It’s All About the Color

I didn’t know, when I started charting my next plant, that I was going to fall down a rabbit hole of new DMC colors, software testing, and buying and learning an entirely new charting software package.

But, you see, the Henbit has to be just the right color.

This whole blog, this whole enterprise, is as much about color as it is about Gerda or craftsmanship or the flora of Texas. I’m a stitcher and a botanist largely because I love color. When I count my blessings, color vision is always somewhere near the top of the list, and when the first spring flowers open their buds, the patches of white and yellow and purple make my heart sing.

Henbit or Dead Nettle, naturalized from Europe, is one of the earliest plants to bloom here. It’s not uncommon to see the first tentative blossoms in late December, and by March, it’s pretty much finished for the year.

“Henbit” refers to the fact that chickens like it, and the other common name alludes to the superficial resemblance of the foliage to that of stinging nettles. This plant is harmless, hence “dead.”

It has features that mark it unmistakably as a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family: square stems, opposite leaves, minty scent, bilaterally symmetrical flowers that are two-lipped, a gynobasic style, and a fruiting structure that is a cluster of four little nutlets.

The flowers are like a piece of FabergĂ© art—the closer you look, the more detail there is, and the more amazing the craftsmanship.

They always remind me of little purple sock puppets, and there’s a lot going on here. Each blossom has a tube and a throat and a hood and a spotted lip, and these parts can all be different shades. Some flowers are a little pinker, some a bit darker, and sometimes you can find a patch with corollas that are nearly white. And they’re furry! All in something a smidge over a centimeter long.

Eight inches or so is about average size for this plant. Since I’m drawing at twice life-size, this gave me quite a large design, and I was able to put in a lot of detail—the lower leaves with stalks, the joined pairs of upper leaves with their whorls of sessile (stalkless) flowers and the unique shape of the flowers themselves. There was room to draw in the empty calyces from earlier flowers. (My theory is that the reason the first couple of whorls of flowers don’t usually set any fruit is that they bloom before the pollinators are out and about.) I ended up with a big, relatively complex sketch.

I didn’t love it. It was the right size, but it felt too big, and I realized just how much plain green there was going to be–a gazillion tiny stitches. I tried scanning and reducing it by 1/4, but that made the parts too small. Finally I just decided to take out one whorl of leaves and make the plant shorter, which produced the desired result.

For the first time, I used colored pencils to note where the different colors needed to go. They’re not the right colors, just placeholders, but coloring drove home the fact that I was going to need two colors for the leaves, another for the stems, two more to make the calyces not all run together, and maybe another few for leaf veins and the underside of the joined leaves on the right hand stem.

Then there were the flowers. “Lamium amplexicaule has purple flowers” seems like a straightforward concept. I can imagine that Gerda would have used a shade or two of purple and produced a perfectly recognizable and satisfactory design. The closer I looked however, the more different shades I saw, and the more I wanted to try to capture this. DMC doesn’t have a single color that says “Lamium“, but I hoped to be able to get close. I chose as best I could and started charting.

It soon became obvious that I was never going to like the fact that my charting software didn’t include the newest forty-odd shades of DMC, several of which I needed to use. My previous post details my software journey to where I am now, with WinStitch. Here is Lamium in progress, as rendered thereby.

At this stage, I had charted in the full stitches for the veins in the leaves, taken them out, and replaced them with backstitch. I didn’t like the way that that looked either and decided to trust my original judgment. Gerda didn’t call for a lot of backstitching either, so it felt right. Here’s the finished chart (sans graph lines):

I’d say that looks like a Lamium, wouldn’t you? It’s still not quite right though, because the colors are still off. Nothing should be grayish. The greens should be more lush, and the purples should be pinkish violets and glowing. Is it really going to look this dull?

I decided to do a reality check and pulled my intended colors for a floss toss. A floss toss is when you grab all the threads and put them on the fabric and see whether they sing in harmony or if there are false notes.

Nailed it. I adjusted where I’d planned to use several shades and I can’t wait to stitch this one. Is this fussier than my other designs? Yes, but it’s a fussy-shaped plant. Should I reduce the number of colors? Possibly. This is a lot for a small, over-one design. But I like it the way it is. I hope it won’t stick out too much among its simpler brethren.

Hmm. What to tackle next?

Entering a New Era

A person can take only so much frustration before something has to give. I’ve done amazing things with my old charting software, including developing a chart for this beast:

(This is a photo of a vintage wool rug stitched in Portugal. I spent many months charting the design stitch by stitch from close-up photos and am stitching it on 20 ct black Aida because I am a glutton for punishment.)

But doing so involved a lot of hair pulling, and the design had to be broken into multiple subcharts, because I was limited to 100 colors and 500 stitches in either direction.

My little wildflowers haven’t used anything like 100 colors (though I am definitely experiencing “color creep”–more on that in a future post), and I would be able to fit a number of them side by side in a combined project, but how often have I complained here that my charting program didn’t handle such-and-such color well? Or bemoaned the fact that none of the new DMC colors released in recent years was available? Trying to keep the symbols for various colors the same from chart to chart has also been an issue. Other gripes include the fact that removing backstitch from the chart is a royal PITA (the “undo” feature does not take them out–one has to “unsew” them in the same order as they went in or else delete that area of the chart entirely), the “undo” feature does not undo just the last operation and no other, and that there is no good way to manage cutting and pasting to assemble small designs into a larger whole if the designs need to overlap. Etc., etc.

Contrary to popular belief, I can, when strongly motivated, let go my terrier nature and embrace change. I looked into a number of other charting software options, both free and not free, downloadable or online. The only one I found that could deal with all of the new DMC colors was WinStitch. I downloaded a “test drive” version and stayed up into the wee hours putting it through its paces. I was impressed enough that I bought it.

Note: This isn’t a paid review. This is just me being tickled to find something that I think is going to do what I need it to do. Every time I’ve had a question, I have either found the answer in the extensive included pdf manual, or had a lightning fast reply from the developers (they’re in the U.K., so my night owl charting sessions are during work hours for them, which helps!)

I haven’t used all of the features yet, not by a long shot, but here’s what I like so far:

  • Includes every color DMC makes and a host of other floss brands, specialty fibers
  • Has a “remove backstitch from this area” function
  • Allows 235 colors per design
  • Allows a 999 x 999 stitch area
  • Allows cut-and-paste in layers, with the ability to decide which layer goes in front of which, and the background/unstitched layer in each layer is transparent. It functions a lot like Photoshop in this regard.
  • Lets you throw out all the unused colors in the palette so that the display and printed symbol key include only the colors actually used. This is MUCH better than trying to find your symbols out of an array of 100.
  • Allows you to order the colors in the palette and key any way you choose–by color number, by color families, by number of stitches per color, etc.
  • Lets you save palettes as a preferred sets of colors. Poof! I can make a palette that includes the standard shades I’m using for foliage and flower colors, in the same way that Gerda had her precise, limited set of Danish Flower Thread colors.
  • If your computer doesn’t render the display of a floss color to your liking, it includes the ability to fiddle with the display until it suits you!
  • If you want to print your chart and floss key with symbols and color, it gives you the option to change the color the symbol is printed in if there is poor contrast between the floss color and the symbol or the symbol and the paper you’re printing on.
  • Allows you to show any color you like as the fabric color, rather than offering a choice of about a dozen shades.
  • Lets you specify what color the grid lines in the program are.
  • Deals with partial stitches well, including the trick Gerda used of specifying a cross stitch that goes over one thread in one direction and two in another when stitching over two threads.
  • Keeps a timed backup of your chart in case something happens.

So far the only problems I’ve run into have been due to my impatience. The “move” function takes a minute to give you the green crosshairs that will let you position something accurately. I kept bunging things up trying to move a design too soon. It’s also possible to lock up the program if you slam the resize button up and down too quickly. Both of these may have more to do with my computer and the fact that I’ve usually got multiple web pages open and music streaming at the same time than they do with the program.

Switching software is going to make life easier going forward, even though it will mean re-charting the designs I’ve already done. (This shouldn’t be too bad, since I’ll be working from legible charts and not my itty bitty graph paper squares and wiggly hand-drawn lines). When it comes time to start making large designs with combinations of the individual plants I’ve charted, the layers function is going to be critical. I’m sure Gerda had to do all of her big assemblages by hand. She’d have loved the ability to work on a computer to turn her drawings and hand-plotted graphs into neat charts ready for printing.

What plant finally tipped me over the edge? Find out in my next post!