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.
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.
Also at the same store as the red trim, I found some silk embroidery 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.
What to make of this? Given the silk threads above, I’m thinking of something along the lines of this piece:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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!
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.
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):
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).
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
Here’s the second group of purchases.
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).
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.
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.
Just back from a five-day Diwali break trip to Agra and Delhi. In Agra we toured the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Ram Bagh (a magnificent Mughal era garden), and Chini Ka Rauza (mausoleum of Shah Jehan’s prime minister Afzal Khan Aalmi, himself a noted poet). In Delhi, we did a hilarious, whirlwind auto-rickshaw tour of Government center area, including the India Gate, houses of Parliament, and the embassy area; then a day in the National Museum, the Crafts Museum (a must-see if you are a weaving or textiles fan), the Red Fort, and at the end – a shopping trip to Dilli Haat. If you are ever in Delhi, insist on going to Dilli Haat. Your driver may try to steer you to a different crafts or souvenir store, but stand firm. You’ll find better quality goods at much lower prices, and without the “foreigner tax” so often encountered elsewhere.
The week was unforgettable, and I’m sure I’ll be posting some select tourist pix over the coming week. But folk here are reading for needlework content, so I’ll lead with that.
I wanted to bring home examples of Indian needlecraft that are a bit more interesting than the usual items sold to tourists – the hastily stitched pieces of sketchy construction in lurid colors. I had wanted to find examples of Kasuthi, of course, but so far, I haven’t. Perhaps when we go a bit south in Maharashtra later in the spring I’ll find some. But other than the iconic piece at the National Museum, pictured on the cover of my Kasuthi book, I haven’t seen a single example. Nor did I find quality shisha (mirror) work, although I did see a couple of pieces locally here in Pune that I may go back to buy. In crafts, like in all other areas of economic opportunity, bad drives out good. It’s hard to find honest quality pieces when less well executed items command the same price. But I did look hard, and we did buy several items, almost all from government designated regional or ethnic artisanal cooperatives in fair trade markets or sponsored cooperative stores. Here is the first selection:
My dodo curtain. Now anyone can find elephants or peacocks,even tigers, on cloth here. They’re everywhere. But this cotton curtain (about the size of a king size bedspread) is totally covered with roundels inhabited by dodos. Why dodos, I haven’t a clue. But in addition to the pudgy charm of the off-beat motifs, it was the best stitched and best composed of the large pieces I saw. My big disappointment is that I didn’t get a provenance on it, but I suspect Uttar Pradesh from the style:
The pictures above look rather pinkish, but the actual background color is more dun than salmon or orchid. The dodos are worked in tambour-worked chain stitch in gold and brick, olive and mustard perle cotton on a double-thick cotton ground, then heavily washed. The sequins are affixed along the lines of the gold stitching. That along with the treatment of threads on the back clinches the working method for me.
I hope to mount this as a room divider curtain on a brass rod between our living room and dining room. Long ago there was just such a brass rod in that wide opening, and now I have something worthy of replacing it.
Long live the dodo!
Mary Corbet over at Needle n’ Thread has just posted an interesting piece contrasting tambour needle produced chain stitch with the same stitch produced by a traditional threaded needle. She notes the speed, density and coverage factor of tambour stitching. I present a truly huge sample to corroborate her observations.
I have an entire room-size floor carpet done in tambour work.
For those of you who don’t know what tambour is, it’s a method of producing an even embroidery stitch with a chained appearance, by plunging a hook through a base fabric, catching a loop of decorative thread, then repeating the process to create a line. The hook used (called arhi, here) looks a bit like a fine crochet hook, but the end of the hook is a bit more pointed, to make piercing the ground fabric easier. Mary offers up some excellent discussions of the technique, so I’ll skip doing so.
In any case, Mary’s piece made me think about the rug we recently purchased:
This piece is roughly 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters). Everything you see here is stitching. The white cotton ground is totally covered by vibrant, dense-pack chain stitch in jewel colored cotton:
By getting close up with my gauge square, I can see that the stitch count varies between 10 and 12 stitches per inch, with the longer stitches being in the plain areas like the simple straight pink and brown runs at the bottom of the detail, above. For width, about three rows of stitching equals 1/3 of an inch, with the longer stitch areas being a bit narrower in addition to leggier. Perhaps the less skilled stitchers were assigned the boring border areas, and the more skilled artisans did the intricate motifs. In any case, because of the variability of stitch length and some small mistakes here and there, I am pretty confident that this rug was done by hand and not with a sewing machine.
If I flex the heavy canvas ground cloth, I can see some pencil lines behind the stitching that mark off major design areas, but not every area or motif is indicated. Finally, the entire piece is backed with another layer of cotton sheeting, slightly thinner than the natural color ground cloth.
Our rug came from the Kashmiri area further north, the source of so many of the handcrafts available here in Pune. It’s a bit unusual because this type of stitching is more commonly done in wool. Namdas for example, are tambour stitched rugs worked in wool (or sometimes today, wool/acrylic blend or even cotton) on a felted wool ground cloth. I’ve seen them both here, and occasionally in import stores in the US.
Back to our carpet – how long did it take to make? Tambour is speedy, but 6’ x 9’ is a huge amount of handwork. The crafts merchant who sold it to us said that these pieces were the product of family manufacture. It typically takes several people (I’m thinking four to six, more can’t easily fit around the cloth to work) about two weeks to make one this size. I base this on the fact that he says one family can produce between two and four big pieces per month. Ours was one of the largest. Most of the other samples of cotton tambour were about half this size. To my stitcher’s eye, ours was also the most accomplished of the four available cotton rugs. It was the most evenly and densely stitched, with the best color balance and patterning.
The stitched surface is holding up nicely to moderate traffic, although we are careful with it. We do not wear shoes in the house, and I do not subject this piece to the vacuum. Instead I light surface sweep with a soft plastic broom, and supplement that with occasional shake-outs. Thankfully, nothing has spilled on it. Yet.
We bought this piece because we fell in love with the brilliant color, intricate patterning; and because I appreciated the skill that it took to produce, and the magnitude of labor it represents. It’s time and care, rendered in cotton, and will be one of my favorite keepsakes, long after we return home.