Whether you’re living abroad, in a dorm, newly moved to a new location, or spending time away from friends and family that you’d normally spend with them, there’s nothing like time zone and distance separation to make one feel disconnected.
It’s Passover time. We generally don’t make a huge deal of it in our house. Some years we celebrate the Seder with friends, or travel to Florida to do it with my mother and extended family down there. But even if we are having a quiet year with minimal fuss, to me at least Passover foods and at the bare minimum – a special dinner – are sure signs of spring and the comfort of home.
I am sure that somewhere here in Pune, matzoh can be had, along with macaroons and other seasonal goodies. There is after all a Chabad House here in town. I haven’t found these things yet, but to be fair, I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search, either. Instead, I improvised our own special dinner last night, roasting a tiny chicken in our Easy Bake Oven, making potatoes and onions, plus a sort of a ratatouille with the local baby eggplants. We talked about the holiday and the special significance it has to us this year, as literal “strangers in a strange land.”
However I can’t let the holiday time slip by so unmarked. To make up for that I present some stitched historical artifacts found in museum collections, with direct connection to either the Jewish community of the 1500s, or to the Passover story itself.
First up is this bit of stitching, a Torah binder in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York:
The full citation for this object is here (accession F-4927; the photo above has been shamelessly borrowed from that website). In short, it is dated on the artifact itself – 1582/3 (Jewish calendar 5343), and was donated by a woman, Honorata, the wife of Samuel Foa, to a congregation in Rome. It’s unclear if she stitched this herself, or if she commissioned it, because the inscription can be interpreted either way: “In honor of the pure Torah, my hand raised an offering… it is such a little one.”
The pattern is so typical of its time: double running stitch (or possibly back stitch, we can’t see the reverse), counted, in silk on linen. It might be modelbook-derived, although I haven’t spotted the exact source yet or found the same design on another artifact. I will continue to look for it. The museum does mention that the Sephardic community of Italy and Turkey commonly used secular design elements for devotional items, and that donation by a woman without a specific dedication in the name of a male child was also a normal practice.
Was this was in fact done by Honorata Foa herself based on a published or copied design? Did she stitch this as the donation of a home-needlewoman; or was she somehow part of an embroidery atelier or other enterprise, and used her professional skills to make it? If the latter – was the Roman Jewish community in the late 1500s involved in the production of counted embroidery as a trade? Obviously, more research here is required.
I have graphed this pattern and will include it in T2CM. I may also pull together a separate project instruction sheet for a matzoh cover using it and its lettering.
UPDATE: YES! I knew I’d seen something like this before. This pattern is a very close cousin of the Large Grape Repeat with Matching Border, presented in Plate 71:1 of The New Carolingian Modelbook. It’s not spot on the same, but the leaf shapes, the berries, the crosshatched angular stems joining to a more organic trunk – they are very, very close. That one is also illustrated in Pauline Johnstone’s Three Hundred Years of Embroidery, Wakefield Press, 1986, on page 17. No modelbook or broadside sheet source yet. Here’s my rendition of 17:1, on a sampler I did back in 1989:
One curious note on the Johnstone citation, she notes that the piece she presents was done in chain stitch on the reverse side, to give the appearance of double running or back stitch on the front.
UPDATE UPDATE: Chris Berry of Glasgow, former Chairman of the Embroiders Guild has sent me a delightful note of clarification. She has examined the artifact pictured in Ms. Johnstone’s book, and is convinced through close observation that the chain-like appearance on the reverse was in fact a by-product of back stitch. The point of the needle split the floss on the reverse as the back stitches were formed, giving the reverse the look of split or chain stitch. But it’s back stitch, all the same. Heartfelt thanks for this information!
Here’s the second share. This is a series of Italian voided work panels depicting scenes from the Passover story. They are collected at the Cleveland Museum of Art, dated to the 16th-17th century. I’d guess from the inscriptions that they were not made for a Jewish audience.
The final plague, on the first-born (accession 1939.355):
The Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh’s army (accession 1939.352):
It’s pretty obvious that these are all fragments of the same work or pieces made and intended to be displayed together – a series of panels with vignettes of the story, spaced out with floral ornament between. As to technique, there were several ways to produce a voided piece. One was clearly counted, with the design elements being plotted out on the ground cloth based on a full graph of some sort, and replicated true from repeat to repeat. These panels weren’t made that way. Not even the narrow borders are count-true. I would hazard that the images were sketched onto the cloth, then outlined in double running or back stitch. After the lines were established, the background was filled in using long-armed cross stitch. I would also guess that the lace applied along the bottom edge is needle-made, not bobbin lace.
So there you have it. Pesach far away from home, enlivened by holiday-themed needlework.
Happy holidays, Chag Sameach! Enjoy.
On Saturday past, for something to do, we wandered out to visit several antique and decorative item shops nearby. We’ve been looking for smaller items to bring back home:
We’ve been looking for a second chair for our living room for a very long time.
We found this in Just Antiques, on North Main Road here in Pune. They specialize in pieces made from repurposed wood. This piece is aged teak. The back is a recycled piece of interior paneling or carved window screening. The origin of the legs and seat platform are less discernable.
When we get home we’ll lose the egregious purple foam cushion. I’m now on the lookout for a length of embroidery, a small weaving or lightweight rug that can be used to cover a sprung cushion. I think that a very thick knife-edge piece with a center button would look far better than the slab of purple cheese that’s there right now. Perhaps next week’s trip to Kerala and the beach will turn up something appropriate.
We also got a small shelf/coat rack at Ra in Kalyani Nagar. That is destined to go behind our front door, also in the living room. It’s a simple wood shelf, with antique cast iron side brackets sporting pierced ornamentation, and a wrought crossbar below the shelf to which is attached four large wrought coat hooks. We have no front or reception closet, and it will be nice to have a place to hang guests’ coats when they visit. I do not show pix today because it is securely wrapped for shipment, and I don’t want to undo its bubble-wrap cocoon.
The Samosa Vest is marching along quite nicely. I’ve done it entirely ad hoc – no advance planning, no writing anything down (which is refreshingly liberating, for a change). It’s been sort of sculptural, with problems worked out on the fly. Still – there weren’t many. Here are the front and back views:
You can see that I’ve finished the body strips, wrapping the three primary ones around the front. I did some minor shaping on the fourth, to add a bit of of a bust dart to the general shape. Then I filled in two little patches under each arm. After that the front was substantively done. The next step was to pick up and knit the next strip, which outlined the upper back. I continued on from there, until the space in the center became too small for two mitered corners. At that point, I winged it – filling in the center back with a smaller shape, partially contoured with short rows, and a center-back join. The result is rather like a racer back, and is quite flattering on Younger Daughter (modeled pix when done).
I grafted off or picked up and knit the shoulders. Finally I worked an i-cord edging around the entire outer edge to give the body a bit more firmness, and for a more professional finish. It’s much nicer than the flabby chain selvedge edge that was there before.
Now I’ve got one last problem – there’s a Romulan (or Fire Kingdom) point at the top of each armhole. I picked out one side and re-knitted it, but the point remains. Time for some more noodling on possible fixes. Once I’ve got that repair done, it’s i-cord around the armhole edges, and I’m finished.
Suggestions for possible fixes would be most graciously accepted!
As you can see, I’m making quick progress on my Samosa Vest. Right now it’s just a single confusing strip of garter stitch knitting, with a couple of mitered corners and some angles thrown in. But when you pat it into shape, the concept emerges:
Ignoring the confusing letters for the moment, you can see the basic outline – the vee-neck, and the bottom edge that defines the width of the finished piece.
I cast on 13 stitches at A. I knit a garter diagonal band, increasing on one side of the strip and decreasing on the other every other row to achieve the angle. When my neckline was deep enough (B), I switched to working straight – a plain old 13-stitch strip until I was about 2 inches shy of my desired length. Then I worked a wrapped short-row miter, making the corner at C. I then knit across the bottom edge of the front, across the entire back (unseen, from D to E), then back across the front to the center point. Again, about two inches shy of the center point, I did another miter (F). After that I worked straight up to point G. I reversed the shaping of my initial angled strip to create its mirror image, from G to H.
Then exactly as I did in my Motley blanket, I cast off 12 stitches, added 12 and proceeded to work the second strip, knitting it onto the established edge strip as I went along. I worked miters again at points K and N. You can see I’m past O, headed back up to the shoulder where I initially cast on.
I will continue in this manner for one more strip. That will make the shoulders of the piece about as wide as the shoulders of the target tee-shirt I am using as my size model. At that point I’ll have to figure out how to fill in extra bits on the sides and in the center of the back. But so far the thing has come together exactly as I envisioned. And quickly, too!
…is no reason to rip it out because some other fool idea has wrestled you to the ground, wrapped yarn tendrils around your brain, and has refused to let go.
I only have two skeins of Noro Taiyo Sock yarn. That’s barely enough to make a skimpy shawl. You can see I’ve got five strips done. I have enough yarn to complete about eight pattern strips (and maybe a bit more) – a couple strips narrower than the ten strips specified by the pattern.
You can see that I was pretty far along, well into my second skein, and the growing shawl looks pretty good. The drape is nice too. In fact I’d recommend this yarn for the Lightning Shawl, but preferably 2.5 or 3 hanks, so that the final piece is of generous proportion. But I digress.
This afternoon after knitting on the thing for a whole week, I ripped it out. Every stitch. All that’s left is a pile of yarn balls and my two needles.
I’ve got this mad idea that I have enough yardage here to make a cropped, boxy vest type thing. And I want to do it somewhat along the lines of my Taco Coat:
Now this isn’t going to be as huge as the coat (that’s big enough to be a blanket with sleeves); and I probably will make it in one piece rather than a right and left, joined at the spine. But it will use the same idea of the outside edge and in working logic. The first strip will proceed from the shoulder into a wide V-neck, and down the front center, then mitered at 90-degrees, across the bottom of the hem and all the way around the back, returning to the front, climbing back up the front center and ending at the opposite shoulder. If I do this right it will work out not unlike a Surprise Jacket, with the only seaming being across the top of the shoulders..
I have no idea if this is going to work or not. Nor am I going to draft up a pattern before I begin. I’m going to cast on for that outermost strip, and as I go, compare it to a t-shirt with the boxy fit I am looking for. And then just wing it.
If nothing else, this project (code named Samosa Vest*) should make for some entertaining reading here, with lots of Doh!-moments and a few painful lessons learned.
* Just because. I am in India, after all, and a first cousin to the Taco Coat should also have a wrapped-snack-food name.
And foremost among the imperfect is me.
Case in point:
Here you see my beaded red lace scarf. I wanted to relax it a bit prior to adding on the deep lace edging, in order to make doing so easier. So I began pinning it out for steaming. Pressing it is right out because of the beads, but steaming should have set the acrylic nicely, smoothing out the selvedges for ease of access.
It’s obvious that I as I was tooling along nearing the finish line I didn’t pay attention. I missed catching all three loops of a tricky double decrease. When I applied light tension with the pins, the unsecured stitches popped out.
The lace patterning is a bit complex here, otherwise I’d consider just mounting the fallen stitches on DPNs and re-knitting that little bit, securing the final stitch with a bit of darning. But I think that I’ll probably have to unpick the cast off row (here at the bottom of the photo), then unravel the final half motif or so, remount all the stitches, and re-knit. Provided of course that this is the ONLY mistake of this type in the entire 5.5 foot long piece.
Moral of the story – overconfidence is bad. Check your work. Give a light tug every now and again to make sure your stitches are true.
Of course, you can’t be in Another World without exploring the retail options. India is a textile lover’s paradise, with all sorts of fabrics both hand and machine woven, ranging from the humble to the outrageous. I can’t buy it all. In fact, I can’t buy very much, especially compared to the vast volume I covet. But I am keeping my eye out for special items, with special purposes in mind.
First, I’ve written about Kasuti embroidery before. I’ve been on the lookout for an example, but so far, I’ve not seen anything. Not so much as scrap. Perhaps when we go to Kerala next month we’ll see some, but I suspect that given its intricate nature and simple presentation, it is not being made in quantity for sale any more, because other more showy work of less labor can sell for more.
But I did find this piece. It’s NOT hand-made. It’s machine embroidered sari, using traditional colors and patterns on an all-cotton ground. In terms of scale, the stitches are about twice as large as the museum pieces I saw here in Pune, and in Delhi. But it’s unmistakably part of the heritage, and the seller was very surprised that I recognized it as such.
I have also found some trim for my long-delayed library curtain project. The 1 inch wide red paisley at the bottom is actually hand-stitched. I’m not sure what to do with the blingy gold at the top, but it was so over the top and of such a typical Renaissance configuration, that I had to buy it. A use will present itself, I am sure. Aside: most borders and trims here in India are sold in single piece 9-meter lengths, the optimal length for application onto a standard sari.
Also at the same store as the red trim, I found some silk embroidery floss.
This stuff is quite fine, with the individual strands being significantly thinner than Soie d’Alger, my go-to silk for countwork. I got a bunch in assorted colors, each big bundle containing 10 skeins, and the skeins being 10 rupees apiece. That’s about 16 cents US at the current exchange rate. I will probably go back and get more, although the range of colors was rather attenuated.
What to make of this? Given the silk threads above, I’m thinking of something along the lines of this piece:
This is a 17th century sampler in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago (Museum #2008.627). It’s worked on a gauze ground in darning and double running stitch (among others). It’s not going to happen any time soon, but the materials are now in my hands and ready.
It’s a fair question – “Where have you been?”
The answer is “Busy.”
I’ve been out fabric shopping with friends; trying to establish a regularly meeting needlework circle at a local mall on Fridays; battling the Sacred Dust of India as it tries to repossess the flat; writing a presentation and workshop on the style intersection between Kasuthi embroidery and Renaissance counted work; dealing with assorted technology annoyances; working on TNCM2; trying to parse out more interesting blog entries from my London pix; and playing with various stitching and knitting projects.
First off, I’ve taken up Big Green again. It’s tough to do here. I need very strong light, and even with a small task spot in the living room, the only place bright enough is next to a window in the middle of the day. I long for my comfy chair and spotlight at home.
It’s hard to spot the progress on this strip because it advances at such a slow rate, but it’s there.
Then there’s a new stitching project, as leggy and coarse as Big Green is fine. I bought a pack of ultra-cheap dishtowels at the supermarket, because I always seem to have run out of non-terry ones when I am looking for something to toss over rising bread. One quick wash later, and as expected for bargain basement Indian cotton – they’d faded and shrunk. But wait! That dark indigo one is now a pleasant, mottled chambray. And it’s almost even weave:
So into the stash for some ecru DMC linen floss (which I’ve now learned has been discontinued. It figures…) Because I’m stitching over 3×3 threads to even out inconsistencies in the weave, and because the linen thread is fuzzy with its own rustic character, I decided to play on that folksy appearance rather than going for crisp, tiny detail. The pattern is yet another one that will be featured in in TNCM2. This, when finished out, will be a strip decorating a pocket edge of a zippered stitching caddy. The entire outside of the case will also be worked in one of the larger all-over patterns in TNCM2. Without cutting up the dishtowel, I intend to origami it into a series of graduated pleats, then stitch perpendicular to the folds to make pockets opening “up” and “down”.
The final step will be to fold the entire thing in half, then take an over-long large-tooth jacket zipper (toddler size), and run it around three sides. This should make an organizer pouch that when zippered, lies totally flat. I may sew one of the smaller interior pockets shut, stuffing it with some sort of padding to make pin cushion (perhaps with a finer gauge fabric as liner, so I can put emery into it). And I may also stitch in a couple of pieces of sturdy felt, so it has an integrated needle-book on the inside. The details of this finishing are still idle speculation at this point. Right now, it’s just a quick doodle.
I’ve been busy with knitting, too.
I’ve finished the body of the beaded red lace scarf. I’m drafting up the companion edging, with more beads and mitered corners. I also have to “kill” the acrylic yarn so that it lies flatter. Not quite sure how I’ll achieve this, since the beads make ironing problematic. But I’ll figure it out, even if I have to do up a couple of sacrificial beaded test swatches.
Also in the photo above is the latest pair of socks. That’s pair #5 in the past two months. I work on them while we wait for the school bus in the morning, or any other time I’m waiting on a line, for a car, or find myself idle outside the apartment. After this pair I’ll have to get creative in combining the leftovers on hand. I’ve gone through most of the sock yarn I brought with me. I have a couple of balls of Noro sock yarn left, but I’d prefer to use that for some other accessory. The yarn is beautiful but I prefer wearing (and washing) other sock yarns, for comfort and durability reasons.
Quality ironwork,, armoring, weapons work, and smithery fascinate me. Especially wrought, as opposed to cast iron. I am also fond of arms and armor. The precision, tracery, and especially the contrast between the hard medium and delicate forms speaks to me, with parallels to textiles and couturier design. Oh and the elements of fire and danger. Let’s not forget the purpose…
While there were many other famous textile examples on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Tower of London, and the British Museum, most of my embroidery and stitching readers have already seen them. They’re the examples presented in just about every textbook or reference work on stitching. Instead, I’d like to take a cross-craft side trip and look at some of the things we saw that are less well known or documented in the hope of kindling some cross-pollination.
Today is wrought iron. The V&A has a magnificent hall of ironwork. How could one not adore this dolphin, so much like a calligraphic image?
It is one of a pair. The V&A’s citation is Number 280:7-8-1879, and from that citation, it is dated 1520-1530, of Spanish origin, by Juan Francés, part of a larger altar screen.
I also love this pair of window grilles:
The thin bars that form the center diamonds are all independently forged to the frame and are formed and spaced with great precision. The contrast of geometric and organic traceries in the side triangles and arch are blackwork in iron. This piece is V&A Number 125-c-1879, from Italy, dated 1575-1600.
I fell down on the job and didn’t get the annotation for this piece, and I can’t find it in the on-line photo collection to provide provenance and date, but it’s in the same gallery as the grille above.
The play of curves and symmetry fights with my mental preconception of iron as unyielding and linear.
Finally two figural pieces. Fear the iron chicken, and the lion key-master!
The weathercock is French, dated around 1700-1725, made of wrought iron and copper. It’s Museum number 909:1 to 3-1906, and bears evidence of gilt and polychrome finishes. The wrought iron locksmith’s standard is German, dated around 1760 to 1800, and is Museum Number 545-1869. I would have thought that elements of the lion would have been cast iron, but no – they’re all wrought.
Now – why the side trip through metalwork? Because I want to show that the aesthetics of historical embroidery are even better appreciated in context. The forms of the late locksmith sign mimic those of Rococo laces and goldwork stitching. The earlier grilles echo contrasts, shapes and lines of Italian and French strapwork embroidery, done at around the same time.
Finally, imagine the shadows thrown by those window grilles – sitting in the afternoon sun made lace as it sifts through the iron, stitching oh-so-similar shapes until it is too dark to see.
Stitching geeks – like those immersed in every esoteric discipline – love to argue; even when an issue is settled. Sometimes assertions bubble up again, are discussed with passion, and then go into remission. Occasionally these debates cycle back, usually because reference materials with outdated opinions are found by a new generation of hobbyists who take the authors’ words at face value.
One of these oft raised/oft settled debates involves the use of plain old common cross stitch in historical eras: was or was it not done before 1600. And the answer isn’t crystal clear, nor does it come with hard boundary dates. Let’s look at modern stitching and a dated example from the late 1500s.
Figural cross stitch isn’t new. It isn’t modern. But it has morphed into a recognizable modern style that has migrated from its pre-1600s cognates. The photo below is of a contemporary sampler designed by Marilyn Leavitt-Imbloom, for Lavender and Lace. It’s entitled “Angel of Dreams” and is widely available for purchase (a quick Google search will turn up retailers):
Ms. Leavitt-Imbloom’s work is pretty much the poster child for the modern needle-painted cross stitch style. Note the fluid forms, the subtle shadings that mimic painting, the half and quarter stitches and sparing (though dramatic) use of double running stitch outlines.
By contrast, here is one of the Oxburgh Hanging panels dated circa 1570, stitched by Mary, Queen of Scots (and/or Elizabeth Talbot, one of her ladies) during captivity. The first photo is shamelessly borrowed from the artifact’s Victoria and Albert page (Museum accession #T.33JJ-1955). The detail shots below it were taken by Elder Daughter on our visit there. If you click on the details, you’ll be taken to larger versions for closer inspection (patience please on the download, some are huge).
Now, the official descriptions cite “tent stitch” for all of the Oxburgh hangings. But if you look closely at the insect being inspected by the sea monster, it’s pretty clear that cross stitch was employed on this particular slip. Also note that the different parts of the insect were stitched with no regard for maintaining “the same leg on top”. Although some unworked bits just north of the Monster’s head can be seen and counted, we can’t rely on that because the bright white cloth peeking through the stitching is conservator’s ground, onto which the fragile stitching has been affixed. Fortunately, there is a small damaged area just north of the insect where we can see the original fabric:
Yup. Cross stitch, worked over a 2×2 thread grid.
On style – yes there are shadings, produced by marling a small number of colors of fine floss-fiber together to make threads of intermediate hues, rather than selecting pre-dyed solid threads of graduated color. But the shadings are far les subtle than the modern work. There are strong outlines also worked in cross stitch, probably related to the drafting methods of the time, in which the design was drawn directly on the linen prior to stitching. It is possible that black outlines were worked in part to cover those inked or otherwise drawn lines. I also think the outlines were worked first, based on the way that other stitches encroach upon them, with the colors added later – first to the foreground items, and finally to the background areas. Note that the lines do break in a couple of places, but I can’t say whether that is due to differential thread wear or they were truly omitted.
Now these all-over figural embroideries like the Oxburgh slips are not the only form of historical cross stitch. In fact, pictures like these are among the minority of surviving examples. Far more represented in artifact collections today are borders and strips in long-armed cross stitch or its variants. They’re not common, but cross stitched pictures did exist in the world of of the 1570s. And they looked rather different from contemporary figural cross stitched pieces.