Nicola Jarvis’ Crewelwork Birds
When I first moved to the UK about five years ago, I was quite keen to go to the William Morris Gallery, and see the exhibition they had on at the time featuring Nicola Jarvis’ work, and her beautiful crewel and canvas work birds.
It was a lovely day, and I was really taken with her beautiful birds (although not the ones with crowns – they aren’t for me!). At some point after this trip, I purchased three of her bird kits in crewelwork. I can’t recall why I didn’t commence stitching them immediately. Now I have stitched the ‘Robin’, I do have a suspicion it may have been because I wasn’t a confident enough stitcher, as the instructions are somewhat limited.
As I was eager to get back into some crewelwork, now was the time to stitch up the first one. I wasn’t particularly fussed which one was worked first, so I turned to my husband, and he choose the ‘Robin’. Though I’m not sure how closely he looked at the three of them!
Nicola’s Crewelwork Robin
The legs and feet
The first element to work was the legs and feet. This was all worked in satin stitch, and is a good way to practice getting neat edges!
There are no markings on the transferred bird of where to change colour, so using the photo as a guide, I worked my way up and down the legs.
I’m not really a fan of bird’s feet – I just don’t like the look of them! And I have to say, these are no different. But I managed to survive the ‘creepy’ looking feet. It’s not I think these feet are creepy – just that all bird feet are!
Always remember to outline your shape with split stitch before satin stitching the area. Use small and tight stitches. This helps to create a smooth edge.
Split stitch as a decorative stitch
Until I had stitched up this kit, I would never have given any consideration to using split stitch as a decorative stitch. I consider it to be the stitch used before stitching satin stitch or long and short stitch.
I did find this part a little bit laborious though. It is a lot of split stitch, not made easier by the Appeltons thread. I find this thread isn’t strong enough for such a hard wearing stitch. So very short lengths (of about 15cm) were required. At times this was too long, but on the whole it minimised the breakage.
Once all the split stitch was completed, it was time to add in the seeding stitch! This is a surprisingly difficult stitch to ‘get right’. It needs to be random, but only in the direction of the stitches! The stitch length needs to remain the same length.
After having one too many fights with the Appletons thread for the seeding stitch, I actually ended up changing to a Renaissance Dying thread. My problem with the Appeltons was it was just too inconsistent in width, and the useable parts of the thread to get that consistency in width were very short.
I didn’t have an exact colour match, but I decided this was close enough. It also didn’t involve an inspection of the length of thread before stitching to decide if it was useable or not, so was a much more relaxing process.
Nicola’s instructions for couching were actually a little bit different from the way I was taught on my Jacobean piece as part of the RSN Certificate.
Nicola doesn’t sink the threads until all the couching is completed, and uses two couching stitches at the beginning and end of each couched section.
I decided to use a bit of a combination of techniques!
I didn’t sink the thread after I had completed the couching. I opted to bring the thread to the front after securing it, and then couch it. But I did use the double couching stitch method, as that sounds like a really sensible idea to me!
The Back – lots of long and short shading!
Differences to the kit image
I was a little bit disappointed here, as the photo of the finished piece looks like the chest is brown, and the back is grey. But the actual kit (and instructions), are more shades of brown.
I did contemplate changing the browns for the greys, but decided against it. And I’m glad I stuck with the browns, as it is really effective!
Changing the approach to stitching the area
I changed things up a bit here too from what Nicola’s approach was. In essence, we are just finishing things in a different way. I like to finish elements, whereas Nicola’s instructions were to finish colours.
Don’t forget your split stitch outline!
As always with long and short stitch, more split stitch is required! Nicola said to work this all at once, but I decided to work on it as I came to each element.
Working the shading
There are no clear shading pictures or diagrams, so it was a bit of a make it up as you go along situation. Nicola said to work each colour (so all the dark stitching, then all the medium, then all the light). But this really didn’t sit well with me.
Firstly, for me to be able to achieve the shading I like, I need to be working with more than one colour at once. I’ve also learnt from my rose, that if you get too far into a section and then discover the direction lines aren’t right, it’s easier to undo sooner rather than later.
When looking at the image, I’m not sure ‘soft shading’ was top of Nicola’s mind though, as some of the elements do look almost like they have been block shaded. So it’s just a different approach to the technique.
I started by using the photo as quite a ‘strict guide’ to colour placement, but in the end I was a lot more fluid and went my own way of stitching it up. There is one very pale leaf that I wish I had done more ‘my way’ than the image, as I think it is too pale. But I decided to just leave it as it was. The direction lines were a little tough to work out, so I wasn’t in a particular hurry to undo it all and start again!
Finish the area with a couched outline
The back is again finished in a couching stitch, and really does give a lovely clean finish to it!
A VERY bright breast!
After working with all those shades of brown, when the red came out it was a bit of a shock to the eyes! It’s a real blood red, so rich, and a great contrast to the subtle browns. The orange is another contrasting colour, and is a real ‘carrot’ orange. Not two colours I would have put together, but when it is all finished, it does work!
Laid Work with Trellis
The first two areas worked were the laid work with trellis areas.
Laid work is a lot like satin stitch, except all your thread remains on the top of the fabric. This is because the area is too wide to cover in satin stitch. This isn’t just from a thrifty perspective either. If you use satin stitch over wide areas, the density of the stitches can almost gather the fabric.
Getting the first few stitches in laid work is the hardest part I find. Once you’ve got a few straight, it’s easier to follow the pattern!
The trellis is stitched in the same colour (but interestingly with the red, almost looks a slightly different shade), over the laid work. Getting the distance between the stitches even is the hardest part here! Everyone has their tricks. Mine seems to involve a tape measure, though I’m tempted to put some marks on a piece of paper or my finger in the future to make it easier.
One of the most useful tricks here I have found is to lay the thread down where you think it needs to lay, and move it around until you are happy with it’s placement. Then, rather than moving the thread and not being completely sure if you are going to be in the right spot, stitch through the thread at the point where you want to take it to the back.
The remainder of the breast is worked in satin stitch, alternating each section between the orange and the red.
I actually feel the sections are a little wide for satin stitch, as the stitches on occasion are covering a couple of centimetres. I did contemplate using something like a block shading technique, but you really do get a nice effect with the satin stitch. So with a regularly stretched frame I went forth with the satin stitch! It does give a fantastic finish.
The finishing touches – a flower centre, a beak and an eye!
The centre of the flower was worked with French Knots and gives a really lovely variation to the texture of the laid work and satin stitch.
The beak is worked in satin stitch, and the eye in padded satin stitch.
I’m always terrified of the eye – it really can make or break a piece! But I’m quite happy with how this one turned out.
When you need to change direction around a shape using satin stitch, don’t be scared to use ‘nudge’ stitches. These smaller stitches will help to ease you around your corner. Just be sure to always make sure the start of this nudge stitch is covered by the next full length stitch.
The Crewelwork Robin all completed!
And here is my take on Nicola’s crewelwork robin!
Nicola Jarvis Crewelwork Robin Kit – A Review
And before we go, a quick review of the kit!
Fabric and Design
The kit comes with your linen pre-printed with the design, which means you can dive straight in and start stitching.
My kit contained linen twill, however the instruction booklet says ‘upholstery fabric’. All three of the kits I have use a different fabric. So it may in part depend on what Nicola has on hand at the time, what fabric you get.
A Kit for Intermediate to Advanced Stitchers?
On the outset, I would say this was a kit aimed at the more confident stitcher, and someone with some experience of crewelwork.
However, that doesn’t mean a beginner couldn’t stitch this kit, as the individual stitches themselves are not difficult (with the possible exception of long and short shading, but that does just take practice!).
Some considerations before starting this kit:
Lack of detailed and clear instructions
The instructions are written from the point of view that you already know how to stitch the stitches used in this design.
There is some guidance given on where to place the split stitch, and a few pointers (like the couching – which I decided to do my own way!), but on the whole, you do need to have a reasonable idea of basic stitches to follow along.
No clear image of finished piece
There is no clear image of what the end piece will look like, which alongside the less than detailed instructions, does make it a little difficult to see exactly what is meant at the various stages.
Included in the instructions are Nicola’s (very well drawn) images of each section, which are more useful than the blurry image on the front. However sometimes it is nice to see clearly stitched images!
So many variations on the design…
When working this piece, you will see there are a number of different variations of this design.
There is the design printed on your fabric, which is ultimately what you need to follow, as the design lines are permanent.
There is the (somewhat blurry) image on the front, which is different to what you have printed on your fabric. In my case, the colour of threads was also different.
Finally, there are the images drawn of the design in the instructions. These are again different to both your fabric design and the image on the front of the instructions.
Whilst they are all similar, there are differences between the three, which if you aren’t confident, or you would like to create an exact replica, might cause problems.
Once I got over the fact the back was brown (and I’m glad I did, as I really like it!), I was fine with it. And I’m now confident enough to be able to stitch the shaded areas without needing to rely on exact images.
So no major problems which make it difficult!
But just some to be aware of. If you are a beginner, and you have someone you can ask for assistance, or you are just determined, I have no doubt you could successfully complete this kit. I would say however, that you would need either someone to help you, or to use other resources for how to complete the stitches.
Read on to find out how I can help you stitch your own crewelwork bird!
Some personal preference points
As I mentioned, this kit does use Applteon’s wool. This is really neither here nor there, but I do find that you need to be aware that your ‘thread wastage’ will increase, as you do need to cut out the extra thick and extra thin sections of the wool. And in the same way as DMC and Anchor react to the colour, Appletons does too. This just means you need to be aware that some colours are stronger than others.
The kit came with a size 5 embroidery needle. I personally don’t like using embroidery needles with wool, and definitely not when combined with Appleton’s! So I changed the needle to a size 24 chenille needle – the eye of the needle is a little bit wider, making it easier to thread the wool through.
Closing thoughts on the kit
Other than my personal grievances with Appleton’s, there really isn’t any negative things about the kit, provided you are an intermediate/experienced stitcher. If you are just starting out, this would be a tricky place to start – and only because of the instructions. I suspect this is why I didn’t proceed with the kits after I’d purchased them!
Better and clearer images of the end product would help, as would a more accurate image of what your piece will look like. Whilst I wasn’t overly upset that the colours were different to what I was expecting, this could be a problem for some people.
It is a reasonably easy kit to stitch up, and there is a lot of repetition in the stitches. So once you get into the section, it’s a nice ‘easy’ project. Which could also help those who are just starting out or are less confident, as you have lots to practice on!
A Final Tip on Working the piece
This is a very heavily embroidered piece. And the combination of heavily stitched areas and empty spaces on the back of the Robin, mean this is a project highly liable to puckering.
I stitched it on a slate frame, and was particularly vigilant with re-stretching it before each stitching session. I’ve not yet taken it off the frame to see how well it has ‘behaved’, but I suspect blocking it might also be a good idea.
If you don’t have a slate frame, you could stitch it in a hoop. I would recommend something like an Elbesse frame (affiliate link) with both rings bound, to give it that extra grip on the fabric. You will also need to frequently stretch your fabric in the hoop (several times a stitching session). Also, be prepared to block it if it does show signs of puckering once completed.
42 thoughts on “Nicola Jarvis’ Crewelwork Robin”
Love the result Catherine! It is really interesting to read your experience of the kit and getting back to crewelwork. Your experience is close to my own (lots of split stitch and seeding) and I stitched a different kit (although it was a bird too!) i am hoping to have some time to post about it. With appletons I use a huge size 20 chenille needle for most stitches. It does help to keep the condition of the Appletons well for longer!
Thanks Marlous! It’s quite enjoyable doing a kit where someone else has worked everything out for you, as well as being able to learn more and gather ideas about design, stitches and colour.
That is definitely a large needle that you use! I’m not sure I possess something that large! I have a few size 22 chenilles, but I don’t tend to use them. I try to keep the whole as small as possible and just weather the storm of the thread.
I agree – I think Appletons is really meant for use in canvaswork, several strands at a time, which evens out the strength and thickness issues. Being old enough to remember it, I’m still slightly nostalgic for Paterna in that context, though…
He’s a very fine Robin, with a wicked glint in his eye – well done!
Thanks Rachel – he certainly does have a wicked glint in his eye!
You make a good point about the possibility of Appletons suiting canvas work more. Though it is called ‘crewel’ wool. From what I understand, it is only in the last 15 or 20 years that these problems have arisen with it. I never did use Paterna Yarn. I found it quite a thick wool, though I know some people thought very highly of it and were disappointed when it went out of production. Though I thought they were back on the market now?
What a beauty! I love the quilted effect it has. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks Robin! The effect of all the different stitches works really well doesn’t it?!
As cross stitch or hardanger are as close as I get to embroidery, most of your comments are double dutch to me Catherine. That said, however, whatever the problems you found with this kit, the end result is stunning and I love this little Robin.
Oh I’m sorry it didn’t make a lot of sense Helen! That is good feedback, perhaps I need to try and make things clearer. I’m glad you like the finished Robin.
What a great job Catherine. The stitching along the back of the bird definitely finishes it off well. Agree with you about Appletons – I find these very frustrating to use. Thank you for a very comprehensive review.
Thanks so much Deborah! There were definitely some good learning points around design that came out of stitching this up. The split stitch and effectiveness of the couched outline are good points to remember. It’s funny how so many of us find Appletons so frustrating to use!
That really is a stunning result – the breast really pops against the delicate greys and browns of the rest of the body and issues notwithstanding, he has turned out beautifully. I’m doing Bayeux stitch at the moment and your tip on the trellis stitch will come in very handy.
Thanks so much Alex – when I first started stitching in the red I found it a real challenge – it was just so bright! But the end result is fantastic. I’m glad you found that tip about the trellis stitch useful. Let me know how you go with it on your Bayeux stitch.
He looks great Catherine. So far I’ve only bought one crewel kit. It came with Appleton wool and I never ended up stitching it. The wool has stopped me from ever ordering any other crewel kit. I really wish designers wouldn’t use it as it’s really not that enjoyable to stitch with. I think many of us would be willing to pay more if they swapped it for a better thread even if it was more expensive. I look forward to watching you stitch the other birds 🙂
Thanks Dima. I wouldn’t let the Appleton’s put you off too much. It’s frustrating, but you can get some good results with it. There are just a few things to remember when using it. I think it is quite a ‘historical’ thread, which means a lot of designers use it. Their colour range is also better than any of the others out there alone. You can pair different brands to get the range, but I guess using the one brand does help.
Beautiful work Catherine and a wonderful post!
Oh dear, poor Appleton’s!
Thank you for the link to Appleton’s blog. I was interested to see the RAF tiles especially. My handicraft group have had a donation of Appleton wools and have been stitching tapestry canvas tiles in various blues which will be put together in a panel, to be ready for our club’s exhibition next year.
I’ve only worked one Crewel pattern and it’s really useful reading your tips, thank you for sharing.
Your Robin looks amazing! Well done!
I guess we all have our frustrations, and some threads that I like others won’t! I was asked recently if things had changed with the quality of Appleton’s since the new owners came on board. I confess I’ve not bought any recently, so I can’t make comment on that. The Appleton’s would work brilliantly on a tapestry, and you will get some great shading. I’m glad you found the link inspirational!
Very helpful post. I have done 3 of Nicola’s birds, including a version of the robin with beads instead of wool for the breast. Her designs are stunning. You articulate the hiccups I experienced with the kits, too. For me, the differences among the different diagrams/images (including the colors) was the most frustrating. I didn’t have a problem picking out the diagram/image I wanted to stitch, but in some cases I had difficulty figuring out how she did what she did – especially considering the relatively small size of the robin and the relative robustness of the Appleton.
Nicola is such a talented designer, and I would love to take a class with her. With her kits, use your initiative 🙂
Greatly enjoy your blog and your RSN adventures. The kaola is jaw-dropping.
Thanks so much for dropping by and for your thoughts and encouragement! I’ve not heard my koala called jaw-dropping before, so thank you very much!
I’m glad it’s not just me that found the problems with the kit. You make a good point in not being able to work out how she did something. I don’t think this bothered me greatly, as I used past experiences to work it out. But it is a very valid point. And perhaps another reason why I never progressed with the kits further all those years ago.
She is an extremely talented lady, and apparently an incredible teacher. I too would love to do a class with her – I think you would really learn a lot. Not just about embroidery techniques, but also about design and colour.
Thanks again for dropping by and commenting!
Your robin is beautiful, Even after attending her three day workshop, I did notice the differences between the photograph and the instructions. I seem to remember she is in the process of completely redesigning her instruction booklets, so hopefully they will be clearer.
Still planning to do more of her designs, though the issue with the bluebird seems to be sold out 🙁
Thanks Margaret – you were very lucky to have been able to do a class with her! It’s interesting that she is going to be redesigning her booklets. That’s good to know!
I’m not sure which bluebird you would like to do, but I’ve just had a look at her site, and the crewelwork one has four in stock, and the silk one has two in stock. With Beating Around the Bush on in the near future, I’m sure there is a lot of demand on her kits, as she is very popular there. I know a few of the Australian needlework stores are sending emails that they now have her kits back in stock. Not that you would want to order from Australia!
Gorgeous robin! I appreciate reading your take on the process.
Thanks Pamela! I’m glad you found it useful.
Your robin is wonderful, and the red/orange breast makes it really pop! I can see how your RSN Certificate work has helped you work your way through the different stitches.
Thanks Anne! He is certainly not a Robin that will disappear into the background. It’s quite nice seeing how the Certificate has helped and developed my stitching in general.
Nice one, Catherine! This is such a cool design, and you’ve worked it beautifully. It’s good to get feedback on the Appleton’s thread, too… It’s not a brand I’ve noticed in stores over here, but if I ever see it, I’ll know what to expect!
Thanks Helen! It’s a really fantastic design, and was a nice piece to stitch up. I think you can only get Appletons in specialist stores, so I’m not surprised you’ve not seen it around. Oddly, there are more specialist stores here in Australia than there seems to be in the UK!
You did a fantastic job! I actually remembered whilst reading this that I have this kit! I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of consistency, quality of materials and instructions you mentioned considering they are very expensive kits!
Glad to know it’s not just me with stashed away projects! Feel free to join me in the stitch-a-long if you felt like getting it out!
What a beautiful robin! I’ve been following your blog for a while ( I found it while researching the RSN certificate, which I’m still contemplating!) I love this kit, and was thinking of getting it, but not sure I would be able to do it justice at this point!
Thanks Claire, and thank you for commenting and following along! If I can help in any way about the Certificate just let me know!
I’m sure you would be fine to stitch up the kit if you’ve had a little experience. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy! The stitch-a-long idea was for just this very reason! I’d love to be able to help you create your own.
Let me know if you have any questions about the RSN, this kit or the stitch-a-long. I’d love to help!
Thank you so much! I am going to the C&D open day at Rugby (which is where I would take classes) in November, to get more of a feel for it. In the meantime perhaps I will bite the bullet and get the robin kit, and join the stitch along!
I’ve heard good things about the Rugby centre. It’s great they do the open days now, and you can talk to students which will definitely help!
It would be great to have you join us in the stitch-a-long if your comfortable joining!
Goodness, this robin is amazing. Thank you for going into such detail and sharing your tips. Wonderful piece of work, just look at his red breast – perfect stitching.
Thanks so much Sheryl! It was such a shock to the eyes when that bright red came out. I’m quite pleased with how it all worked out.
Gasp! When I initially looked at the piece I was amazed at the beauty and then when I read through this post and looked at the detail – well you have completely blown me away! You are a stitchery goddess 🙂
Oh you really are too kind Tierney! I’m not sure I’m a stitchery goddess, I certainly don’t feel like it! But I do like the idea, so I may just keep it 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
Oh my goodness what a beautiful job you have done on Robin. I stitched one of Nicola’s birds two years ago and have looked at these kits longingly. I too enjoyed the Appleton wool included.
They are such brilliant designs aren’t they? I’m almost finished my second one, there will be one more to go!
Your work is just lovely and this turned out beautiful. I really enjoyed reading your post. I learned so much ~ Sharon
Thanks for stopping by Sharon! I’m so glad you found it useful. I’m quite taken with this piece, I really love his red breast!