You may remember that I have taken the plunge, and have decided to complete the Certificate in Technical Hand Embroidery run by the RSN. Well, I have started, and it wasn’t  as scary as I thought it would be!

My first day, (after negotiating the security team of Hampton Court Palace!) was a day of design and preparation. Our two tutors were Owen Davis and Heather Lewis – two very knowledgeable and experienced embroiderers. The class is made up of students at all different stages in their certificate or diploma, which is great for a new student like me! The work produced is of such a high standard, and it is great to be able to talk to other students and your tutors in breaks. Such a great opportunity! I was extra lucky, as on the day I started there was one other lady starting out, and two others who were on their second day. It was wonderful to be able to experience this with a couple of others in the same boat!

Before doing anything, Owen gave us two new starters a brief description of what makes Jacobean crewelwork so distinguishable, and what elements we should look to include in our design. It was then up to us to come up with a design. This is where the panic set in! But thankfully, Heather said a great way to do this if you aren’t a confident drawer (me to a T), is to look through some of the books in their collection, and photocopy elements you would like to put into your design. Then, with a blank A4 page, with your cut out elements, piece together your design. This suited me much better! I had looked through a variety of different crewelwork designs before the first day, and had an idea of what I wanted – namely, a pomegranate, and a squirrel centred around the traditional tree of life. After fiddling around with various elements, adding in some tree branches and the like, I had to come to the conclusion that the pomegranate was just going to have to wait for another design! It didn’t matter if it was a large or small motif, it just didn’t work with the other elements. But I do have my squirrel! This is the design I have ended up with. I even managed to gather enough confidence to draw in a couple of little flowers all by myself!

RSN Certificate Jacobean Crewelwork design by Catherine Patterson of Hillview Embroidery

The second element of the first day was framing up using our brand new slate frames. Both myself and the other lady were a bit stiff in the back by the end of it, but it is definitely an effective way to get the fabric taut. And I would say it is tauter than drum tight!

a framed up embroidery piece using a slate frame

Before getting the fabric to this state where you could play the drums, you need to sew your fabric onto the frame, using a strong dressmakers cotton and tape on all four sides of the fabric (the top and bottom are attached to the frame). Then you need to take a big deep breathe. The  bracing needle (or weapon as I consider it!), is a serious needle. To give you an idea of size, here is a photo of the bracing needle alongside a standard pin and needle. Operating such a piece of equipment comes with a health warning – NEVER draw the needle up through the tape – it must ALWAYS go down into the tape. And hopefully (we both survived!), there is no blood spilt!

A bracing needle used for framing up slate frames size comparison

The point of the bracing needle is to thread the tape you have attached to your fabric with string to the slate frame. I got into quite the tangle, as you seem to need a lot of string, and I needed to stop and thread the string through a few times before getting to the end (and breathing again!).

Once you have looped to loop the string, you safely store the bracing needle away, and it is time to tighten up the fabric. Heather was very quick and very good at doing this! First off you tighten the fabric as much as possible using the string on each side. Then, just when you think it isn’t possible to get it any tauter, you stand on it and stretch it some more! And there you have it – one extremely taut piece of fabric!

To end off the day, we chose what we thought would be our colours, so we could do our homework, and colour in our designs! It was definitely starting to get ‘real’ at this point! The requirement is to use to use two colour groups, with one accent colour. Luckily, Heather said I could have two colour accents if they were from the same colour group, so I have a bit more freedom with colour choices.

Day two arrived, and with it, needing to get over my next fear – pricking and pouncing the design, followed by painting the design on. Pricking the design on wasn’t too bad – a steady hand is needed, and I found once I was into the rhythm of it, I was able to achieve an evenness to my placement of holes on the tracing paper. After carefully taping the design onto your drum tight fabric, you use pounce, which is grey in colour, and carefully, using a firm but soft ‘pouncer’ made of felt, swirl the pounce over the design and through all those holes, being careful not to get the pounce everywhere! This was a little tricky on the edges of the tracing paper where my design got quite close to the edge. Once fully ‘pounced’, you very carefully lift off your tracing, and you are left with a connect the dots puzzle. Heather said you do really need to move quite quickly with getting the dots joined, as they become blurred the longer they are left to settle, and whilst I was painting the design on I noticed this. So something to be mindful of. Until the end of the painting exercise, I really struggled to get nice neat and clean lines, and you can see one big boo boo! One blob of paint that really shouldn’t be there. At least it’s on the right side of the tree trunk! Another tip I picked up here as a result – take off bracelets!  They make life more difficult for you then it needs to be. I also started by trying to make quite long lines, but I found the shorter ones were a lot more exact and controlled. I also mixed more water in with the paint the further in I got, so eventually, I was left with a nice combination of better understanding and skill with what I was doing and better paint consistency!

Painted on embroidery design using traditional prick and pounce method

After letting it dry over lunch, a baby brush is used to very gently sweep away the excess pounce. Combined with a good whack to the back of the fabric, the poor pounce doesn’t stand a chance!

At last – time for stitching! The first stitch I was shown was chain stitch (lazy daisy’s joined together in a row), which I have stitched in different colours across a branch.

Working chain stitch

I was surprised by two things at this point – firstly, Heather is a QUICK stitcher. Don’t blink, you will totally miss it! And secondly, I was surprised at just how small she made each chain stitch. Each stitch is about four millimetres in length –  that is not long! I found getting the stitches this small difficult, along with getting them consistently sized, and consistently tensioned. So when I got home, I got out some spare fabric and stitched a few rows to try and get the hang of it better.

Chain stitch sampler worked by Catherine of Hillview Embroidery

The last bit of stitching for day two was trellis stitch. This is a stitch where you really do need to be even with your stitch placements, otherwise they look ‘off’. I finished it off for homework, but I’m not really happy with it. I think it needs to come out again and be re-stitched. Heather has said the reason for my first one not quite looking right is that I have made my anchoring stitches too small. So at least I know what I have to do to make a better go at it second time around. The trellis in the bottom hillock (the other bit of homework) wasn’t too bad – maybe a bit too diamond shaped. I have a thought to add in French Knots into every second space, so maybe that will detract from that.

Working trellis stitch

So this journey has well and truly started! And I’m having so much fun, learning lots, and am genuinely excited about the whole thing!

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