Introducing “Dunstanburgh view”: RSN Canvas stitches piece

Time and tide wait for no man.  My RSN certificate course progresses, and the next module is canvas stitches.  At this point in the syllabus, I technically get a choice between canvas stitches or black work.  But I fully intend to carry on after my certificate to do the diploma, and whichever module I choose at this stage I have to do the other as part of the diploma, so it doesn’t matter hugely.  And anyway, I was intrigued by the idea of using colours and textures to recreate a picture, and it was a technique I had never tried before.  My experience of canvas work is limited.  Really, up to this point, my idea of ‘canvas work’ fell into two categories: tent stitch hassocks (those solid rectangular kneeler cushions that hang from the pew in front in church, decorated all over in little diagonal stitches in tapestry wool by dedicated parishioners at some point over the last few decades) and modern bold, expressive textile art, loosely based on a theme and stitched with mildly frightening vigour in myriad colours of somewhat baffling threads, adorning the covers of 1970s books on the subject.  Neither of those two images particulary infused me with joy about the technique – prim and predictable, versus wildly exuberent and somewhat outdated. But the RSN brief asks us to steer a course through the middle way.  We are asked to choose a picture, and then interpret it in a variety of canvas stitches. So I was intrigued, and (I admit it) slightly sceptical.

Colour plates from Erica Wilson's Embroidery Book (top, Faber 1973) and Mary Rhodes Needlepoint - the art of canvas embroidery (bottom, 1974 Octopus Books)
Colour plates from Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book (top, Faber 1973) and Mary Rhodes Needlepoint – the art of canvas embroidery (bottom, 1974 Octopus Books)
Hassocks in churches all over the land are adorned with a simple form of canvas work ("Salisbury Cathedral, Hassocks" by Gaius Cornelius - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg#/media/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg)
Hassocks in churches all over the land are adorned with a simple form of canvas work (“Salisbury Cathedral, Hassocks” by Gaius Cornelius, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg#/media/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg)

Canvas stitches range from the simple small diagonal tent stitch (like a half cross stitch) through various versions of repeated diagonal or crossed stitches, finishing up with some quite involved or highly textured stitches that are arguably more like repeating motifs than a textured filling stitch.  The stitches are typically worked in wool, but stranded cotton, cotton a broder, silks, shiny rayon threads or mixtures of different threads work well.  The patterns or motifs are worked into open weave stiff canvas, which essentially forms a grid that you work into, counting warp and weft threads in order to form the shapes and patterns of the stitches.  The different stitch patterns all have exotic sounding names – ‘Algerian eye’, ‘Maltese cross’, ‘pineapple half drop’, ‘oblique Slav’ – not forgetting the endearingly enigmatic ‘John’.  They are recorded in various books, a lot of which are out of print and hard to find.  Although the RSN and various embroidery authors have published more recent works, I had a general sense that canvas work is a dwindling art.  That probably has a lot to do with today’s embroiderers having similar prejudices to myself, that is, that canvas work is either dull, or somewhat unfathomable and stuck in the 1970s,

One of the ways to work a simple tent stitch for canvas work ("Basketweavestitch" by Velvet-Glove at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basketweavestitch.png#/media/File:Basketweavestitch.png)
One of the ways to work a simple tent stitch for canvas work (“Basketweavestitch” by Velvet-Glove at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basketweavestitch.png#/media/File:Basketweavestitch.png)

So it was that I came to the first challenge – to find a design to interpret in canvas stitches.  Having invested in the RSN stitch guide, I had a slightly more up to date idea of the sorts of pictures that could be rendered in canvas stitches, and it was more varied than I had imagined.  The module brief was wide open – it just had to be an interpretation of an image.  They did say that having water in the picture usually gave good results, but that was about it for guidance!  I had an idea to use one of my holiday snaps from last year.  the Frith family is totally in love with the Northumberland coast, and it is our favourite holiday destination.  The big skies, vast sandy beaches and seabird-encrusted islands tick every box.  a friendly welcome, a place to get close to nature, a castle on every horizon, a place of pilgrimage, and unlimited beaches and rock pools. It is a place where we instantly feel happy, all three of us.  In particular, we love to pick a day with good weather and head off to Dunstanburgh Castle.  This is the place:

The Frithlet and me on the grassy approach to Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland.
The Frithlet and me on the grassy approach to Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland.

There is a mile-long grassy approach that slopes gently up to the castle gate, which is mostly manageable with my power-assist wheelchair wheels, with the revd dr helping.  A few places at the final approach are a little steep and rocky for a wheelchair, which requires me to bail out and scramble as best I can on crutches while the Revd Dr takes the chair up and the spry little Frithlet capers round like an excitable mountain goat.  By the time we get up to the castle, we are all flushed with windblown excitement and achievement.  Once inside, there are ruins to explore and a gorgeous wild flower meadow.  There are rock pipits dashing about, skylarks overhead, butterflies everywhere.  if you exit through one of the breaks in the curtain wall, you find yourself out on the cliffs of the headland.  at the right time of year, there is thrift and rock samphire, and the sound of nesting kittiwakes.  There is a particular spot, right on the very tip of the headland, that we make a bee-line for.  We call in the Frith family secret picnic spot, though it isn’t actually a secret (well, not any more!).  Here we can sit and eat our picnic surrounded by sea and castle and view.  It is high on the cliff to, and down below you can see razorbills bobbing on the sparkling sea, puffins flying past, kittiwakes everywhere.  to the left, you get a view of the pristine sands of embleton bay.  We last visited ‘our’ picnic spot almost exactly a year ago,  a truly beautiful sunny day in late May.  The pinks (sea thrift) were out and I set about trying to capture it all with my camera.  At the time, I was right in the middle of my Jacobean crewel work module down at Hampton Court, and I knew that the genie was out of the bottle, an that embroidery was going to be a big part of my life.  I had a strong feeling that I might one day want to try capture the essence of this place in embroidery, so I set about taking detailed photographs of colours and textures:

I came across the pictures whilst pondering my project, and I wondered if this could be the subject I was looking for.  I hesitated a little, for several reasons.  Firstly, it was very textured and detailed, and my idea of canvas work is that it would be blocky, flat, and almost pixellated.  Secondly, there were curves and diagonals  – surely canvas stitches were all rectilinear? how would that work? thirdly, this place is special to me, and the day I took these pictures was one of those shining golden days that stay forever in your memory, never tarnishing, just acquiring the patina of nostalgia.  I wasn’t sure how I would feel if I couldn’t do it justice.  Probably just very frustrated, but what if it somehow changed my relationship with the place? I decided that this last objection was me being silly and sentimental, and sent the pictures, along with another possibility, taken further up the coast at Holy Island, to Tracy for perusal.  She immediately picked up on the fondness I had for the Dunstanburgh image, and approved the content as appropriate for canvas work.  Just to be sure, I asked the other embroiderers in the studio for a quick vote as to which of the two they preferred.  the vote in favour of the Dunstanburgh image was unanimous.

It is unusual for me not to have a strong mental image of how I want the finished project to look, but since the technique was so new to me, and due to my somewhat underwhelming preconceived notions of canvas work, I honestly had no idea what I might be likely to be pull out of the bag for this one!

Blank canvas - no preconceived ideas, just an outline and a photograph.
Blank canvas – no preconceived ideas, just an outline and a source photograph.

Embleton bay from the secret picnic place

Bullions, hundreds of bullions!

The final part of the rose to be completed was the very centre, worked in bullion knots and french knots.  These turned out to be a really important element in the whole design, because once the bullions were lined up with their corresponding shadows I had previously shaded on to the petals, the whole thing seemed to be thrown into relief, even though the design itself is flat, save for the bullions themselves, and a tiny circle of felt padding right under the centre circle.  Quite a few people, on seeing the bullion knots, told me that they found bullion knots to be complicated and difficult, and voiced a certain awe at my plans to do all the anthers in bullion knots.  But I really enjoy a bullion knot, and have never found them to be a particular hassle.  There are loads of stitching resources out there, and I am sure there are plenty of excellent pictorial instructions for bullions, but I thought it might be nice, before I do the “big reveal” of Rose (and yes, she is finished!) to step through the construction of bullion knots.   Please note, I am a LEFT HANDED EMBROIDERER, so I usually work with my left hand underneath and my right hand on top.  Trying to hold my phone, take in-focus pictiures and do bullion knots one handed was enough of a challenge, and I really didn’t feel up to doing it wrong handed.  If left handed embroidery is likely to confuse you, look away now!

I drew out a little stamen on the calico edging of my piece, for illustrative purposes only.  I wouldn’t normally use pencil lines for something as delicate as a stamen, because there is too much chance of it showing, and anyway, mine were being laid on top of petals already worked in long and short shading.  I picked up two skeins of stranded cotton pretty much at random from my stash, so they aren’t colours I have been using on Rose.

1. Setting up for the bullion

Setting up the foundation for a bullion knot
Setting up the foundation for a bullion knot

Thread a small embroidery needle (a size 9 or 10) with two strands of cotton and cast on with a waste knot and three stab stitches.  The strands can be both the same colour or two closely related shades of a colour, depending on the effect you want to achieve.  Bring the needle up at one end of where you want the bullion to be, then take it down again at the other end.  Don’t pull all the thread through, leave a loop on the surface like in the picture.  Finally poke the point of the needle back up at the original starting point, leaving it sitting there, pointing up, without pulling it all the way through to the front of the fabric, and you are all set up.

2. Winding it up

Winding the thread around the needle
Winding the thread around the needle

Hold the needle steady with one hand at the back of the work, and with the other hand, pick up  the thread that you left lying on the surface in step one. At the end closest to the needle, start to wind the tread around the needle.  From this point on, you need to hold the thread so it doesn’t unwind, but without yanking too hard on it.  The number of times you wind the thread around the needle depends on how long and fat you want your bullion to be.  Go round and round as if you were constructing a little spring on the needle, starting at the bottom near where it emerges from the fabric and working your way up slowly in the direction of the point.  You don’t want to be piling all the coils up on top of each other, so much as wrapping the needle neatly. I went round ten times in the example above.  When you think you have enough, take up any slack on the end in your hand, and push the loops down the needle so that they are neatly stacked together, looking a little bit like what you want the finished bullion to look like.  This is your opportunity to check the length.  Flatten the needle to the surface of the the fabric, where you want the bullion to lie, keeping the coils compressed.  If it it too long or too short, then wind or unwind loops as required.  In this case, ten was just right.

3. Pulling through

Slowly pulling the slack through the bullion
Slowly pulling the slack through the bullion

With the needle back in its vertical position, you are now ready to pull everything through.  You still have hold of the end of the thread, don’t you? just slacken the tension a tad.  When you pull the needle through, the eye end and the double width of thread it carries need to work their way through every single loop on your needle, and if you are holding the tension too tight, you are going to have a battle on your hands.  Don’t let go of the end, but shift your grip a little so that the finger and thumb are softly holding the needle shaft with the loops around it, preventing them from coming unraveled.

Bring your other hand to the front of the work and use it to slowly draw the needle fully through the fabric and the little tunnel that is formed by the loops on the needle, just as if you were threading a bead.  Don’t panic if the loops get pulled about a bit, become spread out or a bit bunched up, that is normal, and you have your finger and thumb stopping any unraveling.  just draw the thread through slowly, taking up the slack under the fabric, then the excess from the working loop, until you feel it start to come tight.  At that point, you can let go of the loops. You will probably have a slightly untidy selection of loops on your stitch.  Again, this is no cause for alarm.  pull the thread down and  in the direction of the stitch, and use your fingernail or a needle to push the loops together.  If they are still a bit bunchy, hold the loops and give the end a good tug.  That should sort them out and bring them in to line.

4. Finishing off

Finishing the bullion
Finishing the bullion

If some of the loops overlap, you will see a slight thickening at the base of the stitch, which might be exactly the effect you are after.  But if, say, I wanted a sausage and got a pear, then I can usually sort it out by sliding a needle under the bullion and stroking the loops in the direction I want them to go, whilst keeping a gentle tension on the free end, until the bullion is the shape I want. Then the final job is to send the needle down through the fabric right near the end of the bullion to finish off the stitch.

5. Variations

Bullions, it turns out, are very versatile.  The one above is simple and straight, but they also do lovely curves, just by varying where the needle goes own at the very last step.  A tiny step to the left or right will help the bullion sweep a curve.  if you make the bullion a couple of loops longer than the length required, then tuck the needle underneath the end to tie it off, the bullion will stand up, making a little arc.

A curved bullion
A curved bullion

In the picture above, I have made the brown bullion slightly longer so that I can curve it around the yellow one.  putting the needle through a fraction to one side helps it to curve.

As well as being short and fat, bullions can be long and thin.  On the rose, most of the filaments of the stamens were worked in stem stitch, but for some of the front-most filaments, My tutor tracy had the idea that I could do some very long, thin bullions, to give the area some depth.

A long, thin, single strand bulion
A long, thin, single strand bullion

The thin bullions are worked with a single strand, but otherwise the technique is the same.  I and careful not to add too many loops, because if they end up overlapping in the finished knot, the stamen would look a bit lumpy!

Bullion knots can feature in all sorts of ways, not just stamens.  In my jacobean piece I used rows of parallel bullions to shade a petal turnover.  A few big bullions formed the thorax of a butterfly, and tapered, curved bullions were the claws of the bird of paradise.  I think their reputation for being fiddly and fussy is somewhat undeserved.  I suppose they do involve a few steps, but they are very pretty and quite satisfying.  Just as well, because there were hundreds of them on the rose project!

The Wild Rose Project: stashes, shading and… superglue?

In my last entry, I wrote about how Wild Rose came about, the research, the sketching and the framing up.  Now it is time to catch up to the present day.

The greens!
The greens!

Once Tracy had rearranged her studio for me (so that I could sit comfortably and so my wheelchair wasn’t blocking the door etc) and helped me frame up, we set about choosing the colours of stranded cotton.  Note that I am using ordinary cotton embroidery thread for this – ‘silk shading’ as in shading on a piece of silk, not shading with silk thread.  Colour-wise, you will remember that Wild Rose is a kind of mid-pink, with dark purply-pink shadows and very delicate cool pink highlights.  the stamens are yellow and orange and the very centre is greenish yellow.  The stems and leaves are a good range of different greens.  We started with the leaves to get my eye in with the technique, so we picked out those colours first.  We had no trouble there, both DMC and Anchor have extensive ranges of greens, so we were able to go straight to the ones we wanted.  I was even able to use some of my own extensive stash of skeins that I have built up over the last few years.  I have discovered that when people learn you have a passion for embroidery, it sometimes happens that their eyes light up and they say “my mum/grandmother/aunt was a very keen embroiderer, I have all of their threads at home, I don’t embroider myself but I cannot bring myself to throw them away – would you be able to use them?” I love to take in orphaned stashes.  It feels like it connects me to a previous generation of embroiderers.  When you open box after box of carefully curated threads, you can feel the love and care that has been lavished there.  I know that sometimes, I can spend whole evenings just arranging my materials, soaking in the colours and the textures, and feeling all the potential stored up in them.  With inherited stashes, I am sure generations of embroiderers have been just the same, and with inherited stashes, it is like they come pre-loaded with love.  The sad thing is that cotton is an organic substance, and believe it or not, it has a shelf life.  At some point, it will inevitably lose its lustre and become fragile, although this can be delayed with careful handling.  Most of the “heritage” stashes I have been given have been packed and stored with the utmost care, and are therefore suitable to be incorporated into my working stocks.  Some skeins are not usable, but because of what they mean to the donor, I usually keep them too.  This means that my stash of stranded cotton is pretty enormous, and periodically growing (NB – if you are reading this thinking “I have a stash I don’t know what to do with”, the RSN accepts donations, and it might be worth asking at your local arts college or school if they need any).

Just part of my stash!
Just part of my stash!

I digress.  My thread stash has that effect on me.  Where was I?  Yes.  we chose the greens without too much bother, and I got started, going around the outline of each leaf in split stitch, then, from the tip downwards, I established my foundation row of long and short stitch.  Tracy kept a close eye on my stitch spacing and the angle of my stitches.  For L&S, you need to establish your angle according to the contours of your design, for simple leaves, the stitches usually form a V out from the central vein, and the angle is maintained all of the way down in order to get realistic shading.

Getting started: the split stitch outline of the leaves, and the beginnings of long and short shading.
Getting started: the split stitch outline of the leaves, and the beginnings of long and short shading.

For more complicated shapes, the angle changes with the contours.  Long and short shading is truly a fundamental technique of embroidery, and it is extremely easy to get wrong.  For this reason, I have historically regarded it with a degree of trepidation.  I did some long and short shading on Birdie, which allayed the worst of my fears, but I still knew I needed to have my wits about me.  At no point when doing L&S stitch should you neglect any one of the following:

Stitch length: as the name suggests, the idea of long and short stitch is that the stitch length is varied, to facilitate a merging and blending of the rows as it builds up.  You end up with a row of parallel stitches with a sharp edge where it goes over the split stitch edging at the edge of the shape, and a sort of feathery edge on the inside of the shape.  the next row in is worked into the feathery edge, and that row is feathery on both edges.  Apart from the edges of the shape and down the vein line, there should be no solid joins where the shading happens.  If the stitches are too short, blending is hard.  if they are too long then they wriggle about, the surface gets lumpy and the contours and shading look wrong.

Angle: as mentioned, the angle needs to be consistent, and to follow the contours if necessary.  contouring angles needs lots of concentration so that the stitches don’t pile up at one aen and spread too thinly on the other.  Surprisingly, even keeping the angle the same also requires concentration – angles have a habit of drifting.

Colour: shading happens in two directions.  not only does the shade vary as you travel into the shape – i.e. row upon row, but it also varies as you travel along a row.  so you have to plan each row and introduce new shades gradually as you go.

Spacing: like satin stitch, the stitches need to lie down parallel to one another, with no gaps between them.  To begin with, mine were a little too far apart and the fabric showed through.  This was because I was trying very hard not to get them too close together – if you do this, they all pile up and your surface and edging becomes lumpy.

Points:  the points of the design (leaf tips etc) must be pointy.  This is not as easy to achieve as it sounds.  The final stitch of a point needs to stick out further than you think it does to make the points pointy.  This only works if you have your stitch angle spot on, I discovered.

Edges: this mainly involves being very precise over exactly where your needle goes down, and spending time inspecting your work from all angles.  It is easy for edges to become a bit “nibbled”

Big picture: when you are eyes-down, it is easy to concentrate only on the current square millimetre.  I soon realised that by doing this, you can lose track of the design – the angle of the incident light, the position of a shadow etc. and if you make the shading too fiddly, you run the risk of not actually achieving your goal.  Sometimes, I thought I had changed a colour too rapidly, but when I stepped back I realised that was what was needed at that point in the design.  I found there was a great urge to obsessively blend and use lots of different colours to make transitions gentle, only to find that when I stepped back, all my careful shading averaged out into one fairly standard mid green leaf.  Once I started being more confident with my colour changes, things became a lot better.

Once we established that I was OK on the leaves, we started trying to find a set of pinks.  This was considerably more challenging.  You see, there are two kinds of pinks going on here.  There is a rosy pink, the kind of pink that starts off as pale red and gets paler and paler.  then there is what I call a “cool pink” – it starts off as a kind of lilac-pink and fades from there.  The source image I chose fits neatly RIGHT BETWEEN those two ranges of pinks, and we had a bit of a job finding what we needed.  we had to pick out a real hotch-potch of Anchor and DMC strands.  The shadows were another headache – we couldn’t match them excatly, and had to plump in the end for a set of purply-greys and some darker pinks.   They seem to be working OK though.

Starting with the pinks
Starting with the pinks

All in all, long and short shading for the beginner can be quite taxing.  Having said that, once you get going, it becomes much easier.  I think it is safe to say I am no longer scared of it.  My tutor says that it seems to come quite naturally to me – that is very nice to hear, if I could choose one technique to be a natural in, silk shading would definitely be that one.  And I am certainly enjoying myself! I can happily manage an entire day just trundling along (it really isn’t a quick technique) and have to be quite strict with myself as regards taking breaks and looking after my ergonomics.  Not to mention the fact that even the eye end of a size 10 needle is really quite sharp enough to make holes in me.  I tried a thimble, but it made me clumsy.  So I borrowed a technique from another blog and put tiny patches of superglue on the side of each middle finger where the needle rests.  It seals up the holes beautifully, and protects my finger tip without loss of dexterity.

Superglue: essential embroidery tool!
Superglue: essential embroidery tool!

So far, I have got as far as doing most of the leaves, the stems (in stem stitch), and three petals, including one with a petal turnover on. That brings us to here:

Wild Rose in her present state (early Feb 2012)
Wild Rose in her present state (early Feb 2012)

A big needle book… does anyone else want one of these?

I enjoy feathering my nest with nifty gadgets and things that manage to be at once pretty and useful.  I especially like to make my own accessories like scissor keeps and velvet boards, and of course the bobbins I showed you yesterday.  Like many enthusiasts, I have an impressive stash of different kinds of scissors, thread organisers, work bags and boxes.  And lots and LOTS of pins and needles.  For a while now, I have been keeping my needles in their original packaging, bundled together in a little plastic bag, with a goodly number sloshing around loose in the bottom of my work box, waiting to stab unwary fingers.  I have been looking for a pretty needle book that is big enough to house my burgeoning collection, in a way that would allow me to have some kind of filing system to stop my sharps mingling with my crewels, and my betweens rubbing shoulders with my Japanese silk embroidery needles…  After extensive digging around the internet, I found nothing that fitted the bill.  All the needlebooks, even the supposedly “large” needlebooks, had only two or four pages and were little square things. very pretty, but not what I had in mind.  So I made my own, here it is:

Needle book front cover
Needle book front cover

It is about 10 cm x 13 cm, with six big pages all in brightly coloured felt.  It was a good excuse to get to grips with my second hand Husqvarna viking  embroidery machine, using some bargain space-dyed rayon threads picked up from the internet.  The sewing pattern for the book was very much made up as I went along, but it turned out quite well.

Needle book pages

I soon got started filling it up, needles on every page, with my flower-head pins inside the front cover, and safety pins inside the back cover…

Stocking up the needle book

 

My favourite feature on it is this dangly felt flower on the spine.

flower toggle
flower toggle

It holds the ribbon in a loop so it can hang on a hook or a clip, but it also has a secret additition.  Inside the felt flower is a very tiny neodymium rare earth magnet.  these magnets are small but immensely strong – don’t get them too close to your watch or credit card!  Inside the flower toggle, the magnet can be put to several uses.  It will find and pick up any dropped pins or needles.  It will easily support the weight of the needle book, so you can have it attached to a nearby lamp stand or other metallic object.  But mostly what the magnet does is hold on very nicely to my scissors!

keeping my scissors safe!

Since making the prototype, two people have asked me to make needle books for them, which I am more than happy to do – clearly I am not the only person who thinks needle books are just too small!

Please do contact me if you would like a needle book made – they are £15 with the neodymium magnet toggle, and £13.50 without, and any money made will go into funding the equipment and materials required for my RSN course (I am currently trying to raise £115 for the first module’s materials starter pack).   A choice of colours is available. I will try to get a page up and running in the near future with a gallery of items available for sale or commission.

 

 

Crewel wool bobbins – and toilet paper!

My first dabbling in crewel embroidery, the Nicola Jarvis Robin kit, has introduced me to the wonderful world of Appletons wool.  It is made in the UK from Yorkshire sheep – the company dates back 178 years, and still sells some of the same shades that were used by William Morris in his tapestries.  Crewel wool is a fine two-ply yarn, and because it is made from long fibres, it is hard wearing once it is stitched, and since it doesn’t have to be tightly twisted and plied, it is brilliant for seamless shading and blending.  The drawback to this fine wool is that you can get in a bit of a pickle if your centre-pull skein, despite your best efforts, gets itself in a tangle.  I am not the only one to struggle – even Mary Corbet occasionally has a run-in with a centre pull, as expertly blogged here on Needle n Thread.  This very thing happened to my darkest charcoal-y brown Appletons 966 skein.  When it comes to ordinary cotton or silk, I am pretty good at sitting there patiently and gently untangling until the job is done, but with the wool, every little tug was in danger of untwisting and opening up the plies, and generally bobbling and thinning the thread – in a word, destroying it.  in order to save the wool, I ended up having to cut it so that it didn’t get damaged by multiple passes through a knotted or bobbled bit.  This made me sad, and more than a little annoyed with myself.  My other skeins were working well, but I decided it would be safer (and easier on the wool) if i wound the skeins onto some kind of bobbin.  But where would I find such bobbins?  I have those cheap cardboard ones, but I really dislike them because they introduce a kink into the thread, and anyway, they wouldn’t be big enough for crewel wool.  I spent a couple of days pondering the issue and casting about for something to use as a bobbin, when inspiration came from the most unlikely place.  The toilet near my office at work.  One morning after availing myself of the facilities, the toilet paper roll in the dispenser ran out and the middle of the roll dropped out into my hand.  Instead of the normal cardboard tube, this dispenser takes paper rolled onto little blue plastic spindles, like this:

Toilet roll spindle
Toilet roll spindle

It just made me think “Bobbin”! It was about the right size and shape and it was freely available.  I sent an email to our caretakers asking them to look out for the spindles for me – ensuring they were clean of course!  About a week later, I came in to find this waiting for me on my desk:

Bag of bobbins!
Bag of bobbins!

So I took them home and set to work.  In my stash I found some little plastic upholstery rings, and as luck would have it, they fitted perfectly into the little recess at one end, with a bit of help from my glue gun.  At the tapered end there was a little tail just the right size for a small label with the shade number on.

Tapered end
Tapered end

The only thing left to do was to wind them with my threads, and to find a way to keep them together.  I settled on a loop of beaded memory wire with a lobster claw clasp, and a bigger clip to attach the whole thing to a work bag or similar.  Et voila!

Finished bobbins
Finished bobbins
Clasp and beeded wire loop
Clasp and beaded wire loop (sorry about the glue on my hands, that was from another project involving making a house for my son’s hex bugs.  I don’t usually have glue on my fingers… or at least, not when handling embroidery threads!

I was quite pleased with my little foray into upcycling – no more tears over tangled wool!  Thank you, Oxford Brookes University toilets – and the wonderful caretaking team who took the trouble to collect all those little bits of plastic for me!