Category Archives: Project – Embroidery

BLACKWORK THREAD THICKNESS AND GROUNDS

I’ve recently had chats with several folk who ask about the number of threads they are supposed to be using when working linear blackwork (fills or the strapwork designs commonly done in double running or back stitch).

I attempt to answer, and the answer isn’t a plain, flat “always.”

There are several factors to consider for counted work. First there is the ground fabric. Some people favor purpose-wovens like Aida, Hardanger, Monks’ Cloth or Anna Cloth. These are made with large, prominent holes for easy counting. They come in a variety of stitch-per-inch (or cm) sizes. They range from 9 to around 22 stitch per inch (aka “count”). The more stitches per inch, the smaller those stitches are.

Other types of grounds are also used, with even weave (or near-even-weave) being less popular than the purpose-wovens. These grounds are flat tabby woven fabrics. They do not have a system of prominent holes for easy counting – to use them the stitcher counts the threads of the weave itself. Most sold specifically for embroidery are more or less true and square, with very close equivalent measurements of the threads running the length of the bolt (the warp), and across the bolt (the weft). The measurement of fineness of weave for these fabrics is expressed as threads-per-inch (or cm), and they can range from around 20 threads-per-inch (tpi) all the way up to 50 tpi or more. Stitchers generally work over a visualized square of 2×2 threads, so a 24 tpi piece of even weave would yield the same 12 stitches per inch as 12-count Aida, but the holes between the threads would be far smaller and less obvious.

Now aberrations exist. Not everyone works over 2×2 threads on even weave, and it is possible to work counted styles on anything you can actually see well enough to count, whether or not the warp thread count is even close to that of the weft. But in general, the ground cloth world splits into purpose-woven/larger more prominent holes; and (near) even weave/smaller, less evident holes.

On to thread.

It’s all over the map. The most common thread used today is standard 6-ply embroidery floss, but there are hundreds of other options. And even plain old embroidery floss is NOT uniform. Not even if they are of the same fiber. For example, DMC and Anchor cotton flosses have very slight differences in ply thickness, with the DMC (most of the time) being ever so slightly thicker than the Anchor. And even within a line, there can be variation because different colors take up dye differently, or because of visual impact of the color used (a dark thread will often appear heavier than one of a lighter color, even if there is no actual difference between them). And if you begin comparing across fiber types/spin types even more complications ensue – One ply of DMC cotton 6-ply is thicker than one ply of Au Ver a Soie six-ply silk, for example.

Here are three examples on even weave (please excuse me for not having Aida samples to hand – I don’t use it.)

First, here is an example of 32-count even weave linen (16 stitches per inch), worked with two strands of a six-ply silk – a small lot product produced by a boutique hand-dyer. Note that the individual stitches are about as thick as the ground cloth’s weave. They fill the holes into which they are stitched completely, and in fact are a bit jammed up into them, making intersections just a bit muddy and tight:

Here is that same ground, worked using just one ply of the same thread used in the previous sample.

You can see that the stitched thread is significantly thinner than the ground cloth’s weave, and that corners and angles are sharper. But the stitching thread still fills the holes, and doesn’t “rattle around” in them. There is another difference – the stitching doesn’t look as even. It’s harder to achieve a uniform appearance with skinny threads, but the difference that shows up in extreme close-up is less evident at normal viewing distance.

Which is better? It depends. One or two threads are both suitable for use with this fabric. Do I want a light and lacy effect? Do I want something darker and more strident? Should I accent the close, dense and angular aspect of a design (as on the left), or should I try to bring out the curves and delicacy (on the right)?

By contrast with these two balanced examples, there’s the piece I am working on right now. I am working the black bit with one strand of standard DMC 6-ply cotton floss. It’s about 14 stitches per inch (28 threads per inch).

Obviously the count on this stuff is skew. It’s not true even weave. Were it so the enmeshed ovals would present more like circles. But it’s close enough so stitched-it-will-be. Look closely at the size of the thread and the holes in the weave. Even though the black thread is slightly thinner than the fabric’s threads (like the lacy sample above) – look at it in comparison to the gaping holes between the fabric’s threads. It’s tiny and spindly. It’s lost. It wobbles. Corners are extremely difficult to keep square, angles are being pulled, and the threads that make up the design do not present in nearly as neat rows as the previous example. This same ground, with two plies of DMC? Much better looking:

In this case, I would advise AGAINST using this particular ground with only one ply of standard floss. It’s holes are too big. I’ll finish out my black interlace mask pieces, but I won’t be using a single on this stuff again.

And mixing thicknesses? It’s a great tool. Jack Robinson – the UK’s Blackwork Patron Saint (now of blessed memory) – was a strong advocate for both historical and modern pieces that mixed thread thicknesses.

Here are a couple of examples of doing so, from my own work. I find it of special use for giving modern-style voided pieces a lighter background touch, although I have also used it to de-emphasize veining inside particularly complex leaves on non-voided work.

First: In addition to using a different background pattern for each, the yellow ground on the left is done with one strand of DMC floss, and the yellow ground on the right, with two so you can see the density.

Second: Foreground and background in the same color, but the foreground is worked with two strands, and the background with one.

Now how does this work out on Aida? Again, I apologize for not having samples to hand. I don’t use it. The reason why I don’t is that I find the holes to be a visual distraction that take away from the presentation of the work as a whole. I’ve seen magnificent stitching on Aida, and I throw no shade on those who prefer it. But to me those holes can be way too big for the thread choices many people use. Like my wobbly sample above, the threads have too much play, and even tension without distortion at the corners or avoiding jaggy lines can be more difficult to control because the holes are big compared to the stitching thread.

For myself and my own work aesthetic, I prefer a well-stuffed hole (sometimes bordering on over-stuffed), and select my threads accordingly. One strand on Aida? I’d suggest two. Or three if it’s 12 or 14 count. But as in all things, my practice is not a yardstick by which you should measure your own preferences.

Look closely at your product. Try to understand why the threads behave as they do. Are you happy with your stitching? Think about your design goals. Even if you are interpreting a pattern by someone else there is plenty of scope in there for your own design choices. Thread thickness and proportion to the ground and to the size of the holes are just more variables you can play with to make any piece visually distinctive and uniquely yours.

Remember my family’s latke rules. Every family’s latkes are different, and every family’s latkes are the best. The same goes for stitching.

MASKS AND DOODLES

I continue on with the mask project. I’ve finished two sides for the first one, and have started (and am well into) the second.

Here are the two green sides:

And here’s the red one, in process:

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t cut them apart yet. I want to do the red mask, and possibly one in black before I do that. There’s very little room between layouts on my ground cloth, and if I were to separate the pieces it would be difficult to stitch on the remaining scraps. So I continue.

Another thing that’s obvious is that I’ve made big mistakes on both. I’ve “colored outside the lines” on both the blue and red pieces. But it doesn’t matter one bit. My work plan is to finish all my decorative stitching, then run each mask piece around several times on my sewing machine before I cut them out (oh, for a serger!). The machine stitching will help fix the embroidery in place and give some stability to the rather ravely edges of the ground cloth, and the overage will land on the literal “cutting room floor.” The nice, fixed edges in turn will make it easier to stitch the fancy bits to their linings – two or three layers of tightly woven high count 100% cotton percale. The easy-count fabric may be just right for counted work, but has almost no value as a protective layer. I’ll depend on that percale to keep me safer.

Now on the designs I used. Both are from my latest freebie book Ensamplario Atlantio II. The blue mask with the chain like interlaces is Design #195 in that book. And yes – I chose it for that design’s visual allusion to knightly mail. It’s a straightforward implementation of the design as shown, but flipped left/right for the two complementary sides of the mask.

The second is also from the same book – Design #191. But in the book it’s presented as a strip design, useful for borders. I wanted to use it slightly differently, so I played.

The original:

The design at the left below is the most obvious way to make a full repeat. Yes, we can quibble about mating up the column ends so that there’s no blank line between, but that’s inconsequential. The strong verticals and horizontals are the most prominent feature. It’s a very regimented and in spite of the embellishments quite a forbidding layout, looking a lot like a Victorian era cast iron fence, or the bars of a very fancy jail cell.

By contrast look at the one on the right. It’s the same major design element, just shifted over one-half repeat, so that the large flower lozenge aligns with smaller two-bud cross. It has a different energy. It’s exactly as dense as the bit on the left in terms of stitching, but it looks lighter, more energetic, and more open. I preferred its movement, and the greater play it gives to the diagonals.

Those red bits in both? Just ways to visually unite what are clearly strips, to make a more melded all-over look.

Never being one to let well enough alone, I note that there’s ample space to play with this. For example, take the original repeat (black), rotate it, and add a couple of design elements. Most notably that Green Man that Ann and Lois spotted lurking in the original.

I’d stitch this up in one color, or if I used two – not as shown (that’s just to illustrate the old and new parts). I’d probably use the second color for the Green Man’s face, the larger flower sprigs at the center lines, and possibly the stand-alone motif in the middle. And this bit goes into my bin for further refinement and eventual release in Ensamplario Atlantio III (why stop at two?)

Finally – this is just a long and drawn out way to say “GO DOODLE!” While this example a bit overelaborate, the core idea is to take a design element and use it as a springboard to creativity. Pull out those drawing pads, sheets of graph paper, drafting software platforms, or needlework-specialty sketchers, and have at it. It’s fun. I promise!

CHARTING

I’ve gotten some recent feedback about the way I chart my designs – both positive and negative. However, the oddest feedback was from a couple of people who couldn’t put their finger on what I was doing different, or why. I attempt to explain

First off, I thank long-time Needlework Pal Kathryn for letting me use a snippet of her recently released redaction of a Lipperheide design. Because this design is so difficult to work out, I am using her stellar rendition as a “poster child” for a complex design drafted out using standard tools. Kathryn uses Pattern Maker by Hobbyware to chart. It produces a standard grid, and is largely intended for cross stitch. But with a a bit of work its outlining feature can be used to depict linear stitching (back stitch or double running). With even more tweaking those outlines can be made thicker so they read better against the background grid. Here’s a snippet from a chart she recently released.

In the chart above, each little gridded square represents one “unit” for the stitcher. That unit is most properly worked as a single stitch, and depending on the chosen ground cloth can cover one prominent square of Aida or Monk’s cloth, or a count of anywhere from one to four threads of an evenweave (or near evenweave) simple tabby ground. Work over 2×2 threads of evenweave is the most common.

By contrast, here’s the same snippet, more or less, in my own drafting method:

In my method, instead of showing the background grid, I show dots – the “holes” of the ground cloth. If one is working with Aida or Monks Cloth, each hole corresponds to a hole on the fabric. If working with evenweave, the dots represent the spots where a needle would plunge (every 2×2 threads, 3×3 threads, whatever the stitcher chooses to work). I eliminate the grid entirely. The lines that make up the pattern are broken into direct representations of the individual stitches to be taken. I also have the option of flood-filling the background to indicate an area to be overstitched if a voided effect is desired, without obscuring the “counting dots” of the ground (the grey area on the left).

Quick aside: Here are the three types of grounds, but the samples are not to scale since Monks Cloth usually has fewer stitches per inch or cm than does Aida. Note though that both purpose-woven grounds have very prominent holes, and on each stitches are generally worked over 1×1 unit. Evenweave by contrast is undifferentiated, and stitches can be taken over any number of threads.


Aida

Monks Cloth

Evenweave

As far as I know, I’m the only one who uses the dot/line method of charting. I devised it initially in 1990 for The New Carolingian Modelbook, (released in ’95) and I’ve stuck to it ever since. Yes, it’s different. And for people who are VERY used to the standard grid – my method may be difficult to get used to. But I do think it is an improvement on legibility and a reduction in visual clutter.

One thing I’ve toyed with is instead of using shading to indicate areas to be covered in voiding, using it instead with a color to emphasize the count, for the folks who like to baste guide lines onto their ground, to assist in keeping their place. That would look something like this:

I don’t particularly care for the checkerboard look though – I find it busy and distracting. I think that if anyone is tied to guidelines they are probably better served by printing out the pattern and taking a highlight marker to it, rather than my trying to add that info for everyone.

On my full page graphs, I do indicate the centermost point, and provide margin hashmarks, major ones every 10 units, with minor ones between on the 5s. 5 10 15 20 25 and so on, with the longer major ones on the bold numbers, and the minor smaller ones on the ones in between. But I do not provide the numerals themselves.

How do I go about using my aberrant method? Sadly, it’s not supported by any commercial needlework charting program at either the consumer or professional level. Instead I use a standard open source drafting program – GIMP, and a system of templates and predetermined settings to match those templates. I offer those templates here free on String, along with a detailed tutorial on setting up GIMP and using them (read up from the bottom – the blogging software arranges my lessons in reverse chronological order). One warning – GIMP works on the same layering principle as other advanced drafting programs, assembling finished images from a stack of transparent or semitransparent layers, much the way that cartoon animators build up their on-screen images from stacks of cels. If you’ve used Adobe Illustrator or PhotoShop you will be familiar with that paradigm. If you’ve only used standard needlework charting software you may need to take some time to get used to the concept. But it’s worth it. I may not be able to estimate total thread consumption by color used from my charts (a handy feature of needlework-specific programs), but I have far greater legibility, and no limit to page size or chart scale.

And progress on the current project? I’m about 40% of the way thorough the second side of the first mask. I’ve done a mental flip of the design, too. Not quite mirrored, but enough to complement across the center seam. Thinking of overstitching that center seam with one of the Elizabethan raised plaited stitches, too.

MASK MADNESS

I am working on a couple of things here at String Central. One I can talk about. The other is mysterious and can’t be shown yet.

First – the progress on the masks. First side of the first one about at the half-way point. I had to take a week off from stitching for family reasons.

As anticipated, this early-experiment thread sheds dye, and picking it out leaves smudges. As explained before, I don’t care. These masks are not undying heirlooms of my house. They will bleed and spread dye during wash anyway. And I think that once that happens, the effect will be interesting.

The pencil outline you see barely traced onto the cloth is for a mask of this style:

The source of the pattern is the two-tie fitted variant published in the New York Times, back in March.

UPDATE:  The link above appears to lead to a page that’s behind the New York Times paywall now.  But fear not!  They in turn got their design from FreeSewing.org,  The edition of the design The Times  posted nests three sizes on one printable PDF page, a pretty standard approach for sewing patterns.  But since their original issue in March, FreeSewing has expanded the range of sizes for their design.  If you click here, you’ll go to a page that lists a full range, from toddler to men’s ultra, plus how-to directions.  More sizes for sure, but still the same basic pattern I used. 

I’ve made quite a few of these for family and friends. It’s a bit more complicated than the pleated kind, but it fits us better. I make the largest size for adults (what in the update is now called Men’s Large), and use two or three layers of tightly woven 100% cotton percale (well washed).  I substitute a long double-folded strip of the same fabric for the ribbon ties called for in the original pattern directions – mostly for durability in the wash.  Precision isn’t important for the ties – I cut a long strip on the grain (not bias) – about 5 to 6 feet long and about 1.5 to 2 inches wide (152 to about 183 cm long, and about 3.8 to 4.5 cm wide).  I iron it in half, folded down the center of the strip (parallel with the long side), then iron the cut edges to the center fold.  Then I sew down the entire length of the long strip, an cut it into four equal pieces for the tie.

The blue flowered one above is sewn from the last remnant of the sheet set I took off to college in 1974. I had this print in red and blue, with a matching comforter. Over time the set became curtains, tote bags, cushion covers, baby carriers and crib furnishings. Ever dwindling in size, and picked apart for reuse multiple times, I had just enough left for several masks.

The fabric on which I am stitching the fancy design is no where near tight enough to provide effective coverage, so it will be a top, decorative layer over a double thickness of the standard high-count bedsheet percale.

My ground cloth has four two-unit sets traced onto it (each mask has a left and right side, seamed together at the center). I intend to stitch as many as I have the patience to do, but not cut them out until all I will be making are complete. But the loose weave and the embroidery both pose problems. I could cut veeerrrryyyy carefully to avoid nicking the stitching, but even if I did, the edges of the rather coarsely woven ground would ravel either during assembly or more probably, when the things are washed between uses.

So I am deliberately stitching past the half-inch seam line, right up to the cutting line (my pencil mark). The seaming line is a half inch (about 13mm) inside the cutting line. That half inch is the seam allowance – the bit you see turned inside at the seams in most sewn items.

Before I cut these apart I will throw the entire piece onto my Ancient Elna sewing machine, and stay-stitch all the way around each mask piece. I will probably sew multiple rows of reinforcement, but all within the seam allowance area. Then I will cut out the individual pieces and assemble the finished masks. The stay-stitching should secure both the ground cloth and the stitching. Since the reinforced area will be turned under into the seam, it won’t be visible. And I may even go a bit further and apply one of the non-fray fixatives sometimes used to reinforce stress points in applique or quilting. But I’m not sure about that yet – I never use the stuff and I am a bit wary of how it will survive laundering.

Will this work? Stay tuned! Eventually you will find out.

HARSH FINISH, SOFT BEGINNING

Setting a new overland speed record for completion, I offer my Harsh Language piece.  I began it on 22 August, and finished on 30 August.   Eight days.  Lightning fast, especially considering that I only stitch for an average of an hour and a half per day (more on weekend days, less midweek).  Here it is in all its glory.  I’ve redacted not the offending verb but the dedication, because as I’ve said before, the recipient wishes to remain anonymous.

harsh-finish

I did have fun playing with the wool.  It was much thinner and more tightly spun and cleanly finished (read non-fuzzy) than tapestry/needlepoint wools, and a joy to use.

In addition to the hints I offered up before, I would add that even with the shorter length, care must be taken to let the needle and strand spin freely, in order to counteract the twist imposed during the stitching process.  That twist can loosen the spin of the wool strand enough to denature it to the point of shredding.  You can see a couple of heavy stitches in the piece, where I was nearing the end of the strand, and the thread had “bloomed” but I kept going.

And yes, the weave of the ground wasn’t quite proportionally even.  I don’t remember where this stuff came from – purchased retail, found at a yard sale, acquired as a gift – but it’s been in my stash easily since 1996, and has a yellowed selvage edge to prove it.  But aside from that flappy edge (no where near this stitching), it was sound.  It’s probably a cotton/linen blend.  You can see the skewing in this detail.  Horizontal stitches are just a tad wider than verticals, and diagonals are not 45-degrees.

harsh-close

What’s next?

Well I pulled out this remnant, and used about a third of it on this little piece.  The remainder will go to become decorative outer layers for some masks.  This open weave fabric is pretty useless as any sort of barrier, so I will line the masks with two or more layers of nice, tight 100% cotton 300-count pillowcases (retired from their prior duty).  They are navy blue.

I will be using more thread provided by Stealth Apprentice for beta-testing.  It’s luscious silk, dyed in one of her early indigo vat experiments. The color of the thread ranges from a nice deep denim down to Wedgewood, and was the child of serendipity, not a planned effort to produce a variegated.

20200901_073507

I admit I put this hank off because it posed some minor problems.   It’s a multi-strand floss, but during color processing it became rather matted and tangled (it was before she learned better methods to secure the hanks during dyeing), and the indigo itself does crock quite a bit, leaving blue fingers and traces on the ground as it is stitched.  However this blue was an very early experiment long before she went retail with her products, so all is forgiven.

To deal with the matting I’m using the full strand and not trying to separate the plies. To tame the tangle, instead of trying to wind it I cut the skein in one place, and looped it over a stick.  I’m teasing out strands one by one at the loop, and using them in full “cut length.”

There can be no mistakes with this stuff – it does leave very evident marks if picked out.  And I fully expect the color to migrate onto the backing during washing.  But that’s o.k., too.  I think the look will be quite interesting after haloing.  The navy inner layers may peek through the somewhat loose weave and camouflage some of that halo.

Challenges considered, I am very glad I saved this thread until just the right project appeared.  This piece will certainly change over time as it is subjected to my ungentle care. Masks after all need vigorous cleaning.  The blue may bloom onto the ground cloth.  Such leeched color may dissipate over subsequent washes, or the threads themselves might do a old-jeans fade.  All are anticipated and none are unwelcome.  So while the thread might not have been optimal for some other more formal projects, it’s spot on perfect for this one.

I’ve got enough fabric for at least four masks.  Possibly five.  I’m not sure if I will do them all in this blue, or I’ll play with other threads – either monochrome or in a wild mix (I think there’s only enough blue for two, anyway).  I don’t know if I’ll stick to all-over designs.  I might for example doodle up one in an inhabited blackwork design – the scrolling flowers with heavy outlines, with patterned or speckled fillings.  I’ll probably skip metal threads and spangles though, due to the laundering requirement.  Or I may do one with scattered, themed spot motifs – insects, for example.  Or I may do several “zones” and use different fillings in each.  Or I’ll work band designs on the diagonal.  The possibilities are endless, and (sadly) I don’t see the need for masks going away any time soon.

Will I make all four? How will they play out? Will something else catch my easily distractable eye, and I’ll do that instead? Will I keep these or give them away?  Stay tuned.  (And they say needlework has no excitement, mystery, or suspense.)

Oh.  And there is no “bad” thread.  There’s a perfect project for just about anything that can be used.  I love this blue silk and I will enjoy stitching with every inch.

REVISITING THE STUPID CUPIDS

Remember this sampler I completed early last year?

cupids-big

I went on at length about the rather goofy looking cupid strip at the bottom, and about the cousins of the middle strip, but I never discussed the top strip – the cupid and oak branch meander that includes the poor little guy being menaced by the lion.

I haven’t seen this cupid strip in any modelbook (yet).  But I’ve found several examples of it in museum collections.  My rendition is more or less a  “moving average” of all of them, and will be in my ever-forthcoming T2CM.

This design is notable because of the multiple ways in which it has been rendered.  Here are five.  I’ve got another two someplace in my notes.  When I find them I’ll update this post.

St-Gallen-cupid

First, there’s the standard single strip with edging representation above, marked as 16th century, Italian – double running in silk, in red – one of the most common colors for this type of work. It’s in the St. Gallen Textilmuseum in Switzerland, and can be found in their on-line collection, Accession 23760 (you probably will have to search for the object by accession number because their links are dynamic and break).

double-cupids

This is the same pattern doubled and turned into a frame. It’s also sourced as 16th century, Italian.   Note that the design is butted, not mitered, with an interesting truncated bit to fill in the left and right sides. There is no accessible link for this piece at the source I stumbled on – 1st Dibs Antiques, but that appearance was within the past year. All I have is a screen cap, and the photo is long gone from the sales site.  However complications ensue.  It or something practically identical was offered at Bonham’s site several years ago. Thistle Threads did an excellent write-up of the Bonham’s offering 2016.  (She’s got some up close photos, too).

herm-cupid

The blue sample above is from the Hermitage Museum, It’s dated 16th to early 17th century, Italian, double running, with the voided ground worked in squared filling.  It’s accession number is T-2799.  (If the link breaks, search there for “Bad Spread” (sic).)  This is the piece on which my rendition is most closely based.

met-cupids

The black and white image above is hard to make out, but it’s clearly the same cupids, done in polychrome AND with a worked ground.  It’s not really voided because the foreground isn’t left plain or minimally adorned.  There’s not much elaboration on the Metropolitan Museum’s page, but it is attributed as Italian, of the early 17th century. It’s accession 68.145.6.  I hope some day they go back and take another, better photo.

And lastly, there’s this one.  The most unusual of them all.  Here is our friend (blindfolded for a change), done using red silk outlines, but then infilled with couched gold metal thread.

gold-cupid

This example is in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.  Its citation is Band, 16th century; silk, metallic yarn on linen; H x W: 110 x 90 cm (43 5/16 x 35 7/16 in.); Gift of Richard C. Greenleaf; 1954-167-2

Now.  Why post all of these versions?  First, because they are interesting.  Second, to refute a commonly held belief that there is only ONE right way to execute these designs.  Stitchers took the same base pattern and used it in many individual ways.  Monochrome, polychrome.  Plain ground, voided, or totally overstiched. There is no canon. 

Be historically faithful and execute historical designs in any of the myriad styles contemporary with the base pattern.  It would be very difficult to make the case that any one of those treatments was never used. Or take the same pattern and reinterpret it using modern styles, scale, or materials.  There are no Embroidery Police who enforce historical precedent over individual expressive creativity. 

Which is a long-winded way of saying that if a pattern sings to you, just go for it.

WOOLLY THOUGHTS

 

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.

COMPLETE!

All stitching is finished on my bony boi piece! Next it goes off to the framers. This one deserves a nicer finish than I can do myself.

And having played Thread Chicken, this is all I have left.

First sincere thanks again to Paula from Austin, who staged an intervention and shared her own stash. Since the thread I was using is not generally available, her generosity was key to this finish.

And a close-up of one of the “islands,” designed and added at last minute because the composition needed them:

Let’s see… Lessons learned. There are always lessons learned.

First and foremost, the obvious one – double check thread quantities, color numbers and dye lots. While I had two large hanks of multiple skeins of red, both with the same color number, it’s now obvious that one of them was either mis-numbered or a different dye lot. Or perhaps a lot older than the other. They didn’t match. Not only were the colors different (especially in natural light), the thickness of the individual plies also varied, with the “bad” stuff being just a tiny bit heavier. I ended up marling together the last of the “good” color (abetted by Paula’s donation), with the “bad” stuff, and making do.

I tossed caution to the wind in my hurry to get started and did not hem the edge of this cloth. But I did plan an extra generous blank area around the entire piece for later framing, so this ended up not mattering. Other than the annoying shed of edge threads, of course. I have to force myself to edge-control discipline. Hem, hem, hem.

I didn’t grid the piece prior to stitching. Yes, I know others do and find it helpful, but aside from marking my center north-south, and east-west with a line of basting thread, I don’t really feel the need. I went “around the world” on this one. I started the center top and continuing the border counter-clockwise, and had no problems mating up perfectly when I joined back up with the start after my journey. I proof constantly, and I admit a fair bit of picking out and re-doing to stay on count and true.

You CAN stitch outdoors in high winds. Hand held hoops work better than flat frames that can act as a sail when it really starts blowing. One of those zippered clear plastic cases that new sheets and blankets come in helps, especially if it has an inside pocket where the product info used to be. That works great for keeping a chart clean, dry, and away from the wind; and the zippered part is great for containing your threads and other essentials away from sunscreen and salt spray, (and holding the project between working sessions, too). You can even use two magnets to keep place on the chart without removing it from the pocket. Tethering your snips with a retractable badge holder works nicely. But at the beach on on very humid days, watch out for the damp! Some threads may crock or leech dye.

In a rare departure for me (although more common if I include text), I graphed out the entire project. I wanted the corners to miter nicely, which means I had to compensate at the centers of each side (12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock as you go around). That meant I had to lay out my design against actual count, so I could fudge the centers. And I did the fudging on graph, rather than on the fly as I stitched.

But having drafted out the entire thing doesn’t mean I stuck entirely to the pattern I had drawn out. Those snails… My original stuck to the small twig and leaf of The Dance, the skeleton pattern I shared. I picked out that first twig and improvised a snail, then kept using the little guy on every repeat after. I also altered the plume flower slightly, taking out a couple of extra bars inside the outline that muddied the design. I did NOT go back and rip out the first two plumes. Those bars are among the mistakes I left in.

I will probably not be going back and ripping out that one very red plume, where I discovered the inadequacy of my “bad” batch of thread. Another difference batch to batch is that the “bad” stuff crocks like crazy, and oozes dye when it’s damp. If I get up close and personal I can tell which bits I stitched at the beach or during our weeks of high humidity and summer heat, just from the halos around the stitched bits. I will NOT be washing this piece. Ever. And I will not be perturbing already-stitched bits, lest I exacerbate the haloing.

Now on to my next piece. I have promised a rendition of my Harsh Language design to a good friend who is a virus-survivor. This friend prefers to remain anonymous.

This should be a quick stitch after Lucus Orthai Ta, and I will use it to test out some new threads received from The Stealth Apprentice. She asks me to trial run some lichen-dyed wools that she dyed herself and is currently evaluating as a potential product for her Etsy shop. I am happy to oblige, doubling the value of the new piece.

And again because someone WILL ask about the meaning of the motto on this one…

The Resident Male is an aspiring science fiction and fantasy writer. He’s getting attention for Fractured Symmetry, the first book in a series featuring a classic detective pair – a grumpy, reclusive genius, and an hands-on action assistant. Only in this case, the genius is Terendurr the Blackstone, an imposing alien; and the assistant is Blair MacAlister, a woman you wouldn’t want to trifle with. The mysteries allow fascinating trips into off-world cultures (his universe is populated by many species, each with their own ethics, biases, strengths and weaknesses). He’s working on a second volume of stories right now. No spoilers – this phrase is a motto of a group that figures prominently in those stories. It’s not in any Earthly language, and translates roughly to “Life’ll kill ya.” So as his #1 fangrrl, I made this piece up for him. Yes, a bit quixotic I admit, but I do believe that he will find his audience, and I won’t be the only fan for long.

ROUND THE BEND

Yes! I have successfully rounded the corner, and reached out a tendril that confirms that the entire piece is spot on count and accurate to the repeat.

Now it’s just a matter of filling in that little bit at the upper right.

Of course, now I may go in and add something on either side of “TA” just to balance out the design. Still thinking on that, but in any case, the finish line is palpably near. Here’s the proof of alignment “tendril” – the inner border along the top edge fits perfectly, mating with the work I laid down at the very start of my journey around the edge (the bony boi and the border above his head, at the hoop’s right edge).

No photo description available.

To put this in perspective for my non-stitching pals, this rendezvous is like marking a chalk X in front of your house, standing on it then putting on a blindfold and dancing wildly around the block nonstop until you decide you’ve gone far enough; then taking off the blindfold, looking down and realizing you have arrived exactly back on your point of departure.

Why not so much progress this week past? It’s been hot. We got back from our week on the beach in the middle of the heat wave. Like many in the northeast US, we have no air conditioning. Sitting under a halogen work lamp in the evening was more than I could contemplate in temps of 85 to 100 deg F (29.4 to 37.8 C), with high humidity.

I’ve been marling the offending brighter red (glaringly odd third inner plume flower up from the bottom of the right inner border) with thread in the color (or closer to the color) I have been using. By using one strand of “good” and one strand of “less optimal” together major color discontinuities are not so evident. I may go back and replace that offending plume flower. Or not. The “bad” red seems to crock considerably more than the other batches, and removal will leave a very evident halo.

Before I forget, extra special thanks go out to new stitchpal Paula from Austin, Texas. She read about my thread shortage problem and dug into her own stash, sending me oddments of various colors in and around the values I needed. Her generosity is what has enabled me to pursue the marled thread strategy.

Paula, I truly would not be able to finish this piece to my satisfaction without you help. My gratitude is eternal. When such things can happen again, the next time we are down that way visiting family, I reserve the right to drag you out for a special treat!

THE CLASSIC PROBLEM

Too much stitching left to do. Too little thread. With about a quarter of the stitching remaining I have a problem.

I am using thread I brought back from India. I found it in a shop in the old shopping district in Pune. They specialized in crafting materials, especially beads, pre-embroidered pieces, knitting yarns, and other goodies. But they had a few skeins of what looked like silk floss in one of the display cases. I pointed at it and asked the shopkeeper if he had more. He sent a little boy up into the storerooms, and he came back with a very dusty and crumbling cardboard box full of odds and ends. All of the same type of thread (which turned out to be “art silk” – rayon) but all of very limited quantity. I picked out all of what remained in non-pastel colors, including several multi-skein hanks of deep red, and bought it all, for an astonishingly low price.

As you can see there’s a pile of crimson there. What remains of that pile now is much less –

The wound bobbin in the middle is what I’ve been using (with a caveat). It’s Cifonda Art Silk color number 145. So is the hank on the left. The hank on the right is color number 144. It’s in the same continuum, but a click lighter. At the bottom is flaming cherry red 530, not even close.

The caveat on the bobbin? It’s holding two skeins of 145. Underneath is New-145. On top is Old-145. I wound off the new one, then after stitching the bit below, went on a Wild Hunt, and found one last remaining skein of Old-145. You can’t see the difference between them, right? Neither could I until this happened.

I bet you can see it now. Leaf #3 and part of the interlace below it stands out. I stitched it with the New-145. It’s redder, more garnet in tone than the established work. Clearly the same color number, but a different dye lot (even though dye lots are not labeled ). Even if I could get more of this stuff the chance of matching color with my very-well-aged stock is practically nil.

I will finish out as much as possible with my last skein of Old-145. I may or may not pick out this leaf . Still thinking on that… And also thinking on how to finish out the piece using only what I have on hand. Go for New-145? Go lighter with 144? I’ve seen historical pieces whose stitchers faced the same problem and blithely ignored it. Which is what I will end up doing, one way or the other…