As an in-between, quick project, I’m working on the small tote bag – the piece on the bag body I salvaged from an old DMC cross stitch kit. I’m using yet another design from T2CM, but I’m playing with it a bit.

First, there is thread choice. Note how the black is thicker than the red, more matte, and a bit rustic-slubby. It doesn’t make factory-precise lines. It’s not cotton floss. It’s two strands of linen from a line of DMC six strand linen embroidery floss, discontinued about 7 or 8 years ago. My local independent crafts store had a small quantity left, and I bought it all out in 2016 or so. I don’t have very much of it, not enough for a large piece, for sure, and being discontinued, there is no more to be had.

Experimenting with it I have found that it needs to be used in much shorter lengths than cotton, needs a relatively thick needle compared to the ones I would use with cotton or silk on the same count ground, and performs best when very heavily waxed. That’s because the linen is surprisingly friable, and abrades heavily from the action of stitching. This is not stuff to be “sewed” – it has to be stabbed up and down. It is also stiffer than cotton or silk with a notable bend radius, and special care in tensioning stitches is needed to keep angles from distorting the weave.

The single-ply red by contrast is thinner, silkier, and easier to stitch. It’s plain old DMC six strand cotton floss, color 815 – the closest match I had to the color of the bag’s “built-in” cotton twill handles. Note though that there is minor thickness variation in the single red strand, but I bet you would not have seen it had I not pointed it out.

On to the design.

This particular zig-zag flower stripe is in my ever-forthcoming The Second Carolingian Modelbook. It’s adapted from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston holding, accession 99.178. It’s one of my favorites because the original artifact has a VERY evident mistake on it. Well, evident to me at least. Can you spot it?

Good eyes if you have! The repeat is not quite symmetrical up and down. Look at the valleys – the V bits below the paired flowers. There are two different treatments for the foliate curls there. A “fat end ” one that curls back towards the zig-zag stem, and a “skinny end” one that curls back towards the center. The first three strips all are in the same orientation, with the “skinny end” curl on top. But that bottom one is upside down in comparison to the other three – in it the “fat end” curl is on top. It drove me nuts when I was trying to work out the pattern. Someday I want to use this ones on the sleeves and bodice of an 16th century Italian camica. I think It would be perfect for that….

Now on to my adaptation of the design for use on this specific piece.

I have moved the zig-zag stripes much closer together than the original because of the size of this very small carry bag. I’ve changed the direction of the striped “collar” around the terminal buds on the lower strip, just for fun. And I’ve introduced the step-fill between my strips. The heaviness of the double strand, rather rustic and slubby linen mates up well with the feel of the original; and the contrast between the step fill (mirrored along the center line for each up-down repeat) done in the smoother, more delicate thread adds interest.

Now. Is this a historically accurate use of the design? If I was to be totally textbook, have to say no, even after discounting its use on a contemporary tote-bag, worked in modern materials.

Yes, the flower zig-zag has a clear source. Yes, designs with voided grounds were worked at the time. Yes, designs with outlines in one color and the ground covered in another are not unknown. And Jack Robinson (the UK’s late and lamented blackwork master artisan) in his book noted the use of varying thread thicknesses on a single project.

However, I have not yet seen an artifact with a stepwise fill as a voided ground (square mesh yes; diagonal mesh, yes; diagonal zig-zags, yes). I have not yet seen a voided artifact with a ground that’s mirrored. And I have not yet seen an artifact with an all-over repeat of this type, worked with a voided background.

Do I care? Not particularly. I have no intention of entering this before any juried panel. It’s a doodle, for the sheer fun of playing around with the design. And it will eventually be a gift for someone special.

8 responses

  1. That, and the doodling in the third line. Would love to know what the stitcher was thinking about putting in there.

    1. Hi Marie – that’s not a doodle. It’s a poorly made attempt at a repair. If you go to the museum page and zoom waay in you will see the rather clumsy patching.

  2. Both your source and your adaptation are beautiful. Much more interesting than those boring roses!

  3. Melinda Sherbring | Reply

    In case you were unaware of the Burrell coif’s background:
    “an artifact with a stepwise fill as a voided ground” — FYI, Burrell coif 29/137 does, but of course it isn’t mirrored, etc. Also, Platt Hall has a men’s nightcap, 1972.113, that once had a background of horizontal zig-zags, which is a positional variant of stepwise fill. On the other hand, all the black thread but one small area is gone, leaving behind only holes.

    1. FAntastic! Will scurry off and add these to the voided technique round-up. Ten thousand thank yous!

  4. Big Green looks wonderful! I’m glad you persevered and finished it off. While sort of anticlimactic that it will sit for a while until your sewing area is back in service, it give some more time to ponder how to finish it.

    I have some of that linen thread, never used. It’s interesting that the linen thread is such a pain to work with, given how durable linen fabric is. Good linen fabric that is. Maybe it’s a different story when in thread form? Which brings another thought – those stories of spinners of old sitting in damp dark basements with only a bit of light to see what they were doing… fact? false? Anyway – if it’s true that spinners had to keep the linen from drying out while spinning, I wonder if dampening linen thread before stitching would make it easier to use? Not spray and use right away – spray and put in a bag for a while to let it absorb. Like Mom used to do with sprinkling clothing and bagging a while it before ironing.

    1. I know that all linen thread is not like this particular DMC product. I’ve sewn leather together with linen that was extremely strong.

      This stuff is different, and I’ve used both the black and the white, experiencing the same problem with both colors. It’s very short staple, and even though it’s similar in structure to cotton floss (six two-strand plies), the plies themselves are not tightly twisted. While that’s nice and would encourage “bloom” – it also makes the thread prone to abrasion, slubbing, and shredding. Wetting it does help, but waxing is even better. I am not surprised the line was discontinued.

  5. Interesting that it was very short staple. I wonder if it wasn’t an experiment to salvage “floor sweepings” from thread manufacturing? And it’s good to know not all linen thread has the same issues! Now that you say you’ve used good linen thread for leather, I do recall it being recommended when making things that need lots of strength or long life, like book binding.

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