Back from my first in-person SCA event in a long time. I went to “Aisles of March” – what can be best described as a historical-recreation-item “craft fair” for those unfamiliar with the organization. It was a group-specific gathering at which dozens of merchants displayed wares, selling everything from whole garments of historical design and cut; to accessories, jewelry, jewelry findings/stones; the components to make clothing (including hand-dyed yarns and yardage); armor; wooden and metal table implements and specialty crafting tools (embroidery frames, weaving looms and the like); camping implements (open hearth cooking tripods and accessories); research and how-to books; and even spices and fragrances. There was also a certain amount of ceremony including SCA royal presence, and awards given out for mastery of specific arts, or for service to the organization and its constituent groups.
But I wasn’t there to attend court, or to shop. I was there to help The Apprentice and household sell their products – brilliantly hued hand-dyed silk and wool threads and yardage prepared with researched, historical recipes; bead jewelry reproductions of various eras (Viking age, late Roman Empire, Venetian), and sturdy linen by the yard. Some of this is also available on Etsy. Obvious affiliation disclosure – The apprentice is the proprietor of that Etsy shop.
While I was helping out I also had an opportunity to sell a few copies of The Second Carolingian Modelbook in person. And that gave me a chance to chat with folk interested in counted embroidery, and blackwork in specific. One thing several people mentioned was the difficulty of drafting out the freehand patterns for inhabited blackwork – the Elizabethan style characterized by heavy outlines filled in with counted or freehand stitched fills, usually in black but occasionally embellished with metal threads.
I understand that challenge. My ancient underskirt was an exercise in freehand pencil drawing, modeling flowers and foliage after group of historical artifacts including a cushion cover repurposed from a dress in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Accession 1955.1221; and a panel from an embroidered sleeve held by the National Museum of Scotland, Accession A.1929.152 (other fragments of the same work exist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions). Not everyone has the patience or confidence to do that kind of freehand drawing.
So, I set to thinking about what pre-drawn resources might be available.
Spoonflower and other print-to-order textile/wallpaper houses offer designers the chance to get their patterns printed on a variety of media, and sold by the yard. I had ordered wallpaper from them a while back.
There are thousands of prints in Spoonflower’s active catalog – among them several adapted from Elizabethan embroidery. Note that these are NOT my offerings, I have nothing posted there. I just went browsing among their current listings and picked two that were likely candidates – the ones with the most historically representative designs at offered at the largest scale. Then I went to the fabric choice area and picked two different fabrics, both possible choices for counted or surface work, and ordered two eight-inch swatches. This is what I received:
The design on the left is shown in several reference books, and is one I included a thumbnail of in my very first hand-drawn booklet on blackwork, issued in 1978. It’s vaguely similar to one in Trevelyon’s Miscelleny, but as soon as I find my now-packed-away booklet, I’ll insert the specific source. The one on the right is a simplified and very recognizable version of a standard Elizabethan scrolling floral design, of the type rendered in blackwork or polychrome stitching, often with metal thread embellishments.
I requested my sample of the one on the left (the darker one) be printed on what Spoonflower sells under the name Cypress Cotton Canvas. The one on the right was printed on their Belgian Linen. Here are zooms, with a penny for ease of thread count calculation:
Note that the cotton canvas (left) isn’t really countable, but it has a dense weave structure that might be amenable to surface work. However I am not a textile history expert, and I don’t know if fabric of that structure, even if it were not cotton would be appropriate to the period of the design. The linen however is plain tabby weave. By counting threads occluded by the penny I get 17 horizontal threads x 21 vertical threads. Factoring in the penny’s standard width of 0.75 inch, we can compute a thread count of approximately 21 x 26 threads, but I can’t tell which is warp and which is weft due to the lack of selvedges. Skew but easily counted and stitched.
My first reaction to both of these samples is that the motifs on them are quite small in scale for easy stitching. Even on the uncountable canvas, I would have preferred that design be imaged about a quarter to third again bigger to make it easier to work. This is also very true for the scrolling flower design printed on linen. It might do for non-counted polychrome treatment with a very simple stitch used for the stem; or for speckled freehand blackwork, again simple outlines and a scattered stitch, shaded infilling. But for fancy counted, geometric, diapered fills, there just isn’t enough real estate inside most of the flower and leaf motif segments to make such stitching worthwhile.
The next step of course is hands-on. It won’t be any time soon (I have a massive to-do queue), but I do intend to secure the edges, launder, iron and give both a try anyway, to see how the fabrics and printing perform. If the stitching goes well I might finish them out into small sweet bags. Or not. This is just an idle experiment.
Again, I am not endorsing or promoting the source, the products, or the designers who offer their patterns at the source. I paid full price for my swatches. But I am trying to help out those who are looking for some sort of assistance in starting their own blackwork projects. While these items are not exactly optimal, they or similar pieces might be learning tools that could jumpstart creativity, and help someone reach towards a previously unattainable goal of making something visually period-appropriate. And that in turn might help them advance towards less “factory-modern” ways of getting there.
Stay tuned. Eventually I will cycle back to this experiment, do the wash test, and play with these some more.
Two bits of nostalgia and a rant today, but no fine needlework, just some knitting. Apologies for the disappointment.
First a bit of fun nostalgia, and a reminder that family heirlooms needn’t be pricey bits of bling. As I was putting my new backgammon board away I found my chess set. It’s an unusual one, but not by any stretch of the imagination, precious. Except to me.
My grandfather Mack gave me the set around my 9th or 10th birthday. He had a jobbing print company back when you needed presses, engravers, and actual lead-set type. The company printed magazines including New York’s Social Spectator; pamphlets, brochures and catalogs; small private run books, luxe bespoken stationary, and even precision hand-engraved items like stock certificates. This chess set was part of a late 1950s/early 1960s catalog of some sort, but I have no record of what company it might have been made for. The board/box in which it came was damaged during the photo shoot, so he was able to keep it.
The set itself is housed in a very ordinary storage case/playing board. The damage is to one of the two velvet lined nests into which the pieces fit, but it’s not fatal. The figurines look to be inspired by fancy hand-carved antique ivory sets, but I believe they are some sort of plastic, each with a little “Made in Japan” sticker underneath. Still they are nicely designed with a netsuke-derived look. Especially the pawns, which come in two flavors – four bearing conch shells and four bearing scrolls.
Now my grandfather didn’t play chess – not to my knowledge at least, but I did. My dad had taught me the rudiments a few years earlier, and I read up on some beginner strategy. I never got good although I have retained a peripheral interest, even hanging out with the chess team in high school (they teased me by saying I was seventh board of a five man team). Younger Offspring is a far better player than I ever was, proving it by beating me soundly three times in a row many years ago, in spite of playing as a 14-year old hospital in-patient with a ruptured appendix, high fever, and under sedation.
I have designated this set as “an heirloom of our house” and in some ways, it’s fitting it’s only plastic.
Now on to the rant, plus some wistful but non-visual nostalgia.
I just finished yet another pair of heavy slouch socks – mindless knitting to occupy the fingers while The Resident Male and I campaign through the first computer game we’ve played in more than two decades. I can watch for Imminent Peril, monitor vital statistics, and consult on strategy and puzzle solving, but not while doing more complex attention-sink type handwork. So socks it is.
I admit I was seduced by a yarn that even under best conditions would be marginal. It’s a sport weight polyester/acrylic blend from Lion Brand, “Moroccan Nights.” I was weak; seduced by the colors. I knew it was a long-repeat variegated, and bought two balls of the same color number and dye lot. They looked identical with the same repeat section on the outside of each ball. But….
This yarn is the absolute worst knitting or crochet product I have used in a very long time. So bad I would swear that this yarn was spun from the devil’s own nose hairs.
Yes, these two socks came from two balls of the stuff with the same color number and dye lot number (Magic Carpet, color 514-307, dye lot 16561). I don’t mind a long variation, but the color jumps on these socks are largely NOT due to continuous change in the yarn itself. Instead they are due to multiple knots in each ball that united color discontinuous sections. Every major color transition you see here means that there are two more ends to darn in because the knots were too slippery to trust. One sock has three knot-induced extra end pairs to deal with, the other has four.
In addition to the poor quality control in skeining, the yarn itself is impossibly unruly. It has a severe overtwist which makes it rat-tail around itself. The structure is two very flossy, barely spun strands of acrylic plus one thin thread of mylar or other shiny polyester metallic, wound together to make a rag-style yarn. The flossy strands split and fray, fusing together in the overtwisted rat-tails, and make stitch formation a nightmare. Constant stopping to let the work spin out and ease the overtwist is required. Decreases and increases are wrestling matches because the needles catch on every microfilament.
Yes, I concede that using this yarn for socks was over-ambitious. Perhaps big needles and plain garter stitch or crochet would have been a better choice. But usage aside, the basic twisty, frizzy, fraying, fusing nature of Lion Brand Moroccan Nights makes it an unpleasant experience at any gauge.
Now for the wistful nostalgia.
For many years I ran the on line Yarn Review Collection at wiseNeedle, my former website. It started as a plain text document passed around the old pre-Internet KnitList mailing list, in the early days when email systems were just beginning to branch out and connect with each other. Eventually, with the copious help of The Resident Male, it transformed into a searchable on-line database.
The whole thing was volunteer run. I was the shepherd, confirming yarn detail (gauge, yardage, ball weight, proper spelling/manufacture), and combed retail catalogs entering data for new base entries as yarns were released for sale. Anyone who wanted to could contribute a review, and many did. We appreciated achieved gauge, some indication of what the yarn was used for, and any comments – good or bad – about the experience of using it. Stuff like “tons of knots in each ball”, “yardage seems very short,” “sheds dye on the hands and needles while working,” “falls to pieces in the wash,” were common comments. So were things like “fantastic for the tight detail on a traditional gansey,” and “wonderful stuff, soft, and a at great price.” I even computed a value score, calculating the cost per yard for each review that reported the retail price, so folk could compare relative value.
The Yarn Review Collection ran for 13 years. The wiseNeedle website never accepted direct advertising payments although I did have some general audience ads (tightly controlled) to defray expenses of running the thing. But I took no in kind gifts or monetary payments from anyone in the industry, and refused all planted information – supposed “reviews” furnished by retailers, wholesalers and makers. For the most part wiseNeedle broke even or ran a bit behind, and I floated it from my own pocket. UNTIL.
When the Ravelry site broke big time, traffic at all independent knitting websites plummeted. People stopped contributing reviews to wiseNeedle, stopped asking/answering questions on its advice boards, and even traffic to its free patterns plummeted. Eventually I was the only person contributing reviews, and my own views represented 80% of my weekly traffic. The String-or-Nothing blog subsection was the only thing that had even minor residual visits. So I threw in the towel, killed wiseNeedle and ported String to a new stand-alone venue.
Why dredge all this up now?
I really wanted to post a review of Moroccan Nights. I added a comment to the Ravelry yarn page for it, but in doing so noted that actual comments about the yarn are not exactly up front and center. You can see data on it and pix of it, see how many people have stashed it, see how many projects people have worked from it, and see a combined satisfaction score of the projects (not the yarn itself); but the comments section is a second tier behind the data cover. What’s presented is superficially and inadvertently deceptive. A 3.9 star out of 5 review for this stuff? Not. Will anyone page through and see the actual feedback? Probably very few.
Moral of the story: If you ever want to use Ravelry’s yarn pages to find out more than simple data about a product, do hunt around for that comments link. Leave comments for yarns you have used if you feel that feedback would help others. And don’t rely on that star rating to indicate actual usability, quality or value of the yarn being discussed. It has nothing to do with the yarn, it’s all about those finished projects.
Am I going to reinitiate wiseNeedle and the yarn review collection? No. It’s too time, money, and materials intensive. There’s no way anyone can catch up with Ravelry, which is now a social and industry juggernaut in its own right. The halcyon days of the non-monetized Internet are over, and I refuse to accept subsidies. By doing so I compromise my principles by becoming a paid influencer.
Nostalgic and a bit exercised? Yes. Today I am. Maybe I need to go and knit something to calm down.
It’s been a busy couple of months, what with the release of The Second Carolingian Modelbook, the debut and continuance of my Epic Fandom Stitch-Along, plus various home improvement projects, and family celebrations.
We had a great time in Buffalo, at the cooperatively planned and executed three day extravaganza for my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. The whole family pitched in, with backyard gatherings under a big tent that included two cookouts and a football afternoon, with the game projected for all gathered to see, plus a gala luncheon at a riverside indoor/outdoor venue, at which a string quartet from the Buffalo Philharmonic played. My in-laws’ family is far flung and rarely has a chance to gather, so it was a grand reunion.
Here is the birthday celebrity with her kids, who are collectively taller, greyer, but no less intent on having fun than they were when they were small and underfoot. Left to right – Dan, Laura, Fernando, Carm, Paul, Susan, and Carolyn.
As an example of the attention to detail in planning and execution is this cookie, made by my sister-in-law Vicky’s daughter Jacqueline. These (in several shapes) were part of each of the luncheon place settings, themed to celebrate Carm’s passions and achievements. Mad skills there.
And now that the birthday present has been given, I can finally post about my Secret Knitting Project of the past two months. I made a dramatic scarf for Carm, in black mohair with sequins, knit from my Spring Lightning pattern, available in the scarves section of my knitting patterns page.
More updates in the days to come, including the great basement overhaul, the landscaping ventures, and a bit of “helping-hands” crochet – not to mention the fourth installment of the stitch-along (Tuesday next – I promise).
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.