Category Archives: Surface stitchery

Two needlecases that I have made…over thirty years apart!

The yellow needlecase on the left was made by me in 2007. The one with cherries on the front, on the right, was made by me in 1974, when I was twelve. I only made the yellow one because the original one was falling apart, but I still love the old one. I keep it full of needles, still – I couldn’t face emptying it – so I go to it occasionally, when I know that a ‘special’ needle will be found there, and not in my new needlecase.

Although it is tatty now, the construction has held up well for the 30 or so years that I used it. It was made using two rectangles of felt, whip-stitched over cardboard, which I had scored into three panels. The stitching was worked in Anchor stranded cotton, in long and short stitch, with stem stitch outlining. The design on the front was from a 70’s book on embroidery, but I can’t remember which one, now! It’s not one that I own, anyway. I have a feeling that I got the motif from a book that my needlework teacher had in her classroom. At that time, girls were still allowed to do embroidery as part of their ‘Home Economics’ lessons (that changed while I was at secondary school – by the time I was 14, I wasn’t allowed to do embroidery as a subject any more, and the needlework/dressmaking classes were scaled down drastically. We had to make ‘gender-neutral’ items, as the classes now had boys in them as well as girls. The boys were bored stiff, and liked to spend their time breaking the sewing machines). I do remember that the needlecase was part of a set of designs, and that there was a scissor scabbard with a pear motif on it as well. At home, I made both that and the cherry needlecase together, and took them into school to show my needlework teacher – and during that day, someone stole the scissor scabbard out of my bag, before I had time to show her  😦 

I made the yellow needlecase in 2007 (33 years after the first one – by that time, I was 45!). The motif on the front of the yellow needlecase was transferred using a light box, and then stitched in Anchor threads and gold blending filament. The design was from Issue 44 of Inspirations magazine.

The pattern for the needlecase itself was from Jane Nicholas’s wonderful book ‘Stumpwork Embroidery: Designs and Projects’, published in 1998 by Milner. The design she chose for the front of her needlecase is a beautiful little squirrel – he’s very tempting, but at the time I really wanted a yellow fabric for my needlecase, and I decided the colour of the squirrel’s fur would clash with the fabric. So, the cute squirrel with his gorgeous fluffy tail will have to be stitched another time.

The pages of the yellow needlecase are white felt – one page each for crewel needles, beading needles, etc. The pages were backstitched to the cover along the central spine, and then the functional backstitch disguised on the outside of the cover by stitching a row of coral stitch over the top.

It’s come out well enough….but I think I like my needlecase with the cherries the best!

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Arabic calligraphy on an embroidered box lid

During the winter, I’ve been gradually stitching designs onto a selection of box lids. They are all Sufi-themed designs (because I follow the Universal Sufi spiritual path, and I wanted to make a range of stitched items to sell at the Summer School that I go to in Germany each year, in the ‘market’ that is held on the Wednesday afternoon).

This design is based on the phrase ‘Allaho Akbar’ in Arabic calligraphy, which means ‘God / Unity is greater than all things’. I transferred the design onto the fabric using tissue paper with the design drawn on in pencil – then I tacked through the tracing onto the fabric, and ripped off the tissue to leave the sewing thread outline on the fabric. I unpicked these threads as I stitched the actual design. I only traced the main outlines, not the squiggles – I added those by eye, to complete the design.

'Allaho Akbar' text embroidered round linen-covered box with lid

Starting at the lower edge of each motif, I worked stem stitch in rows along the shape, adapting how many rows were necessary as I went. I used a space dyed thread from Oliver Twists – Fine Cotton, shade 004 – which was very smooth to stitch with, and the shading was lovely – very soft colour changes. The little squiggles between the main letters were worked using whatever embroidery stitch seemed right: twisted chain, fly stitch, stem stitch, and French knots.

Close-up of the stitching

The box is about three inches in diameter, and linen-covered on the outside, with a pale matching cotton fabric on the inside. I bought it from Viking Loom of York, who sell a wide range of these boxes, in several shapes and colours (satin as well as linen).

I don’t usually stitch with these earthy shades, but I’m very pleased with how this one came out.

Book review: “Elizabethan Needlework Accessories”, by Sheila Marshall

Elizabethan Needlework Accessories by Sheila Marshall

This wonderful little paperback was first published in 1998 in New Zealand by Georgeson Publishing Ltd. It has been out of print for a while, which I felt was a great shame, but it has come back into print in the past couple of years (it’s available from Viking Loom of York, if you feel the need to get your own copy!).

The book gives detailed instructions for how to make seven very creative projects. They include a needlecase, a button box, a thimble holder in the form of a free-standing kingfisher, and my favourite – a petal hussif (the design featured on the cover).

I have made two items from this book so far, and if time was more abundant, I’d probably make everything in this book – that’s quite an unusual thing for me. I’m usually quite picky about what I’ll give my time to. But this book has such lovely projects in it!

The book starts with the practicalities of what kind of frame to use, and how to transfer the designs on to the fabric. Then, the various stitches are explained. Some of these are quite unusual ones, such as extended picot stitch and single brussels stitch. The diagrams are very clear, though, as is the text.

Stitch diagrams

The projects list clearly at the beginning what you will need to buy to complete each one. Thread numbers are given so that you could work each design in DMC rayon or stranded cotton, Anchor stranded cotton, Au Ver a Soie D’Alger or Au Ver a Soie Perlee, depending what you like to stitch with. I like Anchor best, so the items I’ve made from this book have been stitched with that, and they have come out very successfully. Sometimes, Kreinik braid or other finishing highlight threads are suggested, but they are never crucial to the design – in fact, Sheila Marshall says several times throughout the book that you can substitute whatever you have to hand, if you prefer.

The designs are printed at actual size,  so are easy to trace off. I found the assembly instructions particularly well thought through – especially for the petal hussif, which has a complicated construction.

The centre pages of the book show all the projects close up, in colour. I know this is a limitation of book publishing sometimes, but I’d have preferred the colour images to be alongside each project, as I needed to keep flipping through the book from the instructions to the photo as I was making each item, but that’s a small criticism really. Black and white illustrations are given elsewhere in the book, and these, along with the stitch diagrams, are very well drawn and helpful.

Instructions for the Petal Hussif (on the right you can see part of the design to be traced off)

This is a book that I return to a lot – the stitches are useful for other projects when you want an interesting textured stitch, and the photos are very inspiring. The petal hussif from this book is one of the best things I have spent time making – although, be warned, it took me over two months of evenings to complete! It made  a change to make something that was so much BIGGER than the doll’s house scale items that I stitch when I’m designing new kits to sell from my website (the bag might not seem big to you, but I’m used to stitching on 32 count silk gauze, for items that are maybe an inch or two high when finished!)

The Petal Hussif that I made, alongside the book

The Petal Hussif when open, showing the inner pockets and drawstring inner bag

This book is the second title in the Elizabethan Needlework Series published by Georgeson Publishing Ltd (by various authors, not all by Sheila Marshall), and they’re all worth buying.

Title: Elizabethan Needlework Accessories

Author: Shelia Marshall

Publisher: Georgeson Publishing Ltd

ISBN: 0 473 14977 5

Price: around £12.95

Book review: ‘Monograms – the art of embroidered letters’, by Susan O’Connor

‘Monograms – the art of embroidered letters’, by Susan O’Connor

This book is the epitome of stylish instruction in the art of embroidering monograms. It is sumptuous in all aspects – the gorgeous photos, the eight projects (from beginner to advanced), and the wealth of detail. I’ve seen many books on monograms for embroidery, but this one is the only one I’ve ever been tempted to buy, and I’m really glad I did! The book starts with a chapter on the history and traditional use of monograms, and then moves swiftly on to discussing how to use monograms in contemporary ways. Suitable fabrics, threads and needles are discussed (very important, as, if you use unsuitable threads, particularly, you can end up with a very inferior piece of embroidery, which is disheartening).

My favourite method for padding a shape, as shown in the book

I liked the chapter on the actual stitches and techniques the best. There are so many good ideas here, and each one is illustrated with photos showing every stage. The padding under the satin top-stitch is what makes or breaks a successful monogrammed embroidery, in my opinion, and all the secrets are explained here. I used information from this chapter when I was making a large banner for a Chapel I used to attend – it took me almost a year to embroider, so I needed to know that the technique I would be using would be successful, if I was to invest that amount of time in the project!

The banner I made, which measures about three feet by four, using lettering and crewel embroidery

Fortunately, the lettering came out really well. Each letter took about an hour to complete. I used the method explained on page 34 onwards – I outlined the shape of the letter first in split stitch, then used stem stitch padding to fill the shape within the split stitch outline (using all six strands of Anchor in the needle each time).  After that, I used the ‘perfect satin stitch’  section on page 48 to make…perfect satin stitch!

Perfect satin stitch, achieved with the help of this book!

I really enjoyed making the banner. I’d thought that maybe the crewel flowers would be interesting to stitch, but that the lettering would be the boring bit, but I actually enjoyed doing the lettering too, as it came out so successfully. ‘Monograms – the art of embroidered letters’ covers more than just letters, though. Eyelets, shadow work and applique are all covered by the book, as are various finishing techniques such as pin stitch hems, scalloped hems using blanket stitch, and so on. There’s so much in this book!

The lavender sachet project

Towards the end of the book are the projects, so that you can try out your new skills. From small items such as lavender sachets to a very fine Christening shawl, the projects are all clearly explained. The book is published by Country Bumpkin (the publishers of the beautiful Australian embroidery magazine ‘Inspirations’ that comes out bi-monthly) – and, as with the magazine, this book has several pull-out sheets with all the designs on, for you to trace off using your favourite method. Full alphabets are given in several styles, including a cross-stitch one for the lavender sachet design. All Country Bumpkin publications are wonderfully produced, with an attention to detail that is often missing from other publications. The style shots are enough to make this a lovely ‘coffee table’ book, even if you have no plans to ever make anything using monograms!

The delicate tones of one of the style shot photos

The step-by-step photos in ‘Monograms – the art of embroidered letters’ are mainly done on oatmeal fabric using white thread, so it is easy to see exactly what you need to do to replicate what is being shown. If I have any niggle at all about this book (and it’s only a tiny niggle!), then I’d say that with the style shots of the finished items, as they are mainly white embroidery on white fabric, the detail is sometimes indistinct. This is a shame, as the fineness of the embroidery is lost.  If you just flip through the book quickly, the pale colour of all the photos gives a kind of insipid feel to the book, which can have a negative effect on the reader, unfortunately. But try to get past that, and slow down to look at the information packed in these 134 pages. Susan O’Connor has written a wonderful book that should be available more widely. The book was only published in 2007, but I think it’s already out of print, so if you come across a copy second-hand, grab it while you can. This one is a treasure. Details: ‘Monograms – the art of embroidered letters’, by Susan O’Connor Published 2007 by Inspirations Books (Country Bumpkin Publications) ISBN 0 9775476 0 4