Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Finer Counted Cross-Stitch — Making the Transition

blue snowflake cross-stitched on white linen
Traditional counted cross-stitch on plain white linen
The cross-stitch is an ancient and venerable stitch. It can be traced back at least to the Byzantine Empire, founded about 300 AD (or CE, if you prefer). It probably spread northward from the Black Sea region along big rivers like the Dnieper, used both as a pattern stitch on its own and as a filling stitch with other forms of embroidery, such as white-work and pulled-thread work. It was used widely in western Russia, the countries that bordered Russia on the west, the Baltic republics, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. It came early to colonial America, where it was used primarily for linens and in decorative samplers. Indeed, it is sometimes called “sampler stitch”. (For more on cross-stitch, see the post for Aug. 26, 2013.)

butterfly cross-stitch pattern in transfer pencil on graph paper
Our pattern done in transfer pencil on 1/4" graph paper
In the 20th Century, cross-stitch which had always been done by counting threads in even-weave fabrics became widespread when patterns that could be transferred by ironing them onto fabrics became readily available. There was no need to count threads; just stitch over the printed X's, which would disappear when the fabric was laundered. If you want to make this kind of pattern yourself, it's easy to do. Use a well-sharpened hot-iron transfer pencil to draw your design in red X's on graph paper. Go over each X a few times so it will transfer easily. Remember that the design will be reversed on the cloth once it is ironed on, so letters should be done in reverse on the graph paper. (For more on making iron-on transfers, see the post for Oct. 6, 2013.) This pattern would be a nice size for a pillowcase, table runner, or the back yoke of a blouse. Patterns can be used more than once; I file mine to use as charts for other projects.

orange rose cross-stitched on white monk's cloth
Orange rose cross-stitched on white monk's cloth
In the second half of the 20th century, counted cross-stitch once again became popular. Books of patterns that enabled stitchers to make detailed, realistic pictures were printed. New even-weave fabrics became available in a broad range of colors and thread-counts. (The larger the number on the fabric, the finer the weave and the smaller the stitches; the smaller the number, the larger the scale of the embroidery and the fewer stitches per square inch.) Today, counted cross-stitch is as popular as ever. This rose is cross-stitched on monks' cloth using the pattern from the Aug. 1, 2013 post.

closeup of natural colored mok's cloth
Natural colored monk's cloth
I believe those of you who are beginners, learning counted cross-stitch on gingham, as well as those of you who are experienced cross-stitchers who have never tried monk's cloth, are in for a treat. It is a sturdy cloth woven so that it appears as all-over small squares of woven thread, each with a tiny opening at its corners. Since you use these little holes to space your stitches, just as you did with the corners of the squares of gingham, it makes the transition to plain fabrics very easy. If you have given up on cross-stitch because Aida cloth or even-weave fabrics are too difficult to see easily, you should find that projects on monk's cloth are easier to see and quick and easy to stitch. If you have only used white, ecru, or natural monk's cloth, you will be pleased to know that it is now available in as wide a range of colors as Aida cloth. (For more about monk's cloth, see the blackwork blog post of Feb. 27, 2014.)

butterfly cross-stitched in blues on white monk's cloth
Our "butterfly" cross-stitched in blues on white monk's cloth
Cross-stitch designs may be worked on monk's cloth in either tapestry yarn or embroidery floss (rayon, linen, cotton or silk). Monk's cloth has approximately 7 stitches per inch (49 stitches per square inch), so you may need to separate the strands of yarn or floss. Experiment on a scrap of fabric to see how many strands give you the coverage and appearance that you desire. I find that one or two strands of tapestry yarn and three to six strands of most kinds of floss work well for me at this scale, but you must find what works best for you. The preparation of the fabric and the technique of the stitching are just the same as for any other cross-stitch project. Here is the pattern above, worked in four shades of blue on monks' cloth using a single strand of J&P Coats™ craft thread.

Aida cloth in different colors and thread counts
Aida cloth in different colors and thread counts
Once you have some experience with monk's cloth, you may want to move on to Aida cloth. The technique is the same, for there are still little openings at the corners of the squares. The big difference is one of scale. The most popular gauge of Aida is #14. This is readily available and comes in many colors, including black. The scale is comparable to #14 mono needlepoint canvas. The stitches will be much smaller than the ones you used on the monk's cloth (nearly 200 per square inch, as compared to about 50.) The finished motif, worked from identical charts, will be much smaller on the Aida as well. For this reason, you will be able to produce very fine details. From #14, the weave and the scale get finer and finer: #16, #18, # 20, etc. Eventually the fabric gets so fine that only a single strand of thread can be used. 

butterfly stitched on #11 flax Aida cloth
Butterfly stitched on #11 flax Aida cloth
My local variety store also carries #11 Aida. This is my favorite because it works up much like #10 mono needlepoint canvas, which I use all the time. Therefore, I can easily visualize the finished project before I begin stitching. There is an Aida #11 flax in a lovely natural tan. It is firm and pleasant to work on. The edges fray very little and it does not require a backing fabric. The finished embroidery requires little or no blocking. It can be hand-washed gently in warm, soapy water, with no bleach, rinsed, and pressed on the reverse side with a warm iron. It works especially well as a background for embroidering plants or animals. Here's our little flier again, worked in a single color on # 11 Aida flax, using three strands of six-strand embroidery floss.

butterfly in multiple colors on #14 cream Aida cloth
Our pattern in multiple colors on #14 cream Aida cloth
I worked the next sample on a cream-colored piece of #14 Aida. I worked in several colors, using two strands of six-strand embroidery floss and a single strand of craft thread for the light lines on the body. Once I had made the complete pattern used in the other two samples, I filled in the rest of the outline with a darker color of floss. Although the pattern was not designed to represent any living species, I think the little creature looks pretty realistic. At this scale, many people have reached the bottom limit of their vision, where they can discern individual cross-stitches as X's with their naked eyes. It is this use of tiny, closely packed stitches which makes realistic renderings possible. Aida cloth is not inexpensive. I recommend that beginners purchase a small packaged piece in white, antique white, ivory or a pastel. It is easier to see the open spaces in the fabric and your stitches show up well.

butterfly embroidery samples shown together
Today's butterfly embroidery samples shown together for comparison
Have fun!

butterfly on monk's cloth in Assisi technique
Butterfly on monk's cloth in Assisi technique: subject of a future blog!

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Dirt Poor, Experience Rich

Spring has finally sprung in Annake's Garden (the green and dirty version), and we're scrambling to catch up. Taking a break from craft subjects, this time Annake offers a short photo essay about growing things and getting by on less:  a personal reminiscence of growing up in the rural Midwest during the Great Depression.

Strawberry plant first spring growth
Some of our strawberry plants
The time we have waited for through a long, hard winter has finally arrived. It's planting time! The raised beds have been cleared and turned so we can transplant the seedlings from our little lean-to greenhouse. The areas around our currant and gooseberry bushes have been cleared and the grapevines are pruned. Four kinds of berry briars are trained to fences and strawberry vines are spreading out under their chicken-wire dome. The herb beds are thriving. I can hardly wait to gather baby greens and fresh herbs for salads. And the smell of freshly-turned earth takes me on a nostalgic journey back to my Midwestern childhood.

Our hardscrabble farm was on hilly land. The Ice Age glaciers had never gotten there to make the land smooth and flat like so much of Illinois. This was not tall-grass prairie, where thousands of years of grass tall enough to hide a man on horseback had left deep deposits of soil, black as night and soft as velvet. Our fields and pastures had been hacked out of woodland and the soil was thin and rocky. We had forty acres of ground and two mules to farm it with, around a house built in 1814 to replace a sod house.

corn on the stalk with tassel
Corn on the stalk, with tassel
We cultivated corn, a few soybeans for livestock feed, sorghum for molasses, three kinds of clover for pasture and a little broom corn. We had a fruit orchard, a grape arbor, and a large vegetable garden. We raised a few dairy cows, hogs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese.

Potato beetle
Potato beetle
As soon as I could toddle in a straight line over rough ground without falling down too often, my dad handed me a Campbell's soup can half-full of kerosene and a stick. He showed me what potato beetles looked like and instructed me to knock every one I found off the plants and into the can. Then there were fat, wiggly cutworms to be pulled off the tomato plants. That was my introduction to agriculture and the world of work. And there was plenty of work to be done. 

Pretty, but still weeds!

When I learned to distinguish weeds from young seedlings, I got to pull LOTS of weeds.

Since I was a lot closer to the ground than my dad, I got to plant lots of seeds. I learned to mound up little “hills” of dirt to plant seeds of beans, squash, and pumpkins. I planted four seeds to a hill. Dad taught me a little rhyme to remind me:

One for the cutworm,
One for the crow,
One for the field mouse,
And one to grow”.

Cows at the water trough
Cows at the water trough
Livestock had to be fed and watered every day. Cows had to be driven to pasture every morning up the hill to the crossroads, down the hill past the cemetery, along the creek where fox grapes hung heavy in the trees and brought home every night. Chickens had to be driven into shelter whenever a storm was coming, or else they would pile up along the fence and smother or even drown in a hard rain. They had to be cooped up at night to protect them from foxes and raccoons. The mules pulled the heavy farm equipment. They had to be harnessed, hitched up, driven, unhitched, unharnessed and rubbed down.

Sow nursing piglets
Sow nursing piglets
There were always babies being born or hatched. Sometimes their mothers needed help with the process. Sows trampled piglets and cut them badly with their hooves. It was my job to clean the wounds with peroxide and treat them with fish oil and turpentine. It wasn't a pleasant smell, but that was the smell of springtime to me. I still miss it; springtime doesn't seem the same without it.

Baby chicks
Eggs had to be gathered every day, and some sneaky hens liked to hide their nests. They had to be sorted, washed, candled and packed for safe transport to town. Baby chicks had to be monitored constantly. If one got hurt and started to bleed, the others would peck it to death. Once they were let outside, you had to watch for hawks. I concluded early on that chickens were not very smart; I preferred the independent ducks and geese.

Toggenburg Goat
I learned to milk cows and goats two very different techniques and crank the cream separator and butter churn to prepare the dairy products we sold in town every Saturday, before we went to the cowboy movie. I helped Dad make “teepees” from willow saplings to support pole and runner beans. I raked and hoed and rode the cultivator and harrow to watch for obstacles and rescue birds' nests and baby rabbits. I led the mules in endless circles every fall to grind apples for making cider and vinegar. One of my great disappointments was that I never grew tall enough to de-tassel corn with my boy cousins.

The work was hard, often dirty, sometimes dangerous. But we got to see the results within a matter of weeks. The chores changed with the seasons. By the time you got really tired of planting, it was time to cultivate the new crops. Sick of weeding? Hey, it's harvest time! Harvesting the last fat pumpkins with a full harvest moon rising in the evening sky made all the work worthwhile.

Winter was cozy, with less outside work and time to dream and plan for the next spring's planting. The livestock were in the barn or the feedlot, not out in the fields. Seed catalogs appeared in the mailbox out by the road. We were never bored, but always looking forward with hope and anticipation.

Not every 9-to-5 job can give you that kind of satisfaction.

Love to all you farmers and gardeners out there,


Photo Credits (photos are hyperlinked to originals):  
  • Mules:  Farm Security Administration  (
  • Potato Beetle:  Björn Appel  (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Baby Chicks:  pippalou  (
  • Corn:  Petr Kratochvil  (
  • Cows: Mike Coates  (
  • Pigs:  Michael Miloserdoff   (
  • Pumpkins:  David Wagner   (
  • Goat:  X posid  (
  • Weeds, Seeds, Strawberry plant, Catalogs:  The Gnome @ Annake's Garden 

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bargello Basics, Part 3

Stitch Sampler Sheet for Bargello Basics Part 3
Stitch Sampler Sheet for Bargello Basics, Part 3

 This time we are going to concentrate on small stitch patterns that are generally called “grounds” or “groundings”. Stitched in a single color, they are often used as backgrounds for more elaborate bargello patterns. This is the way I have used them on sections of the “Mesas and Monuments” picture. There is no reason, however, that these cannot be used to form colorful all-over patterns on their own. I've given you several examples on the Stitch Sample Sheet, below, and I expect you can invent others. All of these long-and-short stitch patterns belong to a family of very old tapestry stitches collectively called Hungarian point. For more about using gobelin stitch and groundings to make pictures, see the landscapes in my September 12, 2013 post.

Parisian Stitch Examples
Parisian Stitch Examples
Let's begin at the upper left of the sheet with Parisian stitch. The first stitch (red) is an upright stitch over four threads of canvas. Drop down one square of canvas and make a stitch over two threads. Continue alternating long and short stitches across the available space. The second row begins with a short stitch over two threads directly below a long stitch over four threads. This is followed by a long stitch below the next short one. These stitches share a square of mesh, so that no threads are left uncovered. The third row is done in the same way as the first one. Done in contrasting colors, this makes a boldly striped pattern.

Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint, grass added
Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint, grass added
 If you choose related colors, however, like the red and orange sample, you can achieve a more subtle ombre-shaded effect. The more closely related the colors are, the more subtle the effect. A variegated yarn will give you an abstract pattern. This can be useful; use a variegated green in the background to suggest distant trees or shrubs, for example. I used Parisian stitch to represent the green short-grass prairie on my picture. 

Flame Stitch start at center of canvas
Flame Stitch start, at center of canvas
We've mentioned flame stitch patterns. The colors in the ombre-shaded sample are typical of those used in flame stitch. At the bottom left, I have given you a simple flame stitch pattern. To establish this, do a pattern line in your brightest or darkest color all the way across your canvas. Follow that pattern in your color sequence until you have reached the bottom of your canvas. Turn your canvas upside-down, reverse your color sequence, and complete stitching to the top of your canvas.

Hungarian Stitch examples
Hungarian Stitch examples
 The center column begins with one of my favorites, Hungarian stitch. This uses a repeating cluster of short stitch, long stitch, short stitch --- with an empty space between clusters. This is easy to see in the blue row. In the second row (red), the short stitch is placed below the second short stitch in the row above. The long stitch goes into the skipped space, with a short stitch following it. Row three (white) is worked exactly like row one. This makes an attractive all-over pattern that is useful for eyeglass or cell phone cases, desk sets, coasters, book covers, picture mats, etc.

Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint sky started
Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint, sky started
The three colors lend a strong diagonal element to the pattern. But see how different it is when only two colors are used. The design is much more static. Even when done in complementary colors like the orange and blue, one color seems to dominate the other. A variegated yarn yields another abstract design. Notice, too, that Hungarian stitch does not cover the canvas as quickly as Parisian does. Four rows of Hungarian make a narrower band than four rows of Parisian. Believe me, I thought about that while I was stitching all those square inches of sky!

Diamond medallion pattern built from Hungarian stitch
Diamond medallion pattern built from Hungarian stitch
At the bottom of the sheet is a diamond-shaped medallion made of Hungarian stitch clusters fitted next to each other in diagonal lines. To make a bargello design with this technique, find the exact center of your canvas. Place the single center cluster (gold) there. With blue, make a diamond with three clusters on a side. With white, make one with five clusters on a side. With red, make one with seven clusters on a side. The next one would be in gold and have nine clusters on a side. Continue on this way until you cannot make another complete diamond; then make as much of the diamond on each side as you can until all the canvas is covered. As an alternative, stop at the last complete diamond and do the corners in continental or basket-weave stitch in a neutral or contrasting color.

Because the squares on the quickpoint canvas are so large, I use two parallel stitches over each set of threads, rather than just one. Doubling stitches can change the appearance of a grounding pattern. The green sample at the upper right is doubled Parisian. The brown sample below it is doubled Hungarian. The last of our grounding patterns is made with Hungarian diamonds (red, black, white). The first row has the following pattern: over 2 threads, over 4 threads, over 6 threads, over 4 threads, over 2 threads, skip a square of mesh. In the second row, the 2-stitch goes on the bottom of the 4-stitch: the 4-stitch, on the 2-stitch; the 6-stitch, in the skipped square; the skipped square, on the 6-stitch. The third row is the same as the first. This is a larger pattern than the others. In bold colors, it makes a stand-alone design. For a smaller version (greens, brown), we have to alter the pattern. Begin by stitching over a single thread. The pattern goes: over 1,3,5,3,1,3,5,3,1, etc. No squares are skipped. The 1-stitch is shared by two adjacent diamonds. This is the pattern I chose, in a variegated yarn, to represent the sandy, stony desert in the foreground of my picture. I back-stitched several areas to make smoother transitions.

Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint desert foreground added
Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint, desert foreground added

Once the picture was completed, I told J.D. that I was tempted to embroider “Utah” across the sky and offer the piece as a needlepoint travel poster. J.D. took this picture to show how that would look. What do you think? Should I do it?

Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint as a travel poster
Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint, prospective travel poster

I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction into basic bargello. Later this summer, we will try some new techniques, including those fabulous four-ways. We would love it if you'd e-mail us pictures of your needlework projects.


Mesas and Monuments Needlepoint completed
"Mesas and Monuments" Needlepoint, ready to frame

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Those Popular Puppets

I'm delighted by the positive response my puppets have generated! I am asked lots of questions about them at shows, so I want to answer some of those before I offer a puppet pattern for you to download.

Backs of Raccoon, Cow, and Squirrel Puppets (showing tails)
Backs of Raccoon, Cow, and Squirrel Puppets (showing tails)

I'm asked why I show tails and other features on the backs of my puppets. When I used to work with puppets to teach children about animals, I liked to have the puppets be as active as possible: hiding their faces shyly against my shoulder, climbing up my arm, scampering across my lap, wrestling with each other, and so forth. During these actions, a puppet is seen from all angles. I wanted them to be interesting --- and authentic --- from the back as well as the front. I wanted to show the animals' most distinguishing features so that the children would recognize them wherever they encountered them; in pictures, storybooks, television programs, movies, parks or zoos. That's why I also add hands, paws, hooves, or wings to the puppet arms.

Teddy Bear, Cat, and Rabbit Puppets
Teddy Bear, Cat, and Rabbit Puppets - notice the different eyes

Why don't I use the commercial plastic movable eyes, rather than making eyes with layers of felt? The answer is that I don't want to produce choking hazards. Children in the age group who like to play with puppets are not likely to chew on them. They may, however, have little brothers and sisters who would. Small children will put anything in their mouths! One of mine tried to swallow a handful of small change when his grandmother's attention wandered for a moment. Another reason is that I like to think my puppets' felt eyes are more individual and expressive than those plastic ones.

Puppy Puppet front and back pieces showing stitching
Puppy Puppet front (outside) and back (inside) pieces showing stitching

One interesting question was,”How do you get their heads to be so firm?” I stuff them, of course, preferably with fiberfill. But the real “secret” involves what I do to the “wrong”(reverse) sides of the heads before I put the fronts and backs together. First I sew the two halves of the heads to the respective parts of their bodies. Then I turn them over so that I can work on the insides of the heads. I sew the neck --- which extends well up into what will be the head cavity --- to the inside of the face, using very small overcast stitches that catch just the surface of the felt and do not show through to the other side. (This takes a little practice, so you may want to try it on felt scraps before you attempt it.) I do the same thing to the back of the head and also stitch down any other loose edges. For example, the top of the lamb's gray head is sewn to the back of the scalloped white “wool”. The extra stitching gives the head more strength and solidity, so that it does not sag or wrinkle. Remember when stuffing the heads to leave enough room for the puppeteer's fingers.

Reindeer, Walrus, and Polar Bear Puppets
Could you tell a story using these Reindeer, Walrus, and Polar Bear Puppets?

My favorite question came from a mother holding a beautiful baby girl about six months old. “It will be a long time before she is old enough to play with the puppets,” she said. “Is there some way she could enjoy them now?” I gave her several suggestions. Since the child will obviously be in a crib for some time yet, the most obvious thing would be to suspend the puppets from strings and hang them above her crib where she can see them easily. Another easy solution would be to pad a small bulletin board and cover it with felt, flannel, or fleece to hang near the child's crib or playpen. Small pieces of Velcro sewn or glued on the backs of the puppets will allow them to stick to the board. But they can also be detached and moved around the board to help the mother act out stories, rhymes, or songs. If longevity isn't an issue, the arms and bodies of the puppets can be stuffed with fiberfill, cotton, or fabric scraps and the bottoms sewn shut to make huggable soft toys. A little weight added inside the bottoms and they could even stand up by themselves. These were ideas that sprang immediately to mind. I'm sure you could all think of others.

Little Pink Pig Puppet with folded ears
Little Pink Pig Puppet with folded ears
Those of you who have been reading my blog posts for a while probably already know about the little pink pig puppet that started me designing and making puppets (April 17, 2013). I'm giving all of you a pattern (with instructions) that you can download to make your own little pink pig. (Click here to download.) The picture shows an alternate appearance for the pig. Just gently curl his ears forward and attach the tips to his face with a few tiny pink stitches. If you are doing a set of the Three Little Pigs, you might make one with upright ears, one with curled ears, and the third with one of each kind of ear.

Downloadable Pig Puppet Pattern
Pig Puppet Pattern (Click to download)
I'd like to express a caution about size. My hands are small. Most children of an age to enjoy playing with hand puppets can wear puppets patterned to my hand size, especially with a little stuffing in the ends of the puppet arms. If you are going to be the puppeteer yourself, check your hand size against the puppet body pattern before you cut out the pieces. If the pattern is too small for you, cut out the body pattern from a folded piece of plain paper. Cut it apart along the fold. Place the two halves on a plain sheet of paper and move them apart until they are big enough to fit you (including a quarter-inch seam allowance on each side). Tape the half-patterns to the paper and draw a straight line across the neck edge and the bottom edge. Cut out the new pattern piece and you are ready to pin it to felt. Check to see if the head still fits the body. If not, enlarge the head in the same way. To make the pieces smaller you can trim them off along the outsides or cut them as described above and overlap the two halves until they are the right size. You will probably have to shorten them at the bottom, as well.

Whether you have small children or grandchildren or not, why not make a little pig for some little person to love?


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