Using the thread the right way around certainly helped with Yellow Mat One. It wasn’t perfect and I was still wasting a lot of thread and having to make a lot of repairs, but it was better. Eventually I finished the mat.

Now we come to Yellow Mat Two. The new one. Good thread again, this time a shiny new skein of Anchor Stranded, but still fluffing up and still very hard to get through the fabric. Worse, the strand actually broke a couple of times while I was stitching.

What do I check when cotton breaks?

The first check is the most obvious thing: Is the eye damaged on the needle? Mine wasn’t actually broken, but it was bent and battered and could have had a rough edge in the eye. I sent that needle into retirement.

Second check: Is the needle big enough? Now this is quite a tough question. You want it small enough that you can get it into the right holes in the fabric. (It’s hard to see what you are doing with a big needle obscuring your view.) And on a closely woven fabric, you can’t get a very big needle through easily. But you want it big enough that the thread can get through without too much wear and tear. I had been using one of the smallest tapestry needles I have, a size 26. The replacement would be a size 24. One size larger.

The third check is worth doing any time you start stitching: Do you have a broken nail or a rough edge on jewellery or anything else that might be catching the thread? Oops! Yes, a split fingernail. Short pause for a five-minute manicure. (An emery board is useful in a travelling stitching bag – just keep it away from anything it could scratch.) I think the split nail on the worn thread was definitely the cause of the breaks.

There’s a fourth check, a very important one, if you don’t already do it from habit. That is: Are you sure you are not stressing the thread in the needle’s eye when you pull the thread through? It’s easy to do – especially when the fabric is hard to stitch through – so it’s worth getting into the habit of holding the needle and thread properly when you pull the thread. It seems awkward at first, but persevere with it. It will become second nature eventually. Here’s the grip:

The first finger and thumb grip the needle, then the second and third fingers trap the thread. So as you come to the end of the pull, all the stress is on the area of thread held between your second and third fingers. It’s not on the tiny bit of thread passing through the needle’s eye.

You probably already know to move the thread in the needle from time to time as well, so that same area isn’t always getting the wear. A slight digression: the risk of wear on the thread is one good reason not to loop one thread through the needle when stitching with doubled thread. The cut ends should go through the needle, if you use thread doubled. An obvious exception is for threading beads if you can’t get the thread through the holes any other way. I know that parents and teachers tell young children to fix the needle in a loop of thread – it saves a lot of dropped needles! But as soon as you are old enough to know better, you’d be wise to only put the cut ends into the needle, as if they were a single thread.)

And again back to the story. Having checked off points one, two, three and four, I tried again. This time the stitching went noticeably better. Better – but not as well as I’d liked. No more breaks, but I was still getting fluffing, and every stitch correction was making the thread more and more ragged. Who would rescue Floss Cotton from going to pieces on the Harsh Linen of Doom?

Cue the sound effects: the drone of the engines as the squadron races across the sky….

Back before the machine-perfect thread we take for granted today, before cotton was treated by ‘mercerisation’ and mechanically honed to silky-smoothness, there was beeswax. A wax holder was as normal a component of a sewing box as the scissors.

You don’t really want to use it when you can avoid it, but if you need to strengthen a frail thread on its journey through the hostile territory of awkward fabric and keep it from fluffing, beeswax is magic.

You can still buy special holders and expensive wax from shops that carry quilting supplies. (Hand-quilters often still like to use it to toughen up their quilting threads as they shove them through all the layers of cloth and batting.) You can also try a honey stall at a farmer’s market or talk to a beekeeper – they’ll sell you a chunk with no fancy holder, but at a far less fancy price. And all you do is pull the thread across the wax firmly, keeping under your thumb. (Pull it with the nap, remember – don’t rub the thread up the wrong way.) You might need to make two or more passes, but one may be enough, especially after threads have started to wear a little groove in the block, which lets the wax coat them more easily. It will make an alarming squeaky-creaky noise but don’t worry. You may overdo the wax a bit and end up with something as stiff as a cat’s whisker, but really you just need enough to give it that little bit of body – just enough to smooth things along nicely. It’s a matter of experience. Oh yes, you get that faint smell of wax and honey, too. (Hay fever, asthma and eczema sufferers – do make sure that you are not allergic to beeswax before you use it.)

Yellow Mat 2 in progress 16-05-2012

So now Yellow Mat Two is progressing remarkably swiftly. Despite the extra time taken in waxing the thread, I am working much faster than I was without the wax on Yellow Mat One. I haven’t had to spend so much time struggling with the thread. It’s also proving easier to cut the fabric away without snipping through the surrounding stitches, because they are not fluffy. No more stopping to rework damaged blocks. I’ve got this far with the first border already – the surface stitchery complete and the cutting and lace stitches well under way. I’ve done just over half the surface stitchery on the second border, too. I am delighted – I’m making much, much faster progress than I expected to. The stiffer, faintly tacky-feeling thread is not as pleasant to work with as untreated thread, but I am happy to put up with that in exchange for easier stitching.

This is an experiment, so I have yet to find out how easily I can remove the wax from the thread afterwards, and find out if the sheen of the cotton will revive (it looks a little dull with wax on it, but I assume that the gloss will come back when the wax goes). I will report the results of this experiment when I get to the cleaning and pressing stage, even if it all ends in hopeless failure. Meanwhile, so far, so good!

A Year with Stitches

Posted in Embroidery, everyday life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2012 by suetortoise

About time I updated the blog, I think! I am not making a New Year resolution to get back to more frequent blogging: I know what happens to resolutions and good intentions. But I am hopeful.

Whitework Band in progress

Embroidery. Looking back at the last 12 months, I think I can safely say that I have done more stitchery in 2011 than in any year since the early 1990s. I’ve never totally given up on embroidery, but there have been years when I’ve done hardly any. This was one of the most productive ones.

I also seem to have developed more patience and more willingness to stick at a piece of stitchery than I’ve ever had before, making me happier to take on more labour intensive embroideries. I no longer feel the urge to rush projects and spoil them, and I am less inclined to give up half way through – most of the embroidery projects I’ve started in 2011 have been finished, not left half-done. I even took up several pieces that had been left part-finished a decade or more ago and completed them. (There are more old unfinished projects still waiting for my attention, but I’ve made a good start on the pile.)

So what has sparked this revival of interest in embroidery? The main influence has been one of the things that previously got in the way of my stitching and craftwork: the Internet. I like to study old needlework, and more and more old patterns and embroidery textbooks being made available online. The amount of museum reference material online, with good, clear images, is also growing.  It’s rather wonderful to be able to study samplers in the V&A without the train fare to London, or look at early pattern books that I have read of but never seen for myself.

Openwork sampler, finished

A sampler of cut drawn and openwork embroidery, trying out stitches and techniques from books from the Antique Pattern Library

Heading the list of last year’s favourite discoveries is the excellent Antique Pattern Library – an ever-increasing collection of old books, charts and magazines, free for downloading for non-commercial purposes. (Not just embroidery – it’s a treasure trove for knitters, crocheters, tatting enthusiasts and more.) I’ve downloaded several books, mostly late Victorian and Edwardian, and they’ve proved very useful for both information and inspiration. It’s a wonderful resource which deserves to be much more widely known.

Eyelet band bookmark, detail

A bookmark for my mother. Made with a lovely variegated pearl cotton from Stef Francis, worked on 28 count Jobelan fabric.

And then there are the specialist suppliers for embroidery materials. Although I always try to source purchases locally and support shops in this area, it’s not always possible to find what I am looking for if it is something a little out of the ordinary – as it usually is. So then I am happy to support the small specialist companies who do business online. (The larger online concerns are very much my supplier of last resort.) It’s probably a good thing that I am short of money, because I can browse specialist thread suppliers websites for hours, getting more and more inspired in the process!  

I want to show you this piece, which I’ve been working on gradually for the last four or five months. (I was determined to finish it in 2011, and I did – just.) I am rather proud of it! It’s the finest fabric I have ever tried to use for counted cutwork, about 45 threads to the inch, although it is not exactly evenweave. These primrose-yellow linen placemats, already hemmed and with a narrow drawn-thread border, were on the antique stall in the local market at 50p each. I don’t know how old they are – even the hem is hand-stitched, so they were probably made for the love of it rather than for commercial purposes.
Yellow Mat
I decided to add some further decoration, continuing my exploration of counted cutwork. The stitches used are those used in modern Hardanger: satin-stitch kloster blocks, woven bars and dove’s-eye filling in the mesh areas, with Maltese cross filling in the large cut spaces and rows of single faggot stitch making the diamond shapes between the motifs.

A small, poor-quality photo of Swedish cutwork embroidery from around 1840.

The design inspiration was less from modern Hardanger embroidery than from Swedish and Danish white work from the 1840s. 

Here’s a clearer view of the stitchery:

Yellow mat 1 detail
I had to buy a new pair of embroidery scissors, as my old pair were not slim and sharp enough to cut these tiny holes. I used a single strand of stranded cotton for the embroidery. I also had to wear two pairs of spectacles at once in order to see the threads!
Yellow mat 2 part 1I am now starting a second mat. On the right of the photo is the mat in its original state, with the drawn threadwork border. I have just started working antique hemstitch around the inner edge of the border to neaten the raw edge. I will do the same on the outer edge. I’ve also marked out the area to be stitched. I still have to plan and chart the design for this one. I want to use different motifs (I think I shall have hearts on this one – another popular motif from the old Swedish whitework), but I will use the same stitches and the same Maltese cross motifs to be in keeping with the first mat. Maybe in another month or so I shall be able to show you the first completed section.

Stitched Boxes

Posted in Embroidery with tags , , , , on July 22, 2009 by suetortoise

I’ve just added a page to the embroidery section of this blog, showing some of my stitched plastic-canvaswork boxes, with full instructions and charts for making two of them.

Brighton Box lid

This isn’t one of the charted ones. It was my one and only attempt to make an octagonal box. To say it turned out to be something of a challenge to design is a bit of an understatement! But I got there in the end, and it’s my favourite of all my boxes.

I’ve been making boxes for over 25 years. Some, like the once shown above, have been in regular use here at the Tortoise Loft ever since. Although plastic canvas may seem like a ‘cheap and nasty’ base for stitching, only suitable for children, it’s surprisingly durable, and I’ve found it a very inspiring material to work with.

Maybe you’ll get inspired too?