Tag Archives: counted thread embroidery


The hounds and pelican strip is finished!

I know of two mistakes on it, which I may or may not go back and pick out. I’m also thinking of adding another heart-bud immediately underneath the hounds’s forepaws. It’s not in the original, but that area looks a bit barren to me.

Now to go on to the next strip. Here’s the whole piece laid out, so you can see the (problematic) real estate that remains:

I was originally planning for two more strips, one medium dark, and one quite dark to add balance to the piece as a whole. But there’s this…

Damage! And not just distorted weave that can be gently stroked back into place – actual breakage of multiple warp threads, and too many to compensate. There’s no going around this. I have to end my sampler out about three or four inches short of my intended length.

How did it happen? Many reasons:

  • Very gauzy, fragile linen ground to begin with.
  • Abuse during two shipments back and forth to India. While it was unmounted from the verticals, I left it on the horizontals of my frame, scrolled up so that the unworked portion was on the outside. The resulting bundle was then wrapped in a thick cloth, and put into the shipping crate that held my hobbies. Where it probably abraded somewhat against the surrounding objects.
  • Abuse since returning. I’ve been schlepping the thing around with me to show off at gatherings where embroiderers might be present.
  • Not sufficiently padding the unworked portion. I put a couple layers of scrap muslin in between the stitched portion of the piece as I advance the scroll while working. But I did not pad the unworked portion. That was a mistake, leading to extra tension when I remounted my Long Green for work last month
  • It has been what… nine years since I started this?

The aggregate result was that the area that had been rubbed and abused over time, and that had been fragile to begin with, under tension of my re-mount, began to give way. Note to self – no matter how tempting, avoid gossamer grounds and stick with more beefy linens…

So now instead of two or three strips to finish, I’m looking at one or two, in order to leave at least three inches between the breakage area and the bottom of the stitching. I may also reinforce the bottom bit by actually basting on some muslin to help take the strain of remounting for stitching – an extra precaution that I would remove before mounting for display.

OK. What to finish with. I’m not sure. First I have to measure out my area to figure out the maximum height of what can be stitched there. Then depending on how tall that workable area is, there are several classic designs I’m considering. But a couple of them I have not yet drafted up (T3CM fodder?), so I may take a quick side journey into another simple piece while I’m thinking it over.

Stay tuned!


Last week’s columns and plume flowers strip was a quick one. Not the least because it was in plain old cross stitch. I am pleased with the darker-but-not-overwhelming density. And as you can see, I’m on to the next one, featuring the hounds and pelicans, yet another design that will be in the ever-forthcoming T2CM:

I am looking forward to unrolling this piece when this new strip is done, to see how much more real estate I have to cover, and to make plans for how dark or light those strips will need to be. Then I get to go hunting for what to stitch next.

This week’s strip is an interesting one on a couple of fronts. First, in terms of history, it has a specific point of origin – in 16th century Sweden; not Germany or Italy or any of the other countries better known for linear embroidery at that time. It’s in the Swedish History Museum, Inventory number 19600.

The museum citation says that the piece is from a chapel in Uppland, Östervåla; stitched in red silk on white linen. It also includes the matching vertical border which I haven’t graphed yet, plus a sweet row of heart-shaped cartouches bearing heraldry, the frames of which are also on my futures list. I haven’t stumbled across another piece of linear stitching in this style from this region/time, so it’s a bit of a mystery. How prevalent was it? Was this type of work limited to church linen? Did it appear also on clothing? Obviously more research is needed. If you know of any other pieces in this family, please let me know.

Now on to iconography. While this piece has non-secular origins and was part of a chapel’s furnishings, its religious symbolism is not as direct as most church hangings. No martyrs. No pascal lambs, sacred hearts, or other standard symbols. Just pelicans and hounds. Even slightly misshapen, the quadrupeds are identifiable as coursing/sight hounds of some type. They are collared and belted, slim waisted and long legged, with floppy ears and pointy muzzles. Dogs, especially hunting hounds would have been seen as symbols of fidelity, determination, and loyalty. Pelicans are a bit more esoteric. Here they are shown “vulning” – piercing their breasts with their beaks, in order to feed their young with drops of blood. This was a standard bit of common folk legend at the time – along with the belief that worms spontaneously generated from the soil, and hedgehogs carried berries home to snack on later, impaled on their quills. Obviously the imagery was associated with self-sacrifice, devotion, and parental care.

Therefore, we have a cloth covered with symbols of devotion, loyalty, and self-sacrifice – something that would have special meaning in the religious setting. The background for this may be Sweden’s departure from the Catholic church in the late 1520s. Perhaps this rather humble, non-demonstrative bit of stitching (no gold, no gems, no saints) with its generic paean to virtues fits into the schism between Catholicism and Sweden’s developing Lutheran-based faith.

I admit I knew the pelican story courtesy of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). It’s no secret that I’ve been involved with it deeply in the past, and continue to have many friends active in the organization today. The highest SCA award for service is the Pelican, and its badge is a pelican vulning. This highly respected honor recognizes those vital individuals whose labor, largely voluntary, is the fuel that keeps the organization running. If you ever attend an event and see someone with a brooch or pendant with a pelican, know that the person you have met is Very Important, and widely respected by their peers. My sampler will have pelicans on it, but I am not a member of that order, nor do I intend to display it in an SCA context. I could wear a badge with a laurel wreath, but that’s another story for another time.

Finally, I announce that we have embarked onto another Great Home Improvement Journey. This time it’s the basement. I will post before/during/after pix, but right now I am still packing up and stowing my needlework library, office area, and craft room. The chaos is palpable. Here are a few of my stitching and knitting books. I’ve already had reason to refer to them, but have had to sit on my hands and just contemplate my wall of boxes. Work on the basement proper should begin by April. Until then, it’s lift, sort, box, and stack for me.


Moving on from the dolphins, we leap to the next motif. I wanted something both darker and less dense than the massive meshy panel, and hit on this column/flower meander. It’s another one from my ever-forthcoming The Second Carolingian Modelbook (T2CM – it includes both linear patterns and block unit designs).

The columns design appears on Plate 70 of my book, but it’s source is a 16th century Italian openwork piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession 20.186.27

The museum description is rather cryptic. It says “Bobbin lace, buratto, punto a rammendo.” To me it looks like buratto – darning on a woven gauzy ground, and not bobbin lace or a withdrawn thread technique (punto a rammendo). Buratto and lacis are very close, with lacis being worked over a hand-knotted net mesh, and buratto being worked on a purpose-woven gauzy linen fabric. It’s structure is not unlike Penelope canvas, but made from much finer threads with much wider gaps between them. It’s effect is entirely that of an open mesh – no where near as dense as the Penelope. Admittedly this piece might be lacis. I am not seeing knots at the junctures of the meshes, but sharper photos might reveal their presence.

While my treatment of it in plain old cross stitch isn’t necessarily something that can be defended as a common historical usage, the use of these designs for both openwork (lacis or buratto, or even withdrawn thread designs) and surface embroidery on the count is well documented. Since I am not doing a historical piece I chose POCS because it on this ground with only one strand of silk, presented an airy and lighter contrast to the mesh technique, and the long-armed cross stitch and Montenegrin stitch that I’ve used in elsewhere on this piece.

Oh. And the source for the dolphins? Plate 29 of T2CM. But it is my rendition of an illustration in Lady Marian Alford’s Needlework as Art (Plate 42), originally published in 1886. There it is cited as 16th century Italian. I tracked it down. That piece from Lady Alford’s collection and shown in her book is now in custody of Belton House, Lincolnshire UK, and registered with that country’s National Trust (#426944). I know of no no on-line photos of it. If you do, please share the citation in the comments.

As mentioned before, the original shown that I drew up for T2CM features the dolphins and connectors (but not the rondels) and the background of the original is voided – filled in, but with a grid of tiny one-unit squares.

When will T2CM be out? I know it’s been a very long wait, for which I apologize. However I do know that if all goes well, my schedule will emerge from some significant time constraints in late spring, and I will be able to devote myself to publication. I am loathe to promise after so long, but 2021 has every indication of being The Year.


Yaay! A bit of self discipline imposed, and the forever voiding on the meshy lettuce pattern panel is complete. I have to admit that while I adore the look, I am not wildly fond of the hard-pulling needed to achieve it. I might try it again if I ever find a linen that’s the right combo of threads-per-inch plus nice soft and lofty constituent threads, instead of skinny hard-spun ones.

How does this strip fit into the growing project? After all – it has been about 8 years since we’ve seen the whole thing laid out. For the record, I’ve filled about 45% of the available real estate – there’s a lot more to go.

Now for the next. I don’t think I’ve play-tested these dolphins before (another design in the ever-forthcoming T2CM). The original showed them with a squared fill background in voided style, but I wanted something lighter to follow the dark band I just finished. I left off the voiding, but then decided that the bit looked rather spare. My dolphins needed something to play with, so I added the round elements, and am now pleased. A quickie, this bit took just Saturday and Sunday evenings:

I will add the roundels to the dolphin at right of center, but I left it off so you can see the rather unfinished look it had without something there.

After this one? Probably another narrow strip, possibly a bit wider than this one, and possibly darker for contrast. Then after that I have a double running stunner queued, but it’s rather wide and needs a bit more spacer ground between it and the giant meshy lettuce panel.

In the mean time, as I get up close and personal with the frame I am making little improvements to my set-up. For example, the jaw of the Lowery is steel, and well loved by magnets. But it’s not exactly accessible with the large frame extender unit. BUT when I flip the thing over to terminate a thread, it is. Add a strong classic U-shaped magnet, and I’ve got a handy place to park my snips (the red magnet is just behind the red snipper).

My needle minder works quite well, and sometimes I use it to park my threader. It often does double-duty as a holder for my pattern page. But that can get in the way of the stitching area. So I glued a magnet to the flat side of one of my Millennium frame scroll bars – on the flat side (yes, I tested it to make sure the correct side was up – that’s the one that attracts rather than repels the other magnetic goodies I wanted to use):

I can use this as a rather plain needle minder all by itself, or I can park my fancy one there instead of in the hidden spot where you see it now. Or I can use another magnet with it to hold my pattern page. But best of all, I can use it in conjunction with this page holder I picked up years ago (it used to stick on my fridge door, to hold tickets, recipes, coupons, or whatever).

By just gluing on a magnet, I’ve left the door open for all sorts of other magnet-enabled organizers. There are other styles of clips. Hooks and loops with magnetic bases could accommodate scissors, for example. Finally, I’m still looking for it to test out, but because the rare-earth magnet I used is so strong, I’m betting it can hold my smaller flat metal magnet board. That would allow me to use placeholder magnets on my pattern page while the page is displayed right on my work area.

And where to find inexpensive strong-hold magnets? I recommend the geeky source, American Science & Surplus. They are a clearing house for engineering tidbits, science gear, weird surplus items, kids’ educational toys, and other miscellanea. They are especially good for containers, magnifiers, bags, precision scales and measurers, cutting implements, office supplies, and magnets. Like any surplus store, their inventory turns over quickly, so if you don’t see what you want there today, visit again next week.


An odd confluence of happenstances and the resulting doodle.

Last week there was a discussion in one of the Facebook groups dedicated to 1500s costuming or blackwork that started with someone asking for a historical blackwork design that featured cats. There aren’t many examples, and the chat covered iconography, citing that cats weren’t the most auspicious of symbols at that time.

Then an unusual source came across my feed: a line-rendered group of cats, but not from the period in question. This plate flew across my Twitter feed. The source is Ernest Allen Batchelder’s Design in Theory and Practice, New York: Macmillan, 1910.

This appears on page 157. The book is a rather lively examination of design principles across history, and appears to be a transitional work, including the natural elements of the aesthetic/Art Nouveau style, but more solidly grounding the more angular principles that characterize the Art Deco/late Craftsman mood. For all I know it may be a seminal point in decorative design history, but I will leave that point to be hashed over by any readers who are schooled in design theory and lineages.

In any case, here were some linear cats just crying out to be graphed and stitched. So in response to a generalized (as opposed to Elizabethan-specific) demand for cats and to delight cat-loving friends and family, here is what the Batchelder sketch inspired:

An easy to download PDF file containing this chart is available on the Embroidery Patterns tab of this site, or by clicking HERE.

This is rather large to be used as a fill pattern in inhabited blackwork (the subtype with outlines and fancy fills), but it is in scale for use as a large all-over design. I could see it being worked as is, in double running or back stitch, in monochrome or in multiple colors (those yarn balls cry out for variegated thread). It could be done voided, with the background filled in. The cats could be solidly stitched or left as is, or customized to match the markings of favorite pets (I provide a rudimentary tabby and tuxedo but any other markings might be fudged in). A frieze of this as the leftmost third of a placemat might be fun. I leave use up to you.

Like my other designs of late, this is “good-deed-ware.” If you like it and use it, I encourage you to look around and make a donation to a local cause that is helping people hit hard by plague-related economic challenges. “Starving artist” should be a metaphor, not a life description.


I admit it. I was horribly spoiled this holiday past.

My family has fitted me out with all sorts of stitching goodies for the new year. There were silk threads and linen grounds from my mom and the Elder Offspring – enough to keep me going for quite a while. In addition, The Resident Male drew inspiration from a recent Facebook post (plus the general state of the stitching supply midden next to my favorite chair), and gave me a mercer’s chest from Sajou in which to store my embroidery supplies and tools. A princely gift. And yes. It’s already full.

Younger Offspring hand crafted me a Special Object. That book next to the chest – assembled and bound, with an embroidered and beaded cover all of their own devising, it’s full of graph paper pages – perfect for stitch design and doodling. I think my family knows me very, very well.

During the supply sort and consolidation to populate my new tiny chest, I stumbled across the thread I had been using for my Long Green Sampler. That’s a project from about six years ago. I was working on it just before we departed for our expat stay in India. I brought it with me but had no well lit comfortable place in which to work on it, so it languished. I poked at it a couple of times in the years since, but I hadn’t set it up for reactivation. I remounted it and set in again yesterday evening.

No, that’s not a real cat. I would love to have one, but I am very allergic to them. It’s a stuffed toy, liberated from the Spawns’ menagerie. It usually does duty as a very conveniently sized elbow rest, but here he’s blocking sun glare. He can be both obliging and versatile, although (sadly) not very affectionate.

To reprise, Long Green is a long strip sampler, done in Au Ver a Soie’s Soie d’Alger, in color #1846 on 40 count linen (20 stitches per inch). I am picking my strip patterns on the fly, mostly from my ever forthcoming book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook. This particular strip features my attempt at the tightly pulled and totally overstitched meshy background found on so many historical artifacts worked in the voided style. The design is one that appears in museum collections, and that exists in several clearly related versions. I’ve nicknamed this one “The Lettuce Pattern” for obvious reasons.

My redaction with its curious Y-spring companion edging is largely based on this version in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, Accession 99.176:

The date attribution has wandered forward a bit over the years, but is now listed as probably 17th century, possibly being of Spanish or Sicilian origin. Here is another example of Lettuce, also from the MFA, now cited as being Spanish and 17th century, Accession 95.1116 :

Although this one shows quite a bit more in-motif detail than the one above, it is still clearly a closely related pattern, and not a slice off the same original artifact. Both of these have meshy grounds, worked by tightly stitching and displacing the warp and weft, bundling them tightly together – NOT by cutting and withdrawing threads, then stitching over the remaining scaffolding. That’s another technique but distinctly different from the one employed here.

Here’s another example of the Lettuce family. This one features a simple boxed ground (no drawn meshy work here). The original is in the Brussels Museum of Art and History, Accession 20048516. The description cites it as being stitched in red silk, and dates it to the 1500s, but does not include a geographical provenance.

The Brussels example has another special spot in my heart. You can’t see more than a sliver from my clip, but it pairs Lettuce up with another favorite design, proving them to be contemporaries.

As you can see from the photos of my green piece, I’m about half-way done with this band. Here are the others above it, a photo montage shot and composed by fellow India Expat, artist, and friend Tamar Alsberg. I’m a bit greyer now, but so are we all in these salon-challenged days.

Some highlights – bit of braiding in the lower left was a ton of fun – the solid stripes are done in Montenegrin Stitch, and the bit between my hands in the center top – that’s the back. Double running rules!

If you still want more info on these individual bands, you can call up the whole project (in reverse chronological order) here.


A hectic month and a miserable year come to a conclusion. But not without completions.

First, as promised in the last post – a family photo of this year’s cookies. I tried to have smaller batches of only ten kinds, but was foiled by a concerted group effort.

Working it clockwise (recipe links for most of these can be found in my last post.

  • Noon – Lemon cut-outs, magically maniacal. Special thanks to friend Laura Packer, who sent me the twisted cutters. Oh, and bonus tiny leaf (see below).
  • 1:00 – Chocolate pudding cookies. A surprise addition courtesy of Elder Spawn, who for a first fling into the communal cookie pile, did quite well with an intensely fudgy bit of delight.
  • 2:00 – Orange marmalade cookies with fresh orange icing.
  • 3:00 – Cinnamon swirls. A specialty of Younger Spawn, who dazzles with flavor and presentation.
  • 4:00 – Mexican wedding cakes.
  • 5:00 – Classic Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies
  • 6:00 – Our Oysters – a hazelnut spritz sandwich, with dark chocolate ganache filling
  • 7:00 – Meringues (also see below)
  • 8:00 – Bourbon/cocoa balls
  • 9:00 – Triple Ginger/white chocolate cookies
  • 10:00 – Earthquakes – Most folk call these “chocolate crinkles” but we like the more dramatic nickname. For some reason the crevices closed up. Possibly due to overbaking this year. My cookie, my fault.
  • 11:00 – Peanut butter cookies
  • Center of dial – Jam thumbprints, with mixed berry jam. Another contribution of Younger Spawn.

But that’s only the start. Younger Spawn also made a magnificent Buche de Noel (Yule Log Cake), with chocolate buttercream outside, and hazelnut buttercream rolled in a rich cocoa genoise. Including the traditional meringue mushrooms and little leaf-shaped sugar cookie leaves.

Not to be outdone, The Resident Male rose to the occasion and presented us with a Christmas Eve feast – seared fois gras with chanterelles; French onion soup au gratin; rack of wild boar with maple/chili glaze, plus potatoes Anna and spinach souffle.

And there are more year end finishes!

My Bony Boi piece, back from the framer and suitably hung in its place of honor in the Resident Male’s office:

The Great Masking

And I also finished my three blackwork plague masks.

I used one of Ancient Elna’s specialty cams to make a multi-stitch “hold fast” edging around the outer edge of each of the embroidered components. Then I cut out the shapes with confidence that the stay stitching would prevent any unraveling. (The stay stitching will be buried in the seam allowances, and never be seen.)

After that I sewed my stitching together down the center to make the outer layer. I toyed with a couple of treatments for the center seam to disguise the mismatch, but settled on a simple line of stem stitch, done in Krenick #16 metallic braid. The Elizabethan plaited braid I had originally envisioned was too heavy.

Then I cut the actual protective layers, traced from the same template I used to lay out the stitching, plus the lengths for the ties (I favor ties over elastic). Each mask has two layers of high thread count percale (harvested from retired sheets and pillowcases) in addition to the decorative outer layer.

When that was done, I sewed my linings together down the center, pressed them, and pinned on the ties. Those get sandwiched between the right sides of the lining and decorative back double-layer, with care taken to make sure they are not accidentally sewn over when front and back are seamed together. The two fronts, with the ties pinned to the lining are shown below.

Once that was done it was a simple matter to sew front to back (right sides inside), leaving a bit of a turning space between the two ties on the left. The thing is flipped right-side-out by teasing the ties out and yanking. A press followed by a line of topstitching all the way around to set the edges and seal the turning aperture, and I was done:

Now on to the next thing. But first I have to decide what that is….


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 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!


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.


Monks Cloth


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.