Jacobean birdy is finished!

In my imagination, there are literally hundreds of blog readers out there, waiting with bated breath, all asking themselves “But what has happened to Emma’s embroidery? Why hasn’t she sent an update?”  To answer the second question first, I have been incredibly, breathlessly busy.  I ended up having to finish birdy in an almighty rush to get it finished before the end of the summer term, because it became apparent that we were going to be moving house to West Yorkshire in August, and that would mean that I would need to transfer my studies from Hampton Court Palace to the Durham RSN satellite.  I couldn’t bear the idea of getting so close but not finishing, and having to move to a different venue and new tutor with a nearly finished piece, and my tutors at HCP not being able to see the finished article.  That required some serious hard graft, including several very late nights.  On the last night, I was determined to stay up until it was finished.

At 1am, disaster struck.  My bobbin of the palest green ran out.  When I went to replace it with a new skein, there wasn’t one… And I realised that I had actually used two whole appletons skeins of it, and that was all I had.  I could have cried – how could I have got this far only to run out of a colour so close to the end? But then my eye fell on my orts pot (orts = leftovers).  I have a little pot made out of the bottom half of a plastic bottle, and it is attached to my trestle so that I can pop the little odds and ends in there so they don’t get tangled up with the working thread.  Sifting through the leftovers, I found a few lengths that were not too fluffy, frayed or short.  Thank goodness I hadn’t emptied the thing!

The orts pot that saved my bacon!
The orts pot that saved my bacon!

I made it as far as 3am before my poor hands could no longer hold a needle and my spine would no longer hold me up (you will remember I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, that causes constant pain and fatigue, and injury is extremely easy).  To my disappointment, I still had the hillock outlines to do, and of course serendipitous butterfly to insert.

The night before my last day at Hampton Court Palace.  Working to 3am got the fillings into those hillocks, but the outlines were still to do, and still a paint splodge to be turned into a butterfly!
The night before my last day at Hampton Court Palace. Working to 3am got the fillings into the hillocks, but the outlines were still to do, and still a paint splodge to be turned into a butterfly!

I got to Hampton Court early, and sat down knowing I was going to have to stitch very concertedly if I was going to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going to get it completely mounted, it takes a full day to do that.  I would have to be content with just finishing the actual design… but even that was going to be a struggle.  This isn’t a blog about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, or I could write a comprehensive essay on the things that were aching, burning, creaking, popping and swelling. To add to my woes, it was a hot June day.  One of the things that often happens with EDS is that the autonomic nervous system misbehaves, and this leaves us with the rather baffling ability to get heat stroke if the temperature goes above the level our bodies are accustomed to, even if objectively speaking, that is ‘only’ 23 celsius.  So there I was, three hours sleep and in a bad way, locked into a battle to subdue a bird.  First, the borders of the hillocks went in – raised chain band.  I did all the ones in the background, but when I got to the long one along the front I had to change plan.  The weaving in and out required for raised chain was not easy with worked areas either side to snag the needle, and fingers that felt like they didn’t belong to me.  It felt like I was battling every stitch.  And anyway, I felt like the foreground needed a little something different.  It would need to be raised and textural to go with the raised chain band on the other borders, and it needed to be QUICK!  Everyone else had gone for lunch at this point (not I – oh no!).  The answer was french knots, worked in two or three strands, with different colours of green mixed in the needle to give dimension and shading.  I also added some little groups of five light blue knots, like flowers strewn in a grassy meadow.  I don’t know how many french knots there are in that front foreground border – hundreds.  I certainly got good at doing french knots!  When the tutors got back from lunch they were amazed by how quickly I had done them.  French knots are often seen as fiddly, but really, compared with the raised chain band and the needle weaving that had gone before, they were refreshingly simple!

2pm, and the planned work was finished.  But what about the unplanned bit? do you remember back when I was pouncing and painting the design, I splodged my paint?  I named my splodge serendipitous butterfly, and determined that the splodge would become the body of a butterfly.  Wearily (and with trepdation) I took up my pencil to draw a freehand butterfly on my canvas.  Under normal circumstances, it is not a good idea to draw straight on to your canvas when you are incredibly tired and your hands are swollen and unresponsive.  Yet that is what I did, not having a whole lot of choice available at the time.  Then I threaded up some blue and improvised a stitch plan.  I based it on a gold work butterfly I did for something else… I think it came out all right, considering!

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After casting off serendipitous butterfly, I fussed and fretted over some details before finally realising…. It was finished.  You might think my first reaction would be relief, or joy, or pride… no, my first reaction was loss. I actually cried.  Birdy had become such a friend, a guide through my first attempt at “real” embroidery.  I had loved every second spent with him, even the painful ones.  But after some gentle words from my tutors, and some lovely admiration from my student colleagues (all of whom are talented embroideres whom i respect enormously) all of those other feelings came along as well.  I am proud of my jacobean birdy, as well as being very grateful to all who encouraged and supported me.

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Finished - both birdy and me!
Finished – both birdy and me!

The problem of the pomegranate

Firstly, sorry for the long time between posts.  We are a clergy family, so passiontide and Easter are particularly busy for us, which means progress on poor old birdy has been rather slow.  By the time Easter day came around, our whole family was exhausted.  Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (my disability) is painful and exhausting at the best of times, but we keep on top of it.  I say we – everyone in the family helps with this.  The Revd Dr does most of the household hard graft – laundry, washing up, tidying, bathing the Frithlet.  The Frithlet himself (aged 6 at the present time) prides himself on being a “young carer”, and insists on helping, especially when it involves pushing my wheelchair at speed.  He’s a also quite good at nipping up and down stairs, and picking things up from the floor.  When Holy Week comes around, the Revd Dr is kept on his toes with liturgical commitments and pastoral visiting, and the Frithlet and I do our bit by trying not to get in the way, and being self sufficient.  It doesn’t sound like much, but for me, it’s a lot more standing, walking, climbing stairs, bending and lifting, which pretty much guarantees me a big flare up.  It’s a twice yearly (it happens at Christmas too) wake up call – my seemingly serene ability to achieve all sorts of things despite my disability is actually highly dependent on the support I get every day from my family.  So it was pretty much a given that poor old birdy was going to have to take a back seat while I struggled with more mundane things, like getting out of bed.  My arms became like lead weights, and my fingers like sausages, and neuropathic fizzing, zinging and nagging meant that even if I had had time to embroider, I would have been on a hiding to nothing.  But fear not – time was not wasted! whatever time I had, including late night lying on my back in bed not sleeping, I devoted to figuring out the Pomegranate Problem.

Strange Fruit - the pomegranate crossed with a corset.
Strange Fruit – the pomegranate crossed with a corset.

Remember the pomegranate? It took long enough to design, and when it finally landed, it was a strange thing. The pomegranate is often a symbol of the sensual, even the carnal in art. I wanted something that reflected that, and this is what I came up with. A friend described it as “practically indecent”, and I know what she means! It is part fruit, part corset. The question is, how to render it in threads and stitches? I wanted the outer parts, the “skin” of the fruit to be raised or padded and maybe textured to give some depth to the “slashes” that reveal the flesh, which I wanted to be a close lattice of some sort. My tutors helped my bat some ideas around, but the slightly irregular shape was a bit limiting. I tried some padded satin stitch but I didn’t like it; in my opinion the solid block of bright orange was too overpowering, and as a solid filling there was no way to indicate contours. The corset-like ‘cinching’ as the fruit morphs into delicate flower was totally lost. I pulled it all out. That was the stage I had got to when holy week hit, so I couldn’t fiddle and experiment with different fillings. But I went to bed every night with my embroidery books and lay there in the dark, distracting myself from the pain in my body by worrying and puzzling at the pomegranate problem. I ended up getting myself into a bit of a lather over it, it got out of proportion in my head and I decided that the whole thing was never going to look like I wanted it to.

At some point, an Idea started.  It grew.  It developed.  And then the worrying and puzzling gave way to itchy fingers – not (for once) neuropathic tingling, but a desire to try out the Idea to see if it would work.  But there was no time, and I couldn’t use my hands.  Even when Easter day came, and Easter Monday, we were all in a heap.  But I had the Tuesday off as well, and finally, finally, got some time to try it out.  And this was the outcome:

The Idea takes shape!
The Idea takes shape!

The Idea was to use Cretan stitch (essentially a series of offset fly stitches) to give the texture and contour, but outline and pad the centre section with split stitch in the darkest red.  This variation on cretan is not a technique that I have found in any of my books, but I hoped it would gove me the dimension and the contours that I wanted.  I think it worked – what do you reckon?  I like the way I could increase and decrease the size of the stitches to give contour, and it kind of looks like boning like you might find in a bodice.  I do wonder what my tutors will make of me going off piste though! the lattice in the middle isn’t finished, and the rest of the flower needs to be worked, but it feels like we’re on the move again 🙂

Pouncing on Birdy, and the arrival of the Serendipitous Butterfly

Post written 27th march – sorry, I wrote it but got behind!

My trip to Hampton court last week saw me packed up as if I was planning to move in.  Slate frames are not small!  Fortunately, I had been given a giant plastic bag for it, which also contained my A3 portfolio with my stitch plan, colour plan, and my completed pricking.  then there was a rucksack containing my seat frame with practice stitches on it, my wools and needles and scissors and bits and bats… and my lunch.  I have a fold down luggage rack on the front of my chair which took the frame bag, the rucksack went on the back, and my handbag on my lap. and tentatively and precariously, I wheeled myself over to the apartment looking like a variety of pack animal.

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The pricking of JB.  I will keep it safe, because it can be used again, if I want to recycle any part of the design

When I got there, we pounced my pricking.  I realize this jargon sounds a bit weird, so here is the explanation for the uninitiated!  From the last update, you will remember that I had got as far as finishing the design on paper. So the next thing to do is to transfer the design. To do this, first I traced it on to some strong tracing paper.  then I went around all of the lines with a kind of mounted needle, pricking evenly-spaced holes around all of the outline.  when that is done, the pricking is pinned into position on the framed up fabric.  next, a fine grey powder made of ground charcoal and (I think) cuttlefish bone is applied to the pricking.  The powder is called “pounce”, and by varying the proportions of the ingredients, it can be nearly black to pure white. With a rolled up pad of felt (a “pouncer”), you gently move the pounce over the smooth top surface of the pricking with a circular movement.  it only takes a tiny bit of pounce to do a big pricking.  When you have pounced the whole design, you remove the pricking, and lo! you have a lovely “join-the-dots” version of your design.  The next job is to find a very fine brush and some tubes of watercolour.  You need to mix a colour that is similar to the background, that contrasts just enough to be seen.  For my linen twill, yellow ochre and a spot of ultramarine made a dull taupe colour that did the trick.  It needs to be the consistency of single cream – not too watery that it splodges everywhere (more on splodges later!) and not so thick that it won’t go on.  Then you join the pounced dots with a very thin line of paint.  Once the paint is dry, you turn the frame over and give your (drum tight!) fabric a couple of smart taps to get rid of the pounce.  a baby brush on the front surface sees to any remaining bits.  you are left with a painted version of your design.

This is the version of events that is blithely trotted out at the beginning of all the RSN stitch guide books, and it is very definitely best practice. But there are drawbacks.  The first is that you will almost certainly have to make your own pounce, unless you are good friends with a professional needleworker who has a secret supplier. Once you have mastered pounce alchemy with your pestle and mortar, you have to make yourself a pouncer (tightly rolled felt sewed into a cylinder) and mount a needle somehow (this can be as simple as sticking a crewel needle in a cork, though you can buy purpose made pricker needle mounts).  so much for the prick and pounce.  But what about the painting? well.  Even if you are an experienced painter, you will soon find that painting on linen twill is a bit of a pain in the behind.  It is ridged in texture, and it seems to dislike the paint. I wasn’t able to achieve a lovely thin, even line.  Even the floor boards in the work room were conspiring against me – every time someone walked past, they bounced and I blobbed.  Then for some inexplicable reason, I did a REALLY big blob, where a really big blob should not be! Ooops.  Not much to be done about it, except turn it into a “feature”.  so Jacobean Birdy looks set to gain a Serendipitous Butterfly for a friend!

The first stitches go in!  this is the supporting "ladder" of stitches for my raised stem band (just starting to go in on the right hand side)
The first stitches go in! this is the supporting “ladder” of stitches for my raised stem band (just starting to go in on the right hand side)

After the painting was done, we were ready for real stitching.  as with all projects, you start with the rear-most elements, and for Jacobean Birdy (Shall we call him JB?) that means the main stems and the hillocks.  The main stems are going to be worked in a stem band, so that means that the first job is to lay down a foundation like a ladder all the way up, with the stitches evenly spaced 2-3 mm apart. the stem band will be woven around these stitches.  The large infills for the hillocks will be a good place to show off the textured stitches, so I have started with laying down a lattice in one and burden stitch in another.  Burden stitch is not something I have tried before and it was a surprise headache.  all the stitches have to be so even, so well spaced, so vertical… It took 3 attempts to get this far and I am still not sure about it!

lattice going in. I am not sure about the lazy daisy filling - that was a demo by my tutor, I have yet to decide what embellishment I want in there.
lattice going in. I am not sure about the lazy daisy filling – that was a demo by my tutor, I have yet to decide what embellishment I want in there.
Burden stitch.  I am not sure I like the way the shading worked out.  For some reason the, darkest green towards the bottom is a much thicker thread than the dark blue below it or the mid green above it.  I will probably remove it at some point and try again - fourth time lucky!
Burden stitch. I am not sure I like the way the shading worked out. For some reason the, darkest green towards the bottom is a much thicker thread than the dark blue below it or the mid green above it. I will probably remove it at some point and try again – fourth time lucky!

Getting started with ‘Jacobean Birdy’ – design, colour choice and framing up

On 6th March I had my first day at the RSN, kicking off for my first module in the Certificate.  You will remember that the first module is Jacobean Crewel Work, something I haven’t really done before.  The first day of the course is given over to design work, framing up, and colour selection.  I arrived bright and early on a sunny day, with the Hampton Court bulbs in glorious colour – a beautiful spring scene. I had a folder full of sketches I had made of some possible design elements.  I didn’t design the whole thing ahead of time, because it is important for the tutors to be involved, to ensure that the design is well balanced, not too complex or too bland, and to make sure there is plenty of scope to demonstrate technical ability on a good range of stitches.  But I did make sure I put in a lot of research, and sketched out a number of different ideas in different shapes and sizes so that we could pick things out that would work.  You may remember the birdy that I came up with a few weeks ago.  After Birdy  came Strange Fruit.  Strange Fruit caused a bit of hassle.  I was after something pomegranate-like (the stylised pomegranate is a very common feature in Jacobean work), but all the pomegranates I saw on my Google images search left me feeling rather diffident.  Pomegranates, I felt, should be swollen, ripe, bursting with seeds and juice and be somehow sensual.  I pulled off a load of pictures of real pomegranates to act as inspiration, and I found myself fascinated by the way the fruit develops, and the lovely shapes it makes.  But I still couldn’t actually seem to draw what I wanted until about 2 days before my course was due to start, until one afternoon at work it suddenly hit me and  I sketched this on a piece of printer paper:


It is part flower and part fruit, and it appears to be wearing a corset. there are deep slashes to reveal the juice-filled interior – it feels almost indecent, though it is only a fruit!  finally I had something that ticked all my “pomegranate” boxes.   Anyway, that’s enough about pomegranates, I have got off topic.  My first job on arrival at the RSN was to assemble everything into a suitable design.  My tutors were wonderfully supportive and encouraging, and it didn’t take very long to come up with a design that included both Birdy and Strange Fruit.  I am very keen to put my design up here, but before I do so – a gentle word on copyright.  I have drawn these designs myself, and I may want to re-use them in the future.  Please respect my work and property, and don’t use my designs without consent.  Also, if you see anyone else using my designs, please do tell me.  With that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, here is a little sneak preview of my stitch plan:

Stitch Plan for "Jacobean Birdy with Strange Fruit" [working title!]
Stitch Plan for “Jacobean Birdy with Strange Fruit” [working title!]

With the design finalised, I traced it neatly on to heavy tracing paper ready to make my pricking (more on design transfer next time) and started on framing up my linen twill.  To keep the fabric stretched taut in all directions, we are using a slate frame.  This is a very traditional heavy wooden frame (Mary Corbet has a photo tutorial about them here on needle ‘n’ thread if you are interested).  Sewing and stretching the fabric took most of the afternoon, but I did have a quick break to peruse the collection of Appletons Crewel wool with my tutors to choose a colour scheme. I wanted the accent colour to be orange, which left me the two other main colours to pick.  The design brief told me I needed to pick two main colours in five intensities/shades and one accent colour.  Appleton’s wool has a two digit  colour number, followed by a third digit that denotes the dye concentration used.  So for example, my three oranges are 866, 865 and 864, with 866 being the darkest and 864 being the lightest. After pulling out various hanks in lovely colours, we found a combination that really attracted and interested me, and seemed to set each other off nicely – that is them on the top of this post.  I hope you like them as much as I do.  Jack the degu would have quite liked them to make a nest out of, but I didn’t let him get his paws on them!

"Mum says that wool is cruel; it had better not try anything on her or I will shred it and make a nest out of it!"
“Mum says that wool is cruel; it had better not try anything on her or I will shred it and make a nest out of it!”

By the end of the day at Hampton Court I was totally exhausted, but even though I hadn’t got as far as casting on, I had achieved loads.  A design, a stitch plan, a colour scheme and some framed up fabric.  The other students and the tutors made kind remarks about my design, which I found very touching, although the design is about A3 size and quite complex – it is going to be a tough job getting it all done! I was sent away with instructions to finish my pricking, transfer the design and practice my stitches – I look forward to showing you what I have been doing on that score.  But we’ll leave that for another blog.