The stereotypical, historical image of the embroiderer is a refined young lady, sat at her frame, serenely rearranging threads to make beautiful artwork. The work is delicate, yet meticulously done, with no lapses in patience or temperament, all whilst wearing her Sunday best.
The reality of the crafter is distinctly less dignified. Dye up the kitchen walls, fridge and floor, needles in fingers and blood pooling on your whitework. Swearing. Frayed threads, wonky cutting and holes in places they were supposed to go. More swearing. Half-done projects abandoned to the back of cupboard, claims of never making a stitch again and of course, lots more swearing.
I think the myth of making things always being fun and relaxing is actually one of the things beginners can find off-putting. Unless you know how many hours of practice and learning it really takes to produce a fantastic piece, it can be really disheartening to have spent hours struggling with seams only to find you haven’t caught the raw edges properly or inconsistencies in your tension when knitting have resulted in a scarf that best resembles jelly.
For the most part, I really do love creating new projects. Daydreaming about colours, calculating up seam allowances, finally getting stuck in with the stitching. However, there are some projects that just seem to go wrong at every corner and the only joys in finishing the thing so you don’t have to look at it again.
This weekend was the Quilt UK show at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern. After driving through a showcase of weather from all four seasons to get there, the rain thankfully held off long enough to make a quick dash to the main hall.
I go to shows always hoping to see something a little bit different, some unusual fabrics or find a new supplier that does something amazing. I also love getting the chance to see projects and patterns in the flesh as well; it’s much easier to judge whether I want to make something having seen it and you often see loads of great inspiration from some talented crafters.
However, Quilt UK left me feeling a little disappointed. I wish I had paid the advance ticket price (50 % off) as the full adult price (£9) felt a bit excessive for the size of the show. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by having a good local fabric shop, but I wasn’t that enthused by the majority of what was on offer.
There is one type of fabric though that will never fail to turn my head. Batiks. I love batiks to such an insane degree my ‘stash’ is mostly just piles of batiks I have bought because I’ve been so mesmerised by the colours all common sense about only buying for projects flew out the window.
One of the main reasons for visiting London was getting the chance to see the Royal School of Needlework’s current exhibition, ‘Peacocks and Pomegranates’, which was also a good excuse to visit Hampton Court Palace as well.
The RSN has been based in Hampton Court Palace since 1987, having originally opened its first studio in 1872. It’s a fitting location for the organisation that does a significant amount of work for the Royal Family and is responsible for the restoration and conservation of many treasured pieces of textile history.
Before you enter the palace though, you might want to take the time to visit Creative Quilting, a lovely little quilting shop just before the bridge to the Palace.
It has a great selection of fabrics, patchworking and quilting books and all the assorted paraphernalia you might need. They are also happy to cut fabric from 10 cm widths, so you can get exactly how much you need. I was relatively restrained with purchasing a few Batiks for a scrappy quilt but I couldn’t help but leave with some of this absolutely fabulous Robert Kaufman fabric. Not sure what I’m going to use it for just yet, but it deserves a special project.
If anyone knows a UK retailer with a good range of Robert Kaufman fabrics, please let me know! Having seen Peggy Toole’s Lumia collections, I do want to get my hands on some.
Hampton Court Palace was one of the palaces belonging to the infamous English king, Henry VIII. Although it was originally intended for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, when he fell afoul of Henry’s fickle affections, gifted it back to the king, perhaps hoping he could avoid his downfall.
This week, I’ve had a few days away in London, mostly to see the Royal School of Needlework’s ‘Peacock and Pomegranates’ exhibition, but also to enjoy some of what the capital has to offer. One of the great things about London is just how much variety there is in things to do and places to go. For crafters in a lot places, the local yarn shop’s best offering is some sad looking balls of Robin’s acrylic double knit but in London, you’re spoilt for choice.
Shopping in general is also a different experience, with a wealth of glitzy stores housing luxury brands. However, learning a little about garment construction and how to sew a decent seam has made me realise that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors to expensive clothing. I will never fail to be amazed how many ‘top end’ brands still have sloppily overlocked seams and raw edges disintegrating by the day.
However, while managing to get completely lost in the bowels of Harrods, there was something that caught my eye…
This tiny section of beading and feathers is part of a beautiful velvet evening jacket by Ralph and Russo, a British haute couture fashion house. Normally haute couture is a little too bonkers for me but Ralph and Russo’s work is exceptional. The extensive hand embroidery on their pieces is an exhibit of the finest appliqué, beading, and metalwork. Sadly far, far beyond my budget but definitely worth a look at for some design inspiration.
Inspiration for new projects and designs can come from anywhere. Postcards often have excellent subjects for small embroidery designs and architecture can make an interesting starting point for thinking about shapes or maybe a piece of blackwork in its own right. However, there is one theme that is common in all forms of art, from thread painting to Romantic poets, and that is the beauty of the natural world. We were going to the right place to see nature at its finest, Kew Gardens, one of England’s most famous botanical gardens.
Day 3 of the Jacobean course came around a lot faster than I had expected. I was a little behind as framing up had taken slightly longer than it should have (tip: when sewing the webbing to the linen twill, it helps to put your stitches through both the linen and the twill.) Today though was all about the stitching.
I had dutifully laid all the ladders along the main trunk of the tree for homework which had taken a surprising amount of time. The main thing is to follow the line of the curve of the design and, in areas where things like the trunk splits in two, keep the design looking matched and continuous.
Today was all about learning as many stitches a possible so I would be able to independently complete various parts of the design. As you tend to stitch back to front, I was quite restricted on what areas I could stitch with the main trunk not being completed. However, we managed to find more than enough to keep us busy.
The main trunk is being worked in raised stem band, which is a really fun stitch to do. After laying the ladders, you then weave the needle over and under each subsequent ladder. It’s a bit easier with a blunt tapestry needle but the fat, fluffy nature of crewel wool means that it’s very easy to accidentally stitch through a ladder rather than around it. The key thing is keeping the tension even in the stitching, enough that the stitches don’t become huge loops but not so much that you distort the bars.
With my design finished after Day 1 and having done some colouring and planning for homework, it was time to start framing up my Jacobean crewelwork piece.
Framing up on an embroidery frame is often a very different beast to ‘just’ popping a piece in a ring frame. However, it is worth doing as ring frames can’t hold that much tension on the fabric and even if you get it ‘drum tight’ to start, after a few hours of stitching you end up yanking the material back through the ring, desperately trying to stop it being a saggy, sad mess.
With slate frames, there are no such issues. They will happily keep tension for years, ideal if the average duration of your embroidery projects is a decade, and you can get very even, tight tensions making it much easier to be precise with the stitching.
The whole process is quite involved, as you essentially need to add pieces of calico and webbing to your original fabric (linen twill in my case) to allow you to attach it to the frame. This means a lot of hand sewing to attach the additional pieces of fabric and some bloody fingers as well in my case.
The webbing is attached down the sides for lacing into and the calico is attached at the top so you can sew it to the scrap fabric attached to the roller bars on the frame. The roller bars stretch the work vertically and the lacing provides the horizontal stretch. The roller bars so what the name implies, once you’ve stitched the fabric on you roll them around to start applying the tension.
The oversized, vicious looking needle on the middle of the linen there is a bracing needle. There’s a short health and safety talk before you get to use one of these, about keeping the point safely embedded in some cork for storage and making sure to sew down through the fabric so you don’t come up through the fabric and your hand at the same time. They do glide through the heavy webbing though.
After the exciting delivery of some new Kemtex colours and picking up some new ideas at Wonderwool, I have been eagerly awaiting the chance to dye some more silk. I normally paint the silk in a relatively random fashion but I wanted to try something a little more sensible and to have a go at making some colour gradients.
I spent the morning remaking all my old dye stock solutions and making up my new colours as well. Previously, I had been using white vinegar as my fixing agent but I wanted to try using citric acid and adding some urea. The purpose of urea is to increase the solubility of the dyes (therefore allowing you to make higher concentrations) for brighter, more intense colours as well as helping to keep the fibre moist, particularly during the fixing stage.
It was while making up the dye stock solutions that I made a mistake I wouldn’t realise until much later… I made up approximately 5 % dye solutions, added the citric acid and the same amount of what I thought was urea, as recommended in the Kemtex instructions. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they use 2 % concentration dyes for painting and 1 % for immersion dyeing but I have never found concentrations that low give me quite the colour I wanted, hence the higher concentrations.
Counterintuitively enough, most chemical dyes are actually not very water soluble. Certain dyes, Kemtex Black for example, are notorious for being difficult to fully dissolve. This is problematic because unless you want to start filtering your solutions, undissolved dye means you have no idea what the concentration of your solution is and makes it difficult to get predictable, repeatable results as well. I’ll talk a bit more about the chemistry of all this later but back to playing with colour…
I gave the silk a rinse in cool water before I left it to soak overnight in water with a lot of citric acid added. The silk I have isn’t pre-treated and the previous batches have been really clean so I didn’t worry about scouring it thoroughly. I made sure the silk was relatively dry before I start applying the dye, as I didn’t want any additional dilution of the dyes.
After the poor results with the black from my last set of silk dyeing, I was keen to see if the combination of citric acid and more concentrated solutions would fix this, so I started with some pure black in the corner trying to work through dark to light purples before going to magenta/pink at the end.
The pyjama saga has finally come to an end! They are now with the intended recipient, who sadly was too shy to model them for the blog, but they fit perfectly and look fantastic. Great success all around!
The final steps were mostly making the buttonholes, pressing out the material so it didn’t look like it had been in the bottom of a project bag and tidying up any hairy seams that hadn’t quite gone according to plan. There were also a few finishing touches, like sewing in some loops to the top and bottoms, so they can sit on a hanger.
Buttonholes have a, somewhat undeserved, reputation for being really difficult to do. I think it is because they are generally one of the last things you will do on a garment and there is the lingering terror that you’re going to butcher your project and have months more work to do.
It is always a good idea to have a practice of these things, particularly if you’re doing them for the first time. I also recommend trying a sample on the material you will be using for the garment as well – I’ve found machines have a tendency to chew the polyester with dense areas of stitching.
So how do you make a buttonhole then? As sewing machines have moved a long way from the days of the cast iron Singers, there’s a few different methods, with varying levels of automation, for doing buttonholes.