THE DRAGON’S VALUES

Elissa wrote to me to ask how I could tell what graphed patterns might go together well as I was looking for more borders to eke out the edges of the dragon panel. I am not quite sure I can answer, in part because I’m not quite sure I’ve made successful picks yet. I do a fair bit of this type of composing in the course of stitching up monochrome embroideries. The best way I can discuss this is to show a blackwork sampler I did a while ago:

I stitched this upwhile I was working on my book of embroidery patterns. Some of the patterns on this piece made it into the book, others didn’t. The ones I left out were ones that turned out to be too late in origin for inclusion in the book, or whose documentation and provenanceweren’t complete or accurate as the rest.

You can see several things on this mostly-blackwork piece. First, even though I was working exclusively in double running stitch (aka Spanish Stitch, Holbein Stitch) and cross stitch, there is a tremendous variation in density and the depth of tonal values among the various patterns. There is also variation in the delicacy of line, even comparing the airy double running stitch patterns. The highly geometric bit in a similar style to Jane Seymour’s cuffs (center top) presents a very different look than the curled plume-like leaves in the bottommost left.

Now this piece is far from entirely successful for several reasons, design by accretion being the leading one. Like my dragon curtain it was done "bungee jump" style. I took my ground cloth and just began stitching, picking my patterns one by one as I finished the last. The first bit I did was the sorrel leaf stripin the upper left (looks like clovers). I worked more or less across and then down from there, leaving the center blank until I hit upon something to put there. That happened to be my father’s favorite saying, and a large yale, but I certainly didn’t plan on them being there when I started. (A yaleis a heraldic goat with skewed horns, although someheraldicspecialistswill debate whether this is a goat or a yale.) The last bit to be filled in was the small rectangular area just below the yale, which I patched in with several smaller scale fillings commonly used in inhabited blackwork, finishing up with my sig strip at the center bottom (KBS ’83). I used a couple of these in my blackwork underskirt and Forever Coif, too.

Had I actually sat down and planned the piece, I would have better balanced the placement of light and dark areas, and the apportionment of delicate curved lines with harsher block geometrics would have been more pleasing. Those sorrel leaves for example are way out of place. They’re too light and too leggy sitting as they are on top of the darker knot strip. The large double star motif beneath the yale’s back hoof is also out of place. While it balances nicely with the English acorns on top of "Worth Doing" and the star and fleur de lyse at the center right edge, in combo with the Chinese peonies just above it theheavyvisual densityweighs down thecomposition along the left edge.

All this is a long way to go to answer Elissa’s question. In a piece as small as the dragon curtain, with a limited number of patterns, I wanted to call attention first to the center panel. To that end, I framed it with a strip repeat lighter in value than the average tone of the dragon and knight unit. I tried not to "fight" with the center panel, picking a repeat that was rather delicate in line rather than a heavier one to avoid the the overpowering effect demonstrated on my Anything sampler. However, once that frame was completed and I wanted to add more width, I decided to usestrips of aheavier, more geometric border around the whole piece. With luck, now that the lighter inner area has been established (sort of like matting a painting), the denser second border will serve the same purpose as a dark carved wood frame on a painting – defining the inner space inside the frame and accenting the center, by contrasting with both the mat and the piece’s focus.

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