I’ve finally made a start on my traveller’s blanket for the last ever class with Dijanne Cevaal. It took a while to think about the right foundation for this quilt, and in the end I decided on a piece of tea-dyed silk noil. Soft but textured, lightweight but warm. The back is hand-dyed silk noil, and the middle layer is brushed cotton (also known as cotton flannel).
A slight stumbling block in the thinking process for this quilt has been that traditionally these quilts have been all about travel and recording experiences, and I’m probably the world’s worst traveller. I’ve never ventured beyond the UK, never been on an aeroplane, and have never had a passport. I don’t even drive. I get seasick just watching boats on TV. What could I possibly have to say about travel?
And then I thought of course we’re all travelling constantly – through time, through life, through experiences. And so my blanket has ended up being about a journey through winter, my favourite season, which will be with us very soon. I’m thinking greys, dark blues, sludgy/grey greens, browns, whites.
I’m starting in the centre with this beautiful piece of antique embroidered cutwork, a mystery object. Does anyone know what this would have been, originally? It seems to be a discrete piece, and doesn’t look as if it’s ever been part of anything else – at first I thought cuff, but it’s not long enough, and there is no evidence of unpicked seams. It’s about 2.25” x 6”. Dressing table mat? Answers on a postcard please.
I’m using a few fabrics expertly eco-printed by Jane Hunter together with some vintage and antique pieces that I’ve been saving for something special.
A few people have asked about how I store my embroidery threads, so I thought a brief tour of my collection might be helpful.
I use a wide variety of threads, from very chunky cotton yarns (mostly for couching) to very fine silks, and pretty much everything in between. I will write a post some time about the various weights of thread that you can get and what you can use them for. For now I’m focusing on how to organise thread. This jumble of blue threads doesn’t look very organised, I know. I guess all things are relative.
When I dye threads, I dye them in skeins. They look really pretty in skeins, but I find them difficult to use like that because they very soon get horribly tangled, especially if you keep them all in the same box. I find the only way I can make them useable is to wind them somehow. I went through a phase a while ago of winding threads from skeins into little balls, but these also get tangled quite quickly.
I used to use sections of plastic drinking straw for winding threads from skeins after dyeing, which works quite well if you cut a little snip in the ends to anchor the thread before you start winding. The straws were left over from the olden days before we knew how damaging they are, and I figured it was better to use (and re-use) them than to let them end up in landfill.
Some of my threads are still on straws, but these days I tend to use little squares of regular 80gsm copy paper, about 3” square, and roll them up.
Again you need to snip the end of the paper tube so that the thread has somewhere to anchor itself to stop it unravelling. I find you don’t need to glue the roll of paper; the thread keeps it rolled quite securely.
I find it quite therapeutic to wind threads from skeins onto tubes, but it can take a long time depending on how fine the thread is.
The only time I use the commercial card bobbins (the kind that you can buy from embroidery shops) is for winding DMC stranded embroidery floss. I don’t like these card bobbins much because when you get to the end of the skein the thread ends up with permanent creases from being wrapped round the flat edges of card. I find there is no other sensible way of storing these though – I can’t see colours clearly enough with them piled up in skeins, and you need to label them in case you need to buy that particular colour again.
So there’s a little tour through my threads. I know lots of people who use sticks and twigs, and the old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, to store thread. They look lovely, but I imagine would be bulky in large numbers. So – how do you store your threads? Let me know if you have any good tips.
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 finished my painted/stitched version of Klee’s painting ‘Clarification’, which is part of the cover for a sketchbook. I’m fascinated by that solid line across the lower third, which also features in the original painting, and somehow ties the whole thing together.
I decided though that this is going to be the back cover, not the front, so there has been a bit of cutting and splicing.
I’ve kept the seam on the right side because I’m going to cover the spine area later so the raw edges will be covered. The sketchbook is a 12” square spiral bound one, so I didn’t want the raw edges on the back interfering with the wire spiral, and I didn’t want the bulk of a turned seam.
So now I’ve started on the front cover, which is based on Klee’s ‘Small Picture of Fir Trees‘ (1922). I did a sketchy collage just to understand the colours and shapes and used a view finder to isolate a square area.
I’m trying this one in layered sheers and semi-sheers, with a base of hand-dyed cotton organdie and bits of silk organza over the top. You can just see the outline drawing underneath.
I really like layering sheer fabrics. I used to use them a lot; less so these days but it’s maybe something I might revisit. I like the way they are solid and transparent at the same time.
The best bit is putting in some tacking stitches to get rid of the pins, which will be my next step. Then you can see much more clearly what you’re dealing with. Less hazardous too. I don’t know why, but I am always surprised by how sharp pins are. Makes me feel like I’m maybe not the sharpest pin in the box.
I did a little experiment yesterday. I imagine lots of people have done this before, but it’s the first time I’ve got round to trying fabric paint to colour thread. I used Jacquard dye-na-flow liquid colour, which behaves more like dye than paint, and applied it with a brush to create a space-dyed effect.
I only used three colours – lemon yellow, turquoise, and purple – with a little black to ‘sadden’ rather than darken. I soaked the threads first in water and squeezed out the excess before painting. They dried outside on the washing line. Fabric paints generally need heat to set them, and I figured if you can iron fabric, which is basically woven thread, then you can also iron thread so I gave them a quick steam with the iron when they were dry. I think I’ve read somewhere that these paints will cure in the air as well if you leave them a few days.
I quite like the pastel/watercolour effect but maybe wouldn’t water the colours down so much every time. I wondered if painting the thread would change the hand, and it does, slightly – they are still soft, but maybe not quite as soft as they would be if I’d used dye. On the whole I think I prefer dyed thread, but I found there is slightly more control over the colour with paint. It will be interesting to see how colourfast and lightfast these threads turn out to be over time. I road-tested a bit on today’s stitch journal block: