Gathering Threads

Book Review: Art of Crewel Embroidery by Mildred Davis

Posted by on Feb 07 2015

I’m a glutton for punishment.  One of my resolutions for 2015 was to improve my embroidery skills and try more surface embroidery.  With that in mind, I enrolled in the Embroiderers’ Association of Canada’s Basic Crewel correspondence course at the beginning of January.

Thus far, I’m underwhelmed.  I’d been a member of the EAC a number of years ago, and even attended a couple of retreats.  The ladies were lovely, the instruction excellent. Sadly, that experience hasn’t carried over into their distance education.  But I’ve decided to stick it out and if my impressions improve, I’ll let you know.

crewelsample (2)

None the less, I *really* want to take the Intermediate Whitework course, so I’ve decided to stick it out.   I will use this course to earn points for my SAGA Artisan card in Embroidery because that at least is of value to me.

crewelsample (5)

I’ve completed the samples for both of the first lessons and will bang off the research reports this week.  I also started to build up my reference library (another expense!) because I need the books to write the reports.   And this leads me to the book I’m reviewing today:  The Art of Crewel Embroidery by Mildred J. Davis (1962).


Because for all my groaning about the EAC’s correspondence course strategy, I am delighted I found this book.  In a nutshell, I think this is perhaps the best embroidery book I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across.   It is the complete and total package, whether or not you’re interested in crewel work or just surface embroidery generally.  Oh, at it’s available to everyone, for free, through the Internet Archive!  Hooray.

The book opens with a comprehensive history of the technique of crewel.  The bibliography is extensive, with a plethora of primary sources from the Tudor through to the Georgian period. This is no fluffy history, but a substantial and well-researched essay, which includes a good selection of photographs of historical stitching, including a ton of close-up detail shots.  Given the age of the book, many of the photos are black and white but whether they’re grayscale or colour, they’re clear and easy to study, with the museum and collection info easily at hand, should you wish to hunt them down on the internet and see if more recent photos exist.



 Then the book gets into the meat of things.  It includes more than 300 stitches, grouped by type (running stitch, looped stitch, filling stitches etc).  There are black and white photos of each and every stitch, plus clear and easy to follow diagrams for all 300 stitches.   Whether you’re working in wool or doing a crazy quilt for example, there are a plethora of interesting surface stitches to try.


There’s a  full colour image of traditional colour schemas:colourwool

Then, Davis gives several different projects, designed specifically to allow the new stitcher to try out a range of techniques.  For example, the first project is a little purse.  The stitches and steps to working the project are all spelled out in such meticulous detail that anyone with a modicum of patience could tackle it successfully.


 Here you can see the design as it would be traced on the fabric.  I love how clear all of the steps are.


All of that would be great and more than enough, but Davis still isn’t finished.  There’s still more.   She gives more than 100 sample shapes, with stitch and colour suggestions for how to work them.  This allows the stitcher to design their own, or personalize an existing pattern.  It’s logically organized by type of shape:  small leaves, medium leaves, large leaves, flowers, fauna, stems.  It is absolutely brilliant – I wish every book was as thorough.



I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  It really is the complete package and I’m so glad I found it!

Primrose Bishop

Posted by on Feb 02 2015

I’m finally getting a chance to show folks the bishop I finished over the Christmas holidays.  This is Gail Doane’s Primrose, from the Country Bumpkin book Beautiful Bishops.  I’ve made a bunch of bishops from this book, but I’ve  always had my eye on the Primrose.  It’s just so sunshiny and sweet.

Primrose bishop front

I started this dress over the summer, as a swimming lesson project.  The mindless trellis stitch was easy to work away on and didn’t require careful counting or hauling around a lot of materials.  I think it will be perfect for Easter and the spring and summer months.  I’ve been waiting for a nice sunny day to get good photos – winter sewing is always tricky to photograph well.

Primrose bishop back

 The fabric is a lovely striped swiss dot that I picked up on clearance at Fabricland last year, for $4/m.  It’s the real thing and a lovely, soft hand.  I just wish the rest of the dress had been as inexpensive.  The insertions and silk ribbon weren’t cheap and ran me more than $45 bucks once shipping was factored in.

Primrose bishop detail


Primrose bishop shoulder closure (2)

For the floss, I ended up using DMC Satin floss, a 100% rayon thread that’s divisible and that matched the silk ribbon perfectly.   I’m telling you, this stuff is fantastic!  Seriously, stitches like a dream, readily available at Michaels for a good price and comes in a good range of colours that correspond with DMC’s regular cotton skeins, so it’s easy to match and plan.  I’d heard so many horror stories about rayon – shredding, knotting, crazy tangles — that I’d always avoided it and stuck with cotton floss.  No more hesitation.  If you haven’t tried rayon, or had a bad experience with another brand, try this stuff.  It was a joy to stitch with, smooth and easy to handle..  The only thing I had to do was cut slightly longer tails on my knots, because it doesn’t take as tight a knot as cotton but otherwise, I enjoyed every minute I stitched with it.


It also made great looking violets (or technically, primroses, although I think they look like violets).  The flowers are cast on stitches and french knots, with a lovely sheen.  They’re interspersed between tiny yellow bows decorated with bullion knots.  Aren’t they cute?

Primrose bishop cast-on flowers

 For the hem, I didn’t do the tucks that the book suggested.  It would have been too busy with the vertical stripes in the fabric.  Instead, I just tried to keep the stripes consistent between the dress and the hem band.  A few places are a bit misaligned but on a galloping horse, I think it’ll serve.

primrose smocked bishop  fancy band

 I also changed the closure, from a back button band to a shoulder closure. I put clear snaps along the opening and then buttons with thread loops to finish it.  I’m still on the fence about the buttons – I have searched high and low and simply can’t find small yellow buttons that match as perfectly as I’d like them to.  They’re all lemon yellow, and I need butter yellow. Here’s the difference: without the buttons.

primrose smocked bishop shoulder closure detail

With the buttons:

 Primrose bishop shoulder closure

What’s your verdict?  Can I get away with the variation in colour or should I trade them out for white ones?

The sleeves are finished with the insertion and a small scalloped trim.  I didn’t use the scalloped trim on the neckline as Gail had suggested.  Budgetary concerns 🙂

primrose smocked bishop sleeve detail

I interfaced the pleats with ultra-fine fusible interfacing.  On my first go-round, I tried it without, thinking I could get away without it.  And I could have, if Ellie’s neck was 3″ in diametre.  The fabric just pleated into nothing.  So I mumbled, grumbled and pulled out all the pleating threads and started from scratch.  

primrose bishop pleats with interfacing

Then I interfaced it, the way I should have done in the first place and re-pleated it, having relearned my lesson.  Now the pleats were plump and well supported.  The interfacing extends about .5mm below the last row of smocking but is invisible from the right side.

primrose bishop interior close up

The last part of the outfit was the slip.  The swiss dot fabric is darn near translucent, and so soft that it lacked body without another layer underneath.  You might not recognize the pattern I used for the slip.  It’s Judith Marquis’ Little Snowdrift.

slip front

Normally, it’s a sundress pattern but the round yoke is perfect for underneath a bishop, so I used it instead of drafting my own.  All I did was lower the neckline a couple of centimetres, so that it wouldn’t be visible above the bishop’s neckline.   Judith’s patterns are always really nicely laid out and well drafted, so I knew the fit would be good.

slip back

The hem features five 1/4″ tucks along the bottom, plus some entredeux and baby lace.  I think the tucks are a bit heavy – if I was doing it again, I think I’d go with pintucks instead — but I wasn’t taking them out!

slip hem

And it wouldn’t be a project if there wasn’t at least one snafu.   While I was trimming the seam allowance on the yoke, look what I managed to snip by mistake:

slip yoke

Argh.   But again, it’s a slip.  Fancy underwear.  Nobody’s going to see it!  So I stuck a drop of fraycheck on it, backed it with a tiny square of fusible interfacing and left it alone.  You really have to know where to look and overall, I think Ellie’s going to look adorable in this dress.




Perfect Picture Smocking – A New SAGA Correspondence Course

Posted by on Jan 08 2015

Have you ever wanted to learn to picture smock?  Tried it and been unhappy with your results?  Well, I’m delighted to announce a cure for what ails you:  Perfect Picture Smocking is SAGA’s newest correspondence course, designed to help you master picture smocking, and I am SAGA’s newest teacher.

This is a five-part correspondence course open to all SAGA members, and the cost is $105USD.  Artisans members earn 10 points when they complete the course.  You can enroll any time, from any where, and you work at your own pace, with a full year to complete all the lessons.

In each lesson, you’ll tackle a skill that will help you master picture smocking, discussing everything from what materials and supplies make for good results, to backsmocking, changing colours, working with a variety of shapes, increasing and decreasing and more.  The full-colour lessons include dozens of close-up photos of each skill, with step-by-step directions, and easy to follow, computer generated graphs to ensure your success.  And of course, I’m never further away than an email or phone call, should you run into problems or have questions.


And don’t think you have to be an expert smocker to enroll.   If you have basic smocking know-how and can execute a few elementary stitches like cable and trellis, you’ll be amazed at what you can do!   Proficient smockers will benefit, too, as I share a boatload of tips and tricks for making perfect stacked cable designs each and every time!   Registering can be done one of two ways: online by clicking here or you can print off the registration form and mail it in to SAGA.

As many of my regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of SAGA’s Distance Education courses, having taken three with great teachers such as Darcy Fechner and Nancy Malitz over the past several years.  I’ve always learned so much and I’m delighted that now I get to pass on my skills and knowledge, too.  So whether you decide to sign up for my new course or decide on one of the other great courses that SAGA offers, I hope that you’ll make 2015 the year you try a new skill and work on building your smocking and embroidery repertoire.   Check out the entire list of SAGA correspondence courses available here.

I look forward to this new teaching adventure with you all!


Farm Girl Finery Quilt Top Done

Posted by on Dec 08 2014

Another quilt top complete!  I can put a check mark beside Farm Girl Finery and call it a day.

farm girl finery quilt top (2)

But please, don’t go thinking I’ve been sewing up a storm.  I have barely touched my machine since Hallowe’en.  I’ve just been too busy between teaching, prepping for my comprehensive exams, getting ready for the holidays and family time to sew so much as a seam.  The truth is, I completed this quilt top before Hallowe’en.  I just haven’t had a chance to get decent pictures and post them here to my blog before now.  It’s sort of like time-lapse photography – emphasis on the time-lapse!

farm girl finery quilt top (6)

None the less, I’m really happy that this is done.  It went together very smoothly (you can see my earlier review of Kim Diehl’s book, “Simple Appeal” here).  I found the instructions for constructing the quilt top good, once I made the alterations to the cutting instructions to reduce excess fabric requirements.

All of the applique is by machine.  I didn’t use wool, which is what the sample quilt featured.  I used cotton prints from my stash instead. I used the same invisible machine applique technique that I did for Spring Bouquet, which I learned from Erin Russek’s wonderful series of tutorials.

farm girl finery quilt top (3)

I’ve been playing with quilting motifs and ideas for how I want Alison to quilt this although   I won’t have time to get this to her until January.   I’m definitely going to go with wool batting – I love the loft and the weight (it’s incredibly light).  I found an 6″ oak leaf wreath stencil that I think will be perfect for the outer stars.  Then a feather motif for the large central star and some kind of stippling around the main floral applique in the centre block.

farm girl finery quilt top (4)
You won’t see much of me for the next couple of weeks.  I’ll be writing my comprehensive exams beginning this Thursday and then the boys will be finished school and beginning their holiday break the day after I finish writing it.  But I will get a year in review post up at some point this month because I always like to go back and see what I’ve made over the course of a year.   So cross your fingers for me – I’ve been studying for this exam for eight months – and I’ll see you all on the other side!





Posted by on Nov 18 2014

No, I haven’t take up another craft. 🙂  It’s just been a bit hectic here and I haven’t made huge strides on any one project, so today’s post has a bit of this, a bit of that.

tangledstarsupdate (2)

Making good progress on my winter themed quilt.   Here’s where I’ve got to with it.   Three more rows to sew together, plus the borders still remain.  You can really see the weaving effect once the alternate blocks are put side by each.

tangledstarsupdate (3)

I’ve finished all of the individual blocks and have started sewing them together.  If I had a diagonal bed, I could just call it a day, but I guess I’ve got to keep going and finish things up, eh?

I was also able to fix my backward blocks that I mentioned in my last post.  I had to rip right back to the centre square, press them and reassemble.  It wasn’t tons of fun but it wasn’t as onerous as I’d feared, either.

tangledstarsupdate (4)

But of course, I haven’t just been working on quilts.  Hallowe’en always looms large in my fall sewing plans.  The boys’ big night was successful (the ability to secure your body weight in sugar, chocolate and fat defined as ‘success’).  David, who’s coming to the end of his trick-or-treating career went as Hiccup from How to Train your Dragon.   I drew the line at making him a dragon, too.  He thought this was a perfectly reasonable request.  However, when I told him I’d do it, but I’d charge him 50% of his candy haul, he reconsidered.  Negotiating tactics are so critical in the pre-teen years 🙂  I made the pattern for the tunic and the leather jerkin, and cannibalized a thrift store leather purse for the hardware.

 halloween2014 (2)

And Andrew?  He went as a Gashlycrumb Tiny.

No?  Not ringing any bells?  Edward Gorey, 20th century American illustrator, is best known for his macabre ink drawings of vaguely Edwardian children, in an alphabet where everyone meets a terrible end.

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.

B is for Basil assaulted by bears.

You can see the fate of all twenty-six ill-fated tots here.  My kid went as one of the soon-to-expire kids (he was torn between Hector, who’s done in by a thug, and Edward, who choked on a peach.  My fav is definitely Neville, who dies of ennui).  Completely obscure but he loved the suit and that’s what counts.   He had to wear rainboots while he trick-or-treated because of the weather but at school he’d just worn black shoes.

The funny part for me was the costume.  It really *is* a vintage design.

vintage boy's knickers and jacket pattern

I picked it up on ebay for $8 bucks, got some really cheap acrylic wool-look a like, and then banged out the suit (handwork on a Halloween costume!  Not in this lifetime).  Then we completed the look by pairing it with an old pair of soccer socks and a shirt and tie we already had on hand.

vintage pattern instructions (2)

There’s something very amusing to me as an heirloom sewer when this is what I end up putting my skills into.    He had a blast – the hardest part for him was to look suitably dour – he doesn’t do mournful very well.  Loud?  Excited?  Full of enthusiasm?  Yup, but not mournful.

And finally, in a brief toot-my-own-horn moment, my teal and ecru wool dress is gracing the cover of the latest issue of SAGANews. SAGA members can expect to get their issues shortly – I understand from Julie that they were mailed out this week.