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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Stumpwork Robe and The Last Stitch: fantasies about an embroiderer

So addicted am I to embroidery that I like to read fiction that engages with embroidery and embroiderers. I am partial to 'cosy' crime fiction, a whole genre of which involves embroiderers and knitters. So when Inspirations Magazine a few months ago carried an advertisement for two fantasy novels with titles of The Stumpwork Robe and The Last Stitch my fingers went immediately to and ordered them both.

They are also available from, with, of course, an excellent exchange rate for Australia at the moment.

Both books are also now available as ebooks for the Kindle, which is how I would buy them if I saw them now.

The two novels are in sequence and very much a continuing story. Set in the world of Eirie,  a European-style land where magical figures drawn from Irish, Scandinavian, Balkan, Breton and English mythology keep their own ways, often running counter to human law and morality. Adelina the traveller is an embroiderer, making her living by selling her embroidery, her services as an embroiderer and the threads she trades as she travels throughout Eirie.

Adelina's skill as an embroiderer together with her humanity - her friendship, love, decency and capacity for loyalty - make her vulnerable. She suffers great loss, then finds herself a prisoner, forced to embroider a robe that will capture faerie souls within the stumpwork, to make the wearer, Adelina's ambitious enemy, immortal. But a stumpwork robe can hold more secrets than the stolen souls and Adelina hopes to use words to achieve a different kind of immortality.

This is a dark, powerful page-turner. It takes seriously the traditions around faerie in European cultures.It is closer to the Brothers Grimm and Raymond Briggs than Walt Disney. It deals in tragedy and any victory is hard won and costly.

I found I needed to know the storyline in order to deal with the narrative. I skimmed ahead - right through the two books - to get a sense of security and destination before I could deal with the suspense and tragedy. Once I had the direction clear I settled down to enjoy Prue Batten's polished prose. She writes clearly; her rhythm and flow carrying the reader on.

She experiments with an alternation of first and third person narrative to allow Adelina to 'speak to camera'. I found the device a bit distracting from the narrative - but I am a tell-me-what-happened-next-reader.

My other niggle is the glossary which is a useful tool for this book but there are other terms that could have been included and alphabetical ordering would have been helpful.

Prue Batten lives in Tasmania and runs a sheep farm. Her background is journalism, she has librarianship qualifications and embroidery skills. She uses her Mesmered's Blog ( to publish work in progress, exposing herself to reader response, a community of writers and scrutiny of her writing as part of the process. It is really interesting to observe the process of publication adapting to new possibilities.

The Stumpwork Robe concept of documents concealed within stumpwork embroidery has led to a partnership with Pat Sweet, a miniature book artist whose work can be seen and purchased at

I dips me lid to Prue Batten. It takes intellect,  integrity and guts to experiment with electronic publishing and social media through a novel grounded in European mythology, and, through an embroidering heroine, explore what it means to be human, .

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Huck, huckaback or Swedish embroidery

One project in the Spring issue of the Canadian A Needle Pulling Thread Magazine was a placemat and napkin set called Oh Caroline by Christine Allan of Lancaster, Ontario.

Christine Allan describes the style as Huck embroidery and says it is also known as Swedish embroidery. Other references also call it 'darning embroidery'. It is characterised by picking up the 'floats' - a layer of thread on the surface of the fabric.

I had no idea what this form of embroidery was called, but my very first school sewing project, at the age of eight, (before I progressed to the desk cover and pinwheel) was a simple handtowel in this style, on white huckaback fabric. It got a lot of use and shows it!

I had even forgotten the name 'huckaback'. A bit of web searching turned up many references to huckaback embroidery.

Although A Needle Pulling Thread says this embroidery was popular in the late 20s to early 60s, it was also popular in the 1890s using silk thread. It received a boost in 1904 when mercerised cotton became available and the huckaback fabric could also be woven or dyed to produce colours other than white or cream.  (This didn't seem to have arrived at my primary school in 1955!).

I really enjoyed making my little towel. I remember the magic of creating the coloured lines so simply. I tried a version of it on one of my bags before Christmas, using fabric left over from another project.

Although not huckaback, the fabric had the surface thread quality that allows you to embroider without piercing the fabric.

I love Christine Allan's design and, although I am not into placemats, I might find a way to use it on a bag.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Dad's 1946 Needlework

My father, Len Haynes, married my mother, Sylvia Ray, in Sydney in January 1946. He was on the British aircraft carrier Formidable in the Indian Ocean when it was kamikazied in 1945 and met my mother in Sydney while the ship was being repaired.

 The Formidable was off the coast of Japan during the bombing of Hiroshima and brought prisoners of war back to Australia on the conclusion of the War. Len chose to be demobilised in Sydney, marry and settle.

As there was a severe housing shortage in Sydney after the War, my parents lived with Sylvia's parents for seven years. Len liked to do things with his hands. Boarding with my grandparents he had none of the scope to build furniture and improve the house that he had when he and Sylvia bought their own home in 1953. In that first year of their marriage Len turned his hand to creating with thread.

I don't know what the technique is called, but Dad says he had a magazine article to work from, and it drew on the knot work that he was adept at from his time in the navy.

He made a couple of doilies as a trial using faux silk (green rayon) and cotton (multi-colour, below) thread.

Then he made a pram cover and pillow in wool for the children they had in 1947 and 1948. The pram cover served my dolls and my daughters' dolls before disintegrating, but the pillow cover for the pram is still preserved.

After 1947, Len put his creative energies into other things, knotting rope for his brother-in-law's boat or my skipping ropes, making a doll's house out of dead matches and eventually converting and furnishing a house to meet his family's needs. This is the only needlework technique he worked on.

I took the pieces in this blog post along to a recent Embroiderers' Guild of South Australia Heirloom Identification Day to see if I could get some more information about the technique. No one could give it a name, or find it in any of the library books, but the experts were able to work out how it was done.

You begin by making a wooden frame, the size of the finished article and driving narrow-head nails all around the frame at even intervals -  like a French knitting (or tomboy) bobbin, but larger and square or rectangular.  Thread is wound both vertically and horizontally across the frame from one nail to the nail opposite to form a grid of thread bundles. Another thread is then taken diagonally from corner to corner, tying up each  intersection of vertical and horizontal threads on the grid across the diagonal.

It shows most clearly on the back of this multicoloured mat. It is about 25 cm square.

You then make little tufts on the right side by tying  tassels at each intersection and tufting them close to the surface.

I can see why it didn't catch on as a craft form, but all power to my dad for his patience and contribution of the pram cover to the preparations for their family in times of shortage.

Thanks to my daughter Katherine for  preserving and photographing the pillow cover.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Violet Bag

I have been working a little bag with a violet motif from Inspirations 69 (Violet Times). It is on a heavy natural linen.

The outlines are in split stitch - always a challenge with a single strand of thread. It is a good chance to practice satin stitch and long and short stitch - neither of which are my forte.

It took me several nights to complete the embroidery and I needed to use my magnifier at times.

The bag is lined with a mauve floral, with the linen folded over to form an edge inside.

The tricky part, for me, is the crocheted edging around the top, and the crocheted cord to go through it. I have only basic crochet stitches and not much practice, so this will be a challenge.

The top edge was OK - a basic 6 chain loop then 4 stitches through the cloth on the first round, then a second round with a little picot on the top of each scallop.

The threaded cord was more challenging, since my crochet knowledge doesn't extend to triples but I got something resembling the picture with the help of one of my mother's old crochet books.

The result is certainly pretty. Maybe I will keep it and use it for scissors and threads.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cross-stitched carry-bag

I prepared this blog-post several days ago, but blogger has been down for 24 hours and the draft was lost. This is my reconstruction.
A large (40x50cm) stamped cross-stitch bag caught my eye in the recent Fox Collection catalogue  ( and I bought one to try. The kit is in the Stitch-Art range by Duftin, a Hungarian wholesale company (

The bag comes ready-made in a cream strong grosgrain cotton with similar burgundy poly-cotton backing and handles. I suspect there is a little polyester in the embroidery side as well. It comes with stranded burgundy thread, cut in lengths of about 60 cm.

This would make a perfect travel project.

It involved the same colour and the same stitch with no counting. The challenge was finding the continuous pathway for my stitches to use up all the thread without cross-overs. It's a bit like following a maze.

I like the flowing design with enough white space to please the eye.

As can be seen on the right, I lost my stitch direction a couple of times, but it was easily corrected by stitching the cross-bar under the existing one .

I found this one so relaxing and was so pleased with the result I identified three similar bags - different designs - in both burgundy and black on the Duftin website and got in touch. Although they are wholesalers, they have a few kits in hand and have agreed to send them to me from Hungary.

Given the stash of projects I have already, this is probably madness, or obsession. At least these will be good projects to take to the nursing home if I don't do them in the immediate future!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wattle scarf

While I was making the Ottoman Scarf from Alison Snepp's January SA Embroiderers' Guild class (, I decided to try the same techniques on a scarf using a wattle motif.  I managed to buy a black scarf from Raffal after contacting Helen Webster at Raffal.

A hunt through my gardening books gave me a photograph of wattle that I could simplify  and enlarge sufficiently to produce a design that might work on the end of a scarf.

Armed with a very poor photocopy of the original wattle picture (the book was pretty big and I didn't want to carry it around) I went to Christina's on Prospect Rd, Adelaide, to selected threads. As always, they were very helpful and between us we came up with a practical set of threads. I wanted to stay with the Gumnut Stars silk thread. It is lovely to work with and very helpful in achieving the effect of the grey-green leaves of wattle.I used two shades of yellow and two shades of green.

I then began the hardest part - transferring the design on to the wool. These scarves are very loosely woven. 

The plus side of this is that it makes it possible to use a light-table to transfer a design. I tried a black pashmina from another source that showed nothing at all through the light table!

The down-side is the difficulty of keeping a consistent line going across the fibres - especially on a black surface. I used a gel pen and kept turning the light on and off to see what I had finished and where the gaps were, since the white gel doesn't show up with the light behind.

I was able to get enough of the structure in place to enable me to begin to embroider.

I began with the outlines in chain stitch. This gives me a framework before the chalk fades. I can then fill in and improvise around the outlines.The photos below, because of the light I focused on it, bleach out the thread colour.

I used chainstitch for the leaves, as they are so long and thin, and atma stitch inside the chainstitch outlines of the wattle balls. This works well on the loose weave of the scarf.

Although it was a little harder embroidering on the black scarf than on the cream one from Alison's Ottoman Scarf class - just because of the usual difficulty of seeing the threads through the dark background - it was nevertheless fun to do. I could have embroidered over the light table, but chose to work without it.

The french knots were a little tricky on the loose weave, but made a big difference to the overall look.

The final challenge was the dreaded tassels - 58 in this case, 30 at one end and 28 at the other. These scarves are not tied off with same number of bundles at each end. I did more green than yellow tassels, partly because I had more green thread and partly because I didn't want yellow tassels to overwhelm the wattle design.

I don't dislike making tassels as such, but making them around the knots on the threads already hanging from the scarf is quite tricky.

Once done, I teased them up a bit using my handy boo-boo stick.


                                                                  I am pretty pleased with the result. It turned out much as I had imagined it

Monday, May 2, 2011

Blackberry tassels.

As a 'filler' project in the evening, while working on the construction of the English smock during the day, I made a couple of blackberry tassels from a little kit I have had for a while from Windflower Embroidery. I also have their strawberry kit, which is stitched rather than beaded.

This one was a lot of fun and a welcome change from the scale and colours of the smock.

You begin by cutting a small shape from black felt.

It's about 4cm across the wide part.

You fold this in half and stitch up the side to form a little cone which you turn inside out and gather around the top. Filling it with wool stuffing, you draw it up to form a little knob, fasten off and add a cord.

Using the cord as a handle, you then bead the entire outside surface with a mix of black and dark purple beads.

The stalky leaves at the top are formed by drizzle stitch - basically casting on a series of loops just like casting-on in knitting, then securing in the same way as a bullion knot is secured.

The result is quite charming.

I plan to use mine as the ends of a drawstring on a bag - but that's another project!