Many years ago, when Elder Offspring was small, Lotus Development (her dad’s employer) offered a spring break day camp for employees’ children. The Boston Globe covered the new benefit, and posted an article with photos of the camp’s day trip to the Boston Museum of Science.
She taped the page on her door, with big label in red crayon that read “I AM FAMIS!.”
I recently found that page, minus the sheet of notebook paper with the annotation.
Well, now I am FAMIS, too.
Brinda Gill interviewed me a while back for this article, posted today to the Selvedge Magazine’s blog.
I am very grateful to Brinda, but still parsing the feels about tooting my own horn.
Long time readers here know that I knit and crochet as well as embroider. These things tend to happen in phases, and I rotate among my hobbies, going from one to the other to keep fresh.
As I was going through the endless piles of cruft in my basement I found this.
It’s a tiny sock, full figured, worked with the same figure-8 cast on and short row heel that I use on my normal size socks, but knit on blunted hat pins using the reinforcement yarn that comes with some brands of sock yarn. I’ve done a couple of other teeny socks over the years, but this is one, from 1996 or so was one of the first. And it has a story behind it.
At the time I was working for Bay Networks. It made the high capacity routers and other networking equipment that large companies and even service providers needed to connect to the Internet. I was a proposal specialist, and worked side by side with engineers and sales teams to respond to opportunities. Bay decided that in order to write about the equipment I had to take the same training classes as the sales engineers, although I was not expected to sit for the qualifying exam to get the exiting service certification. So I sat in several training classes, auditing them and absorbing what I could. They were multi day sessions, and I have to admit my mind would wander as the class did exercises in provisioning or “speeds and feeds” – info with which I needed to be vaguely familiar, but I would never be called upon to calculate.
Outside the classrooms was a lobby. I could see it through the glass door. On the wall opposite me was an enormous mounted swordfish. One of Bay’s founders had a serious fishing mania, and many of the common areas were decorated with his trophies. An Evil Idea came to mind.
I went home and that night knit up the tiny sock. I rolled up a bit of one of my business cards and stuck it into the ankle, so the sock looked like it was on the leg of a tiny person. Then I snuck into the lobby early the next morning, and put the sock into the fish’s open mouth, posed to look like the fish had just swallowed a victim. And I told no one about it.
The next few days of class were enlivened by watching the fish and the people who passed by. Several noticed and fell out laughing. A couple dragged their buddies over to see the thing. After the class was over I left the sock there, and so it remained.
Flash forward five years. I am leaving Bay quite unceremoniously after it was acquired by Nortel. I swung by the fish lobby to retrieve the sock. Other employees saw me reaching for it and told me not to touch it because it was a fixture of anonymous company folklore and affection. I told them to look at the scrap of paper inside. It being my card and my name, they had to admit that I had the right of first possession.
The sock and I left Bay forever. Given Nortel’s steep subsequent plunge into obscurity and acquisition, they might have been right about its talismanic virtue.
I continue on with the mask project. I’ve finished two sides for the first one, and have started (and am well into) the second.
Here are the two green sides:
And here’s the red one, in process:
It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t cut them apart yet. I want to do the red mask, and possibly one in black before I do that. There’s very little room between layouts on my ground cloth, and if I were to separate the pieces it would be difficult to stitch on the remaining scraps. So I continue.
Another thing that’s obvious is that I’ve made big mistakes on both. I’ve “colored outside the lines” on both the blue and red pieces. But it doesn’t matter one bit. My work plan is to finish all my decorative stitching, then run each mask piece around several times on my sewing machine before I cut them out (oh, for a serger!). The machine stitching will help fix the embroidery in place and give some stability to the rather ravely edges of the ground cloth, and the overage will land on the literal “cutting room floor.” The nice, fixed edges in turn will make it easier to stitch the fancy bits to their linings – two or three layers of tightly woven high count 100% cotton percale. The easy-count fabric may be just right for counted work, but has almost no value as a protective layer. I’ll depend on that percale to keep me safer.
Now on the designs I used. Both are from my latest freebie book Ensamplario Atlantio II. The blue mask with the chain like interlaces is Design #195 in that book. And yes – I chose it for that design’s visual allusion to knightly mail. It’s a straightforward implementation of the design as shown, but flipped left/right for the two complementary sides of the mask.
The second is also from the same book – Design #191. But in the book it’s presented as a strip design, useful for borders. I wanted to use it slightly differently, so I played.
The design at the left below is the most obvious way to make a full repeat. Yes, we can quibble about mating up the column ends so that there’s no blank line between, but that’s inconsequential. The strong verticals and horizontals are the most prominent feature. It’s a very regimented and in spite of the embellishments quite a forbidding layout, looking a lot like a Victorian era cast iron fence, or the bars of a very fancy jail cell.
By contrast look at the one on the right. It’s the same major design element, just shifted over one-half repeat, so that the large flower lozenge aligns with smaller two-bud cross. It has a different energy. It’s exactly as dense as the bit on the left in terms of stitching, but it looks lighter, more energetic, and more open. I preferred its movement, and the greater play it gives to the diagonals.
Those red bits in both? Just ways to visually unite what are clearly strips, to make a more melded all-over look.
Never being one to let well enough alone, I note that there’s ample space to play with this. For example, take the original repeat (black), rotate it, and add a couple of design elements. Most notably that Green Man that Ann and Lois spotted lurking in the original.
I’d stitch this up in one color, or if I used two – not as shown (that’s just to illustrate the old and new parts). I’d probably use the second color for the Green Man’s face, the larger flower sprigs at the center lines, and possibly the stand-alone motif in the middle. And this bit goes into my bin for further refinement and eventual release in Ensamplario Atlantio III (why stop at two?)
Finally – this is just a long and drawn out way to say “GO DOODLE!” While this example a bit overelaborate, the core idea is to take a design element and use it as a springboard to creativity. Pull out those drawing pads, sheets of graph paper, drafting software platforms, or needlework-specialty sketchers, and have at it. It’s fun. I promise!
Continuing on and finishing up the parade of past completions, misses, and items still languishing unfinished in the ever growing midden next to my favorite sewing chair, we arrive in near recent times.
In the last post in this series I mentioned sending Elder Spawn off to college with a bit of nagging to hang on her wall for continued parental admonishment. Well, it worked, so I did it again for the younger in 2015.
The request for the Trifles sampler included a laundry list of relevancies, including an overall steampunk theme, with nods to anime and Dr. Who, and at least one dragon or unicorn. I found a relevant precept in Book of Five Rings, then hit all the bases, and along the way playtested a lot of the fillings in Ensamplario Atlantio, plus many that ended up in Ensamplario Atlantio II. I particularly like the soot sprites caught in the mechanism, quoted from Spirited Away. This one was done with some of the faux silk floss I found while we were in India, on 38 count linen/cotton blend. It’s finished as a hanging banner.
Lessons Learned: This was the piece that taught me the joys of beeswax. The “art silk” is very fine but also very unruly, and being quite old when I bought it, can be friable. Waxing held it together, eliminated differential feed of the two plies, and kept me from piercing it prematurely as I stitched with one hand above and one hand below the work.
In 2015 we had an extended stay guest – a friend of Younger Spawn who spent the senior year of high school with us prior to graduation. She needed a send-off inspiration, too. But instead of imposing parental nagging on her, I asked her for a favorite saying she might want on her wall. She suggested this Grace Hopper classic. More tryouts of T2CM patterns ensued. This was also done in the art silk I used for the Trifles sampler, but on 32 count linen/cotton blend.
Lessons Learned: I used this one to experiment with color and open-voiding (squares, diagonals or zig-zags instead of solid fills or meshy stitch). It’s all double running, and like most of my pieces, wasn’t designed for dual sided display, so the color changes didn’t mean that I had to bury all of those ends. I rather like the playful brights I used on this one.
Shhh. But the secret is already out. In 2016 I took my first apprentice. Although my blackwork journey had been recognized inside the SCA with a Laurel award (the group’s high honor for achievement in the arts), it predated the establishment of apprentices as a concept (kind of like squires to knights, but not for martial prowess). But neither my apprentice nor I are good at formal statements, so we kept it under wraps and very free-form. Instead of giving her a green belt, I gave her a long strip of linen, with a belt embroidered at one end – the idea being that she could use the thing to experiment with stitching, painting, printing, dyeing, whatever. I think this is on 32 count linen in Au Ver a Soie silk, but I don’t remember. She’s gone on to make me quite proud of her explorations and achievements in historical arts and sciences (but we are still quiet about the whole thing).
Lessons Learned: While the plain old cross stitch that made up the lettering is not double sided, the belt mostly is. I learned once more what a pain in the neck burying all those ends can be.
In 2017, tired of having my hair blowing in my eyes in the wind and bored with bandannas, I decided to make two forehead cloths – a kind of kerchief popular in the 1500s and 1600s. And yes, I wear them with modern clothing, not re-enactor wear.
In a happy coincidence Stealth Apprentice was busy dyeing embroidery silks with historically accurate ironwood dyes, and asked me to try them out to see if texture, “stich-ability,” strength, or colorfastness in the wash were issues. I’m happy to report that her threads were prime. Both pieces have been through the wash multiple times, and both still look as good as they day they were finished. I made two cloths (only one pictured complete with ties), and while I was at it and abhor wasted space, I finished out the 32 count fabric with a doodle sampler of “Persist.” All of these designs are in T2CM. The darker triangle was stitched with two strands, and the other pieces with one strand.
Lessons Learned: Yes, there’s very little area between the two triangles. I cut neatly between them to separate the pieces, then lined them with well-washed muslin, and made some of the waste fabric into the ties. BUT notice the doodle sampler. It’s awful close to the kerchiefs. Too close. I haven’t finished out this mini-sampler yet, but to do so I will have to border it all the way around with fabric, then affix the entire thing to some some sort of frame, or into a little banner. I should have started that piece closer to the leftmost edge of the cloth. Oops.
This one is probably the most ambitious piece I’ve ever done. Silk, and Japanese gold, with 2mm paillettes, on 40 count linen, and finished in 2018, I loved every minute of my two fishies. The indigo silk was also dyed by Stealth Apprentice. The green is more of the Au Ver a Soie. All counted fills are done in one strand; the darker outlines are worked in reverse chain stitch with three strands. The whiskers are split stitch and the eyes are satin, both done with two strands. The gold is couched down and the paillettes are affixed with one strand of yellow faux silk (more of my India stash). The counted patterns are mostly in Ensamplario Atlantio II.
I spent a lot of time carefully considering (and sometimes picking out) the fillings. I was aiming for flowing mobility, a suggestion of scales, and glimmer under the the water’s surface. While the fills are all strict and regimented geometrics, offsetting them, and picking ones with strong diagonals and curves helped avoid the blocky, heavy look that many projects with fills fall into.
No, no one in this house gives credence to astrology – it’s not a Pisces depiction. The back story is that the Resident Male described a cloth with two fish embroidered on it in one of his early stories. I made it so. (Pun intended).
Lessons Learned: I haven’t put my hand to couching metal threads in other than the most trivial way since that silver horse pouch in 1975. I re-learned a whole suite of techniques to manage it, including plunging and finishing off ends, forming the curves and tensioning the gold as I stitched it down, how to increase or decrease the distance between the couching stitches to achieve the desired radius, and how to keep two unruly strands of the stuff side by side and not flopping over each other for best effect.
I’m beginning to run out of wall space. In 2019 I decided that I needed to stitch up some napkins – quick and dirty because they will undoubtedly get dirty quickly.
I wanted something fast to stitch that could endure harsh laundering. So I took a chance and ordered some pre-finished “rustic look” napkins and coordinating tablecloth. They’d be useful for my holiday table whether or not they were stitchable. And I lucked out. This is plain old DMC floss on big-as-logs 26 count poly-cotton napkins, and 28-count tablecloth. More or less – none were exactly evenweave when they started, and no two napkins ended up as the same size after pre-shrinking. But I don’t care. I had fun testing out more T2CM designs, and no – while I took pains to work double running and used the catch-loop method to begin each strand, I did not end off invisibly. There are tiny knots on the back of the napkins. So far no guests have turned them over to tsk, tsk.
What about stains you might ask? I don’t care. The napkins were quick and cheap enough to replace if they are too far gone. Note that the eating areas of the tablecloth are NOT stitched. If the thing gets damaged, I can always cut out the center part and apply or insert it into another one. Or not. “Look, here’s the gravy stain from 2023” sounds like it would be a nice bit of nostalgia ten years after.
Lessons Learned: There is no such thing as uniform shrinkage. Ever. Also a tablecloth is big. I ended up using my sit-upon frame to work the center, gathering up the ends of the tablecloth into two pillowcases to keep it clean. That worked well. Oh, and I hate ironing, so don’t expect to ever see this smooth and linen-press pristine.
It’s an addiction. I just can’t stop, so I plunged on, working up three of my favorite strips (and an edging) from T2CM. My Stupid Cupid doodle was done in June/July of 2019, on a piece of craft store 32 count linen/cotton blend, in DMC floss.
Lessons Learned: I ended up going back and editing my book pages on two of these designs because I hadn’t normed the repeats uniformly. My take-away is that it’s ALWAYS good to playtest a design rather than just trusting that one’s initial drafting is perfect.
Finishing out 2019 I thought I’d do up a cushion for my living room sofa. Well, maybe not a cushion. This is more of that faux silk, plus green Au Ver A Soie on 38 count linen. See all of that accursed satin stitch? It took only a couple of nights of working on it before I decided that if ANYONE sat on it with studs on their jeans pockets, I’d have a meltdown. Yet another piece destined to hang on the wall, I guess.
What you see here is the center third of my Leafy Multicolor – a piece very closely based on an extant artifact. I intended on making quite a large item, but the rather large leafy edge would only be on the top and bottom (as displayed in final, not as stitched). Have I mentioned that I detest satin stitch?
Lessons Learned: I really hate satin stitch. Especially in silk or faux silk with a laying tool. This is still on my frame. Everything I’ve done since is escapism because I HAVE to finish this one. But that satin stitch… Shudder.
The book cover project 2020 was a welcome break from you-know-what. It came about after some queries about how to make the book covers I had done back in 2012. I had a book, I had DMC floss, I had 30-32 count cotton craft store even weave, and I had patterns. Why not? So I wrote up the whole thing, from the initial planning stages all the way to the finish, so others could do their own. No idea if anyone will, but I hope someone does.
Lesssons Learned: No one is perfect, least of all, me EVEN when I am trying so hard to be because others are following along. I made a measurement mistake midway, but it all worked out. And going back to the first bit of almost-voiding with a red foreground and a yellow background I did on the Permissions sampler, above – I still like the loud and cheerful look.
And that brings us up to the current piece. I’ll tease that one here, but I save the Lessons Learned for when I’ve fully grasped all of the mistakes I’ve made on it to date.
Thanks, all for the kind reaction to the last post in this omnibus series. Thus emboldened, I blather on.
The New Carolingian Modelbook came out in 1995. As mentioned before, it started as my working notebook collections of designs redacted from book photos, microfilms of early modelbooks, and sketches of artifacts, then grew from there. Although it was well received, I didn’t get much recompense for my 13 years of work – the publisher only paid royalties on the first 250 books out of 2,000, and ran off with the rest. But I didn’t stop collecting patterns. As originals and artifact photos became increasingly accessible, I kept at it, trying to transcribe designs, norm repeats (artifacts rarely are stitch perfect, and often need to be averaged out – blending all variants and mistakes into one representation), and most of all – collect specific citations and links. This material is the core of my ever-forthcoming The Second Carolingian Modelbook. And along the way, starting around 2010, I couldn’t resist trying out what I had found.
We left off last in the 1990s at the start of my blogging career, so my projects are a bit better documented. As before, I zigzagged between knitting, crochet. I tended to knit more around the time my two spawn were born, and for a while thereafter, and then return to stitching when they were around kindergarten age. For most of the early 2000s I was consumed by knitting and with running the wiseNeedle website with its collection of crowd-sourced yarn reviews. But eventually I began stitching again.
Elder Daughter went off to college in 2009, equipped with this bit of parental nagging. It is about 14.5 x 18 inches, worked on 30 count linen in Danish Flower Thread. Note the debut of the little skull and bones hiding amid the flowers from my Buttery interlace. The graph for the center phoenix is also here.
Lessons Learned: Around the time this was done with the help of Elder Daughter and others, I had figured out a new software solution for linear graphing because the method used for the phoenix wasn’t suitable for publication, and the hardware/software used for my previous work was now obsolete/unavailable. I started consolidating my doodles from various notebooks, backs of envelopes, and marginalia to better learn the methods and quirks of my GIMP-based custom drafting solution. Those experimental notes are what became Ensamplario Atlantio, and all graphs/charts I’ve done since have used the GIMP drafting method.
Fresh off the last piece I still had the itch to stitch. I did this part in homage to the Hitchikers’ Guide, part as appropriate decor for my office workspace (by trade I’m a proposal manager in high tech – deadlines and panic are my stock in trade). And possibly part because as parent of a new college student let loose on the world, I needed reassurance. It’s about 8 inches across, and was done in DMC cotton floss on 32 count cotton/linen blend. The bead border chart has been up on String for a long time, but I’ve also recently released a free full-graph pattern for this piece. Enjoy!
Lessons Learned: I was still experimenting with graphing out the lettered part ahead of time. Previously I had just guessed. This was also the first piece with a border I started in the corners rather than at the center, so that any “fudging” could happen in the center. While the north south bits of the frame worked out evenly, you can see the improvised bar in the center I inserted when it became clear that my bead repeat would not fit. And I bet you would never have noticed it if I hadn’t pointed it out.
Continuing the SF theme into 2010, I did this piece, featuring a quotation from noted author Arthur C. Clarke. It’s the first one to have designs from The Second Carolingian Modelbook (T2CM) on it, along with patterns from my earlier books. The new bits include all the full width designs between “ADVANCED” and the adaptation of Bostocke’s strawberries at the bottom. The narrow bands left and right of the wreath and column are a mix of older and newer designs. This one also hangs in my workspace now, to the confusion of my (mostly non-SF loving) coworkers.
Lessons Learned: I had a lot of fun with this one. I played with multiple thicknesses of thread and density of design, along with the two colors, and enjoyed balancing the effects that could be achieved with that limited group of variables. The strips are a mix of one and two strands of standard DMC floss. The solid ground voided strips are all in LACS, as is the foreground stitched daSera repeat from TNCM at the very top. I was particularly pleased with the hops panel shown in the detail. The design was done in two strands, but the (non historical) ground behind it – the diagonals worked mirrored – was done in single strand.
By 2012 I was full throttle on pulling together a sequel to TNCM. Drafting and writing for The Second Carolingian Modelbook (T2CM) was off and running. And of course I had to playtest the designs as I went along. Most of these (with three exceptions I worked from Lipperheide) are in the sequel. The big black sampler is done in silk on 36 count linen. The stitching area is about 24 inches across. Understandably it took me about 13 months to finish, and will be on the cover of T2CM. It was an eventful year, that included Younger Spawn’s appendix adventure, and the demise of my all-volunteer wiseNeedle independent website, out-competed by Ravelry and other paid-advertiser info sources.
No new stitches to speak of in this one but I did use long armed cross stitch on the panel at the very bottom, the oak leaf and acorn bit, and in the spot fillings for the “beads” in the wide meander just below the lion/dragon beastie. The texture it produces when massed has a very plaited appearance compared to plain old cross stitch.
Lessons Learned: Composition and balance work better if you impose a tiny bit of order on the chaos. I basted in several guidelines, dividing my total piece up into several zones. Although I picked them on the fly with no real advance planning, worked my individual panels and strips inside those zones, making sure to ground the piece at the top, bottom, left and right with darker, denser designs.
2012 marked the start of Big Green, done in silk on 50 count linen. Unlike the ones above, he is still unfinished. The designs on this one are entirely from T2CM. I WILL go back and finish this piece, but other things have gotten in the way. I took it with us for our sojurn in India, but between the heat and lack of a good spot to sit and stitch, I never got much further on it. Also the meshy technique is amazingly time consuming. One two-hour evening will produce a patch about the size of a quarter. One thing to note about the meshy stitch – I now know why it has survived on so many pieces even when the surrounding linen is long gone. It’s amazingly dense, near indestructible, and I can say truthfully – impossible to pick out. By contrast surface voided work is fragile, catching and degrading with abrasion, washing and wear.
Lessons Learned: I have been using this piece to experiment with stitching techniques. The interlace (first detail) uses Montenegrin Stitch. The straight runs were pretty easy, but without the most excellent Autopsy of the Montenegrin Stitch by Amy Mitten, the bendy bits would have driven me insane to figure out. And the big voided repeat where I stalled out (a stitching family I’ve nicknamed “The Lettuce Repeat”) is done in the tightly pulled meshy technique so common among voided artifacts. I had first tried out a different pulled thread technique for the topmost design, but the effect was nowhere near that of the historical pieces. But at maximum tension Italian Four Sided Stitch, based on the technique in Christie’s Samplers and Stitches (1920) was spot on. But it has to be done in silk because cotton isn’t strong enough to stand up to the force required to achieve the solid mesh. (My previous reference to the stitch was based on another edition of Christie’s work, now no longer accessible on line). And it’s (relatively) easy to hide ends while working it – burying them in spots that will be totally overworked later.
That 2013/2014 stay in India necessitated a scouting run to find housing and schools in May of 2012. I needed something small and portable to do on that trip, so the first two book covers were born. I worked these from T2CM patterns on 30 count linen/cotton blend, using DMC floss. They were small Moleskine-look-alikes, and were donated to the SCA East Kingdom’s largess program, to be given as small gifts by the seated royalty. Although I put notes in each one hoping that the recipients would get in touch, I have no idea where these ended up. Still, they were quick stitch pieces and fun.
Lessons Learned: While I have always known that stitching is a wonderful icebreaker, especially during International travel, at this point I had no idea that Kasuthi existed. It’s a traditional Indian stitching style and very close cousin to Blackwork’s precursors. A lady in Mumbai airport remarked on the black and red book and asked where I had learned to do it. That sparked yet another flurry of research.
Most of my production in India was knitted, largely lacy pieces. I did a couple of test knits of pieces designed by the generous and well-followed MMario, now of blessed memory, and a couple of other bits of my own design. I had many knitpals in Pune, whom I had “met” via Ravelry prior to our arrival. That kept me more or less in that craft, but I did do some small excursions into stitching. One was the red Ganesh cloth, above. I stitched it in 2013 as a new-house gift for the parents of our driver, Rupesh. I do hope it has brought the family the intended luck. This one is pretty well documented here on String, including the source of the outlines and Ensamplario Atlantio fill numbers for all of the motifs I used. It’s done on a not-so-even weave 32 count cotton/linen blend, in DMC floss.
Lessons Learned: The Italian hem stitching I used to finish off the cloth neatly actually took more time to do than Lord Ganesh himself. But I liked it, and filed that family of stitching away for future reference. Someday.
In 2013 I tried my hand at Kasuthi. This little motif is a traditional one, and is worked entirely in double sided double running stitch. It’s on a relatively coarse 28 count cotton, also in DMC floss. My main reference for Kasuthi was Karnataki Kashida by Anita Chawadapurkar and Menaka Prakashan. It’s in Marathi, but friends helped out by reading bits to me in translation. Here’s a post I did on the style.
Lessons Learned: I had originally intended on making a set of napkins, but when I washed this piece, the oh so carefully ended off threads, so well buried and invisible here, did fluff up a bit. So I scotched that idea.
Also in India, just before we left in 2014, I started this piece, with the intent to make a pouch for my stitching tools. The cloth is a standard linen dish towel, bought at a local supermarket. The thread is also linen. It remains unfinished.
Lessons Learned: While this ground started out as a very stitch-able 32 count more or less even weave, tossing it in the washing machine shrank it in unexpected ways. The threads in one direction ended up being about 30 across. Those in the other direction ended up something closer to 42, so the dimensions of the thing deformed. But undaunted I tried to stitch anyway, working over 2×3 threads. But the smaller threads were very hard to see, and the linen thread frayed beyond belief (this was before I learned to use beeswax). It sits in my Chest of Stitching Horrors(tm), never to be completed.
This takes me up to around the time we returned from India, in 2014. And I’m not done yet. If interest has continued, I will do one more of these, to finish out up to the most current things on my frames.
This post is to answer Susan and Michelle, who asked how long I’ve been doing counted stitching and blackwork, and who wanted to see some of my other pieces.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, here’s the story. More or less. Over the years, I’ve cobbled together a few publications (some still unfinished); given away many pieces; started more projects than I’ve completed; and wandered away to and back from knitting and crochet. Please indulge me as I reminisce. I promise to put in lessons-learned as I go along to make it bearable.
All of these are original compositions of found and/or original motifs. I haven’t done a counted work kit or pattern designed by someone else since I was 12. It looks like I don’t often finish, which while it has some truth to it, I’ve given away many of the completed pieces, so what I have in my stash to show off are the unfinished bits.
The first counted project I did that’s not plain old cross stitch and is in the greater continuum that includes blackwork (that I still have) is a sorry, unfinished sampler I began in high school, circa 1973/74, continuing on and off up to January 1975. There are double running bits in it – among the very first I ever did. Most of the designs I cribbed from photos of band samplers and traditional pieces – taking magnifying glasses to the teeny and blurry photos of historical or ethnographic pieces in general survey embroidery books and books on samplers. It’s probably on 28 count even weave, using Coats & Clarks floss. Colors were haphazard at best – I used what I had at the time, and din’t plan much in advance.
Lesson Learned: A glimmer of the sad truth that while I am a starter, it’s much harder to be a finisher. I suppose I could go back and add in the tree and animals I originally intended. But there are so many other things I want to finish off first.
By the spring of my freshman semester, I found the SCA – an organization that advocates the hands-on exploration of the arts, sciences, and entertainments of pre-1600 cultures. That put the nail in this piece (being a mishmash of post 1600 band sampler patterns), but I found an inspiration. I had need to make a favor for a certain individual with a Spanish persona. So I zigged sideways and back in time a bit to blackwork, stitched over the summer of 1975. It’s the project that killed the sampler, above.
The only information I had on blackwork during the summer I stitched this was a tiny thumbnail photo of the Faulklands Cushion in Mary Thomas’ Book of Embroidery. I drew the leaf shapes and my device, and did diapered fillings freehand, on muslin. There’s also a bit of needle lace around the edge, with points at the corners – everything now dirtied and tattered by use. (The silver horse is couched and surface stitched – it’s a pouch, also a present for the same person.)
Lessons Learned: In retrospect – research. Learn and do, not the other way around. There is a lot about this piece that’s flat out wrong, but my heart was in the right place (and also properly given). Also far more people were interested in learning how to do blackwork than the couching, or in a bit of needle lace I was also working at the same time.
The next bit of blackwork I did was after I did a bit more investigation into the style, both for my own edification, and because I wanted to encourage others to do historical stitching, and to do that, I needed to know more about it first. This piece started out as a cushion cover or possibly a tablecloth but within three days of the start, turned into an underskirt for my coronation dress (started just before the crown tourney, October 1976, worn in April 1977). Major thanks for the inspiration to do this piece go to Mistress Kathryn Goodwyn, who gave me Bath’s Embroidery Masterworks book, which in turn furnished the rough outline of the coiling fruits, flowers, and leaves.
The original dress is long gone, but I still have this Melton wool monstrosity with the entire panel – still a squared off (I never cut off the side bits). There are some small stitched areas you can’t see here, hidden inside the skirt, but the piece was never completed as a full rectangle. It’s worked on a sale faux linen coarse weave tablecloth my mother found on a department store sale table. Probably at something like 30 threads per inch (about 15 stitches per inch). This one is more accurate – diapered fills on the count, heavy twisted chain stitch outlines, satin stitched berries.
A bonus – I wrote a paper on the style and also submitted the piece for credit in my Sophomore year art history course, so not only did I have an SCA coronation dress, I got two As for it in mundane life.
Lessons learned: Stitching to deadline does suck some of the fun out of the project. My double-deadline (our coronation and the associated schoolwork) come to mind every time I look at it. It’s also an excellent reference piece, because I can look at each leaf and know exactly which class and lecture I was sitting through while I was stitching it.
The next thing I attempted was a coif, circa 1979 or so. For some unknown reason I wanted to use muslin as a ground. It’s about 70 or so threads per inch, done with super fine handsewing thread – roughly 35 stitches per inch. I never finished (obviously). This little bit was donated to the East Kingdom Doll Project to better equip my tiny effigy.
Lessons Learned: It’s good to be ambitious, but to be overly so isn’t worth the effort. The teeny-tiny stitching here is largely wasted. At this scale it’s so small that one has to be six inches away to make out any detail.
After this came a series of small pieces, given as gifts, plus works in other embroidery styles. I also issued two booklets of designs for blackwork, hand drawn and photocopied. And I learned to knit. The next piece I still have is this sampler, made circa 1983, in part to remember my father and his favorite saying. It’s DMC floss on a plain linen table runner found in a church rummage sale discard bin.
Many of the designs on this one were in my hand-drawn booklets. But shortly after this I became increasingly rigorous in my documentation. My early notes were lost in an apartment move, and I had to begin again from scratch. This collection bridges that period and moves from my rather more scattered previous inquiries to more of what I am doing now. Note that the sunflowers and hearts on my ’74 piece are here again, just above my signature. There are also four designs on this that I sketched from a missionary’s collection of Chinese designs, collected in the 1890s. I ran across those notes while working as an intern at the Harvard Peabody Museum, circa 1977-1978. A few of the better documented bits made the cut and ended up in The New Carolingian Modelbook (TNCM).
Lessons Learned: Large and done on the fly (added design by design, with little advance planning) I discovered I liked the adventure of “bungie-jump stitching.” Looking back now I am not entirely pleased with the balance of the composition. But it includes a few well-loved motifs and still hangs proudly on my wall.
Next up were a few play test pieces of the designs that were in my earlier hand-drawn booklets that later became the core of TNCM. These were done in the 1980s and 1990s.
The piece above is a bit from a sampler intended as a wedding present for a friend whose engagement sadly ended before the sampler was finished (circa 1985). It’s done in DMC cotton on 32 count linen. I still have it and it’s still not complete, due to some vague association with the unfortunate end of the inspiring romance, and not wanting to tempt fate.
Lesson learned: Don’t pour effort into something that depends entirely on circumstances out of your control. Also, picking a limited color set and sticking with it provides a lot of unity in what might otherwise be a very scattershot work.
These shameless mermaids that got an honorable mention award at Woodlawn Plantation. I stitched them in 1988, Au Ver a Soie Silk on 36 count linen. I like that I didn’t center the motif on this one.
Lesson learned: It’s surprising what will offend people. The prize committee pinned the ribbon over the bust of one of the mermaids, and put a post-it note over the other. And then hung the thing alllll the way up near the ceiling of the main room, where no one could peek under.
“Think.” Done for the husband in 1989. DMC on 32 count linen around 1989. The leafy log panel (in TNCM) looks familiar? Scroll up – it’s also on the wedding sampler, but there in multicolor.
Lesson Learned: Visual density of small designs can be overwhelming. I always loved my original briar rose tangle – the corner design surrounding the lion, but only on paper. I’ve never been happy with it stitched up. The detail is entirely lost.
Circa 1990 or so I began work on my Forever Coif. Silk and silver, on 50 count. It’s still on the frame. It was intended to go with a reworked dress that featured the underskirt panel shown up at the top of this tirade. But it was not to be.
The fruits and flowers in the standard strawberry frame are original. I’ve lost the notebook where I had additional motifs doodled up. To finish I will have to think up new ones.
Lesson Learned: I’m still lousy at finishing. Eventually I will. But not as a coif – probably just as a rectangle, and wall-mount. Also, don’t design in a medium that doesn’t allow easy back-up. After this project I switched to drafting on the computer, exclusively.
“Do not Meddle in the Affairs of Wizards, for they are Subtle and Quick to Anger.” For the husband, in 1995. DMC on 36 count linen One of my faves, with several TNCM designs. This is also the first piece I did that used long-armed cross stitch (LACS) both for foreground in the daSera knot in the center, and background on the bottom motif that looks like an S designed by a Renaissance era Dr. Seuss. More reuse of bits on this one, too, including a scalloped edging (below “wizard”) that’s also on the very first piece on this page.
Lesson Learned: People are easily mystified when you break your words up in a non-standard manner. Also, LACS is lots more fun than plain old cross stitch.
Partially finished shot of a large leafy repeat that’s shown in TNCM. I did finish this but have no pix of the final object. Given to a dear friend after completion circa 1996. Danish Flower Thread on 38 count linen, and more LACS.
Lesson Learned; Take more photos.
Two “try out” pieces, just playing with no intent to finish either one. Upper one in linen thread, lower one in Danish Flower Thread on 38 count linen. The grounds on the voided strips are all long-armed cross stitch.
Lessons Learned: A lot. Neither of these grounds are true even weave. I was playing with how skew weaves distort designs. The one on the bottom is counted over 3×2 threads to make up for it.
This just takes me up to 1998 or so and I’ve skipped lots of pieces for which I have no photos, but this post is getting long. I guess the main lesson learned is that practice and perseverance help in any pursuit, even the most trivial. If people are interested, I’ll keep going.
OK. Here’s the post folks have asked for. Warning. It’s long.
I don’t claim this to be totally inclusive (I’m always stumbling across new-to-me things as I browse museum on-line photo collections), but it’s a start. Feel free to comment with additional examples.
There’s been lively discussion on what stitches and techniques were used for the backgrounds of voided works. I’m going to try to present as many examples as I can.
To start – voided pieces are a family of works that feature a more or less uniform background treatment that leaves the main design of the piece plain (or minimally worked. It results in a visual “reverse silhouette” look. There are many manifestations of this aesthetic over time. One widely known subset is Assisi work – a simplified but charming 19th century revival inspired by earlier Renaissance era embroideries. The revival used cross stitch (aka “plain old cross stitch” or POCS) ornamented by back or double running stitches. Earlier styles were more varied.
One of the most common treatments was a tightly pulled four-sided stitch, worked to completely cover the threads of the woven ground. None of the ground threads were cut – they were just bundled together, making an extremely durable net-like texture. How do I know it’s durable? I’ve stitched some, made a mistake, and found it absolutely impossible to rip back or deconstruct (perhaps that’s why so many fragments of it exist, even after the towels, pillowcases and other linen they adorned have frayed to death).
The border above is in the Art Institute of Chicago (accession 1896.112, and is attributed to Italy, in the early 1600s. I believe the outlines were established first, in either double running or back stitch, and then the background was filled in, working right up to and in some cases, encroaching on those outlines. Close examination of the photo where the outlines are broken shows no cut ground threads, just distortion. The “wing shapes” in the connecting meandering branches are very amusing to me. I know from experience that working in closed areas is challenging. it looks like the stitcher saved some time and effort by drawing a diagonal between the bud and the side sprig on the branch, and just not filling in between them.
Here’s another example, Italian, but undated, resident in the Harvard Art Museum collection (accession 1916.388). Also outlined with the meshy stitch worked up to the outlines. Note that companion edging though. I can’t tell for sure, but the branches that little leaves grow on at least may be cross stitches. Not sure about the leaves themselves. On this one it’s very clear that the ground cloth threads are bundled, not cut.
Here is a variant – a similar tightly stitched mesh, over a somewhat coarser linen ground, BUT in this case the stitcher did NOT establish an outline and then fill in the background. The piece is most definitely done on the count (not on a freehand outline), but the only stitching that established the motifs is the background mesh. This bit is also from the Cooper Hewitt (accession 1946-42-9a), dated 17th century, but has no posted place of origin. One other thing to note is a bit of directionality in the mesh. Mesh can be worked either on the diagonal or back and forth across succeeding rows. In this case the stitcher did the latter. But it’s NOT long armed cross stitch. It’s still the tightly overworked mesh.
This variant of meshy was done by someone who didn’t encroach on the established outlines. Instead this stitcher left a “halo” of unworked ground around the foreground motifs. There is no companion line on the outer edge of the halo area – the mesh stitch simply starts. I’ve mentioned this piece before in my series on long-lost siblings, and it’s in the Harvard Art Museum (accession 1916.377), but bears no date or location notes.
Here’s a piece that the holding institution claims was done by withdrawing threads, but the detail photo at left (a section where the red stitching has been lost) clearly shows the distortion of groups of 3×3 threads, with no snips or darns. I maintain that this is the pulled meshy stitch, too. Another Cooper-Hewitt sample (accession 1971-50-90), Italian from the 1500s. Love that needle lace edging detail, too!
Cut and Withdrawn/Overstitched Mesh
What about withdrawn thread work, where threads are snipped or turned back and the edges secured, with the remaining scaffolding overstitched to make a meshy background? I’m pretty sure it exists, but I need to find a well documented and clearly photographed sample that explicitly shows the snipped rather than distorted threads of the ground fabric’s weave. Have a reference? Feel free to share it in the comments. If a good one shows up I’ll edit this and include a cut thread heading and photo here.
Long Armed Cross Stitch (LACS)
Another popular ground treatment was long-armed cross stitch. This produces a distinctive almost braided texture when worked back and forth across the piece. The piece below is in the Cooper-Hewitt (accession 1971-50-100 ), with a provenance of Spain, of the 16th-17th century. Again the main design is outlined with back or double running stitch, and the background is filled in later. Note that the stitcher kludged this a bit where the rows of LACS meet up with angles, and that POCS is used for edge ornamentation.
But again, working with an linear outline is not mandatory. Here’s a jaunty falconer on his mount. He is also worked in LACS, but without the double running or back stitch outline, in spite of the complexity of the design. And yes, there ARE some plain old cross stitch bits in there. Much of the surface detail in the otherwise unworked foreground areas are done in POCS. I’d even entertain an argument that outlining was also done in POCS, but is mostly disguised by encroachment of the background LACS. However, the bulk of the background is clearly LACS. You can find this piece in the Cooper-Hewitt (accession 1904-17-4), dated to the 17th century, no provenance. I do wonder about the dating though. The design seems a bit “modern-revival” to me, unless there was a nostalgia movement in the 1600s that presented folk in “antique dress.” Also that cross stitch for outlining thing is very, very rare. (I’ll wait for the experts on dating to chime in on this one.)
More long-armed cross stitch – but more tightly pulled. It’s not true meshy – the plaited like texture and 1×2 crossings are still evident. This time with outlines. In green. This Italian piece is from The Art Institute of Chicago (accession 1937.779), and is dated from 1500s/1600s or so.
Another one just for fun. Clearly LACS-like, and you can make out that 1×2 cross on the very uniform top legs. From the uniformity of those legs I think that this piece was not worked in stitch-by-stitch mode (the standard way of working LACS, but as an entire row, with the stitcher first laying down the “short legs” and then covering them by a second pass working just the “long legs” in the opposite direction. This supposition is borne out by the way the successive rows cross. Note that there has been absolutely no effort to keep the successive rows of LACS either alternating left to right as is done when it’s worked in the usual manner, or all aligning in the same direction. Instead the rows “bounce” when they encounter an obstruction, and do so in a way that’s congruent with the in-two-passes approach. Obviously this one has outlining done in a different color, and the ground done in a very atypical yellow. Sprightly, even with the massive loss of the now blue/green thread. It’s from the Cooper-Hewitt collection (accession 1971-50-77), and dated to the 1500s (no provenance.)
There are a few pieces that use an effective but simple fill. The final appearance is that of boxes. The samples I have seen have all been double-sided, and from the pattern produced by unevenly dyed or faded threads, I suspect most of them were worked in double running on the diagonal. No proof though without picking one out, and that would be heresy. This piece is from the Philadelphia Museum (accession 1894-30-116). It’s Italian, of the late 1500s. In addition to the boxed fill the foreground is ornamented with cutwork, which makes it a double-curiosity. On some of these the outlines of the motifs are also done in double running. In others, in back stitch (or possibly very neatly done outline/stem stitch), so that the reverse presents a heavier line defining them. Whether or not those who first used these considered the heavier outlined side the public side is something we may never know.
Here’s the most well known sample of the boxed substyle – the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s apron (accession 38.19.8) – Italian, 16th-17th century. This one doesn’t use outlines to define the motifs. The edges of the box ground units themselves define the edges of the foreground motif.
Here’s another example of the squared filling style (with outlines). This piece is from Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, in Brussels (accession T.1578), and is dated to the 1500s. It combines variants of two of my favorite designs, the “lettuce” pattern on the left, and another that shows up again and again on the right. Both of these designs turn up in other voided and un-voided presentations, with meshy or LACS as the ground treatment. Or none at all. Variants of these two will be in my ever forthcoming book.
Plain Old Cross Stitch (POCS)
Yup. You had to peek to see what I would say here. Sadly, although I’ve examined hundreds of samples of voided pieces, I have found none with a ground worked in plain cross stitch until the mid/late 19th century revival of that style. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any – just that I haven’t stumbled across them yet. Got one? Feel free to send the reference to me. I’d love to find one and add it to the greater family.
But here’s a prime example of the most complex end of the revived style. These two designs have clear Renaissance era precursors (well, close at least – maybe not exact pedigrees), but are rendered using POCS, with and without linear outlines. This is from The Antique Pattern Library’s copy of Album des Broideries au Point de Croix, compiled by Therese de Dillmont, probably an edition of the 1880s,
Other Modern Treatments
I can cite no historical precedent for these treatments – I admit, I was just riffing on the squared box theme. But they do work and are interesting. These are my own: diagonals, diamonds, and steps. I like the mirroring on the diagonals in the top sample, the second one has all of the diagonals going in the same direction for the entire strip. All of these are worked on designs for which I have citations, and that have or will appear in my books.
UPDATE – Diagonal Cross Hatch
No research is ever “forever.” New things are imaged or otherwise rise to attention. Therefore there is little point ever saying “they never did it that way.” But one can always say “I haven’t seen that yet.”
Well now I have. For at least one of my modern interpretations. Note that third item under “Other Modern Treatments” above – the leafy meander with the yellow diagonal cross-hatch. Well, lo and behold; here’s a historical example.
This is a fragment in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, Accession 1971-50-108. It’s dated 15th or 16th century and attributed as German. It’s pretty clear that these are whole stitches, worked within a double running stitch or backstitched outline – exactly as I worked mine, with whole diagonals that intersect, not “checkerboard spaced” plain old cross stitches whose crossed centers make up every other intersection.
Now I do think the museum dating is a bit off, it’s probably 16th or 17th century, but there’s no doubt about it. We have solid artifact basis for diagonal cross hatch.
And who knows what will turn up next….
UPDATE – Zig-Zag Ground
Yet another stumble-upon. This one from a rather “loving hands at home” look piece in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Accession 1949-64-15. This one is dated 16th-17th century, and is attributed as being Italian. The ground is done in nested zig-zags. Half way there, but still not plain old cross stitch.
It’s February. That means that the weather is still dreary. We are all looking forward to some sort of escape, so it’s time for my annual Shameless Self Promotion post.
First Beach. Glorious beach.
Sitting warm on the sand, or on a deck with a grand view, sipping a favorite beverage, and watching the tide march in and out. Yes, the shoulder seasons and summer seem far off now, but bookings for the best places are already picking up.
Our beachside condo in North Truro, Cape Cod, right on the bay side, close to the Provincetown line is now available for booking for the summer 2019 season.
Above left is the view from the deck looking back towards Wellfleet, and sunset over Provincetown is in the opposite direction (arrow on the map below is back towards Wellfleet).
We are at Beach Point, with parking for two cars, right at a bus stop for the local shuttle to Provincetown – a quick trip to restaurants, galleries, theater, and night life, with or without your car.
The condo is on the second floor, with a covered deck (the one with the red deck chairs, below). The Shoreline development has its own private beach, and offers picnic tables, lounge chairs, kayak and bike racks, and grills to all who stay.
The apartment itself is two bedroom, with a full kitchen (full size stove with oven, fridge and microwave, sink, coffee maker, toaster, blender, lobster pot). It is air conditioned, and also has a washer and dryer, and a full bath with shower and whirlpool tub.
There is TV in the living room and each bedroom, cable, and WiFi. The bedrooms each have a queen-size bed, and the living room sofa also converts to a queen size bed.
Pricing and availability are listed at the agent’s website. Prices vary by week, with significant savings in the shoulder seasons.
So, come and pull up a chair. Put your feet up, pull out your knitting or a good book, and feel the relaxation!
A good book?
Even for those who need more immediate escape, and can’t wait until warm weather, I always suggest a good book.
It’s no secret that The Resident Male writes books and short stories. Here’s his lead offering – the first of what we hope will be a science fiction/mystery series. Of course, I’m biased, but I do recommend it highly. It’s a good read, full of compelling characters, alien cultures, heroics, and intrepid investigations – with a dash of sarcasm thrown in.
Meet Blair. Meet Terendurr. While you can’t quite share that favorite beverage with them, after getting to know them I’m betting that you will wish you could.
As folk here knew, I’m one of the 57 contributors to the Ripple group-knit yarn bomb project, sponsored by the town’s art entities – the Arlington Commission on Arts and Culture, the Arlington Cultural Council, and Arlington Public Art.
Artist in Chief Adria Arch and Project Leader Cecily Miller did a fantastic job herding us cats (distracted as we all were by balls of yarn). At the project’s reception on Saturday we learned that a tiny whisper on Facebook netted them 70 volunteers, 57 of whom stuck with the project and worked with the palette and overall direction they established, to create individual pieces to clothe the trees in the bike path grove that Adria and Cecily picked out. The original plan was to garb about 6 or 7 trees. I believe the final count was something like 14 were outfitted.
And clothing the trees wasn’t easy, either. With constraints against harming them or affixing the pieces using tacks or staples, Adria and Cecily worked out an ingenious suspension system that relied on Velcro bands around the tree trunks, and used plastic cable ties to hang the knitted and crocheted pieces in place. The installation is to be temporary – up for just a few weeks – so there are no concerns about girdling or constricting the trees.
Even with the suspension system worked out, there were more challenges. The grove is located on a steeply sloped bank in between the Minuteman Bike Path and the town’s Spy Pond athletic field. The grade there is steeper than 45-degrees, making moving from tree to tree almost an act of mountaineering. Adria and Cecily engaged a local tree company to help. The arborists used ladders and climbing tackle to get 20 feet up on the trunks, to hang the artwork.
The result? Magical. In a dark area with dense canopy, colors bloom!
Amusingly enough, after these pieces were all installed, someone (as yet unknown) came by and added adorable mushrooms – as if the art has spontaneously reproduced:
Which pieces are mine?
These two. I’ll leave you the fun of spotting them among all of the others.
All in all, a ton of fun. Thanks to the organizers, the sponsors, and to my fellow crocheters and knitters. Also thanks to dear family friend Jean Clemmer, who would send holiday presents to the kids using yard-sale yarn as dual purpose “packing peanuts” and as a gift to me. Over the years I’ve used it to make Fishie Hats for my daughters, nieces and nephews; baby blankets for friends and family; and donated lots of it to Seniors’ day activities programs, and elementary school crafts closets. Some of the last of it went into these two pieces – the green, pale yellow, and lighter orange I used along with the group-issued blaze orange, magenta, pale turquoise and white.
Photo credits for all but the last two shots go to Alexandra Salazar, who unlike me, knows which end of the camera is which.
It’s the end of an era here at String Central. The sadly mangled, diseased, and ant-ridden street tree, a Norway Maple, in front of our house has been taken.
Here you see him before, in his final sickly days, already bearing The Dreaded Green Spot from the town arborist, marking him for terminal harvest.
When we moved in Tree was already teetering in health, with an extensive ant colony and other ailments. We did the best we could by him, and for a while at least, he did look a bit fuller and happier. But while we were out of the country in India, the utility company did some really horrible pruning, topping him and leaving the severed main trunk to rot. Although squirrels made their home in the resulting hollow, from that time Tree declined. Quickly.
Here’s today’s result, pix from Elder Daughter, who was on the spot (so to speak):
While it’s sad to lose the shade, we really haven’t had any in a couple of years. Plus Tree was dropping branches, and wobbled with a strong push – not a safe state in which to be.
With luck next year the town will remove the stump, and we will be able to file our request for Son of Tree.