There I was, merrily stitching the passing of time, celebrating my mother’s birthday and generally looking forward to all the colours of autumn. Then the Queen died, plunging the country into ten days of national mourning.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a staunch royalist, but I felt it was important to mark these days on the journal. For one thing I wasn’t sure what national mourning was going to look like, so it was an opportunity to experience something I had never seen on that scale. I actually like the colourlessness of these days and the way they stand slightly apart from the rest. There was definitely something different about that time.
We were away in North Yorkshire for part of the mourning period. We walked a lot, and climbed a mountain, and enjoyed lots of peace and fresh air. We encountered American and European tourists wanting to know how we felt about the Queen and expressing their sympathy. I don’t normally feel any particular national sentiment, but it seemed as if everyone assumed that this was ‘our’ loss. It was really quite moving at times. There was a palpable sense of subdued sadness everywhere we went.
I stitched the day of the Queen’s death and the day of her funeral in black, and all the days between in shades of grey. They look a bit otherworldly now. It was a strange time.
The unworked part of the stitch journal is getting shorter and shorter, as is the year. The days are really hurtling past. I have made some big decisions, and the end of the year will be a turning point for me. Until then, it’s a matter of keeping calm and carrying on.
Up early this morning, before going to the day job in the office, to sit with the stitch journal for a few minutes to complete the last day of August.
I am starting to feel autumn in the air, and I can see the light starting to change. Summer is my least favourite time of year – too bright, too hot, too noisy – so I’m looking forward to a little more quiet and a bit more darkness. I think of darkness as restful, like a cosy blanket or a thick curtain, but I know a lot of people struggle with the shortening days.
We are lucky to have seasons in this part of the world, to move through the months and be able to see the continuing cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Many of the flowers in our garden are just seed heads now, but they contain a whole new cycle of life ready to begin again after the winter. I guess stitches are like seeds too. There is a pun here, right, about sewing and sowing but I think I’ll probably just leave that there.
I worry sometimes that the stitch journal will become too busy, too much of a maelstrom of colour and texture, but so far it seems to be still quite cohesive. The colours and textures need quite careful managing but the stitches themselves just seem to happen along and pop out of nowhere.
I’m already thinking about how I will structure next year’s stitch journal and I think it will be different from this year somehow. I may choose a coloured background rather than white. It’s still a way off, so there is time to think about it some more.
Thank you everyone who recommended Tulip and Bohin needles. I tried some, and I like both – on balance I prefer the Bohin, just because they’re more like what I’m used to. I like the little glass test tubes that the Tulip needles come in though.
I started with the Tulip sashiko needle. It’s enormous! It was like sewing with a harpoon. It sews well though and is a good choice for this thick cotton thread.
I also tried the Tulip silk needles, which are meant to be fine enough to glide through silk. I’m afraid it didn’t, really, even after a swipe with the emery. I tried this one on a scrap of fine silk sari ribbon covered with a bit of silk organza, using my finest silk thread (I think it’s Coats fine silk but can’t read the small print on the tiny label. My ageing eyesight frustrates me no end).
I also used a fine hand-dyed silk thread in shades of purple. I used the Tulip silk needle for one half and a Bohin embroidery needle for the other. I don’t think you can tell which is which, but the Bohin was easier to use.
I guess the moral here is that a good needle is a good needle, whatever that turns out to be for you. It’s useful to try a few different types just to see how they work.
I’m often asked what kind of needles I use, and what size. If you’re new to hand sewing, needles can be a minefield as there are various brands and different sizes within each type. I wondered if it might be helpful if I gather some thoughts, and needles, together this morning.
My favourite needles are made by John James, who have been manufacturing needles since 1840. In my view their needles were better before they developed the association with Entaco, who appear to be overseeing the manufacturing, but they are still good quality needles. You can read about the history of the company here. I am not on commission, by the way – I just like a good needle. What I especially like about this company is that they do a downloadable needle catalogue, showing each needle at its actual size – you can see that here.
The needles I use most often are embroidery needles, and quilting needles. You can buy embroidery needles in a range of sizes; in the picture below you can see sizes 3 to 10 (the higher the number, the smaller the needle). Embroidery needles are sometimes sold as crewel needles – they are more or less the same thing. They have a fine, pointed body with an elongated oval eye which is ideal for stranded cotton (other threads are available – I generally use this kind of needle for my hand-dyed silk and cotton threads). The size of needle you need depends on the type of thread you’re using as well as the kind of fabric you’re sewing on, and the kind of stitch you’re doing. If in doubt, go for matching the needle to the thread. Your thread should go through the eye of the needle comfortably without too much effort. If your thread rolls around in the eye or falls out, you probably need a smaller needle; if it feels too tight (you can sometimes hear it when this happens, and you will feel some resistance when you pull the thread through), then you probably need a larger size. I don’t take much notice of what the size is called, I just use whatever feels right for the thread.
Quilting needles (often sold as Betweens) are shorter, stronger, and more flexible than embroidery needles. They are designed to pass easily through all three (or more) layers of a quilt, and to enable you to make small, fairly regular quilting stitches to hold the layers together. I often use these for general sewing as well because I like the shorter length. I use mainly size 10 and 11, and I like the Big Eye variety because my eyesight isn’t what it was. These needles also allow me to quilt with thicker threads.
For utility hand sewing (sewing seams, piecing patchwork, etc – anything that needs regular cotton sewing thread, the kind that you would use in a machine) I use sharps. These also come in a range of sizes, and probably the easiest way to buy them is in an assorted set so you can choose the best needle for the job. Sharps are flexible, but not as strong as quilting or betweens, which makes them prone to breaking more easily. I generally use size 11 for sewing most lightweight fabrics together (quilters cotton fabric and lighter), and size 7 if I’m sewing thicker fabrics like medium to heavyweight linen.
Probably the easiest way to see which needles you like, if you’re a complete beginner, is to buy a set of assorted needles and try them all on various fabrics with different kinds of thread.
I am very bad at looking after my needles, which is why all these packs look so new. I’ve had to replace most of my needles recently because I leave them out, stuck in pincushions (like birdie), where they pick up dust and moisture from the atmosphere which turns them rusty in the end. They also become blunt over time. I thought it was probably time I made myself a needle case.
I’ve used a bitty background that I made a while ago – layered scraps covered with a sheer, with hand stitching across the surface. I’ve backed it with some hand-dyed cotton fabric, added a button and a buttonhole bar, and that was a very nice Sunday morning’s productive stitching.
So there we are: a very quick gallop through some needles for hand-stitching, which I hope has been useful.
Many people these days tend to refer to hand-stitching as slow-stitching (though they’re not necessarily the same thing, as I understand it) and most of us are all about taking time out and slowing down. Needles in the past were valued for their ability to enable hand stitchers to sew more quickly. How times change.
I hope no one’s bored with book covers yet. I’m making a cover for a 12” square sketchbook – though I expect it will be more of a notebook, really, with drawings. Somewhere I can jot down ideas and designs for Red Bubble.
I’ve always enjoyed seeing red and turquoise together. It started me thinking about the concept of clashing colours, and I’m not sure that I agree there is such a thing. In my experience, you can generally put any two or three colours together and they will sit side by side fairly happily. Red seems to go with pretty much anything; so does purple. I think there is the potential for a problem when you put too many different colours together, but even then you can generally tone them down by adding some black and white.
The main problem I’m having is trying to get an accurate photograph. If the red is right, the turquoise is wrong, and vice versa. Suffice to say the colours are richer and deeper in real life.
The design initially started with the red circle, which is a piece of shot silk from an old sari layered over a circle of felt. I was going for a fairly obvious red bubble, but then the little flowers popped up and it’s turned into a kind of moon flower arrangement. These things happen. I find the thing that grows organically in its own way is usually better than the thing I was aiming for. You just have to trust the process sometimes. The turquoise background is pieced together using strips from the edge of a hand-dyed vintage tablecloth. You can see the creases, which formed the edge of the cloth where the fabric had been doubled. They won’t iron out, and in any case I quite like these scars from a previous life.
And then I found a piece of really ugly fabric. I don’t often have dye disasters, but this poor thing was definitely one of them. Usually you can rescue a disaster by over-dyeing it, but I think this one has been over-dyed a few times and never looks any better.
But actually it looks ok here. It looks as if it has found its place in the world. Maybe ugliness is as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty. Maybe there is even no such thing as ugly. Beauty is, after all, one of many problematic cultural concepts that just excludes the non-conforming. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven, but then most of us can rub along ok with most people most of the time. Perfection is virtually unattainable. I will settle for OK on this occasion.
The back almost made itself. I already had the patchwork circle, pieced a while ago when I was gathering together some scraps of red print. These are mostly shiny/glitzy silk and satin, fabrics I wouldn’t ordinarily use much. But put them together, cheek by jowl, and they seem very happy.
I often think auditioning fabrics to see which of them looks good together is a bit like sending them on a blind date. Sometimes they instantly find true love, and sometimes they never want to see each other again and end up back in the drawer. Eventually there will be something for all of them, even if that turns out to be solitude. Some fabrics don’t need others; they do just fine on their own. Some need company. Sometimes which of them ends up together is more luck than judgement.
And that was July. I blinked and almost missed it. Just as well I had the stitch journal to keep me focused and present for at least some of it.
As always, it’s still made of mostly very simple stitches – running stitch, couching, blanket stitch, chain stitch, herringbone and fly. I’ve used a wide variety of threads, from very chunky perle no. 3 or 5 to very fine silk sewing thread. Some days are light as a feather, and some days really weigh you down.
Lots of summer colours in this month. Parts of July have been almost unbearable, it was so hot. The heat was suffocating.
Summer is my least favourite season but I have tried to find something to love about each day. I think that’s what keeps most people going. And that’s all the stitch journal is ever going to be, of course. Just a record of days passing, with needle and thread as witness.
Yesterday was World Embroidery Day (how do these things come about? Who decides?)
I turned yesterday’s block into a little embroidery sampler. It was that kind of day.
Tomorrow is 1st August, in the pagan calendar Lammas, which marks first harvest and the start of autumn. It may still feel like summer, but seasons and weather are not the same thing. Already I can see the light starting to change as nature prepares to move us from one season to the next. And there is space on the stitch journal to take another step forward into a new month.
I experienced a proper state of what psychologists call flow this morning – utterly absorbed and focused on making these little samples, I somehow lost two hours. I quite like it when that happens. You literally lose yourself in something while time rolls on without you. You come back to reality slightly dazed, feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle.
I really like this Klee painting, ‘Oceanic Landscape’ (1929) and have been drawing tree shapes with watercolour. I love the simplicity of these shapes – just a few very easy lines that nevertheless unmistakably say ‘tree’
Of course I wanted to see how these would work in fabric and thread. The first sample is layered sheers and silk net on a scrap of very soft brushed cotton.
The second is a scrap of vintage linen/cotton sheet, painted with watercolours and then stitched. You can see the imprint of the embroidery frame which kept the fabric taut just while the paint was drying. I will soak and stretch the creases out at some point.
This sketchbook (so far) is just for me, and just for fun. I’m not sure it’s leading anywhere, although really everything is good practice for something.
I’m having a few days away from the day job next week and am looking forward to a break. I have a strong need to paint – who knows where these directives come from? I think it’s probably important to listen, in any case – so will be on paper for a while. Just to see what happens.
The sketchbook cover is finished – despite all the careful measuring and re-measuring along the way, I am always really surprised when it fits.
I have sketchbooks in various sizes, mostly made from papers that I collate and bind myself. This one is a bought spiral bound 12” square one, which is a good size for exploring mark-making and for holding samples of stitched work.
‘Coming to bloom’ is a pastel drawing made by Klee in 1934, on black paper. I made a quick sketch with pastels, also on black paper – the fixative has dulled the colours a little, so I made a duplicate sketch in watercolour on a white background.
Then the fun really started. I made a little stitched sample on a scrap of black cotton fabric, only about 4” square or so, exploring ways of creating stitched blocks.
I really like the woven blocks. The satin stitch blocks have floats that are too long to be practical, but I also quite like the irregular sketchy effect of the straight stitch sample on the right. I worked the samples from right to left, so the weaving was the last thing I did.
Not quite sure where all this is going, but then some journeys are about exploration and discovery rather than arrival.