Sam Tarly’s dagger

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately.  I’ve been busy doing a number of things, as a result of which the embroidery has rather had to go on the back burner.  I did, however, find some time to do a little craft project for the birthday of my best friend, who is known to quite a lot of the world as Mole.  There are several reasons why Mole is completely awesome, and one of them is that he, like me, is a huge fan of George R R Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.  So I thought I would like to make him something out of the novels, and the thing that seemed most appropriate was Sam Tarly’s dragonglass dagger.

Now I would have no idea how to knap obsidian, and I probably physically couldn’t do it anyway, so this was clearly going to have to be an imitation.  Designing in three dimensions is a bit beyond me unless it involves sewing, so I started off by making a very simple template on graph paper.  You know me by now – I can do just about anything if I have enough squared paper.

Dagger template on graph paper

The next step was to trace the template onto a piece of greaseproof paper.  I did this twice, because I planned to make two daggers just in case one went wrong; after all, I had never done this before.

The traced template

So far, so good.  The next thing to do was to cut a couple of pieces of muslin, one on the straight grain and one on the bias, to strengthen the clay pieces I planned to make.

Muslin pieces for strengthening

Since clay can be messy, I rolled it out on an old disposable chopping board which got thrown into the plastic recycling afterwards.  This is DAS Original, rather than DAS Pronto.  It’s cheaper, but it takes for ever to dry.  I had to help it a bit in the oven a few times, but due to the muslin and the glue I had to be rather careful about how high a temperature I used.

Once I had the clay rolled out to about the right size, I laid it out on one of the pieces of muslin, put the template on top, and cut carefully round the template pieces with a sharp knife.

The flat dagger pieces being cut out

Once I had removed the paper and surplus clay, this is what I had left.

The flat dagger pieces fully cut out from the clay

I then laid the other piece of muslin over the top.  I had rather hoped it would stick to the clay as it was drying, but that proved to be too optimistic.  I had to give it a little help with some glue.

Flat clay pieces sandwiched between layers of muslin

Once the entire arrangement was thoroughly dry, I cut out the flat daggers with sharp embroidery scissors, giving them an independent existence for the first time.

The two dagger flats

The next step took a bit of thought.  You see, I wanted to build up the daggers one side at a time and embed the flat pieces precisely in the centre, for accuracy.  So I found some corrugated cardboard about half the thickness of the flat pieces, cut two holes the shape of the flat pieces, and covered the card with cling film so that the clay wouldn’t stick to it.  I then inserted the flat pieces in the holes, ready to be built on.

Cardboard support to allow even building

That allowed me to build up one side of the daggers with more DAS.

Building up one side of the daggers

Once that was dry, it was pretty straightforward to build up the opposite sides to match without damaging anything I had already done.

The finished clay bases

Once I had the finished clay bases, I wrapped them completely with more strips of muslin and a generous application of glue, to prevent the daggers from shattering as far as possible.  Over this, I applied a layer of green putty.

Let me digress for a moment on the subject of green putty.  This is the stuff professional model makers use to create gaming miniatures and the like.  You have a blue strip and a yellow strip which you mix at the point of use, and then you’ve got about an hour to work it into the shape you want.  It is flexible, it doesn’t crack when it dries (unlike the clay, as you saw), it takes detail brilliantly, and you can even carve it when it’s dry, which is how I got the (relatively) sharp points on the daggers.  All told, it is pretty awesome stuff, but for one thing it is expensive, and for another thing you do have to be a little careful what sort you buy.  The original is called Kneadatite, and it is best to get this if you can, despite the price.  I bought a slightly cheaper imitation on eBay, which was actually being sold as Kneadatite; it wasn’t.  It did everything I wanted it to do, so I can’t complain about that, but it came with a health warning.  Kneadatite itself is apparently quite safe to work by hand.  The putty I bought wasn’t.  The label said it was likely to cause skin irritation, so I had to work in rubber gloves, which is not exactly an ideal way to use the stuff.

Anyway, here are the two daggers, one at the muslin stage and the other with its layer of green putty.  I created the knapped effect using a child’s modelling tool.

Layers of muslin and green putty

Once the putty layer was dry, I had to paint and varnish the daggers to look like obsidian.  I wasn’t quite convinced acrylic enamel would stick well to the putty, so I primed it first with white acrylic gesso (which, incidentally, smelt very odd).  This was followed by several coats of black acrylic enamel.  I had to make quite certain it was opaque.

The daggers being painted

The black acrylic was pretty glossy, but nonetheless I finished it with a few coats of high-gloss outdoor varnish to ensure it was waterproof.  I didn’t know what water soaking into the internal clay might do, and I didn’t want Mole to have to find out if he accidentally dropped it in a puddle.  Once that was done, I bound the hilt of each dagger with jute twine to give a good grip.  The next photo shows what that looked like, and also my initial mock-up design for the sheath, stapled together quickly from bits cut out of an old plastic envelope.  It didn’t quite work as I intended, so I had to adapt it.

The finished daggers, with the sheath being designed

That was the daggers themselves finished, but now I had to make sheaths for them.  I first of all made a reasonably convincing imitation suede by sandwiching a layer of leatherette between two layers of brown moleskin fabric.  The design of the sheath turned out to be pretty simple in the end, though even so I managed to get it wrong the first time.  I cut a triangular piece for the front based on the measurements of the finished dagger, and then a piece for the back which consisted of an identical triangle topped by a high open arch.  It was then just a question of oversewing the triangle edges together, gluing a suitable trim on the front to hide the stitching, and binding the loop with more of the jute twine.  The sheath can then hang on a belt as shown in the photo below.

Finished dagger in sheath

And Bob’s your uncle.  Now Mole can patrol the Wall with perfect confidence! :-)

A knotty tale

Happy New Year, one and all!

Yes, well, I’m still not exactly well, but at least now I’m on medication and it seems to be starting to help a bit.  I spent Christmas with my parents, as I usually do, and I got a little bit of stitching done there; then I went down to London for the New Year’s Eve concert, which turned out to be pretty much of a disaster.  I will not go into all the things that went wrong over that weekend, but suffice it to say that by the time I arrived at the concert and found that poor Charles was unwell and couldn’t sing, I was not in the least surprised because it just fitted in with everything else.  I hope he’s feeling much better by now.  The one redeeming feature of the weekend was the fact that I stayed at a really lovely, welcoming guest house in Walthamstow, where I was able to spend the Sunday basically recovering from the Saturday.

And stitching.

State of progress on 1 Jan 2012

This is where I’ve got to at the moment.  Let’s have a closer look and see what’s new here.

Close-up showing more detail

First of all, you’ll see that I have done some more purl filling.  It turns out to be far easier, and infinitely less sore on the fingers, to use a beading needle for this; I had no problems with it this time.  But the really new thing is that I have started filling in the “windswept triangles”, as I like to call them.  This photo has come out looking a bit more contrasty than it really is; on the actual piece, the contrast is quite subtle.  The colour used is Anchor green 844.

And what stitch am I using to fill these very irregular, awkward areas?  Wait for it…

Extreme close-up showing stitching

…French knots.

This is an extremely slow way to fill a space, but, as you see, the results are very satisfying.  I’m also pleased with the effect of introducing a little green into the repeating pattern.

This weekend I am in London again for another concert; it’s very unusual for me to go to two concerts so close together, but that was just the way it worked out this time.  I’m going to be bringing the embroidery, so hopefully I should get a bit more done then.  Especially if things go better than they did on New Year’s Eve… which honestly won’t take much. :-P

On strands of purl

I do apologise for the radio silence recently.  A long story can be cut short by saying that first I was very busy and now I’m not well.  I thought I would get quite a lot of stitching done while signed off work, but it hasn’t really been the case until today, when I finally got out the purl and started doing some filling.

Many people reading this will already know perfectly well what purl is, so please either skip the rest of the paragraph, or bear with me for the sake of those who don’t.  I didn’t until I started this project, never having done any goldwork before.  Purl is a very fine metal wire which is wrapped in a tight spiral, either circular or square in cross-section.  I’m using the square cross-section, which is also known as “bright check”.  You cut it into short lengths and thread the needle through the spiral as if it were a bead, and, as you can see, I’ve been using it to fill the areas which are outlined in gold.  I tend to think of them as stylised leaves, although there is quite a lot of abstract in this pattern.  There will be more realism when I start putting in the non-repeating motifs.

Showing the purl fillings

This picture doesn’t give you a very good idea of what the gold actually looks like, but I rather like it.  It gives the design an autumnal look.  If I show you a close-up, you can see how I’ve done the filling.

Close-up of purl filling

Purl turns out to be a bit of a pig to work with, though it’s extremely effective once you’ve finished fighting with it.  Getting the pieces to the right length is the part I thought would be difficult, but it is actually the easy bit.  All you need is a fingernail, which need only be of very modest length, and a small pair of scissors.  I don’t use my embroidery scissors for this, as I suspect the wire may blunt them even though it is very fine and easy to cut.  I lay out the purl on the fabric where I want it to go, and stick my fingernail in at the correct length.  This separates and kinks the purl slightly, making it very easy to see where to cut.

The difficult bit, as usual, is the one I didn’t suspect.  It is very easy to stretch the purl out inadvertently while threading it, and, while you can coax it more or less back into shape, it still tends to end up a little longer than you originally wanted it.  This is why it turns out to be a really bad idea to use long sections of purl.  The shorter you keep them, the better they tend to stay in shape.  Of course, if you do stretch your purl or you have a longer piece that needs to be eased around a slight curve, you can hold it in place with one or two tiny couching stitches.  If you make these exactly perpendicular to the line of the purl, they will sink through the spiral and hold the wire in place invisibly at the level of the fabric surface.  Generally speaking, though, if you think of it as metallic beads you can cut to size, you won’t go far wrong with this stuff.

Another piece of advice I can offer is not to do too much of this at once.  It makes your fingertips rather sore, after a while.  Fortunately the way I work is to swap about between different elements of the design so that it builds gradually from one end, which means I don’t get bored doing one thing all the time.  It will therefore be a while before I do any more purl filling, but that’s fine.  I am delighted with the way it’s shaping.

Just add beads

I promised another waistcoat post, and here it is.  As you can see, I made excellent progress while I was away:

Progress as at about 10 pm on 21 August

The observant among you may have noticed that gold tips are now appearing on the ends of the tendrils.  Let’s just have a closer look at those, shall we?

Close-up showing beads

It hasn’t come out quite as clearly as I would have liked, but you can just about see (it’s clearest in the two tendrils near centre bottom) that there’s a little bead similar in colour to the tendril stitched at the end of it, and around that there are five gold beads.  I found the gold beads while I was away; I hadn’t been able to find any at home that were a good match for the gold thread, but these fitted the bill admirably.  The match is much better in real life than it is in the photo; in real life they are indistinguishable in colour.

This is also probably a good point to show you how I’m handling the buttonholes.

Showing the embroidery around the buttonholes

As you see, I’ve broken the design to leave a small margin around the buttonholes; also, the hook at the top of the gold part of the motif under the lower buttonhole in this picture has been ever so slightly lowered to allow for the buttonhole.  Frankly, I am not doing a lot of extremely careful embroidery and then cutting through it for buttonholes. :-)  So that’s been allowed for in advance.  I take absolutely no credit for the fact that the buttonhole spacing happens to match that of the motifs exactly (there are two buttonholes per motif).  That’s just one of those amazing and delightful flukes which seem to have sprouted from this project ever since I started on it.  The size of the motifs was planned to match the size of those on the original Victorian waistcoat as far as possible, with no thought for the buttonhole spacing at the time.

Incidentally, the design has moved on quite a bit from the paisley that inspired it, but you can still see the basic shape of it… and, of course, I left the paisley hooks in, as a homage to the Victorian half of the inspiration.  And the fact that I love paisley anyway. :-)

Taking shape

I must confess that I don’t always bother to press pattern pieces using an iron, since it is often possible to flatten them out to an acceptable standard by hand.  However, there are two situations in which I always do: if the pattern is particularly creased, or if the pieces are very small.  The pieces for Avon and Vila, naturally, are pretty small.  When I’d finished pressing them, they looked like this:

Pattern pieces for the Avon and Vila dolls

You can just see the fabric on the right, and it is a good representation of the colour (at least, it is on my monitor).  Remember that, if you wouldn’t mind, because I couldn’t get the colour to look right in the next photo.  The boys are really not going to be spectacularly pink.

I’ve just been away for a week, and I took the pieces and the fabric with me.  While I was away, I cut everything out and did as much making up as I could.  This wasn’t a great deal because the arms and legs have to be stuffed before I attach them to the bodies, and I didn’t bring the stuffing with me, but it still took me a couple of days.  The results, as they stand at the moment, look something like this:

Fabric pieces for Avon and Vila dolls

I hate tailor tacks, but I can’t really see a way round them here, except on the arm pieces.  The arms are supposed to have a couple of tailor tacks at the top.  I’ve only put them on one arm, because it’s obvious from the construction where they go; I just need the one arm marking as a reminder which way round they are (the green thread marks the larger circles, the purple thread the smaller ones, and there’s one of each).  I’ve also thread-traced the stitching lines, and will probably replace the thread with chalk just before I actually stitch them.

Now, just look at that first photo again if you don’t mind, the one with the pattern pieces.  The text on the back piece (bottom right) is a tad out of focus, but all the outlines are very clear, and the photo is taken from directly above the ironing board so there is no perspective distortion.  That was deliberate.  I now have a scalable pattern.  You may hear a bit more about this later.

Not the next post, though.  That’s going to be all about the waistcoat. :-)

Two bad boys

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m in the process of setting up my new business.  One thing I really needed for this was a good logo, and if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that my artistic skills are entirely a matter of squared paper and grinding patience.  This, however, doesn’t work if what you’re trying to produce is a simple logo with nice bold lines.

So a friend in NZ came to the rescue, and she drew me a really lovely logo which you can see on my business website.  I asked her what she would like in return, and after a little thought she said she would like a plush Vila.  This name may not mean anything to you if you’re below a certain age, so I will explain.  Vila was one of the characters in a SF series of the late 70s and early 80s called Blake’s 7.  Both of us were (and still are) huge fans of this series, so I got quite excited about the idea, and said I was very tempted to make a plush Avon to go with him.  Avon was Vila’s friend.  Sort of.  Insofar as he was ever friends with anyone.  He wasn’t exactly a nice chap.  Even so, when it comes to classic SF double acts, Avon and Vila were right up there alongside the likes of Spock and McCoy.  In fact, whisper it softly, but I think Avon and Vila had the edge.  They got better lines. :-)

Avon (left) and Vila (right) in "Gambit"

Here they are – the boys themselves, in a very typical screencap.  Vila’s the one on the right, clutching the drink and looking worried.  Avon is doing his usual steely-eyed thing with just a hint of smugness.  After all, you’d be smug too if you knew you could look good in a tinfoil tunic.  This still is from the episode Gambit, which possibly counts as my favourite episode ever.  My friend particularly wanted Vila in that costume (and I like that one a lot too).

The matter didn’t take much deciding.  My friend really wanted an Avon too, so she said if I made one, she’d pay me for him.  “Done!” I replied happily.  Of course, I’m no good at faces (see artistic skills above), but that’s all right.  She’ll do those herself.  She thinks the sewing is the clever bit.  I don’t understand that.  Sewing is easy.  It’s the faces that are the clever bit!

I decided to put Avon in his Gambit outfit as well, since it’s easy to make and it’s very classic Avon.  Avon wore a lot of silver.  (Heck, if you can, go for it.)  The first thing to do was to find a doll pattern.  There are lots of free ones online, but none of them turned out to be quite right, so in the end I bought this one:

Doll pattern (Vogue 7418)

Yes, I realise the dolls shown are all female.  Sssh, don’t tell Avon and Vila. ;-)  The dolls actually look female because of their clothes and hair; their bodies are pretty much unisex.  They won’t need any adaptation to make them a more masculine shape.

This morning I went shopping for fabric.  The lady with the fabric stall on the market is truly awesome, because, as you will see if you compare this photo with the one of Avon and Vila above, she had just about everything I needed:

Fabrics, threads, trim &c to make the dolls

And, yes, that brown fabric in the middle is actually suedette.  It really could not have gone any better.  There’s also a large bag of stuffing which is not in the photo.

All I need now is some yarn for their hair, one or two pieces of PVC for their footwear (Avon goes in for big boots, but Vila usually wears a more modest pair of shoes), something I can use for Vila’s belt, a couple of small buckles, and some black sequins or similar for Avon’s belt.

I’m going to have fun with this project. :-)

The first stitches

Long time, no blog.  Sorry about that.  I have been rushed off my feet this month, as I’m also in the process of setting up my own business (nothing to do with embroidery; it’s a music agency).  However, I have been able to do a few stitches, especially as a good friend from London has been up here over the last few days with her sewing machine in order to finish off the bridesmaids’ dresses for a wedding in the area.  I took a couple of days off work and carted the embroidery over to her hotel so we could keep each other company.  It was an excellent arrangement.

So here’s the progress I’ve made so far:

Progress so far

Not too shabby, given the time available.  Here’s a closer look:

A closer view

And here’s a detailed look at the stitching:

The stitching in detail

The thick dark purple lines are the wool lucet cord you saw being made in an earlier post; it is laid and couched.  It’s plunged through the fabric using an awl.  The sort of awl which is normally sold for the purpose of embroidery is no good for this, because the cord is too thick, so I use what I affectionately term my Big Girl Awl.  This is a formidable-looking implement that I picked up in the DIY section of Wilkinson’s for about half the price of my effete little embroidery awl.  I’m currently looking for a cork to stick the end in when I’m travelling with it (no, really, I don’t drink enough wine), because it is extremely sharp.  I’m couching the cord with ordinary sewing thread, which is almost invisible even close up.

The gold is also laid and couched.  This is DMC metallic embroidery thread, which, like most common embroidery threads these days, is 6-ply.  I cut off a short piece and use single plies from that to do the couching.  The stuff is an absolute blighter to work with, because the laid thread has a strong tendency to separate itself into individual plies while you’re couching it and the working thread is rather easily damaged by the needle, but that’s pretty much standard for all metallics.  It looks good once you’ve tamed it.  The starting end of the couched thread can easily be plunged through the fabric with a needle, and I was originally doing that with the finishing end too, but that is incredibly fiddly, because by the time you get to the end of the couching there are inevitably six separate strands of different lengths, and it is not easy to get them all to go through a needle, especially since there isn’t much of them to work with.  Fortunately, once again Mary Corbet came up with exactly the technique I needed at the time I needed it.  If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend her tutorial on using a thread lasso, which turned out to be a much easier way to deal with the ends of the gold thread.  In fact, if you’re interested in embroidery and you’re not following Mary Corbet, why not? :-)

Finally, the purple “windswept triangles” are outlined in twisted chain stitch using three strands of Anchor embroidery cotton.  I wanted quite a heavy outline because these are part of the ground design.  At the moment I’m thinking of harmonising the tendrils of lucet cord with the windswept triangles by edging the former with the same purple I’m using for the latter, but using only one or two strands.  That will probably be done in a back stitch or straight chain stitch with closely spaced French knots.  The triangles will be filled, but I haven’t yet decided how, although I have just got some more beads which may feature in that task.  I’m very much making it up as I go along.

Seems to be working quite well so far, though. :-)

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