I’ve started on a promised project – a rendition of my Harsh Language piece, as a gift for a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. They survived Covid, and made a special request. I honor their determination. The objectionable word has been zealously cropped out of the image below to prevent irritating the easily-offended.
Although this is a small, quick-stitch, simple piece, I couldn’t resist using it for testing and learning. The Stealth Apprentice’s specialty is researching and recreating historical dye recipes – trying them out on yard goods, threads, and yarns. Of late, she’s been working on a group of dyes derived from lichens and mushrooms, with spectacular results. Sometimes when she’s working on a new recipe, she lets me beta-test her end result. I’m supposed to look for handling properties, color-fastness during stitching (crocking on fabric, or reside left on hands), and the like. And I am very happy to oblige. It’s fun to play with new materials and give useful feedback.
We chatted about this project, and Stealth Apprentice suggested a purple, dyed using “an uncertain lichen – probably a Parmotrema species”; and a mustard gold, dyed using “a dyer’s polypore mushroom”. The purple is a deep claret, and the yellow is a sunny mustard. They are equally saturated, so one doesn’t eclipse the other. I had no idea that these hues could come from lichen and inedible mushrooms, both which I will now view with greater respect. The purple is more true to the snippet above than the magenta it looks like on the winder below, but you get the general idea.
Both wools are of the same base stock prior to their color baths. They are of very soft and fine fibers, a single strand of two tightly twisted plies (which cannot be separated), about the thickness equivalent of three plies of standard cotton embroidery floss. They’re more plush and rounder, of course, with the stretch you’d expect from wool.
For this counted project due to fact that the wool thread is more robust than the cottons, silks, and faux-silk (rayons) I usually use, I’ve picked a ground cloth that’s far coarser than ones I usually use. Coarser in that it has fewer threads per inch – not that it’s harsh to the hand. This well aged bit from my stash is about 24 threads per inch, give or take; with slightly more threads per inch on the warp (parallel to the selvage) than the weft (perpendicular to the selvage). Since I’m stitching over two threads, I’m at 12 stitches per inch – big as logs to me since I’m used to working at 18 to 25 stitches per inch. But the result is spot on what’s required if one strand of this wool is used. If I were to double the strands, I’d probably be looking at working at 10 stitches per inch or fewer, probably down around 6-8 stitches per inch for better, less crowded effect.
Working with the wool and how it differs from cotton, silk, and rayon:
- Needle size: Obviously the tiny eye, round point needles I usually use are too thin for this and their eyes are way too small. Instead I’m using a tapestry needle. I think it’s a size 22, but it has been long divorced from any packaging, and has been living in sin with its mismatched fellows in one of my needle cases.
- Needle threading: Even with the larger size needle, threading is still not easy. Wool fuzzes (obviously) and waxing is right out (also obviously). My little bee needle threader is an absolute must for this project.
- Frame: I am using a hoop. The piece is small, so most of the area to be stitched fits inside it. But not for long. Eventually I will need to re-hoop over previously stitched bits. I will try to avoid doing so as much as possible, but right now I don’t have the option of moving this over to a flat frame. If I have to hoop over the letters in particular, I will be covering them with a soft fabric as padding, to prevent crushing or skewing the wool threads. I’d recommend flat frames, slate frames, or scrolling flat frames for countwork in wool, and will make sure to avoid my hoops in the future.
- Thread abrasion: This is much more pronounced in wool than cotton, rayon, or silk. Drawing the fluffy thread through the tiny holes of the ground cloth’s weave does degrade the strand over time. Spare yourself waste, agony, and an uneven appearance on the front – use shorter strands than you would with any other thread. And yes – if I were to be working on Aida or a ground cloth with larger holes, or using a larger needle this would be abated somewhat. But I much prefer the uniform look of a nice, tight even weave ground over the scattered holes presented by the purpose-woven stitching fabrics, so I am bringing this bit of extra work entirely on myself.
- Stitching technique: Even more so than with cotton (the most forgiving), silk, or rayon (the most unruly), wool needs to be worked in double running or back stitch with vertical passes of the needle through the cloth – not with a “sewing” or scooping stitch. Working with one hand in front of the work and the other behind means that care must be taken not to snag the working thread when the needle is returned by the unseen hand. It’s all too easy to pierce the working strand (it’s fuzzy and soft) and create an headache to untangle later.
- Tension: Wool is springy and stretchy. Cotton is not. Silk and rayon are even less elastic than cotton. It’s easy to stitch the less elastic threads quickly, and getting the feel for how tight to snug them up on a nice, taut, hooped ground is relatively quick. Wool by contrast stretches and then bounces back. It’s VERY easy to stitch it too tightly – stretching it as the stitches are formed, only to see it bounce back later when the ground is released from tension. Save yourself a headache and only draw the threads as tightly as it takes to make them lie flat and even, which will be significantly less tight than you are used to with other fibers.
- Ripping back after mistakes: Don’t count on it. The fuzzy nature of the thread makes it far more likely that stitches will pierce those laid down before, rather than slide alongside them. Ripping back will be painstaking, and the thread that’s recovered (if you are able to do it at all) will be seriously damaged by the removal, too much so for invisible difference re-use. Unless it’s just going back one or two stitches, treat mistakes as lost causes and sacrifice the strand. Snip on the front and withdraw the ends from the back to minimize fibers left on the front.
I’ll continue on with this, learning as I go. For all of the differences, I am enjoying working with wool and look forward to doing more of it in the future. I’ll continue to post (fig-leafed) progress on this piece. Like I said – it’s small and will be a quick finish. I’ll have to put it on hiatus for a few days at the end of next week for another obligation, but even with that should have it done and on its way to my convalescent friend well before mid-September.