Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Turkey Work Tails


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My sister Sarah has a friend who has a thing for squirrels. With that in mind, Sarah set about stitching a squirrel for her pal for Christmas. The design was originally meant to be stitched over two, on 28 count linen, but I persuaded her that over one on 28 count would be really cute…. Then I talked her into Turkey Work.

Turkey Work on a Squirrel Tail

I know it isn’t original to use Turkey Work for a squirrel’s tail – it’s been done before plenty of times, often in stumpwork projects and similar surface embroidery designs. But I thought this project was a particularly good lesson in taking the initiative and “dressing up” a design by making alterations to it. I’ve talked about this topic before a little bit: kits and patterns are not governed by hard and fast rules. I get this question a lot in e-mail: “I’m working on a project from a kit. I don’t like the way this part looks. Am I allowed to change it?” Yes. Yes, you are!

Anyway, Sarah worked the Turkey Work on 28 count fabric, over one thread, using (get this!) all 6 strands of embroidery floss. I don’t know if she altered that formula part way through the tail, but that’s what she was doing the last time we spoke about it on the phone. Um… I didn’t really mean the Turkey Work had to be done over one…. but it sure came out looking full and fluffy! The whole finished piece is about 2″ square.

So, do you alter kits or designs to suit your fancies? What types of things are you more prone to alter: the actual design, the stitching instructions, or the color choices? Or all three? C’mon – leave a comment and help me encourage stitchers who want to make adjustments in designs or kits, but aren’t quite sure if they can!

Turkey work – it makes great tails! Try it!


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(33) Comments

  1. If that squirrel doesn’t encourage stitchers that it is alright to make changes, nothing will.

    You were so right, stitched over one he is very cute and his turkey work tail is very impressive. Do I also spot a few french knots for berries?

    Sarah’s friend is going to be thrilled when she receives this.

  2. Mary, I haven’t bought any needle works kits yet but I do use other peoples designs and I often vary from the instructions on those. I may alter the design itself or the the stitches, type of thread, fabric, etc. I think of designs as I do recipes, it provides a good jumping off point and it is up to me to “season to taste”.

  3. Hi Mary,
    Really love your squirrel – it is beautiful. My eye for colour is not that good, so I don’t like so much to alter the prescribed colours (although I do sometimes when I can’t do otherwise), but I don’t mind changing the stitches I’m not happy with and doing instead something I feel more familiar with. Not very adventurous the old girl! But as embroidery is for pleasure and not a competition, why stick to something you don’t feel enthusiastic about whereas you can have fun with something else.

    Wish I could come over to your part of the world and join your needlework class. Tell your students that they are lucky to have you for a teacher.

  4. The joke in my household is why do I buy kits when I alter the designs so much. Seldom do I use the colors suggested. I turn square pieces into rectangular bell pulls. I go down in fabric counts to shrink a piece. I often use other sttiches on my cross stitch pieces to add interest. I also use other fibers than floss for the same reason

  5. What a great stitch! You have such wonderful stitches and techniques you share with us!! I really enjoy getting your updates and learning new stitches. I’m an art quilter but use different stitches in my work and beading. Thanks again!

  6. I just love the turkey work. For some reason I think turkey I think redwork. The squirrel is just fantastic. I will for sure try this. I am famous for being creative with designs also. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi Mary,

    Sarah’s work is so beautiful. I have used kits and have modified the colour choices many times to make the finished piece more to what I want it to be. I also substitute and try out other stitches to make the work more interesting

  8. I think the little thing turned out so cute! almost looked real for a moment… send out a congrats for me.

    I always alter patterns in one form or another. I get the kits and very rarely keep them all as a kit. I am always making the design more to my liking with different colors, materials, added embelishments, or even stitching differences. Sometime all of them.

    I still have patterns from previous kits and obviously do not have the original kit materials so making do with what I have is always something totally off the beaten path.

  9. G’day Mary,
    My advice to those who are not 100% happy with a design, change it. Your the one who has to live with it and it’s not like your only going to put 20 mins work into the project either.
    You’ll need to work out just what it is that bothers you. Sometimes it jumps out at you and other times it takes a bit of thought.
    And sometimes the first fiddle hits the spot and other times it’ll take extra working out.
    AND each time you learn something. Stepping stones to becoming good at anything. There is probably a book to that effect somewhere!

    Yes, I mostly alter. I’ve got to fiddle with: design- perhaps make something a bit smaller, bigger, take out or add, face something the other way, composition is important to me,
    stitching instructions- I like to have things clear in my head to start so it’s not unusual for me to write notes to myself at the side. In working out I sometimes find a ‘better’ way for me to do it.
    Colour- a weak point unfortunatly, so I tend to go by the book.

    My magazines have notes here and there written in them, often to the effect “Suggest such and such”. Which is usually a reminder if I get to do that project to take note of a certain aspect that has jumped out at me at the time.

    I’ve been reading your posts but not getting to comment lately.
    Thanks Mary, Cheers, Kath

  10. Hi Mary–such a cute squirrel. Your sister did a fantastic job.

    I once took a counted cross stitch kit of “Fanciful Felines,” a design by Laurel Burch, and made it into a needlepoint piece with absolutely no cotton floss in it and no counted cross stitch. Lots of silk, rayon, metallics combined with needlepoint, stumpwork and Brazilian embroidery. And yes, even some turkey work.

    It won an award at the National Academy of Needlearts Exemplary a few years ago. You can see the picture here:http://www.needleart.org/Exemplary05/JellicleCats.php

    I haven’t adapted any kits nearly as much since then, but I do have several in my stash that will get the same treatement. Just gotta make time to get to them.

  11. Mary, one of the reasons I read your blog is that you always give me interesting things to think about. I believe kits are great for a beginning needle worker because all the supplies are gathered in one place in the quantities needed with instructions. A very cost effective way to try out something new with out having to invest a lot of money. I also think kits are good for the experienced needle worker wanting to try a new style of needlework or replicating a historical piece. But that said, there are kits and there are kits. For all the well designed kits with quality threads there are ten out there that are just junk. I wonder how many would be needle workers just gave up frustrated working poor quality kits. After beginning with kits I think people grow out of them and start making changes or designing their own – taking needlework to a art form. While some people are content replicate the kit as designed. Perhaps that is the difference between Art and Craft we often discuss in needlework circles. It brings to mind my grand daughter who was embroidering a apple tree this summer and made all the apples bright purple. When her grandfather ask her why the apples were purple. She told him it was her tree and she would make them any color she wanted. GOOD FOR HER!!!

  12. I don’t know why, but I’m generally much happier ‘sketching’ my embroidery. Not much for patterns and lines, in other words–I have a picture in mind and set out to get there, one way or another.

    I’m trying to do more that *does* have a set pattern–it helps me use a wider variety of stitches and the final look seems a little less organic, shall we say? ๐Ÿ™‚

    So yes, by all means–if you want to change a pattern a little, go for it! But I suggest thinking it through first so you don’t get those nasty surprises that make you want to toss it across the room….

  13. What a happy coincidence that today’s discussion is about kits. I would like to make some items from old Inspirations and would like to know if there is a needlework shop that I could simply email describing the fabric I need or they could order the fabric for me. Many places will say they have what I want, but when is arrives I am sometimes disappointed.
    Louise B.

  14. I’ve altered thread colors and used different kinds of fibers many times. I also stitch on linen instead of Aida, so I change that about a pattern or kit, too. As I’ve become more confident in my needlework and increased my “repertoire” of interesting stitches, I’ve also added different stitches to many cross-stitch designs. Since I work on linen, it makes it very easy to figure in new stitches. I keep a “stitch-dictionary” handy to change things up!

  15. I like the Turkey work, I’ve never seen that before. And I like the little advertisements at the end of the articles. They are small, tasteful and pertain to needlework. Great way to introduce us to websites.

  16. Here’s my newbie story about changing a pattern (just the colors!): I was working on a pretty advanced cross-stitch project that showed Jesus with a crowd of children. But all the children were white, and nearly all were blond. Jesus had red hair. I worried about it for quite a while–skin tones are so difficult–but I changed the skin and hair for most of the figures. It came out well, you would never know that I had changed it.

  17. Dear Marymentor:

    Thanks a thousandfold for this installment. I can use this to “create” the hair on my angels which will be part of the pastoral I’m doing. Exacatically ๐Ÿ™‚ what I needed. It also prompted me to view your page of other videos which I immediately “bookmarked” as part of my library of lessons. Thank you again so very much Mary….Judy in Pittsburgh

  18. Most of the embroidery I do is kits or patterns, but I’m not afraid to change things I do not like. Sometimes the changes are quite major, other times they are in the details. One of the things I really dislike that you find on a number of cross-stitch patterns is backstitch ‘outlining’ which does not follow the cross-stitch underneath. It looks to me like the work of a small child who is as yet unable to colour between the lines; OK for the small child, not OK for me.

    Ultimately it’s your work. Don’t be afraid to play. You can always unpick it, or even start again if you find the colour of the material you chose isn’t working out (I’ve got a project on hold at the moment for that reason).

  19. The phrase ‘am I allowed to change this?’ baffles me whenever I hear it. I mean – ‘allowed’? Who exactly do people think will stop them? Is there an Embroidery Convention Police Force I hadn’t heard of yet?

  20. What a charming squirrel! And beautifully done!

    My question has to do with historic sampler patterns. Should you stitch “wrought by Sarah 1893” to keep the pattern’s integrity? Or do you put your own name and date because you did it?

    On any other kit or pattern I have no hesitation to change colors or pattern. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for posting my squirrel. He’s even cuter in person! I just wanted to tell you that I also changed the kind of thread I was “supposed” to use, because I had about a thousand skeins of DMC and I did do french knots like one of your readers stated. I was wild and crazy. And the six strands for the turkey worked turned out just perfect after I talked to you because I then quit doing it over one and ended up finishing his tail very quickly. The six strands filled everything on very nicely. You had a great idea and I’m glad I did it. I’ll send you a pic of the completely finished project! Love ya…

  22. Wow! You have a very talented family! Sarah did a wonderful job with the Turkey work!! I have never seen a cuter squirrel in my life. It almost….almost inspired me to pick up a needle myself. But who am I kidding? I will leave that to the professionals, such you, Mary Corbet.

    Thanks for another fun and educational post! This blog is great!


  23. Aha! A question that fits my situation perfectly! I’ve always been afraid to trust my judgment about colors and designs and over the decades of my stitching life, I have made very few changes. Things had to be really “off” to my eye for me to make an adjustment. In the past year I’ve begun associating with a wonderful group of people on the Hand Dyed Fibers forum and they’ve given me the encouragement I needed to just jump in and make changes. I’ve not yet reached the point at which I can say I have full confidence in my abilities, but I’m getting there! To those who have not yet tried to make changes, I say “Go for it! The worst that could happen is that you might need to do a bit of frogging!”

  24. Maybe, Hypothetical Woman, they are really wondering if it will turn out ok if not done exactly as the pattern, and are wanting some reasurance to prop up their confidence. Lack of confidence is often misunderstood, understandably I must add.
    Just a thought on a side of personalities.

  25. Hi Mary, I quite often change a colour because I would prefer something else, or omit a design element or change the shape of an element. I do this to make the design really mine. I would do this with dress-making so it seemed natural to follow this through to my stitching.

  26. I don’t do a lot of kits, but generally don’t change threads or fabrics when I do — probably because I’m cheap ๐Ÿ™‚ I do change threads, colors, fabrics, etc. when I work from a chart or other design, though, frequently.

    BTW, I love the squirrel. Was it part of a kit or a pattern? My husband and I also “have a thing for squirrels” (though not real ones), and I’d love to stitch that little guy up, turkey work and all!

  27. I change things all the time. LOL! But then I don’t do embroidery work that is by any means on the same level as what you do. I like simple embroidery…no counting, etc. My last project was a set of dish towels that I had tranferred from a pattern of “dancing dishes”. I’m working on a stamped vintage dresser scarf now that I really can’t get into.

    I love the squirrel…that bushy tail is too cool. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  28. I love the idea of embellishing a kit or pattern with something personal, like this turkey work tail or a button or charm or another personalization like adding a name or something to a piece. I once used a little button flag on a piece I did of the Pledge of Allegiance where the button fit perfectly where the word ‘flag’ should be.

    As I had forgotten how to do Turkey Work, I looked it up in your video tutorials. It was a very good lesson and, no, if all of your videos are as well done as this one (I’ll have to check a few more of them out)you do not need to script them as you did not “yammer” at all. Well done!

  29. Hi Mary
    I am a real sucker for kits -but the first thing I do when I buy a new it is work out how to change it!! I change the colours, the threads and the stitches-and sometimes I also change the design.I quite often add embellishments, especially beads, and Ioften use different techniques. C\Recently I finished 3 crewelwork embroderies and a patchwork picture none of which resemble the original designs. None of them were kits so I used the basic designs and personalized them. This way my creativity gets satsified and my skills expand. I have found books on embroidery stitches really useful for this–recently book by Yvette Stanton called the right handed embroiderer’s companion. It is filled with beautiful stitches i had never heard of before so I love learning a new stitch and then using it in my embroidery.
    Hope this helps other stitchers to experiment and break out of the box.
    thanks for your great website

  30. Love the look of turkey work…and love the spindly brush that you used….hate to say this but it really looks like the brush I use to brush my cat with. Guess you could use it, as long as you clean it first.

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