THE UNSTITCHED COIF TAKES A ROAD TRIP
Obviously I am still working on the Unstitched Coif project, and have a bit of progress over the past week or so. I might have had more, but we went to visit family in Buffalo, New York (about a 7.5 hour drive from Boston if you make no stops), and were too busy over the five days for me to steal more than an hour or two to stitch. We did have a great time, and got lots done – just not stitchy stuff.
I will report though that working outside in bright sunlight, even when sitting in the shade is the best illumination I’ve found. For those who look at fine stitching and wonder how folk in the pre-indoor lighting eras did it by firelight, candlelight, or tucked up next to a window, I would suggest that relying on natural sunshine is not a handicap at all, although it is time-limited by its very nature.
Yes, I am sitting in my mother-in-law’s garden, working the design upside-down. It’s upside-down for no other reason than when I first put my frame in the stand it happened to be in that orientation. I’ve just continued on that way. When work on the next vertical swath I may flip it over, but for now I’m just marching to the edge, which is now only a few design elements away.
Here are two clear progress shots, first showing the whole area I’ve done (about half of the first pattern sheet as displayed magnet-tacked to my work, above). Plus a detail shot of the latest bits.
A second, larger bird has joined the first, along with the multi-petal flower with its leaf, the rather odd looking columbine (the bit with the three gold petal ends) and some of the foliage, curls, and spangles that surround them. I’m now working on the first of two large grape leaves below the columbine. This area features some larger shapes to fill and I am having lots of fun with them by using some larger, more complex fills. The interlace currently being worked in the grape leaf looks complicated, but once the rhythm of the thing is started, it’s really quite logical.
And I am still on target for not repeating a fill between units. With one tiny exception, while the same fill design may appear more than once in a pattern element like a flower or a bug where a design may inhabit more than one petal or body segment, once that element is done I consider that fill to be “burned” and have not repeated it again. I suspect this will be more of a challenge as I move along, especially in the smallest spaces where there is little play for the more complex repeats.
In any case, I wish I were further along, but I’m also pleased with the progress to date. Gotta stitch faster, I guess…
LONG-LOST TWINS, PART VII
Today’s my birthday, and needlework friend Barbara posted a snippet to my Facebook feed of a voided panel showing couples dancing. That bit of fun led to more digging on my part. I knew of similar panels in a couple of places, so I decided to do another of these posts that only a needlework geek could love.
First, here’s the one that was most prominent in my notes. It’s in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), accession 47.199. They attribute it as Italian, circa 1600, and cite both the ground and the stitching as being cotton. I have some doubts about the materials citation, but I’m not an expert and haven’t seen the piece up close and personal. I do note however that it would be one of the two easiest examples of this family to chart.
It’s hard to see, but the ground appears to be in that tightly pulled Meshy stitch I’ve written about before. I do not know if the foreground and outlines are done in double running or back stitch. There’s no other info on working method or object purpose. But I sort of suspect that this might have been part of household decor – possibly a bed valence or decorative cover sheet, remotely possible – a tablecloth, but for that I would expect to see a butted corner, and not the arbitrary unworked bit at the extreme right of the stitching. It is interesting to see the tease that confirms my working method – there’s a tiny bit of the foliage on the “room divider” at the right edge that was outlined, but the voiding wasn’t worked up and around that little bit of outline, leaving it orphaned and alone. More argument for this having been displayed with that selvedge bit tucked away and unseen, as I would expect for the upper hanging around a bed.
In any case, here are some relatives. First a piece from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession 38.1104. They cite it as 16th century, and Italian, worked in red silk on linen. Looks like the Meshy background to me.
You can see that the design is very close, but isn’t spot on exact. There is a different treatment of detail in both the foliage divider and the castle tower divider. The border (if there was one) is also gone, but we can’t judge that in absentia. There are also lots more small bits and bobs surrounding the dancers and the little guy in the RISD sample. The male figure has traded his crowned turban-line hat for a lush head of hair. And the little guy looks to be better dressed. I’d be tempted to call him a page in this version and possibly a cupid or eros figure in the RISD piece, due to the bit of arrow fletching? sticking up over his shoulder. And although I haven’t counted the units, or investigated closely enough to see if the thread count of the two grounds are even, the MFA’s snippet does seem to be a bit compressed north-south, compared to the RISD one. But not uniformly so. The upper bodies appear to be less squished than their lower halves.
And the third – this one from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Accession 1929.840. They note their piece as being done in silk on linen. It’s pretty clear that this one is in Meshy, too.
Based on very strong similarity between this piece and the MFA holding, I suspect these might have been true siblings, pieces from the same original, cut apart and sold to two separate collectors, which then ended up in two different museum collections. In fact if you compare the right edge of the MFA piece, and the left edge of this one we can see a bifurcated page boy – it is pretty likely that we are looking at the exact snip line where they were separated. As an aside, I like the little unfinished bit underneath the lower left leaf of the foliage divider, at the left edge of the piece. Again, confirmation that outlines were laid down first, then the background was worked.
This one is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, accession 47.40. They call it “Border” and cite it as being Italian, and 17th century, worked in silk on linen.
Their original photo is a bit fuzzy, but it’s pretty clear that this piece is possibly another section of the same original that furnished the RISD snippet. Not only are the borders and proportions intact, but the small details of crown/hat, arrow, interior detail on the dividing motifs, and even the dress border of the woman dancer is identical.
And to wrap up, I have one more snippet in my notes. This is also from the MET collection, accession 07.62.58. They cite it as Italian or Greek, 17th century, and note that it’s silk on linen. They rightly describe the meshy ground as drawnwork.
By now you should be familiar with the details of this design. Yes – it looks closer to the CMA and MFA snippets than it does to the RISD and the other MET holding. But there are some subtle differences. The ground line is most obvious. In the other two non-bordered bits of this variant, the stitchers have taken more pains to keep a stable bottom edge of the stitching. That’s not to say there aren’t deviations from that on both pieces, but on this one is is far more evident. There are also some other minor differences in detail on the dividers and on the dancers’ outfits. Now I suspect that it was not uncommon for a very large project like a set of bed hangings to be worked by multiple stitchers. Even if a master laid down the outlines and had a crew working “clean-up” behind, filling in background and detail, a large team working quickly might make these minor copyist errors. I don’t think that there is enough difference here to clearly claim that this has no chance of being a piece of the same original as the CMA and MFA fragments.
So to sum up, I do think that two original artifacts furnished all of these bits. And I would go further to posit that the unbordered one might have even been unfinished prior to its dismemberment. I thank the collectors of the “Indiana Jones” era for heading off on their Grand Tours, and bringing back these pieces. I thank the museums for hanging onto these rarely studied snippets, and for posting photos of them on line, so we can speculate about their origin. And I thank Barbara for flagging the dancers for my birthday.
I return you now to regularly scheduled, non-boring Internet content. 🙂
FIRST BUGS, NOW BIRDS
I’m edging into a new neighborhood on the Unstitched Coif Project. This one is inhabited by birds. The first one is stitched and I’m thinking on the fills for the second. You can see him at the center bottom of the piece, now presented in the correct orientation.
I think he looks a bit like a tiny raven, A slightly confused one at that. I could not resist the visual pun of using the feather fill from the collection presented at the official website for his body. You can make out another oddly shaped bird sketched in below and to the right of the pansy/viola flower.
All in all, I’m pleased with the way this is turning out, although like all participants, I wish my project was proceeding faster. Working so tiny is taxing. Mr. Raven for instance took about four hours to complete, counting the fills, outlining, sequin eye, and couched gold feet.
My game of not repeating fills between units is still afoot, although I am finding it harder and harder to find or devise fills for the particularly tiny areas, like the sepal-leaves on the pansy. And I have to go back and add lighter gold banding the the wings of the big bug.
One more challenge is that of adding the overstitched elements – the couched vein leaves and feather markings on Mr. Raven. I do the fills first, then neaten up their edges with the heavier outlines. But the fills obscure the placement of the overstitching. I do that by eye, referring to a printout of the master design. I’ve mentioned before that others do the outlines first, but with the heavy, embossed reverse chain stitch, working inside tiny spaces would be extremely difficult. I leave that to those who are using outline stitch, freehand fills, and speckling.
Today’s agenda will be filling out the spray of leaves at the (now) right edge, adding the gold stems to it, and flooding the few newly surrounded white space areas with spangles.
In other news, last weekend I visited Younger Spawn and surrendered the bespoken Eyeball Bolster Cushion, seen here in its forever home, on the target low back mid-century modern sofa for which it was designed. A perfect fit. The recipient was totally thrilled.
The sharp-eyed will spot my stitching set up near the sunny window. I added a hex wrench to my stitching kit, and can take the thing including the disassembled stand with me when I am on walkabout.
While I was out in Spawn’s neighborhood we went to a garden center/plant nursery. Spawn added to the resident collection of exotic houseplants that make the apartment a livable and calming oasis. I noticed that the prices for large, healthy outdoor plants were much lower there in the suburban Albany/Troy New York area than they are here in the outskirts of Boston, so I bought some plants to augment my growing perennial collection. Here they are, just before I plonked them into their spots.
The big blue pot in back is a Chocolate Eupatorium (aka Joe Pye Weed). It’s a fall bloomer, with white flowers. The white pot in the middle is a red-leafed Astilbe variant, with purple/red flowers in mid to late summer. And the little guy over near the hose is a low-growing creeping sedum, that blooms purple in the fall. They join the transplanted peony, curly leafed Hosta, lemon Hosta, pink Astilbe, and two types of Brunnera (one red leaf, one green) that survived last year’s drought and fierce heat that doomed my Aconitum (wolfbane), and Hellebore. A less poisonous garden this year, but one I hope will outlive my ungentle care.
One last thing – if you are interested in buying my pattern collection The Second Carolingian Modelbook, you may want to do so before 30 June. Amazon Kindle is raising print fees, and because the thing is on a razor thin margin, I will be forced to raise the price. I am sorry for this. I tried hard to keep it under $30.00 US per copy, and it will remain so until the end of June, but after than the price will be going up.
BLACKWORK/STRAPWORK RESOURCES HERE ON STRING
Blackwork embroidery seems to be having an Official Moment right now, with tons of new interest. I’ve got a lot of resources here that might be useful to folk beginning or continuing their journeys, but it’s not well indexed. So I post this round-up of on site resources in the hope of lending a hand. And to be able to point to the whole set if asked. Image at the end for the eye candy effect. List below has been updated since it was originally posted.
- Double Running Stitch Logic. One of many times I’ve tried to explain double running stitch and two-sided work. This post led to the tutorial series listed below.
- Assorted Blackwork Hints. Answers to questions about my working methods. Making mistakes; guidelines; where to start; simple tracing using “the poor person’s light box”; multicolor; equipment hints (frames, needles, wax); and a list of tricks for path planning in double running logic.
- Blackwork Thread Thickness and Grounds. One strand or two for double running? Why is it sometimes hard to keep your lines straight and even.
- Blackwork Heresy. Back stitch, double running, and the hybrid that floats between them, which I nicknamed “Heresy Stitch.” Useful but not something I’ve documented in historical works. Can be easier for people who get lost when working double running, and saves thread when compared to back stitch.
- What Makes a Blackwork Pattern Difficult? Cautions and mitigations for three challenges, that might help simplify those trouble spots.
- On Charting. How to look at a photo and then translate the design to paper.
- Determining the Thread Count of Small-Gauge Linens. How to use a penny (or other tiny thing with a known and stable diameter) plus a cell phone camera to figure out the count of a hard-to-see ground.
- Cornered Again. One way to handle placement of bands on a band sampler and a wrap around frame edging, with minimal advanced planning.
- Filling In. More questions from the mailbag, including some unusual names for stitch techniques that appear in museum annotations.
- Proofing. How I check alignment as I stitch, to make sure I’m not wandering off count.
- Turning a Strip Repeat into an All-over. This one also belongs under the free linear stitch patterns heading below. A couple of ways to make a single width strip into a double, and how I ended up turning it into a Green Man square.
- Travel Cover for a Flat Frame. How I made mine, and how you can make one, too.
- Elizabethan Blackwork Smock. Photos of the famous Victoria & Albert Museum smock (1575-1585), Accession T.113 through 118-1997, plus my redaction of some of the fills used on it.
- Blackwork Inspiration. Some sources for folk looking for project ideas for original pieces of contemporary blackwork
- Digression – Blackwork Embroidery. Lots of links to portraits and other artworks showing blackwork. Some of them might still work.
- More Inspiration from Historical Sources. Another link roundup of countwork appearing in paintings and portraits. Some of these links may still be live, too.
- Forehead cloths. The coif’s companion. Much easier to wear in modern context (see Bragging, below).
- Ironwork at the V&A. These pieces sing “outline potential” to me.
- Voided Grounds. A roundup of various treatments for voided work, where the background is overstitched but the foreground remains (mostly) unworked. This is the style that was reborn in the 1800s as Assisi work, and is also known as reserva stitching.
- Voided Pieces and Outlines. Do historical voided pieces always sport outlines? Were they done first? Were they always on the count?
- Voided Narrative Panels. A style cluster of voided works probably done by drawing the foreground designs freehand, then working the background up to those lines.
- Meshy! Working that hard-pulled mesh like voided style that totally encapsulates the ground fabric’s threads.
History, Speculation, Pattern Clusters, Printing Block Migrations and Other Musings
- The Twain do Meet. Introduction to Kasuthi Kashida. Blackwork’s Indian cousin
- Looking East Again. Double running stitch pieces from the Wardak Hazara people of Pakistan. Another example of a South Asian stitching tradition that may be one of blackwork’s lesser known Eastern cousins.
- A Missing Link? A curious family of Egyptian Islamic artifacts of the 10th to 15th centuries, that have no proven relationship to inhabited blackwork (the kind with hard outlines and geometric fills), yet presage its aesthetic.
- The Azemmour Cluster. A group of patterns that in the time I’ve been paying attention has had their commonality and point of origin increasingly recognized, moving them from late 19th century source annotations that identified them as Renaissance era products made everywhere from Greece to Spain, and placing them in Morocco.
- The Spider Flower. A design that is probably part of the Azemmour Cluster
- Revisiting the Stupid Cupids – Multiple versions of the cupid and oak leaf meander.
- A Pattern’s Pedigree. Random thoughts about a specific family of patterns that shows up both voided and unvoided.
- The Leafy Family. A wide leaf-bearing meander that shows up multiple times in artifact inventories.
- More Cousins. The Leafy Bricks group.
- Cornered! Possible working direction and four different corner treatments of a famous, oft photographed handkerchief in the V&A.
- Italian Leafy, Occasionally Multicolor. Another design family of large panels and edgings that have curiously similar design elements, and a direct association of one example with the Jewish community of Rome, hard dated to 1582/1583.
- Long Lost Twins, Part I. That ubiquitous urns and piping harpies design. (I revisited this one in Part V, below)
- Long Lost Twins, Part II. Oak branch, leaf and acorn design, executed in both monochrome and polychrome, multiple versions.
- Long Lost Twins, Part III. Another very common pattern with multiple iterations, in multiple museums, two instances of which may have been cut from one original piece.
- Long Lost Twins, Part IV. Multiple instances of a simple Y and wrap meander.
- Long Lost Twins, Part V. Lots more on that harpies/urns design; found in many museums, many iterations, and even multiple stitching modalities.
- Long Lost Twins, Part VI. Two instances of a column design, very probably once cut from the same artifact. Fragments of which are held in two museums
- Long Lost Siblings? Another case of a single source artifact probably cut in two, now held by two different museums.
- When is More of the Same Not More of the Same? Examining differences among different editions of various modelbooks, trying to parse out whether they were reprinted from the same block, hand tinted, or recarved.
- Modelbook Blocks: Acorns and Chickens. A classic. Was the block simply traded and reprinted, or was there copying afoot?
- One Design’s migration. Another look into multiple printings of the same design, and differences/similarities among those iterations.
- Early Marketing? Or Not… Speculation set aside by actually looking at the when and where of a pattern published both with and without religious mottoes.
- Repeating On and On on Repeats. A summary of the types of rotations and mirrorings commonly seen in long strip patterns
- Ocular Proof? My argument that Othello’s strawberry speckled handkerchief used in the play to implicate Desdemona might have been conceived of by Shakespeare as a countwork piece.
- A Curious Applique Technique. Not embroidery, but often appearing in modelbooks alongside it. Take a strip of leather or cloth, cut it with precision into a pattern that duplicates itself on either side of the bisecting line. Twice the yardage and no waste. Wildly clever.
Talks and Classes
The Stitches Speak
These are the slides from a round-up of historical counted styles I presented at a Society for Creative Anachronism needlework and textiles gathering in 2012. Mostly eye candy, and divided for ease of posting, not by subject area. However sources are listed.
- My post-event summary
- Part 1. The rest of these are my slide deck as presented. No script, just the images.
- Part 2.
- Part 3.
- Part 4.
- Part 5.
- Part 6.
This is the broadside I hand out when I teach workshops on double running stitch. It’s pretty much a self-paced tutorial, with the simplest designs at the upper left, and progressing in difficulty to the lower right. If you work these at your own speed as a band or jumble sampler, by the time you’ve done them all you can tackle just about any linear design. And although I do use this to teach double running stitch logic, no one will say you sinned if you decide to complete it in back stitch.
- Class handout. (Also available on the Embroidery Patterns tab).
Linear Units (Line Segments)
- Ensamplario Atlantio. A collection of blackwork fills from my doodle notebooks, some my own, some from artifacts, but when I started this I didn’t intend to publish, so I didn’t keep track. Some of the larger ones work well as all-over designs, or for small projects like biscornus or holiday ornaments. Presented in four chunks because at the time I issued it people had bandwidth usage limitations, and preferred smaller bites of content.
- Ensamplario Atlantio Volume II. More fills, plus some strip designs and yokes. 90% original (exceptions are footnoted). In one file this time, as technology marched on since publication of the first.
- My Embroidery Patterns tab. Most but not all of the designs below also appear there, plus more.
- Rose Chart. Outline for a heraldic style rose
- Ganesh Project. How to replicate my blackwork method Lord Ganesh, done as a present for a family friend in India.
- Crowdsourced simple diamond interlace, with small motif fills provided by String’s followers. Use some or all. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab).
- Dancing Pirate Octopodes. The design that led to the crowdsourced project. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Leopards. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- The Epic Fandom Stitch-Along. 19 bands, 9 of which are quasi-traditional, 10 of which are wildly anachronistic, with spaceships, dinosaurs, pirates, references to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who. Guidance for the whole project is included.
- Cat and Mouse. A large panel with Art Deco style cats, mice, and yarn balls. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab).
- Bands from a 16th century Camica. Hem, collar, seam bands, and striping. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Those Snails. They crawl all over my work. I share some.
- Jesters at the Fence. A snippet from TNCM (see below).
- Bead border. (Also available on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Ring of Rats. Another Art Deco style chart (also available on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
Box Units (squares)
- Unicorn. Box unit (not linear) chart for a unicorn, courtesy of Elder Offspring.
- Castles and Caravels. Box unit design featuring a three-towered castle, and its relationship of that motif to some Spanish pieces.
- Knot More Knots! Simple interlaces in box units (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Simple Geometric from 1546. This one is also box units, and works well for stitching, knitting, and crochet.
- Da Sera Bud Interlace. Another box unit pattern. (Also available on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Fun with Odonata. Another box unit design, this one for dragonflies. Note that they can be used for knitting, too. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- Fun with Lagomorphs. A box unit design for a leaping rabbit. (Also on the Embroidery Patterns tab)
- A Simple Interlace. I lost the source annotation for this box unit design aeons ago.
- The New Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Patterns from Before 1600. Also known as TNCM. Sadly out of print. It’s in queue for update as scholarship has advanced in the years since it came out. There are corrections aplenty! You might be able to find it on the used market, but at a wildly inflated price.
- The Second Carolingian Modelbook: A Collection of Charted Patterns for Needleworkers and Artisans. Also known as T2CM Link to Amazon page is on the indicated post.
These are also accessible via the Tutorials tab at the top of every page here. but below they are listed in the correct chronological order
Double Running Stitch Logic
- Double Running Stitch Logic 101 – Two Sided Work and Baseline Identification. Basic logic of why baselines matter if you want to work something either totally two sided, or using two-sided logic for thread economy
- Double Running Stitch Logic 102 – Working from the Baseline. How to follow one, step by step.
- Double Running Stitch Logic 103 – Accreted and Hybrid Approaches. Breaking down a large non-linear chart for easier stitches.
- Double Running Stitch Logic 104. A review comparing back stitch and double running, and how to determine if a design can be worked totally two-sided or not.
Charting Linear Designs using GIMP Drafting Software
I found commercial charting software treats linear charts as an afterthought, so with help, I invented my own graphing method which I have used for all of my books. This series is for folk who want to move on to designing and drawing their own charts, and doing so using the dot and bar method I invented. GIMP is freeware, and if you’ve ever used Photoshop or Illustrator, and are familiar with layer-based drawing logic, the learning on-ramp for this method will be familiar. Although this was prepared for an earlier version of GIMP, these instructions are still relevant, although the GIMP menu screens now look slightly different.
- Charting. A comparison of my dot-and-bar method with the traditional drawn-on-quadrille-graph-paper method.
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 101. The logic of a layer-based drafting tool.
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 102. Getting started, basics of working with GIMP.
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 103. Building the dot layer of your template.
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 104. Layer management and building the design and mask layers of your template
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 105. Drawing the design.
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 106. Additional tools including those for erasing, flipping, alignment, and rotation
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 107. Hints on printing
- GIMP Charting Tutorial 108. Preconstructed templates to save you time.
- My big underskirt forepart. Why I stitched it
- Forehead cloths for modern wear. Kind of like a kerchief, works well and keeps the hair out of my eyes in seaside winds, adapted from the companion piece often seen with a matching coif.
- Trifles wall hanging. Made as a “mom nag” for my younger spawn, done using blackwork techniques and fills.
- Blackwork sampler done in 1983. Musings on why this piece is not entirely successful in terms of stitching density distribution.
- Two Fish. No astrological connection, just two koi circling on couched gold water. Indigo and deep green silk on 40 count linen
- Fangirl Sampler – A key phrase from the science fiction series by my Resident Male, in an off-world language. It translates to “Life’ll kill you”. I am after all his fangirl army of one. Alphabet from an old Sajou leaflet, but the rest is all my design. The dancing skeletons border is available on the Embroidery Patterns tab.
- Grape Sideboard Scarf. An artifact-based main field with a self-designed companion border.
- Blackwork sampler done as the cover for T2CM, finished in 2012. Below.
UNSTITCHED COIF PROJECT – THE DESIGN
Our Fearless Leader, Toni Buckby, has given permission for participants to share the original image and the design from it she has derived and provided for the Unstitched Coif project. I am doing this as an echo for convenience of the project itself, since the we have been requested NOT to share links to the in-group project repository. Since this design is not my own and is totally subject to project rules, I will remove this post when and if requested.
First – the project’s photo of V&A accession number T.844-1974, Click here or on the image below.
Now the print-me files that make up Ms. Buckby’s rendition of the coif’s pattern. Click on the links below to open these PDF files, then save them locally. Note that they are formatted for A4 size paper. That’s a bit longer than standard US letter size. For best results, print on A4 at the presented size (don’t shrink in the print process), then tile the pieces together. There’s enough overlap to make this quite easy.
The official project website is here.
As for my own progress, there’s a tiny bit since the last post. But what’s always striking to me is how the designs bloom once the outlines are added. Compare!
Yes, I am working the design upside down right now. That little bug on the right is not supposed to be seen doing handstands.
I apologize for frequent posts on the Unstitched Coif, but if there’s something to say it’s usually very hard to keep me from saying it.
I want to thank everyone on the outpouring of support and appreciation, hints, and suggestions. I’m delighted that you are enjoying these notes, and that magnifies my own enjoyment of the process. Many of your recommendations and hints have been quite valuable. I have gotten some suggestions though pointing out that in the writers’ opinions, I am going about this all wrong. My sequence of attack on the piece – the order and manner in which I am working the components doesn’t synch with those folks’ opinions.
I attempt to explain myself.
First, I am a self-taught stitcher. I’ve never taken a class or workshop in this or any embroidery style. I fumble along aided by books and personal observation of artifact photos (and actual artifacts on rare occasion when I’ve been lucky enough to see them). It’s very possible I’ve missed lots of clues on working methods. I don’t claim how I go about my stitching is the one canonical and correct way to do it, it’s just the way that works best for me.
On lack of advance planning and charting – In general on an inhabited blackwork project (the type with outlined shapes and fills), I do very little planning ahead. Each flower or other motif is considered when I get to it, I pause, look at the new bit, decide if I want a dense/dark fill or something lighter; consider contrasts for any sub-components; and try to balance the types of fills used. Do I want the turned underside of a leaf to contrast with the rest of it? Should I put two fills that are angular and spiky next to each other, or should I try to maximize texture contrast in addition to density? Is the current space big enough to give play to one of the larger, more complex fills, or is it so small that a simple one would work better there; or should I abstract the “main motif” of a more complex fill to complete that space? Is a particular fill so stand-out that it will influence the choice of those around it? On that last one, the bead-like fill in the leaf just under the US penny is so striking that I would not want to use another rondel-based design nearby.
As you can see I’m still recalibrating for the tiny gauge. I have underestimated the display potential of these small spaces, and with judicious choice can begin using the larger, more dramatic fills both from my collection and from the ones provided by Ms. Buckby on the official project website.
Then there’s working order. One person who wrote a private note to me swears that the only way to work this type of piece is to complete all of the outlines first, then fill them in. Someone else says that I should be doing all of the fills for the entire piece first, and adding the outlines only after they are finished. Another person writes that I am a know-nothing for working the gold couching (and even worse the spangles) before finishing all of the black silk bits. And someone else chastises me for starting in a corner rather than the center of the work.
I reply that there are no Embroidery Police. I do what I do because it works for me, and because I have reasons for it – both as production procedure and as a bow to my personal temperament.
Here are yesterday’s additions – the finish of the little ruffled flower on the coif border, plus most but not all of the blackworked bits for the daffodil/narcissus like flower immediately to its right. I’ve used some medium-size fills from my notebooks for these bits, plus one of the fills cited on the website.
In general, I like to do the fills first, then go back and add the outlines. Note that along the edges of the fill areas there are half-stitches, eking the fill out up to the projected placement point of those outlines. Although they are a pain to do, they help avoid small gaps, and are much easier to stitch if you aren’t trying to bump up against heavier stitching. And when the outline stitching is finally done it neatly camouflages the ragged edges of the filled areas. Those little halfies barely peek out but do add to design completion (as seen in the “bone and cross” leaf in the lower left of the photo).
BUT there is a caveat. My traced pencil lines, especially in this area, are quite light and hard to see. I do my best to follow them, aided by an ever-present printout of the design for ready reference. I want to do the frill that marks the interior of the flower’s trumpet in a darker, denser stitch, but the edge of the frill separating the interior and the exterior of the trumpet is very hard to see. So before it was lost, I chose to do just that bit of outline, while I could still see it. I’ll go back and complete the rest of the outline on the flower as a whole once the interior dark part is worked.
Once the black silk is all laid down not only for this flower but for any other components touching its stems and sprigs, I will add the double line of gold couching for all of the leaf veins and stems in the group, and whip just the stem parts with black silk. Then I will work the single line couched gold curls, tendrils, and antennae (if any). And when most of the work surrounding a bit of “white space” is complete, I will add the spangles. Mr. Big Bug is missing the gold stripe embellishments on his body. I am still deciding on whether to do them in double or single thickness gold. Double stands out better, but there are so many that done heavily they might take over his look. I’ll get there, but not yet.
I am working each section to completion rather than doing all of the black silk work for the entire piece first, then adding the gold and adornments (or for that matter, working all of the fills or outlines first, then completing) because I need the variety to keep fresh. Each different component requires a different type of concentration and moves at a different pace. Mixing them up both gives me a better guide for the look I am trying to achieve, and keeps me mentally nimble as I go. This project would be stultifying for me if I were to break it down by type of stitching and work them singly to completion in sequence.
There are downsides to my mix-it-up approach. Those spangles and bits of bling catch threads, and can be abraded or otherwise damaged by clumsy fingers or needle tips as I go along. I will probably deploy pieces of well washed muslin or old, freshly washed handkerchiefs to cover previously stitched areas as the piece grows, taking them off only for progress photos.
And as for why I started in a corner – I point to visual focus and prominence. The center of a piece is the most scrutinized. By easing into the thing at one of the corners I commit my experiments in scale, pattern complexity, and density to the less ogled outer edge. Ripping out bits I don’t find totally successful is not an option at this gauge. Once I commit, that’s it. By the time I get to the center I should be better in command of the fill vocabulary on 70+ count, and the best of my work should mate up with the eventual viewers’ most exacting gaze. Note that if I had been stitching this coif with an eye to making it up into a hat and wearing it, I would have started at the center bit at the nape of the neck where the cap would have tucked under the wearer’s bun-bundled hair, that being the least viewed part.
The one thing I haven’t been doing reliably though is whipping down all of those plunged ends of the gold thread on the reverse, which already looks like a nightmare. I detest doing that and should be, but haven’t. For this sin I will go sit in a corner and contemplate my life choices, preferably while tending to those little monsters…
So that’s my working cadence, and my reasons for it. Should yours differ, that’s fine. What works best in the long run is what works best for each of us as individuals who understand the strengths and weaknesses of our materials and our own proclivities, instead of dogmatic compliance to an arbitrary set of rules.
AND WE HAVE THE FIRST BUG!
Not to worry, it’s not a computer or programming glitch. It’s completion of the first bug on my rendition of the Unstitched Coif project. The bugs, birds and other inhabitants of this flowery sprawl are especially fun to work.
I may add a tiny motif in his “collar,” it seems a bit bare; and I may go back and darken up the bug body to get better contrast against the wings. But I do like the opposing directionality of the coil pattern on the wings. I am also still debating the density of the paillette spangles. Thinking on their original use, to provide both sparkle in dim interiors and by candlelight, and to signal the wealth of the wearer, packing them in for max bling seems right. However I know to modern eyes the look in full artificial light is cluttered, and I’ve gotten feedback accordingly. We’ll see.
As to new bits in execution – the bug’s eyes are also the same 2mm paillettes, but instead of being affixed with three little gold color faux silk stitches, they are held on with large French knots in the center. I thought about using beads, I have a large seed bead stash that I’ve kept since the 1960s. It came to me jumbled, and my sisters helped sort some of it out. I picked out three candidate colors – black glass, clear glass with gold foil centers, and an opalescent black/metallic glass, and have been experimenting with them both with and without the spangles underneath. You can see below how much better the flat spangle and French knot looks.
I haven’t ruled out using beads yet. There are some bugs with especially tiny faces. I might use them for the eyes of those. They are ever so slightly smaller than the paillettes, but not by much. But French knots may be the solution there, too.
In other developments, my kit has expanded. Thanks to the insight and generosity of long time friend and needlework confidante Kathryn Goodwyn (who took pity on me and came to the rescue) I now have a small clip on light for supplemental illumination. Kathryn says she found it in a Dollar Store (a low price bargain outlet for my UK visitors). I will probably jury rig a thin wooden yardstick across the top edge of my frame later on, as I get closer to the center of the piece and need the extra light there.
Another materials improvement to report. I have switched threads for the fills. I had been using YLI 100, doubled. One strand was too thin, but two looked a bit muddy. I am now using Au Ver à Soie’s Soie Surfine and I like the line and angles better. I won’t tell you when/where I switched, and I don’t think you’ll be able to spot it. Although the two approaches are very close in total width, the Surfine does stitch more smoothly and works up more evenly.
In addition, I attended the first Zoom meet-up for the project yesterday. Toni Buckby, our Fearless Leader did a great thumbnail intro to blackwork in general. its stylistic evolution over time, and the coif project in specific. We were truly inspired to plunge on in, or continue depending on our start status. There were enthusiastic folk in attendance from the UK, US, Canada, and New Zealand (that individual is truly dedicated, considering that it was 1:00am there at the time). It was fun to meet up, share questions, and generally get to know each other.
As promised, I did ask about plans to make the drawing of the coif accessible at the project website. Ms. Buckby assured us that it will be, although the website is still under construction, and it isn’t there right now. But if you do pop by, you’ll see a few of the V&A’s fantastic collection of blackwork artifacts, plus her invaluable hand drawn charts for the specific geometric fills used on them.
I admit the large cushion (V&A Accession T.81-1924) at the top of the official project page brings back wonderful memories.
A blurry image of that artifact was the first bit of blackwork I stumbled across, in Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book. I was smitten, and shortly thereafter I had need of a special gift for he who would eventually become my Resident Male. Although I had already graphed up and stitched a number of sampler bands from book photos, I took the plunge into blackwork with no guidance other than Mary Thomas, and produced this. It’s now very well worn, and the needle lace around the edges is quite frayed, but for something stitched in the spring of 1975, on muslin, using mostly the wrong stitches, it’s not entirely discreditable.
After that there my fate was sealed.
My blackwork underskirt forepart (left and centers) – stitched in Fall 1976-Spring 1977. My Forever Coif, started in Spring 1990 and still unfinished.
UNSTITCHED COIF PROJECT DEVELOPMENTS – NEEDLES AND OFFICIAL SITE
Your periodic Unstitched Coif project update post!
First some progress on my own rendition. Having established my vocabulary, I’m gaining momentum, aided in part by The Right Tool.
The Right Tool? My size #12 rounded point beading needles finally arrived! What’s the difference? In the photo below, a standard John James brand size #28 gold finish tapestry needle is above, and a #12 blunt point beading needle from the same maker is below.
The beading needle is less than half the thickness of the tapestry needle, and it has a much smaller eye and more pronounced end taper. While that does make it harder to thread, it also makes the thread less likely to fall out of the eye while stitching. And that thin shaft and point are small enough to slip between the threads of the 70+ count linen I am using without distorting them. I said before that shoving the (comparatively) large point of the #28 through this weave was like passing a pencil through the mesh of a screen window, and I wasn’t kidding. The very rounded point and larger diameter made it hard to “stay on target” and hit the exact between-thread spot that needs to be pierced, and the thicker shaft, especially at the eye distorts the weave as it moves through, making subsequent counts close by all the more difficult.
So if you are working this project, or in fact any project on an extremely fine count ground, spare yourself, your eyes, and your fingers grief, and grab a #12. You will be happier, and more speedy for it.
Now the big news here isn’t my new needles or my minor progress. It’s that the official website for the group, blackworkembroidery.org has gone live! Right now it’s still pretty sparse, with a lovely selection of artifact links to blackwork pieces in the V&A’s collection, and some graphed fill stitches. I suspect that the content will blossom over time. But the best part is that it includes a link to a Discord chat group, dedicated to the Unstitched Coif project! I’ll be taking advantage of that under the user name Rotangus (the name I use on Discord for gaming forums), but I will wait to post until Toni Buckby, our Fearless Leader, posts. But I hope to be part of the conversations there.
I THINK I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK
The Unstitched Coif project continues.
After some experimentation, mostly documented in prior posts, I think I’ve hit on what will probably be the combo of threads and techniques I am going to use. I am still waiting for my fine beading needles and one last fine filament silk, which I may or may not work in. I like the look of mixed threads in a project, even mixed blacks, so even if that thread is late to the party, it still may be incorporated.
As usual, both US and UK pennies provided for scale.
Obviously I am going to be using counted fills for most if not all of the blackwork fields. I may do a few areas in a freehand fill, but probably not speckling. I like the look but find execution of those tiny dots very boring.
Having tried multiple times to whip the gold around silk, I finally realized that whipping silk around gold is much easier to do. I used a double strand of the Japanese Gold #5 for the stems and leaf veins, in simple couching. But I thought that the plain gold lines looked quite wimpy for the stems, and the visually dense bits of blackwork look stranded, and not unified into a design. So I will be whipping just the exposed stem areas with silk. I experimented with two different silks in the bit above, the longer stem being the Golden Schelle hand-dyed, and the shorter one being the unidentified small batch silk I had in my stash. Both use two strands. I may end up using them both, with the Golden Schelle for wider, more prominent stems, and the other for smaller offshoots. Time will tell.
The curly tendrils are single strand Japanese Gold #5, again simply couched. The half-flower center (cut off by the edge of the coif) is the same gold, double strand, again couched. I will do the full circle flower centers in spiral couching. I thought about a spiderweb, but as I found out this wrapped gold does not play well as a passing thread, so I will stick to couching.
And the paillette. I know he’s all by himself right now, but as I finish areas I will be peppering the between ground with them, just for the fun of added bling.
To answer questions and issues from my inbox:
- Are you planning or plotting out all of your fills beforehand?
No. I’m just picking them at random whim, at most considering if I want a dense or a lighter one for the spot I am about to stitch. Since picking out on this fine ground is not fun, even if I am not 100% satisfied with my choice, I will keep going with any fill started, once committed. In general if a fill has an identifiable motif in it I try to center that bit in the “meatiest” part of the area being stitched, then work from that point out to the edges, but I don’t plot out the exact placement ahead of time, and fills in adjacent units can end up skew on count to each other. Sometimes I even do that on purpose to increase visual movement in the composition.
- Where are you getting your fills?
Well, if you know me you know I have endless notebooks full, some of which I have shared for free elsewhere on this site. Plus I have been known to make them up on the fly. But I do not intend to use this project as personal advertising, and won’t be mentioning them again.
- Can you send me the pattern?
It’s not mine to share. I’ve put in feedback to the project organizer suggesting that once the official website is up and running later this month, that the design be made available there.
- How can you see to do this so small?
Waybackwhen, my 25 year old eyes could do this un-augmented – nearsightedness being a bit of a natural magnifier. But that was long ago. I am using a lighted magnifying aid which can be worn over glasses. It does take a bit of getting used to, so it’s not a perfect solution but so far it’s working for me. Again, I am uncomfortable being a product shill, but the thing made by Beileshi, is easily found on Amazon, and is reasonably priced.
- Where did you get the linen?
I’ve posted the link before, so here it is again. It’s not exorbitantly priced for linen but shipping to the US doubles the cost, which makes it a bit spendy, and there’s no real break in the shipping surcharge for buying larger amounts and sharing the bounty. As far as quality, in my piece at least there is a fair bit of slubs and really fine threads, that makes counting a bit harder. The weave is also off a bit – you can see that my motifs are stretched a bit north-south as opposed to east-west. But at this scale I doubt anyone will notice.
- Are you stitching 1×1?
No, that would be a bit much even for me. I’m doing mostly 2×2 because I find it easiest to count, but the butterfly squares fill above was done 3×3. I may mix up the counts to achieve density effects. Again time will tell.
- Where did you get the spangles? Are they handmade?
No, they are not. They are tiny 2mm center-hole gold-tone circles, flat (no cupping like a faceted sequin). These are the same ones I used on my Two Fish piece. I will share the source again because I know paillettes this small are very hard to find in the US. I ordered them from General Bead in San Francisco, California.
- Too bad, looks nice but I’m disappointed. You know you aren’t being historically accurate, right?
I don’t pretend that I am. The base pattern cartoon provided by the Unstitched Coif project certainly is. The general aesthetic is. The project leader assures me that this particular linen is the closest she has found to the linen of museum artifacts. But this is my modern interpretation of that museum original, and I do not claim it to be a fully documented representation of a specific historical style or period-limited materials/technique set. Here are my aberrations:
- My thread mix – For black, partially filament silks with modern dye, partially spun silks in a mix of modern and historically documented dyes. The gold tone thin silk I am using for couching and affixing the paillettes is “art silk” – rayon, that I found in India. I had it on hand, and it’s largely invisible in this project. I spent enough on the linen and other materials that I feel justified in economizing here.
- The gold thread. It’s got the look (more or less) and is a thin filament of metal around a silk core, but it’s not exactly what was used contemporary with the base design, and is unsuited to use as a passing thread on a ground this dense. But again, I had it on hand and it is affordable.
- The paillettes. Machine made, probably mylar painted gold. Again I plead my pocket.
- [UPDATE] The density of the paillettes. Some people have stated that my use of them is too tightly packed
- The fills. I know my fancy will run away with me (it already has), and my fills will be my own choice and largely of my own devising. I will not be able to be individually documented one by one to specific historical artifacts or blackwork depictions.
- The stitch used for outlining. I’m using reverse chain. Yes, I know that Jacqui Carey specifically points it out as a modern stitch in Elizabethan Stitches, but given its gently raised line, speed of accurate execution, ease of handling tight curves, and its vague similarity to Elizabethan Twisted Chain (also cited by Carey), I can be forgiven this time- and effort-saving sin.
- The whipped couched gold. No historical source for this I know of, but I also admit I am not posessed of encyclopedic knowledge.