ELIZABETHAN BLACKWORK SMOCK

O.k.  I know a few of you want me to do a blow by blow travelogue of our London trip.  But that’s not my forté.  I’ll wander over and cover some of that material several posts, but mostly want to write about specific things we saw, this being one of the first times I’ve been able to get relatively up close and personal with historical artifacts.  Besides, The Resident Male is a much better travel writer than I am.

First off, to satisfy my stitching readers, is this blackwork smock, currently on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

Smock-5

The full citation cites it as being of British make, and stitched some time during 1575 to 1585.  They posit home manufacture rather than a professional house.  If you read through the full description, you’ll find out that the top part (the stitched bodice) was done on fine linen, and the unseen and unstitched lower part  was also linen, but of a much coarser fabric.  The plain lower skirt and the needle lace around the neckline and cuffs are modern reproductions.  The accession number is T.113 to 118-1997.

I tried to take pix of this artifact to show the details.  It’s basically three large rectangles, with underarm gussets (each sporting a flower, and unseen here).  One rectangle for each sleeve, plus a larger one with head hole for the front, back and shoulders.  I wanted to see if that center strip was seamed from smaller parts, but I wasn’t able to do so based on my examination.

One thing that delighted me was the use of various techniques for the fills.  Some were done on the count.  It looks like the grid may be 4×4 threads.  I can’t estimate the stitch per inch count, but it’s roughly comparable in look to between 20 and 25 stitches per inch.  The thread does look finger spun from floss silk, with some areas more tightly twisted than others, and some variation in thickness.

Some filling placements were eyeballed, and done freehand (note the trailing vines and spot motifs that follow the flower forms rather than marching rigidly in diagonals). The solid bits look to have been done in satin stitch or a stitch in the Romanian couching family.  The dark borders around the shapes look to be either outline or stem stitch in some places, and in other places possibly whipped or threaded back stitch.  There may be knot stitches in there, too, (especially the knotted line stitches that sport little side stitch “legs”) but my eyes couldn’t pick them out for absolute identification.

Effort was made to use the same filling in matching areas of symmetrical designs, but some variations do occur.  In fact, the occasional lapses in attention to detail on the fills, and that some are presented in a couple of variations (see below) are charming, and makes me think that my guess that the fillings were thought up on the fly, rather than being copied from canonical works may be true. (Filling inventors, take heart.)

I tried to get very close to the turned back cuffs to determine whether or not they were exactly double sided, with both front and back identical.  Well, they’re close but not absolute.  My pictures aren’t good enough to show it, but there are (barely) detectable knots on the inside of the cuff.  The double running stitch fills and solid areas (satin stitch in this case) are certainly worked very neatly, especially compared to the relative chaos of the back sides of other contemporary work, but they are not spot on exactly the same front and back, although they are presentable and nicely done, for sure.

Here are some more pix of the thing.  These shots were taken by Elder Daughter, with her superior camera skills and equipment:

Smock-1Smock-2Smock-4Smock-7

And finally, to satisfy the people who pointed out that I did not include exact citations for every fill in my free-to-download Ensamplario Atlantio collection, here is a set of 10 plates with fills sourced specifically to this artifact.

fillings-160-V&Afillings-158-V&Afillings-155-V&Afillings-157-V&Afillings-152-V&Afillings-154-V&Afillings-153-V&Afillings-151-V&Afillings-156-V&Afillings-159-V&A

So much for facts.  I have to say there were several items on display that caused me to hyperventilate like a Twilight fangirl.  Blackwork geek that I am, this was one.  It’s in excellent condition, with the stitching, dense, the threads shiny, and minimal wear or damage.  The overall effect was one of understated opulence, but not splendor.  For one, there is an aspect of “loving hands at home” to this piece, especially in the composition and heaviness of the fills.

But what struck me the most was that the standard of excellence in this piece is entirely achievable today.  Yes, it’s exacting, and acquiring the materials would be difficult, but it’s not miles beyond the capability and reach of modern amateur needleworkers.  It’s time we stop bowing to “the ancients” and banish our temporal craftsmanship insecurities  The best of us are darned good (no pun intended), and many of the contemporary projects I see on the web are just as well executed as this prime piece from the 16th century.

3 responses

  1. I love that smock! In case you don’t know, the V&A has a comprehensive website, including some closeups of the smock.

    URL:http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78732/smock-unknown/

    If that doesn’t work, go to their homepage and scroll down to ‘search the collections’ at the bottom.

    1. Yes, I know about the link, thanks. It’s cited in my original post, above and referenced in the text.

  2. Wonderful – many thanks for this report. The embroidery is beautiful (well done with the photos, Elder Daughter!) and I love the overall richness of the design. Thanks for taking the care and trouble to graph the fillings – all now downloaded and saved into my Ensamplario folder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 462 other followers