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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So for those of you who favor seasonal stitchery, here is a suitably spooky present:
The inspiration for Baba Yaga is courtesy of my pal and former co-worker Laura Packer. Laura is a storyteller by trade – an unusual occupation these days, but one she does splendidly. You can sign up for notification of her public tellings at the link above, or you can subscribe for all sorts of creative goodness at her Paetron link.
Laura had sent a much appreciated surprise to me, so I doodled up the main Baba Yaga chicken-leg hut motif in return. She swooned over it, and suggested further additions from the story cycle – the chest with the egg/heart; the fence of bones (I stole my bony boi’s faces for that), the moon, three keys, a cauldron, a forest of briers, wind, a raven; and keys, creepy crawlies and other things in sets of three. I put in as many as I could, adding the motto across the bottom and the dreamer frame (in silhouette, intended to be stitched very densely for added mystery).
When we were both happy, I went final with it. And gave full rights to the design in perpetuity to Laura. She returned the favor by allowing me to post it here.
Please note that this is just a chart – not a full project described in detail. I suggest work in one or two colors on even weave or one of the higher count Aida fabrics, but I do not give thread consumption estimates. Linear elements can be done in double running or back stitch. The silhouette frame can be worked in long armed cross stitch, four sided cross stitch, or plain old cross stitch – your choice. There are gaps in places between the solid dark areas of the silhouette frame and its outline. Feel free to fudge those in with partial stitches if you like. I didn’t want to add visual complication by including the partials. It’s going to be hard enough to count as it is.
I don’t even have an as-stitched example to post (yet). If you beat me to that and feel so inclined, please send a photo and I will showcase it here.
You can download Baba Yaga from my embroidery pattern page (tab above or click here). While I am not charging for the thing, I do release it as “good deed ware.” Subscribe to Laura’s channel, or make a donation/buy a thing/otherwise subsidize the creative professional of your choice.
Artists – and especially face to face performance artists, actors, and musicians – are having a very hard time of it right now. But it’s art that keeps us anchored and sane in times of stress. If you can, please be a true patron and lend a hand. After all, doing good for those touched by the the spirits of creativity can only bring good fortune in return. Often in very unexpected ways. Let me tell you a story…
Lest anyone think I’m on vacation, not so. Yes, we ran away to the beach place this three-day weekend past, but in this work from home era, we worked from there, and prepped the place for our booked guests in compliance with the state COVID-era short term rental requirements.
Still, even though it wasn’t all for fun, on Sunday I did get the chance to stitch on the beach. I adore it, even though the intense sunshine can lead to “white out” conditions on the linen, making thread counting difficult.
As for how far I’ve gotten so far – I’m just starting on the third corner:
Excuse the wrinkles – I don’t iron until the very end.
You can see the diagonal “spine” of the mitered corner. A snail will squeeze itself in underneath the rightmost tumbler’s feet. I will wrap the plume edging up and around the corner, too. You can even see the start of the double border with extra knot on the inner edge of the rising strip-to-be.
I wish I had grand new insights to share on this piece, but being in the home stretch, I’m fresh out. This is also always the most dangerous part of a project for me. I’ve figured out all that’s new, and all that’s left is perseverance – dogged execution of the known until completion. It’s the point where I often wander off to do something novel and interesting, with the promise of new challenges.
So, if you have any questions about working these long repeats, keeping place in them, how to draft them up, or pretty much anything else, feel free to ask. Now’s a good time to engage my attention. And I’ll thank you for keeping me on track and marching in time with my bois.
And we march around the perimeter, making skeleton after skeleton.
I’m just shy of half-way now, and I had to extend a tendril out to that point to make sure that I’m hitting my center mark. And I did!
As you can see comparing the blue line on the photo and the red line on the snippet of my chart, I’m spot on for alignment – not even a thread left or right of my center line.
One question I keep getting is how I maintain my location and ensure everything is in the correct spot without pre-gridding my work (without basting in an extensive set of guidelines to establish larger 10 (or 20) unit location aid across the entire groundcloth). I generally reply, “By proofing against established work,” but that then generates the second question. “How?”
So I attempt to answer.
For the most part I almost never work on fully charted out projects, with every stitch of the piece carefully plotted in beforehand. I compose my own pieces rather than working kits or charts done by others, and as a result I never have a full every-stitch representation as my model. My working method is to define center lines (and sometimes edge boundaries), but I pick strips or fills on the fly, starting them from my established centers, and working from smaller charts that are specific to the particular motif or fill that’s on deck. However, if lettering is involved I am more likely to graph that part out to completion prior to stitching, to ensure good letter and line spacing. (Leading, spacing, and kerning are close to my heart both as someone whose day job deals in documents, and as a printer’s granddaughter.)
For this project I DID prepare a full graph to ensure the centered placement of my very prominent text motto against the frame. I also wanted to miter the corners of the frame (reflect on a 45-degree angle) rather than work strips that butt up against each other, AND I wanted the skeleton repeat to work out perfectly on all four legs of the frame. To do that I had to plan ahead more than I usually do. (Note that the repeat frequency of the accompanying smaller edgings are different from the skeleton strip, so I also had to “fudge” center treatments for them so they would mirror neatly – another reason to graph the entire project).
But even with a full project graph available against which work, I didn’t grid – I worked as I always do, relying on entirely on close proofing as I go along.
The first step is a “know your weaknesses” compensation. To make sure I am on target I almost never extend a single long line ahead of myself, especially not on the diagonal because I make the majority of my mistakes miscounting a long diagonal. Instead I try to grow slowly, never stitching very far away from established bits, so I can make these checks as I work:
- Does the stitching of my new bit align both vertically and horizontally with the prior work? Am I off by as little as one thread? Am I true to grid?
- Is my new bit in the right place? Does the placement of the design element align with what’s been stitched before? For example, in this case, is do the toes of the mirror imaged bois back to back to the pomegranates match in placement in relation to each other and to the bottom of the pomegranate’s leaves?
- Am I working properly to pattern? It doesn’t matter if I am using a small snippet with just the strip design or fill that’s being stitched, a full project chart, or (as I am now) using prior stitching as my pattern – copying what’s been laid down on the cloth. Am I true to my design as depicted?
As I work, I constantly proof in these three ways – checking to make sure that my work is true. And if I discover a problem, I trace back to see where I went wrong, and I ruthlessly eliminate the mistake. For the record – there’s nothing to be gained by letting off-count stand in the hope of compensating later. Trust me – you’ll forget, mistakes will compound on mistakes, and you’ll end up wasting even more time, thread, and psychic energy on the eventual fix.
I hope this explains what I mean by proofing as you go. I know for most of the readers here, this will be second nature, and they won’t have thought of it as a disciplined approach, but for newer stitchers the old maxim “Trust but verify” should become a mantra. Verify, verify, verify. The sanity you save will be your own.
Finally, for Felice, who doubted I was using double running stitch for such a complex project in spite of the in process photos that showed the dashes of half-completed passes, here’s the reverse.
Yes, I do use knots for work with backs that won’t be seen, but I do it carefully so that the knots don’t pull through. Point and laugh if you must, but I reserve the right to ignore you.
See this egg?
It’s the one on my face. And deservedly so.
A quick recap:
- I’m working a project on skew count linen – with a different number of threads in the warp and weft. – Confirmed, that’s a fact.
- If a design is worked on such a ground, it will be compressed – shorter in the direction that has the higher count, and stretched out in the direction that has the lower count. – Again confirmed. That’s also true.
- I counted my threads, and planned out a design that featured “padding” on to compensate for anticipated compression, so that the difference between the proportions of the strips going across the top of my work, and down the side of it would not be so evident. – Yup. I did that, and I like the extra wide knot strip that I doodled up to use there.
Major snafu. I did not properly record my count/measurements and reversed them, attributing the denser count to the wrong direction. Instead of the new strip ending up with squatter, flatter skeletons after I rounded the corner, close comparison shows the new bois to be leaner and lankier than the ones previously stitched. Even more embarrassing, I did not notice the problem until I had a fair bit worked up.
So it goes.
Obviously I have a good lesson-learned on this one to add to my roster of mistakes as teaching moments. And I’m not going to go back and rip anything out. (I may have a second lesson on finite stash supply vs. thread consumption rates to painfully experience, too.) So my piece stays as is, and I get to look like an idiot in front of everyone. While this isn’t going as planned, and I did make a giant mistake – it’s not totally fatal. I declare myself just a tiny bit sadder, but wiser, and will keep soldiering on.
You may point and laugh now.
The repeat on my Dance strip and corner is a bit unusual, and seems to be causing far more problems for stitchers than I anticipated. I designed it so it could be used both as a straight repeat and as a mirrored repeat, but that appears to be the source of the confusion. I’ve talked about the types of repeats and symmetries before, but I will recap briefly.
Here are some basic types of strip-pattern repeats:
- A straight repeat is one in which each unit is repeated “as is”. It is not flipped or mirrored, but marches on like the first line of Rs.
- A mirror (aka bounce) repeat works like the second line of Rs. There are two center lines, and the design mirrors itself between them.
- A meander, the design elements both mirror and flip.
- One-directional meander with mirroring but no flipping.
- One directional meander with flipping but no mirroring. (No example to hand).
- A tumble, the design elements rotate around a center point. (No example to hand).
There are other ways to construct a symmetrical repeat that elaborate on the tumble, introducing further mirroring or flipping, however I will say only the first four methods above are represented in European embroidery styles prior to around 1700, with types #1-#3 being by far the most common, and #4 being rare, but not unknown. And I can’t lay hands on a good example of #5. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey to determine when tumbles (#6) or their more complex derivatives begin to manifest but I can’t say that I recall seeing them on a museum artifact in the time range I pursue.
I also note that patterns can also include more than one type of symmetry, and layered symmetry pieces can become quite complex. There’s more on that in the earlier (and longer) post on repeats I mentioned before.
Now back to the pattern at hand. Here is the basic unit that makes up The Dance.
Notice that the three bony bois cavort in a playground defined by the center of the framing pomegranates. This unit can be combined to make a strip in one of two ways – As a straight repeat (#1), or as a bounce repeat (#2)
I’ve added the blue arrows to help identify the difference. Look at the fellow lolling on the ground. Above, he’s always facing the same direction. Below, he’s facing his mirror image.
To have a Type #2 bounce repeat that uses THE SAME framing device for both bounce points is at best extremely rare. Most use different devices as the two separators, like this little dolphin repeat from my ever-forthcoming book.
Now. What does this mean? Less authenticity, but more versatility. My current project uses the Dance centered around a single project axis. I use mirroring at ONLY the very center of my piece, with runs of straight repeat left and right until they meet up with a corner. Why? Why not? I liked the look:
But if I were working around a piece with a fixed circumference, like on a strip that was to be seamed into cuff, and there was not room for an even number of repeats, I might appreciate the ability to use an odd number of repeat units (along with type #1 symmetry), to better fit the area to be stitched.
I hope this helps.
Finally. After nine long years since the design challenge was issued and I responded with a pattern for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a finish has been spotted in the wild.
Special thanks to stitcher Zelda Doyle, who had fun with the thing, then posted the result on Facebook and made my day. This photo is hers, of her own work, and reproduced here by permission. The chart for His Noodly Glory is here.
Have you done something fun with one of the pattern children and wish to add to our Gallery? Please let me know.
Continuing on and finishing up the parade of past completions, misses, and items still languishing unfinished in the ever growing midden next to my favorite sewing chair, we arrive in near recent times.
In the last post in this series I mentioned sending Elder Spawn off to college with a bit of nagging to hang on her wall for continued parental admonishment. Well, it worked, so I did it again for the younger in 2015.
The request for the Trifles sampler included a laundry list of relevancies, including an overall steampunk theme, with nods to anime and Dr. Who, and at least one dragon or unicorn. I found a relevant precept in Book of Five Rings, then hit all the bases, and along the way playtested a lot of the fillings in Ensamplario Atlantio, plus many that ended up in Ensamplario Atlantio II. I particularly like the soot sprites caught in the mechanism, quoted from Spirited Away. This one was done with some of the faux silk floss I found while we were in India, on 38 count linen/cotton blend. It’s finished as a hanging banner.
Lessons Learned: This was the piece that taught me the joys of beeswax. The “art silk” is very fine but also very unruly, and being quite old when I bought it, can be friable. Waxing held it together, eliminated differential feed of the two plies, and kept me from piercing it prematurely as I stitched with one hand above and one hand below the work.
In 2015 we had an extended stay guest – a friend of Younger Spawn who spent the senior year of high school with us prior to graduation. She needed a send-off inspiration, too. But instead of imposing parental nagging on her, I asked her for a favorite saying she might want on her wall. She suggested this Grace Hopper classic. More tryouts of T2CM patterns ensued. This was also done in the art silk I used for the Trifles sampler, but on 32 count linen/cotton blend.
Lessons Learned: I used this one to experiment with color and open-voiding (squares, diagonals or zig-zags instead of solid fills or meshy stitch). It’s all double running, and like most of my pieces, wasn’t designed for dual sided display, so the color changes didn’t mean that I had to bury all of those ends. I rather like the playful brights I used on this one.
Shhh. But the secret is already out. In 2016 I took my first apprentice. Although my blackwork journey had been recognized inside the SCA with a Laurel award (the group’s high honor for achievement in the arts), it predated the establishment of apprentices as a concept (kind of like squires to knights, but not for martial prowess). But neither my apprentice nor I are good at formal statements, so we kept it under wraps and very free-form. Instead of giving her a green belt, I gave her a long strip of linen, with a belt embroidered at one end – the idea being that she could use the thing to experiment with stitching, painting, printing, dyeing, whatever. I think this is on 32 count linen in Au Ver a Soie silk, but I don’t remember. She’s gone on to make me quite proud of her explorations and achievements in historical arts and sciences (but we are still quiet about the whole thing).
Lessons Learned: While the plain old cross stitch that made up the lettering is not double sided, the belt mostly is. I learned once more what a pain in the neck burying all those ends can be.
In 2017, tired of having my hair blowing in my eyes in the wind and bored with bandannas, I decided to make two forehead cloths – a kind of kerchief popular in the 1500s and 1600s. And yes, I wear them with modern clothing, not re-enactor wear.
In a happy coincidence Stealth Apprentice was busy dyeing embroidery silks with historically accurate ironwood dyes, and asked me to try them out to see if texture, “stich-ability,” strength, or colorfastness in the wash were issues. I’m happy to report that her threads were prime. Both pieces have been through the wash multiple times, and both still look as good as they day they were finished. I made two cloths (only one pictured complete with ties), and while I was at it and abhor wasted space, I finished out the 32 count fabric with a doodle sampler of “Persist.” All of these designs are in T2CM. The darker triangle was stitched with two strands, and the other pieces with one strand.
Lessons Learned: Yes, there’s very little area between the two triangles. I cut neatly between them to separate the pieces, then lined them with well-washed muslin, and made some of the waste fabric into the ties. BUT notice the doodle sampler. It’s awful close to the kerchiefs. Too close. I haven’t finished out this mini-sampler yet, but to do so I will have to border it all the way around with fabric, then affix the entire thing to some some sort of frame, or into a little banner. I should have started that piece closer to the leftmost edge of the cloth. Oops.
This one is probably the most ambitious piece I’ve ever done. Silk, and Japanese gold, with 2mm paillettes, on 40 count linen, and finished in 2018, I loved every minute of my two fishies. The indigo silk was also dyed by Stealth Apprentice. The green is more of the Au Ver a Soie. All counted fills are done in one strand; the darker outlines are worked in reverse chain stitch with three strands. The whiskers are split stitch and the eyes are satin, both done with two strands. The gold is couched down and the paillettes are affixed with one strand of yellow faux silk (more of my India stash). The counted patterns are mostly in Ensamplario Atlantio II.
I spent a lot of time carefully considering (and sometimes picking out) the fillings. I was aiming for flowing mobility, a suggestion of scales, and glimmer under the the water’s surface. While the fills are all strict and regimented geometrics, offsetting them, and picking ones with strong diagonals and curves helped avoid the blocky, heavy look that many projects with fills fall into.
No, no one in this house gives credence to astrology – it’s not a Pisces depiction. The back story is that the Resident Male described a cloth with two fish embroidered on it in one of his early stories. I made it so. (Pun intended).
Lessons Learned: I haven’t put my hand to couching metal threads in other than the most trivial way since that silver horse pouch in 1975. I re-learned a whole suite of techniques to manage it, including plunging and finishing off ends, forming the curves and tensioning the gold as I stitched it down, how to increase or decrease the distance between the couching stitches to achieve the desired radius, and how to keep two unruly strands of the stuff side by side and not flopping over each other for best effect.
I’m beginning to run out of wall space. In 2019 I decided that I needed to stitch up some napkins – quick and dirty because they will undoubtedly get dirty quickly.
I wanted something fast to stitch that could endure harsh laundering. So I took a chance and ordered some pre-finished “rustic look” napkins and coordinating tablecloth. They’d be useful for my holiday table whether or not they were stitchable. And I lucked out. This is plain old DMC floss on big-as-logs 26 count poly-cotton napkins, and 28-count tablecloth. More or less – none were exactly evenweave when they started, and no two napkins ended up as the same size after pre-shrinking. But I don’t care. I had fun testing out more T2CM designs, and no – while I took pains to work double running and used the catch-loop method to begin each strand, I did not end off invisibly. There are tiny knots on the back of the napkins. So far no guests have turned them over to tsk, tsk.
What about stains you might ask? I don’t care. The napkins were quick and cheap enough to replace if they are too far gone. Note that the eating areas of the tablecloth are NOT stitched. If the thing gets damaged, I can always cut out the center part and apply or insert it into another one. Or not. “Look, here’s the gravy stain from 2023” sounds like it would be a nice bit of nostalgia ten years after.
Lessons Learned: There is no such thing as uniform shrinkage. Ever. Also a tablecloth is big. I ended up using my sit-upon frame to work the center, gathering up the ends of the tablecloth into two pillowcases to keep it clean. That worked well. Oh, and I hate ironing, so don’t expect to ever see this smooth and linen-press pristine.
It’s an addiction. I just can’t stop, so I plunged on, working up three of my favorite strips (and an edging) from T2CM. My Stupid Cupid doodle was done in June/July of 2019, on a piece of craft store 32 count linen/cotton blend, in DMC floss.
Lessons Learned: I ended up going back and editing my book pages on two of these designs because I hadn’t normed the repeats uniformly. My take-away is that it’s ALWAYS good to playtest a design rather than just trusting that one’s initial drafting is perfect.
Finishing out 2019 I thought I’d do up a cushion for my living room sofa. Well, maybe not a cushion. This is more of that faux silk, plus green Au Ver A Soie on 38 count linen. See all of that accursed satin stitch? It took only a couple of nights of working on it before I decided that if ANYONE sat on it with studs on their jeans pockets, I’d have a meltdown. Yet another piece destined to hang on the wall, I guess.
What you see here is the center third of my Leafy Multicolor – a piece very closely based on an extant artifact. I intended on making quite a large item, but the rather large leafy edge would only be on the top and bottom (as displayed in final, not as stitched). Have I mentioned that I detest satin stitch?
Lessons Learned: I really hate satin stitch. Especially in silk or faux silk with a laying tool. This is still on my frame. Everything I’ve done since is escapism because I HAVE to finish this one. But that satin stitch… Shudder.
The book cover project 2020 was a welcome break from you-know-what. It came about after some queries about how to make the book covers I had done back in 2012. I had a book, I had DMC floss, I had 30-32 count cotton craft store even weave, and I had patterns. Why not? So I wrote up the whole thing, from the initial planning stages all the way to the finish, so others could do their own. No idea if anyone will, but I hope someone does.
Lesssons Learned: No one is perfect, least of all, me EVEN when I am trying so hard to be because others are following along. I made a measurement mistake midway, but it all worked out. And going back to the first bit of almost-voiding with a red foreground and a yellow background I did on the Permissions sampler, above – I still like the loud and cheerful look.
And that brings us up to the current piece. I’ll tease that one here, but I save the Lessons Learned for when I’ve fully grasped all of the mistakes I’ve made on it to date.