Based on questions from Elaine and others, here’s a bit more on the thread I’ve been using on both the Permissions and Trifles samplers.
As I’ve said before, my stash came from a small needlework/beading supply shop in Pune, India. It wasn’t current stock. The head clerk sent a boy scampering up into the storage attic for a VERY dusty box of odds and ends. I picked out the best colors left, avoiding pastels, and looking for what high impact/high contrast hues that still remained in quantities of 10+ skeins. I bought them all. They were very inexpensive – just a few rupees per skein. At the then-current exchange rate of 60 rupees per dollar, I think I spent less than $20.00 translated, and came away with a huge bag full, well over 200 skeins divided up among about 15 colors. Here’s just a sample:
The name brand is Cifonda Art Silk. It’s not a spooled rayon intended for machine embroidery. As you can see, the put-up is more like cotton embroidery floss. And it turns out that the stuff is still being made, and is available in Australia, and even in the US – although mostly by special order.
The websites that offer this thread vary a bit in description. Some say it is a 35% silk/65% rayon blend. Others say it is all rayon. Contemporary put-ups specify 8 meter skeins. My vintage stash skeins are a bit longer, possibly 10 meters (I’ll measure tonight). The large bundles above are actually “super-packages” of ten individual skeins. You can see the bright red one at the left is broken open, with the single skein labels showing. On mine, color numbers are written on each skein by hand, not printed. There can be hue variances between the super-packages of the same color number, so I suspect that special care should be taken to buy all that’s needed at once, so that all is from the same dye lot.
Cifonda’s structure is that of standard floss – six strands of two-ply relatively loose twist. The individual strands are quite fine, two of them are roughly the equivalent of one ply of standard DMC cotton embroidery floss. The colors – especially deeper ones like red and indigo – do run when wet, although they do not crock (shed color on hands, ground cloth, or wax when stitching dry). I would not advise using this thread on clothing, table linen or other things likely to need laundering. It may be possible to set the colors before stitching using a mordant bath or long water soak, but I don’t have the experience, time, or materials quantity for experimentation.
I am pleased with the way the Cifonda looks in my work. It’s a bit shinier and finer textured than cotton floss, although it does not have the coverage of the true silk floss I’ve used (Soie d’Alger). My Cifonda is quite slippery. Two or more plies held together tend to disassociate and slide past each other for differential consumption, even when using short lengths in a small-hole needle. I tamed this by aggressive waxing – running the entire length of my threads over a block of beeswax before use. Since I’m doing linear counted work, any change in color or texture is not noticeable. Someone using this for satin stitch, long-and-short, or other surface stitches that maximize thread sheen would probably want to wax only the inch or so that threads through the needle.
Like all lightly twisted rayons, this thread does catch and shred a bit on rough skin. Care must be taken to use needles with very smooth eyes, and to hold the unworked length out of the way when taking stitches, because the stuff snags extremely easily. My own stash, well aged as it is, contains some colors that are a bit brittle. The bright yellow I’m using now, and the silver-grey I used on the last sampler are both prone to breaking under stress, and must be used in shorter lengths than the other colors.
I will continue to use up my India-souvenir thread stash, working smaller and smaller projects until it is gone. But in all probability, I will not seek out the Cifonda to replace that inventory as it is consumed.
Anyone else have experience or hints on using this rather unruly stuff?
The permission sampler is rolling right along. At 30 threads per inch (15 stitches per inch) it’s fairly zooming. Here you see the whole cloth. I’m already mostly done with 25% of the patterned area:
That small bit of solid blue cross stitch at the bottom? I hate it and will be picking it out, presently. Originally I wanted to frame the piece top and bottom with a denser border, done in cross stitch. But I don’t like the look. The bottom border will still be blue, and will still span the entire width of the piece, but will be something directional in double-running, instead.
Now for the two newest strips:
Both are patterns from my forthcoming The Second Carolingian Modelbook. The top one is done in two weights of thread – double strand for the red and green sections of the motif, and single strand for the yellow half-cross stitch ground. There’s no historical precedent that I can find for treating the background of a voided piece this way, but I do like the look of the more delicate field against the heavier outlines. It’s something I’ve used a couple of times now. Since there’s no requirement for this piece to be historically accurate, why not play? The pattern itself does have a source – a stitched sample book of designs in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a posted provenance of Spain or Italy, early 1600s.
As for the lower bit, in blue – that one is interesting, too.
Here’s a close-up:
And here’s the source:
This is an excerpt from “Tafel 47” in Egenolff’s Modelbook of 1527. Note that the original is clearly a freehand piece – not graphed. But it translates very neatly to work as a counted pattern. If you look closely at some of the freehand drawings in Egenolff and his contemporaries, you’ll see that (to my eye at least) they were intended to be congruent with counted execution. That’s not to say they couldn’t be done off the count, but with constrained angles, no fine detail, and geometric execution, working them that way is a cinch.
Back to my modern piece. It’s pretty clear that the area below the words will be two columns of strip patterns. I am still thinking of what to do in the top part. I could do more strips of similar proportion. I could do one moderately wide strip (the area there is too narrow north-south for any of the really big patterns in T2CM, believe it or not). Or I might do a collection of spot motifs, or one large all-over. I haven’t decided. More bungee jump stitching ahead, as I continue to design on the fly.
It’s done. All 80+ gears, each with a different filling pattern, worked with well-aged “Art Silk” (probably rayon) purchased for a single rupee per skein in India, on 30-count linen. The soot sprites (little black fuzzy creatures) playing the part of “Trifles” are in discontinued DMC linen floss, so that they contrast shaggy and matte against the brighter, smoother silky stuff. I’ve also attached some real, brass gears as embellishments, to add extra Steampunk flavor.
Here’s a close-up of the sprites in process, adapted from the little soot creatures in the movie Spirited Away.
To stitch them I worked totally off count. (Yes, I can do that, too). I outlined the eyes in split stitch using one strand of floss, and placed the eyes’ pupils, using French knots. Then I worked long and short stitch, encroaching on the split stitch eye frames, to get that spiky, unkempt, hairy texture. The arms and legs are close-worked chain with two strands, with the little toes and fingers (what of them there are) also in split stitch, but with two strands. The gears are filled in using (mostly) double running, with some departures into “wandering running” using two strands of the very fine art silk floss; and outlined in chain stitch using three strands of the stuff. All threads used were waxed using real beeswax, for manageability.
I am happy to say I’ve hit all of the specific design requests. And there were many:
- A good motto
- Steampunk (the gear theme)
- Something Whovian (the Daleks)
- Octopodes (dancing in one of the fills)
- Snails (ditto)
- Unicorns and/or dragons (ditto, and the winged, serpent tailed, beaky thing is good enough)
- Anime (the soot sprites)
- Interlaces (also inhabiting the gears)
- Autumn colors (brown, gold, russet, silver)
- Something from India (the thread itself)
The saying itself is particularly suitable for the target Daughter. It’s one of Mushashi’s Nine Precepts. The Daleks are from a graph by Amy Schilling, intended for knitting. The narrow border is in my forthcoming book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook. I found all of the alphabets used (there are four) in Ramzi’s Sajou collection. The gear shapes are adapted from a freehand tracing of a commercial airbrush stencil by Artool. Most of the gear fills can be found in Ensamplario Atlantio. The few that aren’t from that source are recent doodles, and will be made available in time, either as a fifth segment of that work, or perhaps as their own stand-alone sequel. Ensamplario Secundo, anyone?
Now Younger Daughter doesn’t head off to school until next fall, so I have about a year to add hanging tabs, or back the piece with contrasting fabric to make a scroll-like presentation. So while the stitching is complete, this piece may revisit String when I decide what the display treatment will be.
On to the next. I’ve got two more original stitched pieces in queue, with only a general idea of what each one will be, and what styles/designs/colors I’ll use. Free-fall stitching! Gotta love the adventure!
A couple of people have written to me saying that they’d like to do an original inhabited blackwork piece, but don’t want to do the traditional Elizabethan scrolling flowers, or yet another chessboard. They are hesitant to draft up their own main design, and are unsure where to start. They have asked for some leads on places where they can find drawings particularly suitable for or adaptable to use with counted fills.
I present some suggestions. Mind you – none of these are endorsements or product placements, and are intended as a first step for gathering inspiration.
1. Coloring Books. They come in all flavors from very simple line drawings aimed at kiddies, to complex pieces targeted at over-stressed adults. What you want are ones with large enough spaces for the patterns to play. A mix of large and small areas to fill is ideal because it will allow use of fills of various complexities and densities. Given the vast diversity of what’s available now, a coloring book project can be anything: a kid’s cartoon character, a historical vignette, a Alhambra-style geometric, a complex mandala, something relevant to your faith, a detailed bit of nature drawing, or a cheeky paisley. Dover has a particularly lush collection of coloring books, many of which contain designs that would appeal to an adult.
2. Stained Glass Patterns. These are especially easy to use for blackwork because of the limits that handling tiny bits of glass impose. The drawings tend to have bold outlines and large, flat fill areas.
3. Maps. Proud of your country, home state, county or city? All of those nifty borders outline areas just waiting to be stitched. Collections of clip art for classrooms and teachers contain some of the simplest, most clearly defined examples.
4. Wallpaper Samples. The all-over designs of some wallpapers present excellent opportunities for the use of fills. There are hundreds of collections on-line that can be combed for inspiration.
5. Antique Ironwork. Grills, meshes, fences, and guards are like iron lace. With lots of “white space” between the bars, just waiting for embellishment. I took some photos of ironwork at the V&A that show what I’m thinking of.
6. Architectural Drawings and Plans. There are tons of illustrations of houses and other buildings (also lots of photos). For example, I’m drawn to pix of Craftsman era bungalows.
7. Patchwork Quilting Patterns. There are thousands, some appliqué, some pieced (both geometric and crazy-work), all perfect for this type of stitching. Again, there are thousands of these available on-line both paid and free.
8. Stenciling Designs. These are produced in several scales. There are large ones intended for use in interior decoration, often as borders or furniture accents. There are also smaller ones intended for finer airbrush work, like the one I’m using for my Trifles sampler. In any case, a quick Google search turns up plenty.
9. Mosaic and Tile Patterns. Like stained glass, these often need little or no resizing because the tesserae (mosaic tiles) are just big enough to use as stitching blocks. Here’s a pile of regular layouts.
10. Lace Samples. Many designs intended for lace can be adapted as blackwork outlines. For example, the looping patterns intended for traditional Battenberg could be in-filled using counted geometrics, with the outlines themselves either being stitched, or applied over using soutache cord or a narrow tape or braid. Here’s what I mean.
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head.
I just got back from a quick business trip. Sadly, I came back with a hitchhiker – a bad cold. But to cheer me up upon arrival was my package from Hedgehog Handworks, with my new Hardwicke Manor sitting hoop frame:
As you can see, I was so excited, I had to try it out right away, even before wrapping the inner hoop in twill tape. I’ll do that this weekend.
First the specs of my long-coveted indulgence. There are two joints providing freedom of movement. Looking at the back of the thing, the first is a slider that regulates height. The turned barrel at the base of the main vertical has a wooden screw tightener, allowing the vertical arm to be raised and lowered. Minimum height (pushed all the way in, with the frame positioned parallel to the ground) is 13.5 inches measured from table top to BOTTOM edge of the frame. Max height on which the tightening screw can be brought to bear is about 18.5 inches. The vertical stick also allows the frame to be rotated left and right, provided the wood screw is loosened to avoid damage.
The second degree of freedom is the y-shaped joint at the top of the vertical stem. The fixed attachment piece from the round frame fits into the slit of the y-shape, and is tightened by a bolt with a metal wing nut. (I will probably replace the wing nut with something a bit more finger-friendly in the future). This allows the frame head to swivel up and down, allowing access to the reverse of the work.
“Orthodox” use position and all of the pix I can find on line show the large paddle piece at the bottom being slid under the left hip, so that both legs sit upon it, and the frame is presented across the user’s lap. Users are also shown sitting bolt-upright on a chair or a sofa.
I’m a bit more relaxed. My favorite stitching chair is a Morris chair, with wide wooden arms, like mini-shelves left and right. It reclines. Instead of sitting upright, I tend to stitch in the reclined position. I also don’t want to bark the chair’s woodwork with the frame, so instead I straddle the base, with the paddle-bottom underneath my right thigh. I can adjust the position of the hoop so that it’s perfectly comfortable and accessible in that position.
All in all, I am VERY pleased, although I may need to stitch myself a small bolster on which to rest my left elbow when working with that hand beneath the frame. The chair arms are too high for comfort, and some support would be useful for extended sessions. Oh heavens. A quick project to make something useful that I can cover with MORE stitching. However will I cope? 🙂
In the same order, I also received some tambour embroidery hooks. I won’t show them here, but will save them for a future piece. Hmm…. that elbow cushion… What do you think?
And finally as a cheer-me-up, Younger Daughter, Needle Felting Maven and all around good kid, saw that I was in need of a small, weighted pin cushion that was presentable to leave here in the library next to my chair. Although she usually does far more intricate shapes (dragons, tigers, airplanes), she made me a little sea-urchin, weighted in the bottom center with a couple of big rupee coins, for extra sentimental value. It’s adorable, simple, in colors that match the rug in the library, and at about 1.5 inches across, with the coins giving it a low center of gravity, so it doesn’t go skittering off – the perfect size and weight.
Finally, I have been making progress on Trifles. As you can see, I’ve got less than a quarter of the surround left to go. And every single gear uses a different filling.
We’ve all read about two stitches that are most commonly used in linear styles of counted stitching.
First comes double running stitch (aka Holbein stitch, Spanish stitch, and punto scritto, among others). Pretty straightforward and well known, it can be used with care to produce works that are absolutely identical front and back, although meticulous double-sided implementation isn’t mandatory unless there’s specific need.
Back stitch is the other big technique used for linear counted work, with lots of historical examples. If anything its even more well known than double running. Its appearance is different front and back. On the front, it looks exactly like double running. But on the back, a much heaver and thicker line is produced. Depending on the care of the stitcher and the thickness of the thread it can look like outline or stem stitch if the needle is introduced (uniformly) above or below the previous stitch on the reverse; or even chain or split stitch, if the needle splits the previous stitch on the reverse.
Looks the same as double running on the front (top), but different on the reverse.
Now, why would one pick one technique over the other?
Sometimes it’s a good thing to try to economize on thread use. Back Stitch uses about a third again as much yardage per distance embroidered than does Double Running. Therefore, if I wanted to conserve thread I might opt for Double Running over Back. Double Running is also the stitch of choice if double-sided presentation is a necessity, or if the fabric is so sheer that the heavier reverse side of Back Stitch might show.
On the other hand, Back Stitch can be much easier to work, especially on long runs that can befuddle even those familiar with the there-and-back-again logic of Double Running. In Back Stitch, there is no retracing of the path to fill in every other stitch. Work proceeds logically down a single path. Branches mean starting a new thread, rather than departing from a baseline and working back to it. Many people prefer the “I’m here” certainty of Back Stitch to the puzzle path approach of Double Running.
So I present this stitch hack – one known to just about every counted stitcher, although few would admit using it openly. I will arbitrarily call it “Wandering Running Stitch.” I am sure this is an “unvention,” and I’ve just promulgating something that’s already described under another name. For example, I would not be surprised to see this documented as a technique for quickly stitching durable seams in plain sewing.
Both a bit of heresy, and a chimera of sorts, Wandering Running Stitch neither plain Double Running, nor is it true Back Stitch. Advantages are that it looks like Double Running on the public side of the work; uses the same amount of thread as Double Running; and avoids now-how-do-I-go-back problem. It’s main disadvantage is that like Back Stitch, the reverse side looks different from the front. In this case, the reverse shows a discontinuous, dashed line of double-thickness. The overall effect is a bit heavier on the reverse than is plain Double Running, but is not as massive as Back Stitch.
All three methods, for comparison. Front sides on left, reverse on right.
From top down – Double Running, Back Stitch, Wandering Running
The following sequence illustrates the stitching order.
Now. How to use this hack.
First off, it’s not for reversible work. Nor is it for use on pieces sent to juried panels, where rules favor the use of traditional/historical stitches, and the state of the back side. There is NO precedent for or documentation of using this stitch in history that I know of, so I would not advise it for SCA pieces destined for Arts & Sciences competitions. However, for single sided work, or lined pieces, or items done for your own pleasure, or a project to help you get into the swim of a style that has frustrated you in the past – why not use an unorthodox approach if it makes life easier?
Because the active area is always at the needle with no half-worked baseline to retrace, Wandering Running would be especially good for stepped or continuous line patterns with no branching. It would be very useful to people who stitch in hand without a hoop or frame, and also for those who use a particularly small or round frame. In both cases, there’s no moving back over previously stitched paths, making it easier to tension in hand; or minimizing the need to remove and relocate a small hoop to revisit prior paths.
I think Wandering Running will be especially useful for people who have given up on blackwork because they find double running logic daunting, and have problems remembering where the baseline of their design is, or what direction they were heading. I also think that people who have tried Back Stitch instead of Double Running, but who were displeased with the heft or thickness of the reverse side might also find this technique interesting.
Another use is in completing the filling patterns used in inhabited blackwork, which are often not entirely suitable for full reversible treatment in the first place. I occasionally resort to Wandering when I’m working a filling into an oddly shaped area, and need to advance the working thread. I will plan out my path of attack and use Wandering to “walk” my working thread to the new area to be completed rather than ending off the thread and re-starting in that location.
In addition to the uses above, Wandering Running can be employed to render complex linear designs, in combo with more traditional Double Running. I can see using Wandering on the main baseline, moving along it until one encounters a side branch, then veering off to complete that side branch using traditional double-running methods, and returning to the baseline to continue on to the next point of departure. The biggest difference between this and a full Double Running treatment of the same design would be no “dashed line” of semi-completion along the baseline, making it easier to see where along the design path one is.
So. Have you seen this hack before? Does it have a name? Does it have a place in your repertoire, or does the merest thought of such heresy inflame you to the point of whipping out your Embroidery Voodoo Dolls* and using poison-tipped #24 tapestry needles to condemn me to my fate?
[*If demand is sufficient, I will consider sharing a design for Embroidery Voodoo Dolls. Suggestions for appropriate historical periods of attire for EVDs will be considered.]
Aside from the weakness for yarn common to all knitters, I don’t often spoil myself buying things for my own use. But given just a nudge, I have given in and have treated myself to two things:
A Hardwicke Manor sit-on round frame (aka a fanny frame), and a tambour needle set (not shown in proportion to each other).
I’ve wanted to try the round sit-on frame for quite a while. I like using my flat frame on its holder. Doing so allows me to position one hand above and one hand below the work, and stitch more efficiently, without needing to conjure a third hand to hold the frame in place.
For smaller pieces in non-fragile threads and stitches, I do prefer to use the smaller hoop though. But using it does raise those same third-hand issues. I am eager to experiment with the sit-on, and hope that I don’t miss the agility of being able to rotate the hoop in hand for optimal stitching direction at the same time as I appreciate having both hands free to work.
A fixed position frame is one of the things that enables use of a tambour needle. Again, one hand uses the needle on one side of the work, the other is positioned on the opposite side, and feeds thread to the hook, using up my quotient of hands before holding the frame in a convenient position is achieved.
I looked for a tambour hook in India. One would think that given the staggering array of tambour-produced textiles there, finding one would be easy. Indian Ari hooks are (in theory) slightly longer and finer in diameter than hooks made for the Western market. Sadly, I never saw one myself. In my region there were few shops that offered needlework supplies, and the ones that I found catered to ladies of leisure rather than people doing embroidery to make a living. Clerks in those shops either didn’t understand what I wanted (although I was armed with the correct name and drawings); or they didn’t carry them because they were “working” rather than “leisure” tools.
What sort of things are embroidered using an Ari? The overwhelming majority of stitched textiles offered in traditional crafts markets. Not all – running stitch quilting, satin stitch, poorly done Shisha, and pattern darning were also present, but tamboured pieces that looked like chain stitch predominated, especially in the better quality works that interested me most. Here’s a smattering of what we brought back:
The cushion cover on the left that we had made into the chair seat is densely stitched in wool on a cotton backing. I believe it’s from Kashmir.
Also from Kashmir is the rug in the center. Yes – that’s 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters), totally stitched in tamboured cotton, with no ground showing. I had it professionally cleaned when we returned from India because it had been in daily use there. I’m not sure where we will eventually put it, so it’s rolled up in safe storage right now.
The third thing is our Dodo Curtain – a large cotton panel covered in tamboured metal threads, with probably man made silk (rayon) accents and paillettes. It’s covered with roundels featuring this bird, giving it a very Medieval appearance. I have plans to back this cloth with linen, then hang it as a portiere curtain between my living and dining rooms. We got this piece in Agra, but its ultimate province of origin wasn’t noted.
The jacket is also Kashmiri. It’s fine Pashmina, entirely tambour-worked using the same fiber. Even the plackets and hems that look like trim are densely packed tambour chain. This is probably the most extravagant thing The Resident Male bought for me on our stay, and wearing it makes me feel like royalty.
A side trip into literature and symbolism for those who wish to hang around for such things:
Some folk have told me that my curious dodo hanging may show the Garuda Bird, the king of birds, champion of justice, and celestial mount of Lord Vishnu, but I am doubtful. The noble Garuda is usually shown in with wings outspread, robust and fearless, often with a human face and limbs.
These big-beaked, comfortably round, bald birds, if not dodos, may represent vultures.
There are several vultures in Hindu epics. One is the mount of the deva Shani, revered as a teacher and righteous judge, punishing evildoers and betrayers. But Shani’s mount is rarely pictured alone. Other famous vultures in the story cycles appear in the Ramayana – two brothers, Jatayu and Sampaati. They figure in several tales, including one that echoes aspects of the Icarus myth, with Jatayu flying so high he was seared by the sun, but rescued by his loyal and courageous brother Sampaati who used his own wings to shield Jatayu from the sun’s fury. Unlike Icarus, Jatayu survived, and is not a symbol of the folly born of overconfidence. Jatayu also plays a supporting role in the story of Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravana, flying to Rama with news of Ravana’s escape route.
One last possibility – dodos were giant flightless parrots. If these birds are parrots, we veer off from justice and bravery into the worlds of compassion and love.
Origin stories vary, but Sukadeva was a parrot, and pet of the gods, particularly befriended by Krishna, who showed mercy and compassion to it when Sukadeva fluttered away from his mistress Radha. I’m not clear on the relationship between that story and others, but Sulka the parrot is often painted in henna on the feet of brides, in recognition of his service as the sacred mount of Kamadva (also known as Mandan and Mara) the god of sensual love.
While not as lofty as Garuda, if my dodos are the vulture brothers, they are still exemplars of bravery and self-sacrifice. However, if the bird shown is Sulka, the connection with love might make my curtain more apt for the bedroom than the dining room.
Sometimes we forget that not everything we do is original, unique or never-before done. Here’s a case in point from the world of needlework research, presented as an example that we are not unique, and as a mildly cautionary tale.
There are hundreds of folks out there delving into the historical needle arts – some to research and re-create the techniques, some to make investigation into the aesthetic, artistic, or symbolic aspects, and some to profile the creation and use of artifacts within their social and cultural context.
We are not the first to do this. I have stumbled across an article from June 1909, written by Kathrine Sanger Brinley, published in The Craftsman magazine – a product of the Gustav Stickley Arts and Crafts movement (and his commercial empire). That issue of The Craftsman is available on-line as part of the Digital Library for Decorative Arts and Material Culture, maintained by the University of Wisconsin.
Her description is rather florid, although it is in keeping with the philosophical bent of The Craftsman. She concentrates on the embroidery on the tablecloth, and provides a black and white photo that appears to reveal slightly different detail of those panels than do modern photos. On the left is a snippet from her photo, on the right, a snippet of the original daVinci, as found on Wikipedia.
Brinley discusses a copy of the work, done by d’Oggiono, in the collection of the Louvre, but does not directly identify that copy as her source. D’Ogginio is considered to be one of daVinci’s personal pupils. I do not see a copy attributed to him listed in on-line sites detailing the original painting, nor do Louvre on-line searches turn it up, so I do not know if current scholarship still recognizes the piece.
Whether or not this piece has been discredited or lost, I can’t determine. I am no art historian, so I can’t say when in history Jesus’ feet were replaced by a door lintel. I can only observe that there are many more differences between the two than the presence of feet. In just this little snippet, the side figural band appears to have migrated from one side of the bread roll to the other. The modern photo also indicates the presence of a few more bands of patterning than does hers.
Brinley plunges full ahead with the assumption that the tablecloth’s patterning is embroidered, not woven, and attempts a reproduction of the design. Now to my eye, it’s more probable that the cloth shown was inspired by Perugia style weaving, and that it was not a depiction or conjecture of an embroidered textile. But let’s set that aside, too.
She posits a counted thread technique for the bands, due to their linear character (also an artifact of weaving), and cites the prevalence of cross stitch in Italian embroidery history. She concludes that the piece was originally worked in cross stitch, stroke stitch (aka double running), and point Lance (short, straight stitches); also double Italian cross stitch (which she calls out as double-sided cross stitch).
She gives a drawn diagram for the design, and displays her own flat frame, with its in-process snippet.
Interestingly enough, while she cites the work as being counted, her own renditions are not. They’re penciled onto the ground cloth and stitched free of count.
Having graphed over a hundred patterns of this type myself, I can say that if in fact the original was embroidered, Brinley’s chart is a probably a vast simplification of what the original design might have been. Even if the original was woven, how it is shown in the painting is not a photographic depiction. It is another victim of the fidelity and resolution that results when a fine stitched or woven piece is rendered in paint – especially when that detail is not central to the composition’s central subject.
What we’ve got is a historical-historical embroiderer, bent on re-creating a pattern from what she believed to be a period artifact, and making an assumption that the original was stitched and not woven; and that the fidelity of the source painting was true. She went on to suppose that the piece was produced using methods contemporary with modern stitchery (informed by some historical examples). She created an eyeballed redaction inspired by the artifact and presented it as accurate; then rendered it using her own methods.
Is her chart faithful to daVinci’s original? I can’t say. Obviously, I am leaning towards a Perugia-style tablecloth and not a stitched one. I’m also not inclined to accept her design version as accurate. But I can say that I feel for her efforts, respect her attempt, and hope to avoid her pitfalls in my own redactions of other works.
Sorry folks. This has nothing to do with anyone’s search for companionship. Be warned, it’s all about embroidery, and this is a post that only a stitching geek will love.
As I fill out the last few pages of The Second Carolingian Modelbook, I’ve decided to take a stab at a design that seems to be everywhere. Except modelbooks, that is. I call it “Pelican with Harpies and an Urn.” It is one of a set of patterns that crops up again and again in museum holdings worldwide, most often as a fragment. It’s clear that unlike many other snippets, these all came from different works, often executed in different styles or stitching media. I’ve posted about this before, but my collection of examples continues to grow, and with it, the general confusion level.
The dilemma comes in because (to my knowledge) there is no existing printed pattern to establish a point of temporal or geographic origin. But there are lots of examples and they all express the details of the design slightly differently. Now if there was an authoritative point source that became unavailable, one would expect later iterations to be less detailed, or details to become blurred, through succeeding generations of copyist errors. We can see that with the oft-studied “boxers” sampler motif in Colonial American samplers – which probably started out as a cherub bearing a flower, but over time became less specific and more stylized, until what remained was a barely discernable chubby humanoid with a club fist. But I can’t arrange the Pelican/Harpy/Urn designs in an ironclad continuum of graduated detail.
Here’s the parade. The thumbnails are not clickable, please visit the links to see the museums’ higher resolution images.
CH-1. First is this example from the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection (Accession 1931-66-144). They date it as being a 17th century work, but do not offer a provenance. It’s done in silk on linen, with a characteristic tightly drawn background that produces the appearance of mesh, but does not involve withdrawn threads. Details are rendered in straight stitches, and may include double running or back stitch (it’s hard to tell without seeing the reverse). The museum acquired it in 1931, as a gift from Sarah Cooper Hewitt.
CH-2. The Cooper-Hewitt has another example (Accession 1931-66-142). This one is specifically called out as being Italian, and is also dated to the 17th century. It’s a particularly prime piece because it is a full span cut across the end of the towel, cover or cloth it came from. We see the orientation, the top and bottom borders, and how the slightly different side borders framed the work. The museum acquired it in 1931, also as a gift from Sarah Cooper Hewitt.
HERM-1. The Hermitage Museum has two examples. This one is entitled “Valence Embroidered with a Grotesque Motif (fragment),” but the on line page has no accession number. The full description calls out the linear stitching as being double running (Holbein), and the background as being drawn thread. They attribute it to Italy, and the 16th century. The museum got this piece in 1923, via the Stieglitz School, and ultimately from D. Flandin, an antiquarian dealer in Paris.
MET-1. Yet another example in the same style. This one is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession 14.134.16a). The MET cites it as being Italian, and 17th century. Although this one is at a different museum, and is clearly not a separate piece of either artifact, there’s a connection with the two above. It was acquired in 1914, via the Frederick C. Hewitt Fund.
HERM-2. On to another stitching style. “Valence Embroidered with a Grotesque Motif” from the Hermitage also has no listed accession number. This piece is lacis (darned filet net). It’s dated 16th century and placed in Italy. Although filet work doesn’t allow for the linear details of the red examples above, it’s amazing how much fidelity to the design can be included. Like the other Hermitage piece, it entered their collection via the Stieglitz School Museum in 1923, but came from the collection of J. Kraut, in Frankfurt-am-Main.
MET-2. More stitched net, and not another piece of the one above. This one is also from the MET (Accession 06.582). It’s cited as being Spanish, from the 17th century. This piece was acquired in 1906, via the Rogers Fund.
First of all, I’d agree that the source for these was probably Italian, regardless of where the final objects were collected from. I’d also agree that very late 16th century, but more probably the early 17th century is reasonable for the whole pattern family based on the style, usages, media, and iconography, plus parallels to other contemporary designs.
CH-1 presents the most detailed urn and pelican of the set. Both are encrusted with small linear features, although the placement of those features is not always symmetrical, nor is it identical from repeat to repeat. Feathers on the harpy’s body are shown in neat rows, but her wing feathers are very stylized, using right angles rather than diagonals. I’m unsure what she’s holding – a cup or panpipes (perhaps a fancy on my part, to think of that flower as the music of the pipes). From the patterning, it’s clear that the thing across her middle is her tail, wrapped up from between her legs.
It’s hard to see clearly, but there are lots of differences between the urns and pelicans in CH-1 and CH-2 (blurry pix above). It’s clear that both have less detail. But one of Mother Pelican’s chicks has moved up near her bent head, and another now floats over her back. The nest detail seen in CH-1 is now symmetrical right and left at the top of the urn, instead of looking like leaves on one side, and scrolls on the other. The sprouts on either side of the urn’s bulbous body have changed attachment points, and now hang down, instead of growing up as pomegranates.
CH-2’s harpy has retained her hairdo, but her wings are a bit more gracefully rendered, employing 45-degree angles to round off some of the shapes. Her feathers are more evenly spaced, but her tail is less pronounced, and whatever small markings covered her haunches have been lost in favor of more, smaller feathers. The thing she’s holding has lost its hatching, and now looks more like a cup than panpipes. She has also inherited another wayward pelican chick.
MET-1’s urn is in between the other two in terms of detail. The nest/scroll unit at the top underneath the big pelican has transformed into a chick. The stitcher chose not to fill in the background in the loop defined by the pelican’s neck. There is something unidentifiable between the pelican’s legs, and her fathers are somewhat simplified compared to CH-1. The lower ornament is again descending from the bowl of the urn as leaves, rather than rising from the base.
The harpy too has changed a bit. In this case, I’d say the sipped/sounded thing has parted company from the hand, and now looks more like panpipes, vaguely supported rather than held. She’s gotten a bit more balloon-like, and her breast feathers now march row by row. Her wings however have gotten a bit stunted, and return to a stepwise rendering similar to CH-1, but slightly more clumsy. The tail is suggested, and the haunches have been returned to stippling rather than feathers.
OK. It’s clear that detail is going to be lost when you move from ornamented surface stitching to the negative/positive lacy mesh look of the all-white technique. But even so, a tremendous amount has been preserved. We see the plumage of Mother Pelican, and even some details on her brood (she’s managed to gather three of them together on top of the urn). Her nest is symmetrical. The urn preserves the shapes and proportions of the red stitched pieces, and has grown back the two small pomegranates that grow from the base.
The harpy too preserves a lot of detail, down to the proportions and shapes of its flight feathers, and a bit of the detail inside of the wing. She’s lost some weight, although her hairdo is less detailed. Breast feathers are present, as is a pretty clearly defined tail. Stippling on the haunches looks different from the breast plumage, and her feet are now nicely shaped lion paws.
The final example, MET-2, the Spanish piece, is a bit simplified. The harpy is less prominent, and the largest space is given over to the urn and pelican, and to the foliate ornament between the repeats. Mother Pelican’s brood is more suggested than rendered, although her feathers are nicely done. The urn has the two upward growing pomegranates emerging from the base.
The harpy’s cup/instrument has become less detailed. It’s unclear what it might be. Her feathers have given way to geometric ornament, and her tail is suggested in shadow rather than being clearly defined. Her wings are somewhat like the Hermitage example’s, though. It’s worth noting that her proportions and body shape are more like CH-1 than the other examples.
One other thing that’s of interest is the presence of the little filled boxes that bead the motif’s edges. You can see them along the curve of the pelican’s neck, along the harpy’s breast, and lower legs. They give a lacier appearance to the composition. I also find little protrusions like this to be extremely valuable as I stitch my motifs because they help me confirm counts and stay true to the design. Note that they are absent in the other renditions.
Now, having our fill of urns and harpies, what can we say about them?
It’s obvious that there is an as-yet unidentified but unifying source for this design. I posit that there might originally have been a broadside or model sheet that showed the composition. I guess that it may have been on the count, and that its broad outlines were used to establish the placement of the main design elements. But I don’t believe that it was followed exactly. Instead I think each stitcher used it to establish the first iteration of the design, filling in the details and roughly eyeballing their placement, taking inspiration rather than ironclad direction from the model. Once the first repeat was worked, subsequent repeats and mirrorings were copied from that, with no more call to look at the original. That’s why the baby birds wander around, while the relatively easy to place urn decoration remains more stable.
Because of the different media and slightly different interpretations of the pattern (especially the pomegranates on the urn, and some differences I didn’t detail in the filler between the main motifs), my guess is that the same design branched into two slightly different but recognizable pattern “traditions,” which in turn spawned child works of their own. One of those traditions (marked by the upward pomegranates) made the leap from surface work to darned net.
Now. Which came first? I can’t say. On intuition alone I’d go with the fat, balloon-bodied harpy (MET-1) being later than CH-1, and the two white filet pieces belonging to the same “tradition” as CH-1. That leaves MET-1 and CH-2 as child works of the other branch.
Which came first? What chronological order can be used for these pieces? Aside from these idle thoughts, your guess is as good as mine. If you’ve managed to make it this far, please feel free to differ. Without detailed analysis or forensic investigations into fiber and dye, we’re all just speculating, anyway.
Whether you’re living abroad, in a dorm, newly moved to a new location, or spending time away from friends and family that you’d normally spend with them, there’s nothing like time zone and distance separation to make one feel disconnected.
It’s Passover time. We generally don’t make a huge deal of it in our house. Some years we celebrate the Seder with friends, or travel to Florida to do it with my mother and extended family down there. But even if we are having a quiet year with minimal fuss, to me at least Passover foods and at the bare minimum – a special dinner – are sure signs of spring and the comfort of home.
I am sure that somewhere here in Pune, matzoh can be had, along with macaroons and other seasonal goodies. There is after all a Chabad House here in town. I haven’t found these things yet, but to be fair, I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search, either. Instead, I improvised our own special dinner last night, roasting a tiny chicken in our Easy Bake Oven, making potatoes and onions, plus a sort of a ratatouille with the local baby eggplants. We talked about the holiday and the special significance it has to us this year, as literal “strangers in a strange land.”
However I can’t let the holiday time slip by so unmarked. To make up for that I present some stitched historical artifacts found in museum collections, with direct connection to either the Jewish community of the 1500s, or to the Passover story itself.
First up is this bit of stitching, a Torah binder in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York:
F 4927, Torah Binder, , Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York
The full citation for this object is here (accession F-4927; the photo above has been shamelessly borrowed from that website). In short, it is dated on the artifact itself – 1582/3 (Jewish calendar 5343), and was donated by a woman, Honorata, the wife of Samuel Foa, to a congregation in Rome. It’s unclear if she stitched this herself, or if she commissioned it, because the inscription can be interpreted either way: “In honor of the pure Torah, my hand raised an offering… it is such a little one.”
The pattern is so typical of its time: double running stitch (or possibly back stitch, we can’t see the reverse), counted, in silk on linen. It might be modelbook-derived, although I haven’t spotted the exact source yet or found the same design on another artifact. I will continue to look for it. The museum does mention that the Sephardic community of Italy and Turkey commonly used secular design elements for devotional items, and that donation by a woman without a specific dedication in the name of a male child was also a normal practice.
Was this was in fact done by Honorata Foa herself based on a published or copied design? Did she stitch this as the donation of a home-needlewoman; or was she somehow part of an embroidery atelier or other enterprise, and used her professional skills to make it? If the latter – was the Roman Jewish community in the late 1500s involved in the production of counted embroidery as a trade? Obviously, more research here is required.
I have graphed this pattern and will include it in T2CM. I may also pull together a separate project instruction sheet for a matzoh cover using it and its lettering.
UPDATE: YES! I knew I’d seen something like this before. This pattern is a very close cousin of the Large Grape Repeat with Matching Border, presented in Plate 71:1 of The New Carolingian Modelbook. It’s not spot on the same, but the leaf shapes, the berries, the crosshatched angular stems joining to a more organic trunk – they are very, very close. That one is also illustrated in Pauline Johnstone’s Three Hundred Years of Embroidery, Wakefield Press, 1986, on page 17. No modelbook or broadside sheet source yet. Here’s my rendition of 17:1, on a sampler I did back in 1989:
One curious note on the Johnstone citation, she notes that the piece she presents was done in chain stitch on the reverse side, to give the appearance of double running or back stitch on the front.
UPDATE UPDATE: Chris Berry of Glasgow, former Chairman of the Embroiders Guild has sent me a delightful note of clarification. She has examined the artifact pictured in Ms. Johnstone’s book, and is convinced through close observation that the chain-like appearance on the reverse was in fact a by-product of back stitch. The point of the needle split the floss on the reverse as the back stitches were formed, giving the reverse the look of split or chain stitch. But it’s back stitch, all the same. Heartfelt thanks for this information!
Here’s the second share. This is a series of Italian voided work panels depicting scenes from the Passover story. They are collected at the Cleveland Museum of Art, dated to the 16th-17th century. I’d guess from the inscriptions that they were not made for a Jewish audience.
The final plague, on the first-born (accession 1939.355):
The Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh’s army (accession 1939.352):
It’s pretty obvious that these are all fragments of the same work or pieces made and intended to be displayed together – a series of panels with vignettes of the story, spaced out with floral ornament between. As to technique, there were several ways to produce a voided piece. One was clearly counted, with the design elements being plotted out on the ground cloth based on a full graph of some sort, and replicated true from repeat to repeat. These panels weren’t made that way. Not even the narrow borders are count-true. I would hazard that the images were sketched onto the cloth, then outlined in double running or back stitch. After the lines were established, the background was filled in using long-armed cross stitch. I would also guess that the lace applied along the bottom edge is needle-made, not bobbin lace.
So there you have it. Pesach far away from home, enlivened by holiday-themed needlework.
Happy holidays, Chag Sameach! Enjoy.