Category Archives: Inspiration

BLACKWORK INSPIRATION

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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These are just a few ideas off the top of my head.

DATING DILEMMA

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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My Opinions

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.

On to the motifs themselves.  The version with the most minutely rendered detail is CH-1. Here are close-ups of the birds/urns and harpies from the five, presented in the same order as aboveCH-1-birdCH-1-harpy

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.

CH-2-birdimage

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-birdMET-1-harpy

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.

HERM-1-birdHERM-1-harpy

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.

MET-2-birdMET-2-harpy

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.

RECENT FINDS

Of course, you can’t be in Another World without exploring the retail options.  India is a textile lover’s paradise, with all sorts of fabrics both hand and machine woven, ranging from the humble to the outrageous.  I can’t buy it all.  In fact, I can’t buy very much, especially compared to the vast volume I covet.  But I am keeping my eye out for special items, with special purposes in mind.

First, I’ve written about Kasuti embroidery before.  I’ve been on the lookout for an example, but so far, I’ve not seen anything.  Not so much as scrap.  Perhaps when we go to Kerala next month we’ll see some, but I suspect that given its intricate nature and simple presentation, it is not being made in quantity for sale any more, because other more showy work of less labor can sell for more.

But I did find this piece. It’s NOT hand-made.  It’s machine embroidered sari, using traditional colors and patterns on an all-cotton ground.  In terms of scale, the stitches are about twice as large as the museum pieces I saw here in Pune, and in Delhi.  But it’s unmistakably part of the heritage, and the seller was very surprised that I recognized it as such.

sari

I have also found some trim for my long-delayed library curtain project.  The 1 inch wide red paisley at the bottom is actually hand-stitched.  I’m not sure what to do with the blingy gold at the top, but it was so over the top and of such a typical Renaissance configuration, that I had to buy it.  A use will present itself, I am sure.  Aside:  most borders and trims here in India are sold in single piece 9-meter lengths, the optimal length for application onto a standard sari.

Trims 

Also at the same store as the red trim, I found some silk embroidery floss. 

floss

This stuff is quite fine, with the individual strands being significantly thinner than Soie d’Alger, my go-to silk for countwork.  I got a bunch in assorted colors, each big bundle containing 10 skeins, and the skeins being 10 rupees apiece.  That’s about 16 cents US at the current exchange rate.  I will probably go back and get more, although the range of colors was rather attenuated.

And finally, I got a yard of real silk canvas.  My signet ring is shown for scale.   mesh

What to make of this?  Given the silk threads above, I’m thinking of something along the lines of this piece:

Sampler

This is a 17th century sampler in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago (Museum #2008.627).  It’s worked on a gauze ground in darning and double running stitch (among others).  It’s not going to happen any time soon, but the materials are now in my hands and ready.

METAL LACE

Quality ironwork,, armoring, weapons work, and smithery fascinate me.  Especially wrought, as opposed to cast iron.  I am also fond of arms and armor.  The precision, tracery, and especially the contrast between the hard medium and delicate forms speaks to me, with parallels to textiles and couturier design.  Oh and the elements of fire and danger.  Let’s not forget the purpose…

While there were many other famous textile examples on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Tower of London, and the British Museum, most of my embroidery and stitching readers have already seen them.  They’re the examples presented in just about every textbook or reference work on stitching. Instead, I’d like to take a cross-craft side trip and look at some of the things we saw that are less well known or documented in the hope of kindling some cross-pollination.

Today is wrought iron.  The V&A has a magnificent hall of ironwork.  How could one not adore this dolphin, so much like a calligraphic image?

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It is one of a pair.  The V&A’s citation is Number 280:7-8-1879, and from that citation, it is dated 1520-1530, of Spanish origin, by Juan Francés, part of a larger altar screen.

I also love this pair of window grilles:

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The thin bars that form the center diamonds are all independently forged to the frame and are formed and spaced with great precision.   The contrast of geometric and organic traceries in the side triangles and arch are blackwork in iron. This piece is V&A Number 125-c-1879, from Italy, dated 1575-1600. 

I fell down on the job and didn’t get the annotation for this piece, and I can’t find it in the on-line photo collection to provide provenance and date, but it’s in the same gallery as the grille above.

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The play of curves and symmetry fights with my mental preconception of iron as unyielding and linear.

Finally two figural pieces.  Fear the iron chicken, and the lion key-master!

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The weathercock is French, dated around 1700-1725, made of wrought iron and copper.  It’s Museum number 909:1 to 3-1906, and bears evidence of gilt and polychrome finishes.  The wrought iron locksmith’s standard is German, dated around 1760 to 1800, and is Museum Number 545-1869.  I would have thought that elements of the lion would have been cast iron, but no – they’re all wrought. 

Now – why the side trip through metalwork?  Because I want to show that the aesthetics of historical embroidery are even better appreciated in context.  The forms of the late locksmith sign mimic those of Rococo laces and goldwork stitching.  The earlier grilles echo contrasts, shapes and lines of Italian and French strapwork embroidery, done at around the same time. 

Finally, imagine the shadows thrown by those window grilles – sitting in the afternoon sun made lace as it sifts through the iron, stitching oh-so-similar shapes until it is too dark to see.

CROSS STITCH

Stitching geeks – like those immersed in every esoteric discipline –  love to argue; even when an issue is settled.  Sometimes assertions bubble up again, are discussed with passion, and then go into remission.  Occasionally these debates cycle back, usually because reference materials with outdated opinions are found by a new generation of hobbyists who take the authors’ words at face value.

One of these oft raised/oft settled debates involves the use of plain old common cross stitch in historical eras: was or was it not done before 1600. And the answer isn’t crystal clear, nor does it come with hard boundary dates.  Let’s look at modern stitching and a dated example from the late 1500s.

Figural cross stitch isn’t new.  It isn’t modern.  But it has morphed into a recognizable modern style that has migrated from its pre-1600s cognates.  The photo below is of a contemporary sampler designed by Marilyn Leavitt-Imbloom, for Lavender and Lace.  It’s entitled “Angel of Dreams” and is widely available for purchase (a quick Google search will turn up retailers):

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Ms. Leavitt-Imbloom’s work is pretty much the poster child for the modern needle-painted cross stitch style.  Note the fluid forms, the subtle shadings that mimic painting, the half and quarter stitches and sparing (though dramatic) use of double running stitch outlines.

By contrast, here is one of the Oxburgh Hanging panels dated circa 1570, stitched by Mary, Queen of Scots (and/or Elizabeth Talbot, one of her ladies) during captivity.  The first photo is shamelessly borrowed from the artifact’s Victoria and Albert page (Museum accession #T.33JJ-1955).  The detail shots below it were taken by Elder Daughter on our visit there.  If you click on the details, you’ll be taken to larger versions for closer inspection (patience please on the download, some are huge).

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Now, the official descriptions cite “tent stitch” for all of the Oxburgh hangings.  But if you look closely at the insect being inspected by the sea monster, it’s pretty clear that cross stitch was employed on this particular slip.  Also note that the different parts of the insect were stitched with no regard for maintaining “the same leg on top”.  Although some unworked bits just north of the Monster’s  head can be seen and counted, we can’t rely on that because the bright white cloth peeking through the stitching is conservator’s ground, onto which the fragile stitching has been affixed.  Fortunately, there is a small damaged area just north of the insect where we can see the original fabric:

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Yup.  Cross stitch, worked over a 2×2 thread grid.

On style – yes there are shadings, produced by marling a small number of colors of fine floss-fiber together to make threads of intermediate hues, rather than selecting pre-dyed solid threads of graduated color.  But the shadings are far les subtle than the modern work.  There are strong outlines also worked in cross stitch, probably related to the drafting methods of the time, in which the design was drawn directly on the linen prior to stitching.  It is possible that black outlines were worked in part to cover those inked or otherwise drawn lines.  I also think the outlines were worked first, based on the way that other stitches encroach upon them, with the colors added later – first to the foreground items, and finally to the background areas. Note that the lines do break in a couple of places, but I can’t say whether that is due to differential thread wear or they were truly omitted. 

Now these all-over figural embroideries like the Oxburgh slips are not the only form of historical cross stitch.  In fact, pictures like these are among the minority of surviving examples. Far more represented in artifact collections today are borders and strips in long-armed cross stitch or its variants.  They’re not common, but cross stitched pictures did exist in the world of of the 1570s.  And they looked rather different from contemporary figural cross stitched pieces.

ELIZABETHAN BLACKWORK SMOCK

O.k.  I know a few of you want me to do a blow by blow travelogue of our London trip.  But that’s not my forté.  I’ll wander over and cover some of that material several posts, but mostly want to write about specific things we saw, this being one of the first times I’ve been able to get relatively up close and personal with historical artifacts.  Besides, The Resident Male is a much better travel writer than I am.

First off, to satisfy my stitching readers, is this blackwork smock, currently on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

Smock-5

The full citation cites it as being of British make, and stitched some time during 1575 to 1585.  They posit home manufacture rather than a professional house.  If you read through the full description, you’ll find out that the top part (the stitched bodice) was done on fine linen, and the unseen and unstitched lower part  was also linen, but of a much coarser fabric.  The plain lower skirt and the needle lace around the neckline and cuffs are modern reproductions.  The accession number is T.113 to 118-1997.

I tried to take pix of this artifact to show the details.  It’s basically three large rectangles, with underarm gussets (each sporting a flower, and unseen here).  One rectangle for each sleeve, plus a larger one with head hole for the front, back and shoulders.  I wanted to see if that center strip was seamed from smaller parts, but I wasn’t able to do so based on my examination.

One thing that delighted me was the use of various techniques for the fills.  Some were done on the count.  It looks like the grid may be 4×4 threads.  I can’t estimate the stitch per inch count, but it’s roughly comparable in look to between 20 and 25 stitches per inch.  The thread does look finger spun from floss silk, with some areas more tightly twisted than others, and some variation in thickness.

Some filling placements were eyeballed, and done freehand (note the trailing vines and spot motifs that follow the flower forms rather than marching rigidly in diagonals). The solid bits look to have been done in satin stitch or a stitch in the Romanian couching family.  The dark borders around the shapes look to be either outline or stem stitch in some places, and in other places possibly whipped or threaded back stitch.  There may be knot stitches in there, too, (especially the knotted line stitches that sport little side stitch “legs”) but my eyes couldn’t pick them out for absolute identification.

Effort was made to use the same filling in matching areas of symmetrical designs, but some variations do occur.  In fact, the occasional lapses in attention to detail on the fills, and that some are presented in a couple of variations (see below) are charming, and makes me think that my guess that the fillings were thought up on the fly, rather than being copied from canonical works may be true. (Filling inventors, take heart.)

I tried to get very close to the turned back cuffs to determine whether or not they were exactly double sided, with both front and back identical.  Well, they’re close but not absolute.  My pictures aren’t good enough to show it, but there are (barely) detectable knots on the inside of the cuff.  The double running stitch fills and solid areas (satin stitch in this case) are certainly worked very neatly, especially compared to the relative chaos of the back sides of other contemporary work, but they are not spot on exactly the same front and back, although they are presentable and nicely done, for sure.

Here are some more pix of the thing.  These shots were taken by Elder Daughter, with her superior camera skills and equipment:

Smock-1Smock-2Smock-4Smock-7

And finally, to satisfy the people who pointed out that I did not include exact citations for every fill in my free-to-download Ensamplario Atlantio collection, here is a set of 10 plates with fills sourced specifically to this artifact.

fillings-160-V&Afillings-158-V&Afillings-155-V&Afillings-157-V&Afillings-152-V&Afillings-154-V&Afillings-153-V&Afillings-151-V&Afillings-156-V&Afillings-159-V&A

So much for facts.  I have to say there were several items on display that caused me to hyperventilate like a Twilight fangirl.  Blackwork geek that I am, this was one.  It’s in excellent condition, with the stitching, dense, the threads shiny, and minimal wear or damage.  The overall effect was one of understated opulence, but not splendor.  For one, there is an aspect of “loving hands at home” to this piece, especially in the composition and heaviness of the fills.

But what struck me the most was that the standard of excellence in this piece is entirely achievable today.  Yes, it’s exacting, and acquiring the materials would be difficult, but it’s not miles beyond the capability and reach of modern amateur needleworkers.  It’s time we stop bowing to “the ancients” and banish our temporal craftsmanship insecurities  The best of us are darned good (no pun intended), and many of the contemporary projects I see on the web are just as well executed as this prime piece from the 16th century.

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART V

It occurs to me that before I can begin writing about our holiday week London trip, complete with meet-up with Elder Daughter, plus all sorts of interesting sights at various museums, historical places, and theater performances, I have to finish my posts about our November trip to Agra and Delhi.  Apologies for the delay, I plead computer woes, spotty connectivity, and ennui (in no particular order).

Here’s the prize piece from our big India trip – a tamboured Pashmina jacket, made in Kashmir, but purchased in Agra.

jacket-1 jacket-2

It is one of the nicest, most finely worked tambour items I’ve handled.  The colors in these shots are pretty true, but they glow a bit more in person.  The golds, oranges, reds, and browns twinkle against the cobalt blue ground.  The edging isn’t trim – it’s more densely packed tambour work, done on the same piece of cloth as the scrolling vines of the main body.  The buttons are cloth, covered with more stitching. The thread is all Pashmina wool, too.  No metallics or glitter. You can see the surface sheen from the fine, densely packed chain stitches in the button placket. 

I will say that this was an indulgent gift from The Resident Male – the price made me giddy, even after he bargained it down from the stratosphere.  But for work of this quality, the price was fair. I adore my luxury present, and am looking forward to wearing it in cooler climates.

I am still looking for other good examples of Indian needlework, more within my budget.  Sadly, as with so many handcrafts, bad drives out good.  Since most of the tourist market does not recognize or reward quality craftsmanship, artisans pursue greater revenue and higher volume over better artifacts. 

Pieces that show skill and solid artisanry are few and far between, but  I’ve seen endless piles of poorly stitched shisha (mirror) work cushions, sloppy satin stitch hangings that look like they were done in one evening, and beadwork that sheds its sequins after a light shake.  I can’t fault the makers – they are pressed to provide income for their families.  But I won’t buy those things, either.  So the hunt continues…

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART IV

I’m not done yet!

Here’s another piece we found on our Delhi/Agra trip.  This came from a dealer in Agra, and not the fair trade market in Delhi.

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This is a patchwork wall hanging.  It’s sort of in Crazy Quilt style, although the piece is one huge block, roughly 4 feet x 2 feet.  It’s made up of fragments of highly embellished antique textiles, much of it overdyed in black; plus some newer pieces to eke things out.  The fragments are appliqued to totally cover a background, and that ground cloth is in turn backed by another heavier cotton cloth.  There is minimal quilting between the layers to hold them together – mostly some tacking stitches along the rolled borders between the fragments.

Close up you can see the amount of beadwork, sequins, gold stitching and other encrustations:

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The dealer had several like this.  Believe it or not – this was the plainest.  It was also the one in best condition.  One problem with antique pieces is that often the cloth is not stable.  Silk is friable, and crackles with age.  All the more so when it has been overdyed.  Threads securing hand-hammered sequins or rough edged metal beads can break easily.  I looked long and hard at the five offerings, and picked the one in the best shape from a curator’s perspective.

The number of techniques in this piece is hard to estimate.  There’s tambour in silk, cotton and metal threads; beadwork and sequins applied in myriad ways; satin stitch, laid couching of various types; buttonhole stitch; something very much like or nuée, with gold threads affixed with colored silks in patterns or to create shaded effects; appliqued lace; some very old mirror work (shisha); and heaven knows what else. 

The way this piece is put together reminds me a lot of a cherished gift at home.  Jackie of the late and lamented Wild & Woolly, gave me this knitting bag for services rendered when I helped her with a major home reorganization:

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It’s also of Indian origin, assembled patchwork style from small pieces of sari borders and other embroidered snippets.  In this case the backing fabric is cotton velour, instead of heavy flat-woven matte-finish cotton.  I have a feeling that this bag is somehow related to the black hanging, if only distantly.

But as jaw-dropping as the black piece is, it’s not our ultimate acquisition (so far).  You’ll have to wait until the next post to see that!

IN WHICH WE BUY MORE TEXTILES–PART III

O.k.  So technically, these aren’t embroideries.  But they are still textiles.

Among the various indulgent purchases we made on our Agra-Delhi vacation was this Kashmiri rug, bought after much hard bargaining from a traditional Smiling Rug Merchant:

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The bargaining is part of the theater. I don’t believe for a minute the merchant’s protestations that we were taking bread out of the mouths of his children (their graduation photos from US universities were behind his desk), but the play of price, offer, counter offer, reticence and commitment must be played out for any large purchase.  It’s like high school dating, but for merchandise.

This piece is a runner, for use in the long hall outside our library.  It’s an heirloom quality, all-wool warp hand knotted rug, with long, luxuriant fringes, and dyed with traditional vegetable colors.  It’s hard to say how such muted reds and tumerics glow, but they do.  We’ll probably leave it out for a couple of days to admire, then roll it back up in its muslin bag to await shipment home with the rest of the household goods, come June.

The next day we bought some woven pieces at Dilli Haat as gifts and souvenirs.

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The small woven bags and coasters are cotton and straw.  The four larger hobo-style soft tote bags are cotton with inset hand-woven bands. If my notes are correct, these are  backstrap-loom produced pieces from Nagaland, near Assam.

[UPDATE]  I’ve done some research on the  small  woven straw clutches.  I didn’t write down the region of origin when I bought them, but I’ve now pegged them to the c0astal region of Orissa.  They are made of sabai grass and cotton, and are part of an economic initiative that assists families in flood-ravaged areas reclaim economic self-sufficiency.

These smaller items we did not bargain for, other than putting together a group and asking for a price for the larger purchase, rather than toting up each item individually.  All were quite reasonably priced, and sold as they were by the village or guild co-ops, we were happy to provide fair recompense directly to the crafting artisans themselves.

I’m not done yet.  There are more pix of textiles to come.  And if you want to see the larger sights of our trip, the husband has posted an excellent two-parter on our trip to the Taj Mahal.

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART II

Here’s the second group of purchases.

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These are three cushion covers and three small glasses-case-sized pouches, all done in pattern darning.  We also got these in Dilli Haat, in Delhi; from a Government-registered ethnic arts stall.  In this case, the pieces were done by a Toda cooperative.  The Toda people are from South India in the Niligiri Hills and surrounding areas.  Their traditional culture is pastoralist, centering on dairy herds. 

Their stitching, seen on a Toda’ woman’s outfit below, has been adapted for retail sale. The Dilli Haat vendor was selling the square cushions and small bags I bought, plus tote bags, larger throws, and bolster cushion covers (think cylinders, with the stitching going around the circumference). 

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Image credit for the lady above:  6 Assago via the Fair Trade Forum – India, which also works with Toda cooperatives to market their crafts.

Anyone who is familiar with my love of black, red and white geometrical stitching will know I was especially delighted to find these pieces.  It will be difficult for me to part with any of them, even though I bought them as gifts.

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In terms of technical specs, the white ground cloth is a bit like Aida cloth, even weave with a well defined “stitch here” hole structure; at roughly 20 doubled threads per inch.  The thread used looks to be an acrylic lace-weight plied yarn.  It’s a bit friable, so gentle care is in order to minimize surface fuzzing.  The pouches and cushion covers are lined, so seeing the reverse is problematic.

Now, there are several embroidery styles in India that use pattern darning.  For example, Kasuthi also employs Negi (weaving) stitch for individual stand-alone motifs or for borders in which the stitches form the foreground.  But the Toda style is a bit different.  It’s characterized by strips of uniform patterning, with the stitching making up a solid background against which the unworked ground cloth peeps through in geometric designs.

And I love it.