My story in 1000 stitches (or so)

My story in 1000 stitches (or so)

Hello, Felting and Fiber friends.

It’s me again, a beginner felter, a novice in knitting and crocheting

(have I told you the story of my then-boyfriend’s knitted scarf? the one that kept getting longer and longer the more he used it, and his mother, an accomplished knitter and crocheter who knits a new woolly jumper for my kids each Christmas, kept undoing the last bit of the scarf and fixing it? well, he is my husband now, it goes to show that even disastrous knitting is useful…)

no skills in weaving, BUT I used to do quite a bit of embroidery, and that’s how I began my adventure in textiles, so I better tell you a bit about it.

I started with cross-stitch as a little girl (maybe 10-11-years-old) at my local Parish: an ex-teacher of Feminine Skills at schools (yes, she was that old that the subject existed with that name when she used to teach) had accepted to run a class of basic embroidery stitches for little girls at the Parish, with the aim of having a few of them join the Parish group of embroiderers who would sell their works for charity once or twice per year at the Church. She was a spinster, with loads of nephews and nieces to dote on, and she was prim and welcoming: we addressed her as Miss, Signorina in Italian, ate the cookies that she brought as treat, and loved her. My mum accepted to send me only if I promised not to lose my time and sight on finicky embroidery, and at the beginning it seemed that we were making quite small designs, such as cross-stitch butterflies for cards, or a grass stitch embroidery on a cotton bag that was supposed to hold bread.

I have kind of disappointed my mum during the following years: the idea of painting with thread caught my fantasy, and I started spending more and more time (sometimes secretly) embroidering, especially cross-stitch. Miss and the group of local embroiderers were an oddity like myself, all guiltily enjoying together an outmoded craft while chatting away a few hours. My schoolmates were half in awe of my skill and half disbelieving that I could spend so much time on that.

In time I cross-stitched a lot of things, cushion covers, cards, bathroom towels, tablecloths of various sizes (never the big ones, though) and place mats and runners, babies’ bibs, alphabet samplers and Christmas decorations… I loved the fact that you could achieve marvelous paint effects just with thread and a wise design. I also liked the idea of following a pattern, and the repetitiveness of the cross-stitching itself, that helped me calm down in difficult times and made me happier.

I used to have a subscription to two main Italian magazines that were my inspiration:

  1. one is the monthly “Le idee di Susanna”, skewed towards cross-stitch, but with loads of practical crafting ideas around it, and also a bit of knitting, crochet and sewing thrown in to entice you to more. See it here if you are curious.
  2. the other was a magazine about any kind of embroidery, especially the free stitch types of hand embroidery, it makes you dream about the highest skills of the ancient embroiderers and the top modern ones, and had been published since 1929. its past issues of the Sixties and Seventies were more practical, with knitting and useful sewing, and are still traded online by crafters. Unfortunately, it has gone downhill very quickly around the 2010 after being sold to a new publisher, and I can’t seem to find any recent issue, so I guess it is not active anymore. Such a pity, but I guess I could sell my old issues for a good price in a few years! See some of its cover images here.

Most of what I embroidered and made in those years was sold for charity or gifted to friends and family, and there weren’t mobiles to take a quick photo, so I do not have much left of them. Not because I am particularly generous, you know, it was just safer not have all those proofs of my not-studying lying around the house… Anyway, I did not need twenty baby bibs, but they were all so cute that it was hard to resist when my nephews were arriving… Oh, well, some of the bibs actually came back to me when my kids were coming in turn, so.

Here are just a couple of bathroom towels that I cross-stitched for myself when I started getting serious with my then-boyfriend (way after the longest-scarf-of-all-times): I have the photos only because those were on linen, and thus light enough to come with me when we moved from Italy to England. I loved cross-stitching on linen or cotton-linen blends: slower, but the final effect is so neat and lovely!

(I apologise in advance for the fact that none of the things are properly ironed or pressed: those are all things that I fished out of drawers as they were, and I can not face the iron at the moment, please forgive me!)

A set of white towels embroidered with a blue cross stitch pattern of flowers
Cross-stitch embroidered towels with a blue pattern.
Detail of blue cross stitch flowers on a white linen towel
Detail of the blue cross-stitch pattern: it repeats itself three times to achieve the right length.
Back of a white towel showing a neat cross stitch blue floral pattern
I always like a neat cross-stitch back.
A set of white linen towels embroidered with a pink roses cross stitch pattern
Pink roses cross-stitch towels.
Detail of a pink roses cross stitch pattern on white linen towels
Detail of the pattern: you can see that the rose is the unit repeated to achieve the right length.
Pink rose cross stitch pattern towels on a heating rack in a bathroom
I noticed some humidity stains on the towels (that’s how much we use them!), so those are now getting their duty time in our bathroom!

We have some more cross-stitched towels in storage boxes in Italy, to gather dust there, along with a few other embroidered things. Here are cross-stitched place mats that I embroidered on an ecru linen-cotton blend fabric, that we use as breakfast place mats. I embroidered the edges with the simplest point-a-jour: I am not really a fan of making point-a-jour, but I like having my edges neat and hate hand-sewing even more!

A set of two ecru place mats with a floral cross stitch pattern and their matching napkins
Cross-stitch place mats and napkins for our breakfast.
Detail of cross stitch embroidered place mat and napkin with a floral pattern
Detail of the place mat and napkin
Detail of a jour bordering of embroidered place mat
A view of the a-jour that borders the whole mat and napkin
Back of cross stitched place mat with floral pattern
I always check my backs!

During my University years I started improving my free-stitch embroidery skills, and could not resist a forage into the variety of embroidery stitches that I was seeing on my magazines. Firstly, just learning about patterns and stitches, I soon started to use elements from books and magazines and adapting them to my needs and taste to create new things. Lately, I created a couple of things completely to my own designs. Here again I am afraid that I do not have much to show, because most of my creations were gifted to special persons or are in storage boxes in Italy at the moment. One day we will get all our stuff out of storage, who knows.

I only have three examples of my free hand-embroidery to show you: two of them, bathroom towels and a small tablecloth for teatime, I have brought with me to England, and the third is a small curtain that I have embroidered and hand-sewed for one of my best friends, and she graciously sent me the photos during the Christmas holidays.

So, here we go.

The bathroom towels are of the finest linen and I wanted a refined effect. It took me ages to complete the complex point-a-jour of the border, but it gave me plenty of food of thought for other embroidery projects (more on that later on). The embroidery itself is white on white: my initials framed by flowers and leaves for the main towel, and a smaller version of the initials for the small towel. I am afraid that I do not know the names for the stitches in English and I am kind of hazy about the Italian names as well right now: we are talking about nigh on twenty years ago, and even then I tended to focus on doing more than on names. The design of the embroidery was taken from a book or magazine that I had, and I modified it only a bit to simplify the framing elements, if I remember correctly.

Hand embroidered towels with my initials white on white
Towels embroidered with my initials, white on white.
Embroidery of initials C and P, white on white, with flowers embroidered left and right of the initials
Here is the embroidery: I hope you like it.
One bigger and three smaller embroidered flowers white on white on the left of the initials, with swirls and leaves and dots
The flowers on the left of the initials.
Three small embroidered daises with two bigger and several smaller leaves, and swirls, white on white
The flowers and leaves on the right of the initials.
Detail of a double a jour bordering on fine white linen,  a knot groups strands at regular intervals in the center of the drawn thread part of the hem.
This bordering took me ages: just tell me if it was worthwhile!
Neat back of embroidered initials towel white on white.
My fascination with neat backs goes on: I am quite happy with this one, what do you think?

As to the teatime tablecloth, we use it as breakfast table tablecloth: I like my breakfast as you may guess! and I really need something fresh and lovely for it to work, as I am not a morning person and waking up to ugliness would be too much. This is finest cotton, very lightweight and almost see-through. I designed it completely, and I wanted it quite simple and colourful. I started by edging the border: at the beginning, it was a lot of fun changing colours randomly every little while, but it was a long way to the end, I can assure you.

Embroidered teatime white fine cotton tablecloth with a hem embroidered in different violets and greens and small groups of embroidered flowers scattered on the tablecloth.
My favourite breakfast tablecloth: violets on a snowy white fabric.
Multicolured embroidered hem in different greens and violets and white.
I changed threads randomly to achieve a multicoloured look for the border.

The violets were quick to embroider, I remember, just a stem of grass-stitches and the violets themselves done with different violets or white (also mixed together) in lazy daisy stitches (is this the right name? I think so, I felt very lazy for sure, I wanted to finish it quickly). The leaves I outlined with grass-stitch and chose to cover only half with satin/full stitches in different greens. I like how it feels a very easygoing and modern type of tablecloth, in the end.

Embroidered violets 1 are white and pale violet, with pale green and medium green leaves
Which of the violets do you like most? Number 1
Embroidered violets 2 are medium and pale violet, with medium and pale green leaves
Number 2
Embroidered violets 3 are white and pale violet and a mix of the two, with dark and pale green leaves
Number 3
Embroidered violets 4 are dark and pale violet with pale and dark green leaves
or Number 4?
Neat back of embroidered violet on white fine cotton
I am satisfied with the backs as well.

And, lastly, the curtain that I made for my friend. Well, that was my first curtain, so I just could not reassure my friend of the final results: she was a bit doubtful, and also more than a bit afraid of my mum’s disapproval of me “wasting my time in useless old stuff”, I am guessing.

I presented her with my idea of design for it in a secret meeting at my place: she was going to live in a terraced house and I adapted her a terraced houses outline, taking inspiration from one of the magazines, that had a very intriguing design. In my mind the idea was already taking shape drawing from my experiences with variants of point-a-jour , openwork and different embroidery stitches, but she had to take a leap of faith and trust in my skills.

We went together to the market to buy the fabric, and she sensibly opted for a mixed synthetic and cotton: after all, she would have to wash it, not I! It took my around 2-3 months to finish it and present it to her: I remember that I was so excited when she lastly saw the finished curtain!

A white curtain with an embroidered outline of terraced houses, one different from the other, white on white
My terraced-houses curtain. Courtesy of Alessia Fabris: 18-years-old and still going strong!
Details of three of the terraced houses embroidered on my curtain with different embroidery stitches and thread work and openwork
All the houses are different! Courtesy of Alessia Fabris

I wanted all the houses to be very different one from the other: each of them has a different door and various windows made using different types of stitches. I made the windows all openwork, and used this as a way to practice different openwork effects. I hand sewed it completely, as I did not have a sewing machine.

I asked my friend to take photos of some details to her taste, and she sent me these:

Detail of an embroidered door on a terraced houses curtain, embroidered with a counted stitch pattern
Detail of one of the doors. Courtesy of Alessia Fabris
Details of embroidered and openwork front door on my terraced houses curtain
This door has a couple of windows on top. Courtesy of Alessia Fabris
Four openwork windows and an embroidered door on hand embroidered terraced houses curtain
I am amazed that those openwork windows are still looking fine after 18 years of washing cycles! Courtesy of Alessia Fabris
One of the embroidered houses on my embroidered terraced houses curtain
The same house seen a bit farther away. Courtesy of Alessia Fabris

My friend reported neighbours and passersby asking for information on her unique curtain that they could see from the outside, during the first years that she lived there. I want to think that it helped her make friends there faster.

I then went on to make two free hand embroidery curtains for myself before my daughter was born: both white on white, a small one designed by me, all butterflies of different sizes and was actually a sampler of stitches and openwork. The other one quite big, an adaptation of an idea and design from a magazine, was embroidered on all the borders (apart from the upper one) with a continuous repetitive swirling pattern, all in one single easy type of stitch, chain stitch. I finished it with my belly growing and going in the way of embroidering and sewing, but I got it done, and had the help of my first sewing machine to finish it faster. Still, it took me a couple of months to finish it (I was not working, and paused most of my attendance to my second degree at University due to not being able to move.), and none too soon: my daughter was born shortly after the last stitches.

As to point-a-jour, openwork and needle lace, they made me sweat swear and tense, but I love the look of them once it is finished, so my big unfinished project of embroidery is a linen towel set with a maybe 8-in-height border (20 cm) of openwork-needle lace. I got through maybe half of it on the first towel. I guess that it must be in one of the storage boxes in Italy, although I could swear that I brought it to England when we moved, still hoping that in time I would be able to go on..that was around nine years ago! Embroidering takes too much time for my current life style!

I hope that I gave you some ideas of embroideries to try!

See you next time for a bit of felting!


21 thoughts on “My story in 1000 stitches (or so)

  1. Your embroidery skill is amazing Caterina! The curtain of terraced houses is beautiful and a testament to your work that it still looks good after all this time – and it’s been in and out of the wash! Love the way that the windows can be seen through. It should have been framed as a work of art 🙂

    The bordering is definitely worth the time – it really finishes off the pieces well.

    Your violets tablecloth is so cheerful and we can imagine just how long it took to sew the edge. How many people have towels with their initials on that look as if they were bought in Harrods? They are luxurious.

    1. Thank you, Lyn.
      I am glad that I had the time to make many things by hand that are now with special friends, I hope that they will think of me when they see them.
      Pity that I do not have that kind of time anymore! I love felting because I can complete a project not in months but in days, and involve my kids as well: you can’t do that with complex embroideries!

  2. What a lovely post Caterina. I really like that curtain, in fact I love all the things you have shown us. It is good that you take as much care over the back of your work as the front.
    I must admit that I have never “got” the idea of embroidered towels – I couldn’t bear to see people wiping their hands on all that hard work. In fact pin cushions I love, but I could never make a special one – to have the work damaged by stuffing pins into it.
    The violets? I can’t choose, they all look good.
    It is always interesting to find out how an artist started and their journey to the current day.
    We all have a story to tell – perhaps each of us should do a similar post occasionally?

    1. Thank you, Ann!
      Yes, I would love to read a post about the others’ beginnings!
      My idea is that I want to enjoy beauty while I can, so I will use embroidered things, but being careful with it, and that means that I am saving some of it for when the kids will be a bit older and leave grubby chocolate and mud marks everywhere! 🙂 so, I am waiting a bit for the towels to be in everyday use, but the tablecloths are on! Before having my first one, we were using the embroidered towels everyday (I have more of them in storage boxes in Italy).

    2. I meant ” and they will not leave chocolate and mud paw prints everywhere”! of course!

  3. Caterina, I look at your embroidery and can immediately tell it’s from someone who has lovingly spent many an hour working on their skill. It’s lovely, congrats!

    The house door detail your friend sent you reminds me so much of sashiko patterns and the ones used in visible mending. I’d love to know how to do those for my own clothes 🙂

    1. Yes, I spent many relaxing hours stitching away my time: just don’t tell my mum, please!

      I like how different cultures may come out with similar stitches and pattern solutions. I saw sashiko and Japanese types of stitches and felt that they were very similar to others seen in western tradition, only maybe used in a different way. I am drawn to all the new ways of mixing modern sensibilities to traditional embroidery: it’s just amazing what you can do with thread, and you do not even need to know more than one type of stitch for amazing effects!

  4. What a wonderful collection of stitched pieces you have shown us Caterina. The curtain with the houses is my favorite and your openwork/cutwork is fabulous. I know how much time embroidery takes and your skills are evident of how much time you spent learning and stitching. Isn’t it funny how parents make you feel about things they don’t want you to do even though you are passionate about them? I’m glad that you peservered!

    1. Thank you, Ruth, that is high praise from the Book of Edgar’s author!
      I have always had that issue with my mum, as we are so very different in some aspects that most of what I do for fun takes too much of my time in her opinion! It isn’t that she does not like the end results (she actually was glad to be gifted some of them and she is proud of them) , she just wishes it wasn’t I who spent her time making them. 🙂 I have always defied her in that!

  5. You are a consummate story-teller Caterina. I am sitting here soaking up the beauty of your needlework skills. As for the backs! Wow! My mother used to say that you can tell the skill of a dressmaker by the state of the inside of the garment. I think the same applies to these beautiful reverses. I won’t allow myself to have a favourite – they are just all so beautiful. Although my eye is drawn back again and again to your stunning curtain – your friend is a very lucky lady and I have no doubt that you are regularly thought of by her. I hope it did help her settle in all those years ago.

    I am glad that your mother sees the beauty in your art. It’s just a pity that there was such a struggle when you were tiny.

    ‘Feminine Skills’ – how times have changed! (Brava Signora! How lucky were you to have her in your life!) If one were to suggest such a course these days …. I am so glad to see that these artistic skills have not been lost to your generation.

    ps, you are putting me to shame using such beautiful pieces for your mealtimes. As I glance at my oilcloth table cloth and think how I should do better lol!

    1. Thank you, Helene!
      I am glad to see what seems to me a new season for embroidery, used not for everyday life objects but for art: I guess a lot of people think that so much effort should not be “wasted” for textiles that will be dirtied and washed continually!
      Anyway, I have seen a lot of lovely embroidered things being “saved for a special occasion” and that special occasion never coming till the owner’s death: I am not going to put everything out everyday, mind, especially since my kids are still so young, but I want to enjoy most of it sometime while I can! I urge you to do the same!

  6. Lovely embroidery! I especially enjoyed the open work and the cross stitch. My mother did cross stitch, but the back was a mares nest because it was viewed from one side only; your’s is stunning, wonderful work.

    1. Thank you!
      I was taught some tricks to have a neater back with cross-stitch, and some others I learned from books or magazines. I needed to learn when I started embroidering towels, as you can’t have a mass of tangled threads on the back in that case. Also, I liked embroidering finer fabrics, such as fine linen or thin cotton: everything shows through that kind of fabric, you have to try and be neat. Curtains also require a neat back. And then it just became habit and a way to spare thread (some of that thread was pretty expensive for a student!).

    1. Thank you, very kind. I am glad that you like my embroideries, I had such fun making them! Pity that I haven’t that kind of time anymore!

  7. Such wonderful work. I love the curtain but is was hard to chose a favourite. One reason I like stitching on felt is I can hide the back stitches in the middle of the felt and no one sees them. It is funny how no matter how old you get, your moms word always stick with you.

    1. Thank you, Ann.
      I am still to learn how to properly embroider felt: it is quite different from light linen fabric! I tried to embellish some of my felt paintings with a few stitches, but I am in awe of felters who can embroider extensively on this thick and soft, elastic material! Stitches disappear or move or just don’t show in the same way, it seems to me.
      I agree with you on mums 🙂

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