Mary Corbet over at Needle n’ Thread has just posted an interesting piece contrasting tambour needle produced chain stitch with the same stitch produced by a traditional threaded needle. She notes the speed, density and coverage factor of tambour stitching. I present a truly huge sample to corroborate her observations.
I have an entire room-size floor carpet done in tambour work.
For those of you who don’t know what tambour is, it’s a method of producing an even embroidery stitch with a chained appearance, by plunging a hook through a base fabric, catching a loop of decorative thread, then repeating the process to create a line. The hook used (called arhi, here) looks a bit like a fine crochet hook, but the end of the hook is a bit more pointed, to make piercing the ground fabric easier. Mary offers up some excellent discussions of the technique, so I’ll skip doing so.
In any case, Mary’s piece made me think about the rug we recently purchased:
This piece is roughly 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters). Everything you see here is stitching. The white cotton ground is totally covered by vibrant, dense-pack chain stitch in jewel colored cotton:
By getting close up with my gauge square, I can see that the stitch count varies between 10 and 12 stitches per inch, with the longer stitches being in the plain areas like the simple straight pink and brown runs at the bottom of the detail, above. For width, about three rows of stitching equals 1/3 of an inch, with the longer stitch areas being a bit narrower in addition to leggier. Perhaps the less skilled stitchers were assigned the boring border areas, and the more skilled artisans did the intricate motifs. In any case, because of the variability of stitch length and some small mistakes here and there, I am pretty confident that this rug was done by hand and not with a sewing machine.
If I flex the heavy canvas ground cloth, I can see some pencil lines behind the stitching that mark off major design areas, but not every area or motif is indicated. Finally, the entire piece is backed with another layer of cotton sheeting, slightly thinner than the natural color ground cloth.
Our rug came from the Kashmiri area further north, the source of so many of the handcrafts available here in Pune. It’s a bit unusual because this type of stitching is more commonly done in wool. Namdas for example, are tambour stitched rugs worked in wool (or sometimes today, wool/acrylic blend or even cotton) on a felted wool ground cloth. I’ve seen them both here, and occasionally in import stores in the US.
Back to our carpet – how long did it take to make? Tambour is speedy, but 6’ x 9’ is a huge amount of handwork. The crafts merchant who sold it to us said that these pieces were the product of family manufacture. It typically takes several people (I’m thinking four to six, more can’t easily fit around the cloth to work) about two weeks to make one this size. I base this on the fact that he says one family can produce between two and four big pieces per month. Ours was one of the largest. Most of the other samples of cotton tambour were about half this size. To my stitcher’s eye, ours was also the most accomplished of the four available cotton rugs. It was the most evenly and densely stitched, with the best color balance and patterning.
The stitched surface is holding up nicely to moderate traffic, although we are careful with it. We do not wear shoes in the house, and I do not subject this piece to the vacuum. Instead I light surface sweep with a soft plastic broom, and supplement that with occasional shake-outs. Thankfully, nothing has spilled on it. Yet.
We bought this piece because we fell in love with the brilliant color, intricate patterning; and because I appreciated the skill that it took to produce, and the magnitude of labor it represents. It’s time and care, rendered in cotton, and will be one of my favorite keepsakes, long after we return home.