RSN Goldwork Part Two – Couching and Plunging
In our last look at the ‘gold koala’, we saw how to prepare our piece for adding the gold. Today, we will look at the techniques of couching and plunging various metallic threads. The koala has a lot of couching, and unfortunately, plunging, on him!
Couching and Plunging – Threads and requirements for Basic RSN Goldwork
For the basic goldwork module of the RSN Certificate, there are a number of specific goldwork techniques that need to be completed. And whilst the majority of these threads come in colours other than ‘gold’, for this piece, only gold can be used. This was a big hurdle for me to get over, as it really isn’t my style!
The techniques we needed to cover were:
- Couching Japanese couching thread over both felt padded areas and directly onto the fabric. At least one area was to include a turn greater than 90 degrees
- Combination couching – Couching of threads using the Japanese couching thread, gilt twist and rococo
- Some areas with purl purl outline
- An area with solid chip work
- Smooth purl cutwork over string padding, at least 5cm in length
For someone with very little understanding or knowledge of the technique, this made it very difficult to come up with a design, as I had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t!
Couching – Japanese couching thread
When couching threads, whether they be in combination or just the one type, the threads are couched in pairs. You use a single waxed thread to couch the threads down. To wax your thread, you pass it through some beeswax a couple of times. Be careful to do this away from your work, and to wipe any excess off, as the wax will stain your fabric.
The importance of your needle angle
The first time I properly appreciated the importance of how you place your needle into the fabric, was when I did the short class with Jenny Aidin-Christie. She explained the importance of angling the needle towards your first row of couched threads, and showed us how to move the threads away to ensure the threads lay as close as possible to each other.
On your first row of couching threads, the needle should come straight up and go straight down into the fabric.
On subsequent rows, your needle comes straight up on the ‘open’ side, and with one hand moving slightly the threads towards the open area, the needle is angled at about 45degrees, towards the previous row. The threads then ‘pop’ back and sit side by side.
The importance of the size of the couching stitch
When you couch your threads together, there is a delicate balance between a stitch that is too large, and one that is too small. If it is too small, the threads will either be pinched at the point of the couching stitch, or sitting on top of one another.
If the stitch is too large, the threads will have too much room to move around, and you won’t get the smooth finish.
This seems to be something which once you get into a rhythm with, you work out.
Turning sharp corners
This was something I had real problems with when I stitched my first gold work piece – the owl. All the books and things I read just didn’t make sense to me, and I really couldn’t grasp the concept of how to turn the corners!
But with the help of some experienced tutors to actually show me, I realised just how easy it can be!
The first trick is to place a couching stitch on the tip, where you then want to change direction. When putting the couching stitch in, you bend the thread back on itself, in the direction it has just come. In essence, you are ‘kinking’ the thread. You then continue on your merry way around the corner. And whilst you couch the two threads together on the straight areas, when turning a corner you couch them down individually.
It becomes a ‘messy’ business
As all the threads are couched before any plunging occurs, to gets to be a very messy and untidy look! Magic tape is good for both the top of the work and the base of the work once plunged, in taping these threads out of the way! There does come a point when you just can’t work out what is going on with all these threads sticking in every which direction, that you just have to plunge away.
As my koala’s body was done entirely in Japanese couching thread, I had a lot of practice! Here he is in various stages of his body being created. I ended up using close to 40 metres of Japanese couching thread on him! It’s hard to believe there is that much thread on there!
Angle your needle towards your previous row of couched threads at about a 45 degree angle. To help, move the threads you are couching slightly out of the way when you angle the needle. They will ‘pop’ back together!
Combination couching is much as it sounds – the use of any of the couching threads, couched down in pairs. So it could be a Japanese and a gilt twist, a gilt twist and a rococo. Or basically, whatever combination you feel meets the needs of your design.
The Koala’s arms
To get some of the ‘shading’ of the koala’s arm (quite difficult given everything is gold, gold and more gold!), it was suggested I use a a couple of rows of combination couching around his arm. I liked this idea, as it adds a little bit of variety to the end product, and ever so slightly creates a little shadow type effect.
The combination I used here was one Japanese couching thread and one gilt twist. It’s actually a really lovely combination! It got quite tricky around his fingers. They may be chubby, but they weren’t that chubby! So there was a bit of additional plunging required in some of his fingers.
His fluffy ears
Creating a fluffy look with nothing but gold threads was a little tricky. If I could have left some of the threads un-plunged and frayed, I think that would have worked well. But for this piece, everything needed to be plunged, so that wasn’t an option.
Despite this, the rococo did give quite a ‘fluffy’ effect, and was put to good use in his years.
There was basically every combination used in his years. It got quite tricky managing the large width difference of the rococo with the other two threads – it behaves very differently, and is difficult to get it to sit nicely.
But slowly, his ears did appear, and I was actually reasonably pleased with how they worked out!
Plunging and tying off – oh the joys!
This is where I learnt that the majority of your time working your gold work piece is actually spent looking at the back of it. I admit, there was quite a bit of whinging and whining going on throughout the several hours spent plunging and tying off. I did find it went much better when accompanied with a movie or TV show in the background. Something that doesn’t require too much ‘viewing’ time, but something to break up the boredom!
First step – plunging
Now that you have created a lovely mess on the top of your work, you have to tidy it all up!
Using a lasoo
The way I was taught to plunge all of my threads, was to use a lasoo. For the Japanese thread, some people use a large eyed needle and thread it through. Personally, I like the lasoo method for all of the threads. You can also this method if your thread snaps on top, and you don’t have enough to thread a needle and take it to the back.
Using a needle that will make a hole large enough for the gold thread to pass through, and some buttonhole thread, a loop is made with the thread. You then place the needle into the fabric, and draw it through. With your loop of thread on top, and catching just the tip of your gold thread, you then use the thread to pull the gold thread to the back. Whilst you couch threads down in pairs, you plunge them individually.
You need to make sure you plunge right on your design line, or where you want the area to end.
Problems plunging the Rococo thread
I had great problems plunging the rococo thread. It is considerably wider than either of the other two couching threads. At first I was given a slightly larger needle, and told you just have to ‘massage’ it through the fabric. This turned out to be quite ill advised! The needle was no where near large enough, and after a real good ‘yank’, the silk fabric was damaged and badly bruised. Not ideal!
So I stopped that method reasonably quickly, as I could see it was just not working. Oddly, there is no advice in the various gold work books on how to actually plunge such a large metallic thread.
The end result was I was given a HUGE darning needle. It was still difficult to get the thread through, but it did work, and with minimal or no damage to the silk. In hindsight, I could have used an awl to create the hole. The only problem would be knowing when your created hole was the right size! You would run the risk of going too large. Something to experiment with I think.
Second step – tying off
This was, without a doubt, the worst part of this technique for me. The plunging was a little boring, but at least there was thinking about where to plunge it, and of course, dealing with the ‘how’ in certain tight spots or with the rococo.
Using a double waxed thread and a curved needle, you couch down, in pairs, all those threads. I was taught that you need to do this for about a centimetre for each pair. I started doing this, and for a fair portion, this was what I did. But when time really was getting a little tight on me, I decided I just couldn’t spend that much time tying them all off. It was taking between five and ten minutes just for one pair!
After consulting the RSN book, I saw the instruction in there was for three of four stitches only. So I adopted that approach moving forward, and saved myself a lot of time! So if you have time on your side and you like to be very thorough, the one centimetre approach is probably fine. Otherwise I would just go with three or four stitches!
I also managed to snap a few curved needles in this process. It was actually quite difficult to get the needle to go where I wanted it to go so the threads would lie reasonably close to each other.
All in all, not a great experience! I’m sure it will get better the more you do it. But, eventually, after many movies, it did get done!
Next week we will cover off the last few techniques, and I will show you the finished product!
Plunge each of your threads singularly, but tie them off in pairs