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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Grab-n-Go Needlework Project


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When your vacation is looming, when you have company coming for an extended stay, when you know life is getting ready to go ballistic on you, what happens to your needlework? Do you abandon stitchery until the cyclone of activity blows itself out, do you plod ahead with your regular needlework pursuits, or do you plan needlework into those busy times by preparing a project that fits into your life when it’s in hyper-drive?

I tend to do the latter: I prepare a project that I know I can grab and take with me, or that I can concentrate 15 minutes of time on now and then, just so that I have some kind of project going – something that keeps the fingers busy when there’s some down time. Grab-n-Go needlework projects like these are never something that I feel pressured to finish in any particular time frame. They’re just a casual project that requires minimum supplies and tools, that can be easily transported, and that don’t require a lot (if any) real thought. No decisions to make, no techniques to work out – just simple stitching.

And you’d be surprised how soon you can actually finish this type of project (even if it is rather large!), if you keep it available for those little snatches of time when you can get in a few stitches.

Ukrainian Embroidered Cloth Project

My grab-n-go project is a counted thread project, based on the embroidered Ukrainian cloth I showed you on Easter of this year. The nice thing about this type of counted thread design is that, once the main motif (repeated element) is stitched once, the pattern can be put aside. The whole piece is merely repeating the same design elements around the edge of the cloth. Very little counting is involved, and very little thought is necessary for the stitching, once the whole thing is underway.

After working out one corner of the design on this software for designing counted cross stitch patterns, I cut a piece of linen 22 inches square and neatened the edges on the sewing machine using an overlock stitch. I’m using 25-count round yarn linen by Legacy Linen. This is a beautiful linen for counted work. Why? Because the weave fills the fabric – there are no skinny threads, wide open holes, and so forth. The threads are plump and full, making it a really nice ground fabric for counted work. It’s a fairly heavy linen.

After cutting the fabric and neatening the edges, I basted the area of the stitching, starting with vertical and horizontal lines down the center to mark the middle of the fabric. After that, I basted the perimeter line, marking the whole design area, which is 18″ square – leaving a 2″ edge all around for finishing. Once the set-up was finished, I was good to go.

Rummaging through a box of stranded cotton embroidery floss, I came up with the colors for the project, of which there are only 4: a reddish orange, a bright green, a deep yellow, and black. The piece will be stitched in one strand, over one fabric thread.

Ukrainian Embroidered Cloth Project

The linen and the threads and a package of size 26 tapestry needles were stuffed (er… gently shoved) into a zippered mesh project bag, which was a gift from a stitching friend. I grabbed a pair of little scissors, in this case also a kind gift from Tanja Berlin. Incidentally, these are Terrific little scissors!! They’re sharp, they’re affordable, they work great for metal thread and regular embroidery threads – they’re just wonderful. I think every stitcher should have a pair in every color under the sun. (But that’s just me – I like scissors.)

Ukrainian Embroidered Cloth Project

All of the above fits very comfortably into my favorite project bag, which is this little Mille Fluers tote bag from the Cluny Museum, also a gift from a friend. So not only do I have my grab-n-go project completely contained and ready for every exigency, but the materials include gifts from friends, adding a special little touch to the whole get-up.

So that’s my grab-n-go project for this year. I’ll work on it when I travel, when I have company and we’re just visiting, and really, any time I have down time, when I can’t be working on larger projects. Projects like these are great for late evenings when sleep refuses to come, for afternoon visits on the front porch with friends, for road trips, for any time when you’re having to wait (the doctor, the dentist, in between appointments or classes, and so forth).

Grab-n-go projects also serve as good “carrots” throughout the day. “When I get this finished, I’ll take 15 minutes off and stitch on that.” You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes a day, stitching on a project like this. It may not seem like much at first, but over time, you can make a lot of progress on a project using little snatches of time. I follow my 15-minute stitching philosophy on these types of projects all the time – it’s a great way to accomplish at least something, stitch-wise, every day. The same philosophy doesn’t quite work on larger projects like the Medallion, but it does work on simpler projects that don’t require a concentrated effort.

Throughout the year, I’ll give you an occasional update on this Ukrainian cloth project. Who knows? I may finish it this year, or it may take several years. But it’s nice to have a little project available for a quick stitching fix when life gets hectic or I’m on the go.

So what about you? Do you have any grab-n-go projects underway? What types of projects do you stitch in similar circumstances? How do you organize them? Have you made good progress on them, or do they end up sitting in the closet? Any advice for grab-n-go stitching projects? Feel free to have your say below!


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(58) Comments

  1. Can you tell us more about the little scissors you think that people should have in multiple colors? The brand, where one might buy them, etc.?

    1. Hi, Dee – Tanja carries them (there’s a link directly to the page on her site in the article above). They’re called “Sew Mate Rainbow Thread Cutters” and they’re the 3 1/4″ straight blades. I haven’t found a source for them in the US…

    2. Dee/Mary,

      Just so others can avoid my initial confusion, when you go to Tanja’s site, she calls the Sew Mate scissors Goldwork Snipping Scissors. I checked another site and these are the same scissors.

    3. Hi, Kathy, that’s right. She doesn’t use the name brand of the scissors, and calls them instead by their use. I’ve been using them on gold and regular threads – they’re great little scissors!

    4. I saw these a couple months ago at Stitchers Pleasures in Escondido CA, they have a web site.
      Their selection of small scissors was huge, lovely handles in colors and designs. From $4 to $12. Try them out.

  2. A lady after my own philosphy. I have a tablecloth stitched entirely as passenger in the car, waiting for children or at meetings. Have been called “the red light lady” as once when needing to finish a project urgently even stitched at the red robot(what we call lights in South Africa). A friend caught me in the act when she stopped near me.

    I always have a ready bag to take with me with what I used to call “idiot work” until I upset folk and now prefer the term “comfort work”. Have done SO much in those odd 5 minutes.

    Love your medallion! Have also been working to a deadline so enjoyed all your comments.
    Tricia from Cape Town

    1. Now, that is FUNNY!! I’m afraid I’ve never been caught stitching at a red light! You should get a prize for that! Here in Kansas, we don’t have that many traffic lights (except in the cities). There’s a town about 20 miles from here that has a light. Maybe some day, I’ll test your approach! LOL!

    2. I really like the idea behind this project and behind your 15 minutes projects, Mary. I’m sure I could snatch a small amount of time everday maybe on a lunch break, so I think I will start with a project like this.
      It’s nice to hear that so many stitchers are addicted to their work. I never stitched in public but Tricia’s story made me laugh 🙂 Actually I read in public sometimes. It’s happened a couple of times that I didn’t realise there is an electric pylon on the sidewalk and I almost run at it. We need to be careful on the roads ladies 🙂

  3. I do strive for that but it doesn’t always happen. I keep a small project handy ( such as a bookmark or a card etc.) in my favourite tote! My husband refers to me as the crazy obsessed stitcher.

  4. Hi Mary,

    It worked! I received Needle ‘n Thread in my email this morning. Yeah!

    Love this idea of a stitch and go. I do this as well though not as beautifully packaged as you do. I put my project in a ziplock bag. I like the idea of organizing everything in special bag and that everything stays in the bag so it is always ready to stitch. Smart!

    Have a great one!
    PS – love the design, too!

  5. I have a couple of these type projects – one I keep in the car so I can pick it up if I get stuck somewhere unexpectedly or have to wait for someone.

    Mine are usually small counted thread type affairs, or at the moment pillow case corners for surface embroidery (bumble bee related). I keep the threads, needles, scissors and pattern (if applicable) in a tin in my bag and its always to hand.

  6. I usually have little pincushions that I work on. They use odd bits of threads that you don’t know what to do with, only one stitch – French knots – and can be finished in about 4 – 6 hours. They are light and easily transportable and there’s the bonus of being great gifts for friends when they are made up.

    1. OOOOH! I would love to see a photo of one of these pin cushins! I saw a photo of a cactus pin cushin in an Inspiration Magazine one, made up my own pattern and made a few. They would be a perfect car trip project.

    2. Carol Arsenault’s little pincushions sound like a great idea.
      Wonderful grab-n-go for thrifty embroiderers.
      Mary, could you please persuade her to elaborate? (comment #6)

  7. Hi Mary,

    My last tote that I made with some hand embroidery on one side gave me an idea. For the tote I opt for a little restriction and sew the bottom and sides right sides together –
    turn right side out and embroider the tote that way – with the actual tote carrying my supplies. When ready to work just empty out your supplies and you are ready to go!! When done, it’s ready for straps and lining. Now that makes me wonder if we could put a false backing fabric on a small project – sew it tote style, use it for carrying supplies and when done, remove the backing. Do you think that would compromise the project?
    Just a thought.

    1. Hi, Jane – I think it would depend on the type of project, really. It sounds like an interesting idea! But I do like to have my stitching stuff in a bag of some sort, if for no other reason than to keep the ground fabric clean. I’d be afraid of the ground fabric getting soiled, if it were used as the “container” for the supplies needed for the project…

  8. I usually do have some little grab and go project with me. The slightly bulky issue is taking along a hoop or frame. I will prepare a separate sewing kit now for scissors, threads and needles (what a good idea) – but I don’t have duplicate frames or hoops? What do you do about them? I really like that Ukranian design which I intend to attempt at some point. At 22″/18″ do you use a frame? As a relative beginner I have it in my mind that I should use a frame or hoop for everything – perhaps that is not always necessary. Thanks for your help with this. Rowena

    1. Hi, Rowena – no, no frame. No hoop either on this one. It’s a pretty heavy linen that I’m working on, and it’s very easy to work this type of counted work in hand, without a hoop or frame… which makes it much easier to transport, too!

  9. I so agree with you in that small amounts of time give true dedication to a project that when utilized provides one time for focus and fun. This time element affords one with a sense of accomplishment toward the goal be it stitching, exercising, etc. What a great tool and a good reminder for all of us. Thanks Mary.

  10. Mary, since I’m always traveling…and waiting, I always carry complete kits whether purchased or made up with me. Usually counted work but this time I’m working on making wool felt pin cushions. I need to have 5 by june 9th. I usually don’t put a time factor on these projects but these were going too be chrisstmas gifts,LOL!

  11. Its a good project and a good idea but add in a couple more needles just in case. Nothing is worse than being already to stitch and finding you have no needle or that the one you do have is broken

  12. My favorite grab and go project is hardanger ornaments. It requires one fabric, one needle, one (or two) threads, and a scissor (or thread cutter). Stuffed into a ziploc it fits in my purse. I don’t need directions – I can do satin stitches and the buttonhole stitch border anywhere. Pick up the needle and go. This is great at the clinic, in the airport, on the airplane (bring only the thread cutter), etc. Also it doesn’t require too much thinking. If you are interrupted, no problem. You can easily pick up where you left off.

  13. My husband and I live 2000 miles apart, so I was always packing a project to bring with me to his house, but I finally hit on a better idea–leave a project there with everything I need–thread, needles, scissors. Then I don’t have to carry it on the plane. When I go in June, my old Brazillian embroidery guild project will go with me. It is a floral Welcome, but I didn’t finish it because it has gold lettering and the synthetic gold thread is forever shredding. It will be a great project to work on in small chunks of time because that is all I can stand!! Besides, when it is done, I want to hang it in his apartment.

  14. I suppose I have several questions about a project like this. First, as you’re grabbing and going, how do you keep all your threads from knotting together into a nasty wad in your zipping mesh project bag?
    The second question, however, is rather more philosophical: how much to you worry about what the back looks like on cross stitch counted work? That is, who will see the back on a cloth like this, and how to you keep it neat with starting and stopping threads? I feel like this is an uncomfortable elephant in the living room of counted work, but someone must have addressed it somewhere.

    1. I cut threads from the skein as I need them, so my thread stays in the individual skein and doesn’t tangle up. But you can also use thread drops and the like to organize threads. Here’s what they look like: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2010/06/thread-drops-organization.html As far as the back of the cloth is concerned, I work so that the cross stitches for little lines on the back, and whenever I need to “carry” a thread on the back, I turn the work over and run the thread through the back of stitches already there, so that I don’t have any loose or straggling threads across the back. This is only for short spaces (say, no more than 1/2″). Anything longer, I end the one thread and start a new one. When working a cloth like this, the back is going to be visible, so I do take care to keep it as neat as possible, but I don’t fret over it looking just like the front, because… well… it’s the back. But I do avoid knots, tangles, carrying threads long distances, and so forth. I figure as long as the back looks neat, then it’ll be fine. ~MC

  15. Good Morning
    At the moment,I have a 15 sided biscornu project that fits into this category. It is one of my own creation so it is not complicated, and I keep it all together in a plastic envelope type thingie. Not sure plastic is the best for storing but it is small enough that I hope to finish it rather quickly. It fits into a tote bag easily and is big enough to hold all the necessary supplies. The only problem I have with the 15 minute approach is just how to stitch for only 15 minutes!!! Sometimes 15 minutes has turned into two hours!!!

    Thanks so much for another great article. I look forward to them every day.

  16. Yes, I always have a grab and go project. It is usually what I am knitting. My embroidery projects require too many tools. I have had trouble with scissors, awls and laying tools; I’m not willing to loose more. I use wooden circular needles. They can always be taken on the plane or through building security screening.

  17. Hi Mary,

    I don’t usually have too many projects going at one time, but do have a big and small ready to go as time permits. I like to kit up several, and then as the mood or season comes up I can grab and go. I find April to be my busiest time of year, with end of school events and outside gardening calling me, so I just finished a big project over spring break and will work on a few “smalls” till Summertime. Enjoy following you on your stitching adventures! Karen

  18. Mary,
    Well, I am off to Paris next month, and the Cluny Museum is one I had planned to visit. I can see I shall be spending some euros in the museum shop!
    As to projects: I make up little kits for Christmas ornaments. They are tiny samplers, made to fit into ribbon-hung 2×2 or 2×3 inch frames, and which, stitched over 1 thread,use up my scraps of fine count linen very well. A kit fits into a plastic sandwich bag, and is easy to carry around with me. The frames are from Michaels and are only available in season, or after in the post-Christmas sale, which is better still!
    By the way, I use a pair of folding scissors, (I have them by Singer, Fiskar, and an unknown brand which are a little heavier), a few red, green, gold and silver threads, a COUPLE of needles, and the whole packet fits neatly into my handbag!
    They make nice, very personal, mini gifts at Christmas time.

  19. Mary, did I miss the end of the Medallion? Is it finished? Did you mention before where you got the design for the Hungarian embroidery?
    I guess I am in a lost stage right now.

    1. The Medallion is not quite finished. Since it is a much larger, more intense project, I can’t take it with me when I travel, so this little project is just a “travel” project – something I can easily pack and take with me. ~MC

  20. The grab and go project is such a wonderful idea. I have a christening gown on which the embroidery is finished and I’m sewing it (by hand) together. This is extremely easy to do in the car or watching TV. I also have a baby dress that needs about 60 bullion rosebuds, that will be the next grab and go. And putting it in a nice tote bag makes it all the more appealing.

  21. I enjoy grab and go projects- always have something going…even the small ones that I stitch- great to get something done and suprise friends with having a totally different project when you visit! I am always asked—“so what you workin on now”? reminds me- guess I should get off here and get at mine…..

  22. Mary, this is for Lesley Anne, comment #18. I have the address of a very nice cross stitch store in Paris. I am not sure, but I think they also sell yarn. Would you be interested in the address?

  23. I always have a little kit ready to take with me. Normally I like Mill Hill bead kits. They are fast and easy and I have quite a collection. I even manage to bead them on the go as I have a little beading box in my carry- with bag.

  24. I always have a ready-to-go stitching project. They most normally are counted work, Hardanger or knitted socks (one at a time.) I keep everything I need together. If it requires a pattern I make a photocopy so I don’t lose the original. While scissors were banned on air flights I used the cutter from dental floss as a substitute. Putting airport layover times to good use I’ve completed a pair of socks on a round trip US-to-Europe.
    I loved the Ukrainian cloth so I made a pattern for it. It has already filled several hours in a hospital waiting room and will travel with me from Budapest to Amsterdam in June. Never have idle hands.

  25. I have ALWAYS had a grab and go project of some kind. With three kids (now grown) and 7 grandchildren (three of whom i’ve baby sat for over several years and carted around from school to home to activities) not to mention dental and orthodontist appointments. as there always seems to be some wait time involved, it’s always been a necessity for me to have some kind of project to work on. These projects are usually an afghan i’m crocheting, a scarf or sweater i’m knitting or a cross stitch piece. i will say though that the largest project i ever used for grab and go was a latch hook rug. i managed to hook an entire rug (apprx. 18 x 24 inches) just taking my girls to dance class….lol. amazing the things one can complete in 35 years of hurry up and wait time.

  26. I always have several projects ready to go. One is usually a counted design for a greeting card, ornament or bookmark. It has to be small enough to fit (along with my glasses and tools) into a little tin that came as a freebie with a cross-stitch magazine. I love it because it proclaims that I’m a “cross stitch addict! This kit slides easily into my purse and is ready whenever I have a moment to stitch.

    To-go project #2 is a larger counted design that fits into a tote bag. It’s for those times when I know I’ll have more than just a few minutes of wait time.

  27. My grab and go is my knitting bag because I can manage to knit without having the hunt for my specs! Sometimes I have a little project bag for little counted thread projects or some beads as well.I never travel light!

  28. Good evening Mary ~ Glad you are using the Mesh zipper bags. If any of your readers are looking for a place to get them – they can go to ThreadsinBloom.com There are 6 sizes available. I love the bags. They are perfect to keep your projects organized, everything in one pouch together. Sharon

  29. Love this Grab n Go attitude and 15 minute embroidery. Love the excellent practical advice on this site. I feel a breath of fresh air breezing through the world of embroidery and am so glad.

  30. Needlework is part of me it’s what I do. I think about it some how or other day and night, to leave my home with out any would be a calamity if the highest order. Over the years I have done for my daughter 9, “Kats by Kelly”, these small Blackwork projects have been ideal to grab and go when leaving the house. Some have been finished in a few months several have taken a couple of years, but all of them have saved me from insanity when I would other wise have had sit and twiddle my thumbs even for just a few minutes. I normally do not use Aida cloth, prefering linen for counted work, these kits with Aida cloth and black thread (mostly), are easy to see if the light is not so good and as you say Mary it is surprising how the little moments add up to big moments if you make them count.

  31. My mother taught me the importance of filling your spare moments with stitching. I always have something in the works. The easiest for me is generally stamped pillow cases. No pattern, just stitch. Following my mother’s footsteps again, I give a set of pillow cases to each of my children and grandchildren for Christmas. Mine are treasured memories.

  32. I am currently making my own cloth tape measure with embroidered lines and numbers. It is very tedious but a few minutes here and there and you’ll have your own customized non-plastic tape measure. Best to start off with a nice piece of cotton ribbon but since I don’t have access to that where I am, I used the selvage edge off a piece of fabric. It’s looking very nice so far!

  33. You put me to shame. I have a “traveling” project. It started as a jacobean bolster design – counted work. Opposing borders with a central spray of bright flowers and leaves. Sounds simple? Well it was but in order to ensure the two orders matched I worked both ends together. Well in a car travelling, you do not have brilliant light so the direction of the stitch changed if I had set up a new repeat and did not notice until halfway. Daren’t show it to anyone. Well that was about 10 years ago. I am finally into the centre where I have lost the original plan only a picture to give me the colours as Anchor and DMC have changed colours over the years. Wonder how many more years it will take. I have in the meantime finished many other “traveling” projects!

  34. I love this! Just as I had family here I was working a “grab and go”! I always make sure to have a hankie or something similar (I carry monogam packs for birthday gifts or a few onesies with little animals inked on) whenever I leave for an appointment! And I keep a couple of “needlework nests” about the house and rotate the projects every so often so they get equal time. I love browsing the comments here Mary! So many great posts and fun reader’s ideas!! I am in awe of the Medallion-hope you’ll give some detailed info about hours stitched-I’m interested to find out how long a project you have undertaken! Thank you for your constant inspiration and ideas 🙂

  35. I have a little roll up hussif that I made years ago, a 5 inch hoop and a sampler that I keep in a large ziplock along with a little stitch instruction book. It’s a grab and go kit that has kept me sane through countless hours in doctor’s waiting rooms and on long trips. 20 minutes here and a couple of hours there…I’ve been working on this sampler off and on for almost 25 years now; it just sort of grows and is of my own design – there’s no real agenda. I’ve told my kids it’s the ars longa and opus magnum of my stitching life and that if I don’t finish it – to please frame it in my memory.

  36. I look in awe at your posts everyday. I think of you as one of my “high end” blogs. A class act. My blog tastes run the gamut, though, from super simple crafts to the sublime. Anyway, I thought of this post of yours when I was reading Kate Pullen’s post on rubber stamp embroidery [http://rubberstamping.about.com/od/projects/ht/heartbrooch.htm?nl=1 ]. While I’ve done a little embroidery over the years, the reality is, I look at your photos and only dream of doing something elegant.
    This is an inspiration, the idea of 15 minutes here and there sounds very feasible for my meager skills. Since I have a large collection of rubber stamps, I can see a grab and go project that starts very simply with a rubber stamp and a grab bag of floss. (Oh how I admired your solution to organizing your threads!), and “playing” with a random set of stitches that you’ve introduced us to. I think for me, getting started is the biggest hurdle of all. Have you done any new embroidered cards? That might be my grab and go goal.

  37. Dear Mary,
    I have purchased a few of the recommended reading books. All explain how to make the stitches but two pieces of information are always missing. They don’t explain how to cleanly end the stitch nor how to “invisibly” change thread when you run out in the middle of a row of stitches. I use your instructional videos extensively and you do include the ending information on some. Some of this information is also expanded on in your daily discussions. As you make future videos, I would like to recommend that you include the “ending” and “thread changing” info in the videos. The videos are so well done and your instructions are very clear. If would include this additional information for each stitch, I would be very grateful.
    Thank you,

  38. Hi! I hate it when I have finished my work but still havn’t got something ready to stitch. I have just come back from a short holiday and before leaving I didn’t know what to put in my suitcase … I had a satin stitch project in my drawer so I just grabed that.
    Thank you for all your tips.

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