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.
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.
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.
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.
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.