I’ve recently had chats with several folk who ask about the number of threads they are supposed to be using when working linear blackwork (fills or the strapwork designs commonly done in double running or back stitch).
I attempt to answer, and the answer isn’t a plain, flat “always.”
There are several factors to consider for counted work. First there is the ground fabric. Some people favor purpose-wovens like Aida, Hardanger, Monks’ Cloth or Anna Cloth. These are made with large, prominent holes for easy counting. They come in a variety of stitch-per-inch (or cm) sizes. They range from 9 to around 22 stitch per inch (aka “count”). The more stitches per inch, the smaller those stitches are.
Other types of grounds are also used, with even weave (or near-even-weave) being less popular than the purpose-wovens. These grounds are flat tabby woven fabrics. They do not have a system of prominent holes for easy counting – to use them the stitcher counts the threads of the weave itself. Most sold specifically for embroidery are more or less true and square, with very close equivalent measurements of the threads running the length of the bolt (the warp), and across the bolt (the weft). The measurement of fineness of weave for these fabrics is expressed as threads-per-inch (or cm), and they can range from around 20 threads-per-inch (tpi) all the way up to 50 tpi or more. Stitchers generally work over a visualized square of 2×2 threads, so a 24 tpi piece of even weave would yield the same 12 stitches per inch as 12-count Aida, but the holes between the threads would be far smaller and less obvious.
Now aberrations exist. Not everyone works over 2×2 threads on even weave, and it is possible to work counted styles on anything you can actually see well enough to count, whether or not the warp thread count is even close to that of the weft. But in general, the ground cloth world splits into purpose-woven/larger more prominent holes; and (near) even weave/smaller, less evident holes.
On to thread.
It’s all over the map. The most common thread used today is standard 6-ply embroidery floss, but there are hundreds of other options. And even plain old embroidery floss is NOT uniform. Not even if they are of the same fiber. For example, DMC and Anchor cotton flosses have very slight differences in ply thickness, with the DMC (most of the time) being ever so slightly thicker than the Anchor. And even within a line, there can be variation because different colors take up dye differently, or because of visual impact of the color used (a dark thread will often appear heavier than one of a lighter color, even if there is no actual difference between them). And if you begin comparing across fiber types/spin types even more complications ensue – One ply of DMC cotton 6-ply is thicker than one ply of Au Ver a Soie six-ply silk, for example.
Here are three examples on even weave (please excuse me for not having Aida samples to hand – I don’t use it.)
First, here is an example of 32-count even weave linen (16 stitches per inch), worked with two strands of a six-ply silk – a small lot product produced by a boutique hand-dyer. Note that the individual stitches are about as thick as the ground cloth’s weave. They fill the holes into which they are stitched completely, and in fact are a bit jammed up into them, making intersections just a bit muddy and tight:
Here is that same ground, worked using just one ply of the same thread used in the previous sample.
You can see that the stitched thread is significantly thinner than the ground cloth’s weave, and that corners and angles are sharper. But the stitching thread still fills the holes, and doesn’t “rattle around” in them. There is another difference – the stitching doesn’t look as even. It’s harder to achieve a uniform appearance with skinny threads, but the difference that shows up in extreme close-up is less evident at normal viewing distance.
Which is better? It depends. One or two threads are both suitable for use with this fabric. Do I want a light and lacy effect? Do I want something darker and more strident? Should I accent the close, dense and angular aspect of a design (as on the left), or should I try to bring out the curves and delicacy (on the right)?
By contrast with these two balanced examples, there’s the piece I am working on right now. I am working the black bit with one strand of standard DMC 6-ply cotton floss. It’s about 14 stitches per inch (28 threads per inch).
Obviously the count on this stuff is skew. It’s not true even weave. Were it so the enmeshed ovals would present more like circles. But it’s close enough so stitched-it-will-be. Look closely at the size of the thread and the holes in the weave. Even though the black thread is slightly thinner than the fabric’s threads (like the lacy sample above) – look at it in comparison to the gaping holes between the fabric’s threads. It’s tiny and spindly. It’s lost. It wobbles. Corners are extremely difficult to keep square, angles are being pulled, and the threads that make up the design do not present in nearly as neat rows as the previous example. This same ground, with two plies of DMC? Much better looking:
In this case, I would advise AGAINST using this particular ground with only one ply of standard floss. It’s holes are too big. I’ll finish out my black interlace mask pieces, but I won’t be using a single on this stuff again.
And mixing thicknesses? It’s a great tool. Jack Robinson – the UK’s Blackwork Patron Saint (now of blessed memory) – was a strong advocate for both historical and modern pieces that mixed thread thicknesses.
Here are a couple of examples of doing so, from my own work. I find it of special use for giving modern-style voided pieces a lighter background touch, although I have also used it to de-emphasize veining inside particularly complex leaves on non-voided work.
First: In addition to using a different background pattern for each, the yellow ground on the left is done with one strand of DMC floss, and the yellow ground on the right, with two so you can see the density.
Second: Foreground and background in the same color, but the foreground is worked with two strands, and the background with one.
Now how does this work out on Aida? Again, I apologize for not having samples to hand. I don’t use it. The reason why I don’t is that I find the holes to be a visual distraction that take away from the presentation of the work as a whole. I’ve seen magnificent stitching on Aida, and I throw no shade on those who prefer it. But to me those holes can be way too big for the thread choices many people use. Like my wobbly sample above, the threads have too much play, and even tension without distortion at the corners or avoiding jaggy lines can be more difficult to control because the holes are big compared to the stitching thread.
For myself and my own work aesthetic, I prefer a well-stuffed hole (sometimes bordering on over-stuffed), and select my threads accordingly. One strand on Aida? I’d suggest two. Or three if it’s 12 or 14 count. But as in all things, my practice is not a yardstick by which you should measure your own preferences.
Look closely at your product. Try to understand why the threads behave as they do. Are you happy with your stitching? Think about your design goals. Even if you are interpreting a pattern by someone else there is plenty of scope in there for your own design choices. Thread thickness and proportion to the ground and to the size of the holes are just more variables you can play with to make any piece visually distinctive and uniquely yours.
Remember my family’s latke rules. Every family’s latkes are different, and every family’s latkes are the best. The same goes for stitching.
Setting a new overland speed record for completion, I offer my Harsh Language piece. I began it on 22 August, and finished on 30 August. Eight days. Lightning fast, especially considering that I only stitch for an average of an hour and a half per day (more on weekend days, less midweek). Here it is in all its glory. I’ve redacted not the offending verb but the dedication, because as I’ve said before, the recipient wishes to remain anonymous.
I did have fun playing with the wool. It was much thinner and more tightly spun and cleanly finished (read non-fuzzy) than tapestry/needlepoint wools, and a joy to use.
In addition to the hints I offered up before, I would add that even with the shorter length, care must be taken to let the needle and strand spin freely, in order to counteract the twist imposed during the stitching process. That twist can loosen the spin of the wool strand enough to denature it to the point of shredding. You can see a couple of heavy stitches in the piece, where I was nearing the end of the strand, and the thread had “bloomed” but I kept going.
And yes, the weave of the ground wasn’t quite proportionally even. I don’t remember where this stuff came from – purchased retail, found at a yard sale, acquired as a gift – but it’s been in my stash easily since 1996, and has a yellowed selvage edge to prove it. But aside from that flappy edge (no where near this stitching), it was sound. It’s probably a cotton/linen blend. You can see the skewing in this detail. Horizontal stitches are just a tad wider than verticals, and diagonals are not 45-degrees.
Well I pulled out this remnant, and used about a third of it on this little piece. The remainder will go to become decorative outer layers for some masks. This open weave fabric is pretty useless as any sort of barrier, so I will line the masks with two or more layers of nice, tight 100% cotton 300-count pillowcases (retired from their prior duty). They are navy blue.
I will be using more thread provided by Stealth Apprentice for beta-testing. It’s luscious silk, dyed in one of her early indigo vat experiments. The color of the thread ranges from a nice deep denim down to Wedgewood, and was the child of serendipity, not a planned effort to produce a variegated.
I admit I put this hank off because it posed some minor problems. It’s a multi-strand floss, but during color processing it became rather matted and tangled (it was before she learned better methods to secure the hanks during dyeing), and the indigo itself does crock quite a bit, leaving blue fingers and traces on the ground as it is stitched. However this blue was an very early experiment long before she went retail with her products, so all is forgiven.
To deal with the matting I’m using the full strand and not trying to separate the plies. To tame the tangle, instead of trying to wind it I cut the skein in one place, and looped it over a stick. I’m teasing out strands one by one at the loop, and using them in full “cut length.”
There can be no mistakes with this stuff – it does leave very evident marks if picked out. And I fully expect the color to migrate onto the backing during washing. But that’s o.k., too. I think the look will be quite interesting after haloing. The navy inner layers may peek through the somewhat loose weave and camouflage some of that halo.
Challenges considered, I am very glad I saved this thread until just the right project appeared. This piece will certainly change over time as it is subjected to my ungentle care. Masks after all need vigorous cleaning. The blue may bloom onto the ground cloth. Such leeched color may dissipate over subsequent washes, or the threads themselves might do a old-jeans fade. All are anticipated and none are unwelcome. So while the thread might not have been optimal for some other more formal projects, it’s spot on perfect for this one.
I’ve got enough fabric for at least four masks. Possibly five. I’m not sure if I will do them all in this blue, or I’ll play with other threads – either monochrome or in a wild mix (I think there’s only enough blue for two, anyway). I don’t know if I’ll stick to all-over designs. I might for example doodle up one in an inhabited blackwork design – the scrolling flowers with heavy outlines, with patterned or speckled fillings. I’ll probably skip metal threads and spangles though, due to the laundering requirement. Or I may do one with scattered, themed spot motifs – insects, for example. Or I may do several “zones” and use different fillings in each. Or I’ll work band designs on the diagonal. The possibilities are endless, and (sadly) I don’t see the need for masks going away any time soon.
Will I make all four? How will they play out? Will something else catch my easily distractable eye, and I’ll do that instead? Will I keep these or give them away? Stay tuned. (And they say needlework has no excitement, mystery, or suspense.)
Oh. And there is no “bad” thread. There’s a perfect project for just about anything that can be used. I love this blue silk and I will enjoy stitching with every inch.
Remember this sampler I completed early last year?
I went on at length about the rather goofy looking cupid strip at the bottom, and about the cousins of the middle strip, but I never discussed the top strip – the cupid and oak branch meander that includes the poor little guy being menaced by the lion.
I haven’t seen this cupid strip in any modelbook (yet). But I’ve found several examples of it in museum collections. My rendition is more or less a “moving average” of all of them, and will be in my ever-forthcoming T2CM.
This design is notable because of the multiple ways in which it has been rendered. Here are five. I’ve got another two someplace in my notes. When I find them I’ll update this post.
First, there’s the standard single strip with edging representation above, marked as 16th century, Italian – double running in silk, in red – one of the most common colors for this type of work. It’s in the St. Gallen Textilmuseum in Switzerland, and can be found in their on-line collection, Accession 23760 (you probably will have to search for the object by accession number because their links are dynamic and break).
This is the same pattern doubled and turned into a frame. It’s also sourced as 16th century, Italian. Note that the design is butted, not mitered, with an interesting truncated bit to fill in the left and right sides. There is no accessible link for this piece at the source I stumbled on – 1st Dibs Antiques, but that appearance was within the past year. All I have is a screen cap, and the photo is long gone from the sales site. However complications ensue. It or something practically identical was offered at Bonham’s site several years ago. Thistle Threads did an excellent write-up of the Bonham’s offering 2016. (She’s got some up close photos, too).
The blue sample above is from the Hermitage Museum, It’s dated 16th to early 17th century, Italian, double running, with the voided ground worked in squared filling. It’s accession number is T-2799. (If the link breaks, search there for “Bad Spread” (sic).) This is the piece on which my rendition is most closely based.
The black and white image above is hard to make out, but it’s clearly the same cupids, done in polychrome AND with a worked ground. It’s not really voided because the foreground isn’t left plain or minimally adorned. There’s not much elaboration on the Metropolitan Museum’s page, but it is attributed as Italian, of the early 17th century. It’s accession 68.145.6. I hope some day they go back and take another, better photo.
And lastly, there’s this one. The most unusual of them all. Here is our friend (blindfolded for a change), done using red silk outlines, but then infilled with couched gold metal thread.
This example is in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Its citation is Band, 16th century; silk, metallic yarn on linen; H x W: 110 x 90 cm (43 5/16 x 35 7/16 in.); Gift of Richard C. Greenleaf; 1954-167-2
Now. Why post all of these versions? First, because they are interesting. Second, to refute a commonly held belief that there is only ONE right way to execute these designs. Stitchers took the same base pattern and used it in many individual ways. Monochrome, polychrome. Plain ground, voided, or totally overstiched. There is no canon.
Be historically faithful and execute historical designs in any of the myriad styles contemporary with the base pattern. It would be very difficult to make the case that any one of those treatments was never used. Or take the same pattern and reinterpret it using modern styles, scale, or materials. There are no Embroidery Police who enforce historical precedent over individual expressive creativity.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that if a pattern sings to you, just go for it.
So for those of you who favor seasonal stitchery, here is a suitably spooky present:
The inspiration for Baba Yaga is courtesy of my pal and former co-worker Laura Packer. Laura is a storyteller by trade – an unusual occupation these days, but one she does splendidly. You can sign up for notification of her public tellings at the link above, or you can subscribe for all sorts of creative goodness at her Paetron link.
Laura had sent a much appreciated surprise to me, so I doodled up the main Baba Yaga chicken-leg hut motif in return. She swooned over it, and suggested further additions from the story cycle – the chest with the egg/heart; the fence of bones (I stole my bony boi’s faces for that), the moon, three keys, a cauldron, a forest of briers, wind, a raven; and keys, creepy crawlies and other things in sets of three. I put in as many as I could, adding the motto across the bottom and the dreamer frame (in silhouette, intended to be stitched very densely for added mystery).
When we were both happy, I went final with it. And gave full rights to the design in perpetuity to Laura. She returned the favor by allowing me to post it here.
Please note that this is just a chart – not a full project described in detail. I suggest work in one or two colors on even weave or one of the higher count Aida fabrics, but I do not give thread consumption estimates. Linear elements can be done in double running or back stitch. The silhouette frame can be worked in long armed cross stitch, four sided cross stitch, or plain old cross stitch – your choice. There are gaps in places between the solid dark areas of the silhouette frame and its outline. Feel free to fudge those in with partial stitches if you like. I didn’t want to add visual complication by including the partials. It’s going to be hard enough to count as it is.
I don’t even have an as-stitched example to post (yet). If you beat me to that and feel so inclined, please send a photo and I will showcase it here.
You can download Baba Yaga from my embroidery pattern page (tab above or click here). While I am not charging for the thing, I do release it as “good deed ware.” Subscribe to Laura’s channel, or make a donation/buy a thing/otherwise subsidize the creative professional of your choice.
Artists – and especially face to face performance artists, actors, and musicians – are having a very hard time of it right now. But it’s art that keeps us anchored and sane in times of stress. If you can, please be a true patron and lend a hand. After all, doing good for those touched by the the spirits of creativity can only bring good fortune in return. Often in very unexpected ways. Let me tell you a story…
Voided work is a catch-all term for a family of embroideries where the background is covered by stitching, and voids in that solid stitching make up the motifs (the foreground). Sometimes the foreground is further ornamented by additional stitching, sometimes not. There are many different styles of this work, lots of posited points of origin/provenance, and just as many design or pattern groupings that have come and gone in and out of style over the centuries that voided work has been done. While modern Assisi (simplified motifs done with cross-stitch backgrounds) is the form of voided work most widely known today, it’s not the only type, and there is a lot to explore in the allied family of voided styles.
Here’s one subgroup – Story Panels. This is a family of works that I’ve run across as I’ve researched counted voided styles, that hangs together as a subset based on a number of commonalities.
First, the examples:
l. From the Cooper-Hewitt collection, Band. Italy, 16th–18th century; silk on linen; H x W: 24.1 x 172.1 cm (9 1/2 x 67 3/4 in.); Gift of Richard C. Greenleaf; 1954-167-5. These four panels show elements of the Adam and Eve story, and the workaday life after Eden . It’s done in red silk on linen, with a densely overworked meshy background. I don’t necessarily agree that it’s long armed cross stitch – that has a different look of directionality. This has more of a meshy appearance. Foregrounds are outlined (back stitch according to the listing), and ornamented by knot stitches.
2. From the Art Institute of Chicago, Fragment (from a border), Italy, 1575-1625, silk on linen. 22.8 x 41.4 cm (9 x 16 3/8 in.); Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.827 Part of the story of Noah. Outlined foreground elements with spot decoration, ground in long armed cross stitch aka LACS (that back and forth almost plaited looking directonality is evident.)
3. Another from the Art Institute of Chicago. Fragment (from a border) Italy, 1575-1625, silk on linen, 19 x 40.6 cm (7 1/2 x 16 in.); Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.826. Joseph and his brothers. This may or may not be part of the same original (or series of originals) as #2, above. Similar color, and LACS technique, but the heights are different, and the motifs are simpler in this one – less ornamented, less detailed.
4. And also from The Art Institute of Chicago, Fragment (from a border), Italy, 1575-1625, Linen with silk. 276 x 44.2 cm (10 7/8 x 17 3/8 in.), Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund; 1907.825. To my eye based on these photos, it looks like this panel (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife?) is done the same way as #4, above.
5. From the Cleveland Art Museum, Embroidered Border: The Baking of Unleavened Bread, Italy 16th-17th century. Silk on linen. 18.1×45.4cm (7 1/8 x 17 7/8 in.) Gift of the Textile Arts Club; 1939.354. From Probably LACS (no prominent holes like the meshy style). Foreground lightly outlined with what looks to be a thinner thread, foreground details in back or double running. No knot stitches. I’ve discussed the group of four panels from which this comes once before.
6. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Strip, Italy, 16th century, silk on linen, 9 1/8 x 25 in (23.2 x 63.5cm), Gift of Mrs. Harry Ge Friedman; 48.57. I’m guessing from the inscription that this is part of the Joseph in Egypt narrative, where he has dealings with his half-brother Simon. Again, probably long armed cross stitch, with either double running or back stitch outlines of the voids.
7. Also from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Panel with Noah’s Ark. Italy, late 16th/early 17th century. Silk on linen. 14 1/4 x 39 1/4 in. (36.2 x 99.7 cm) with lace. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.11784. Another Noah’s Ark. Note that the base drawing of the ark section is very, very close to the green one, although the follow on panel is different.
8. Still more. From the Cooper-Hewitt, Band, Italy, Late 16th, early 17th century, linen, silk; H x W: 150 x 19 cm (59 1/16 x 7 1/2 in.); 1950-29-8. The center panel is probably David avoiding Saul’s spear, but the rest of the iconography is hazy and there’s no top line inscription to help. Very clearly long armed cross stitch, possibly double running on the outlines (there are also a few later repairs done using another color, to reunite the stitched ground with the open foreground but that doesn’t count).
9. From the Cooper Hewitt, Band, Italy. Late 16th, early 17th century. silk embroidery on linen foundation; H x W: 23.5 x 60.6 cm (9 1/4 x 23 7/8 in.); Bequest of Richard Cranch Greenleaf in memory of his mother, Adeline Emma Greenleaf; 1962-52-1. This one doesn’t have lettering at the top, but it’s clearly the story of Isaac. LACS, outlined foreground, some ornamentation of foreground with straight stitches (possibly double running or back stitch).
10. And finally, from the Yale University Art Gallery, Unknown Fragment, Italy, 17th century. Linen ground with red silk, 19.1 x 43.2 cm (7.5 x 17 inches), Gift of Howard L. Goodhart; 1928.151. Very had to tell from the photo but it’s probably LACS, with double running or back stitch for the lines. This bit is probably Jonah and the whale, and is clearly part of a multi-panel piece (or once was).
Now, I am sure there are lots more of these out there, that I haven’t included here. And there are narrative panels done in other stitched styles, but these do seem to hang together, more or less.
First, unlike most (but not all) other voided work examples, they display no symmetry. There are no reflection or bounce points; the designs are not aligned in balance around center urns, trees, or other elements. Each one of these panels stands alone, without a clear repeat inside its sequence.
Second, most (but not all of them) rely on similar framing techniques – a narrative with a very similar looking style of letter representation on top, and the curious mix of birds, dogs, and leaf/branch/flower elements below (which does repeat).
Third, none of these were done on the count. By that I mean that the foreground elements were not carefully copied from a graphed source. They incorporate strange angles and curves, and the ground stitching behind them – which was done on the count – looks to have been “mashed in” around the designs where they present those odd curves and angles.
I posit that these were hand drawn onto the cloth, overstitched using double running or back stitch (or possibly even SINGLE running in some cases); the foreground ornament was done, and then the backgrounds were stitched, in neat lines going back and forth across the cloth. BUT it’s pretty clear that some sort of common cartoon (in the tapestry sense) was used for the two Noah’s Ark panels – #2 and #7. Same ship, same placement of birds, bit players and leaves around it, but with just enough difference of detail and odd angles to look like tracings from the same original, not copies of the same chart.
Fourth, for #1-8 above, there are clear divisions into panels, with strangely familiar fat-fruited, full-leaved vegetation or ruled dividers separating the scenes.
Fifth, all appear to be Old Testament scenes. Given the time and place, it’s kind of strange that no large scale New Testament scenes are included. Now those may exist elsewhere, I don’t claim to have gathered a definitive collection of these fragments, but one would think that there would be a Last Supper, Passion or stray Saint among the lot. The closest we get is the Agnus Dei (lamb with cross standard) in the Jonah panel – #10, and even that is background – not the “featured scene.” It’s also worth noting that even with the popularity of Greek/Roman myth images at the time (just look at emblem books and early pattern books) – we’ve got no Aphrodites, Sieges of Troy, or other mythic representations.
Now, what conclusions can we draw from all this? Sadly very few without further research.
Who made these and why? I am tempted to say there was a small number of professional ateliers producing these in late 16th century Italy, due to the strong similarities of style, and the fact that these examples are relatively few among the large number of other voided work fragments we have today. Given the elaborate nature of the non-repeats and the scale of these sequential multi-panel narratives, I somehow doubt that these were loving-hands-at-home works created for household use.
Many of those other bits are probably domestic works – with designs that are symmetrical, with clear easy to replicate repeats. While it’s certainly possible that these panels were bed or other secular hangings, but I think it is more likely they were made for liturgical/didactic use.
And #9 and #10 – the odd outliers? I think they were clearly influenced by the group as a whole, but given the difference in their visual styles and details, I would not be surprised to find out they were done a bit later – or possibly even by competing contemporary workshops – in emulation of the established style.
Have you found other examples of these stitched comic books (biblical or not)? Share!
Readers have most graciously pointed out additional examples! Thank you – keep them coming
11. Holly found this in The Jewish Museum in New York, Embroidered Panel: The Story of David and Bathsheba. Greece, 19th century. Silk on linen. 10.5 x 29 inches (26.7 x 73.7cm). From the H. Ephriam and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection, Accession S 202. The date and provenance are different from the rest, but it does appear to have some stylistic commonality with #8, above.
12. Melinda Sherbring alerts us to a holding in the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Embroidered Textile Panel Depicting Scenes from Genesis. Iberian Peninsula (Spain or Portugal), late 16th century. Linen plain weave with silk embroidery. (a): 9 7/8 × 64 1/4 in. (25.08 × 163.2 cm); (b): 35 3/4 × 9 5/8 in. (90.81 × 24.45 cm) Costume Council Fund (M.87.230a-b) . Sadly, there is no shared image available there, but from her detailed descriptions, it’s another version of the Adam and Eve panel (second panel in #1, above), and the Ark panel (#2 and 7 above), done in long armed cross stitch, in red silk. The foreground ornament of both is a bit simplified compared to the other versions posted here.
Melinda and her co-conspirator in textile history high-jinks, Robin Berry, had the opportunity to examine the piece up close. They have given me permission to share their notes on technique:
- Fabric thread count approximately 96 tpi.
- Embroidery floss is filament silk, finer than a single strand of Eterna; possibly Kreinik size 0.
- Motif colors: background color card 19-12 and 19-11 for Genesis, approximately DMC 3687.
- Technique: long armed cross stitch background with backstitch for details and outlines. Looks like the same thread was used for background and for details. Stitches over 3 threads, approximately 18 stitches per inch.
- There are holes along the edges clearly where fabric was nailed or tacked to a support.
Robin additionally points out that voided works with Iberian origins are properly termed “Reserve.”
Melinda agrees with me that the base layout of these pieces were probably traced or drawn rather than established by count. Having three examples of such a work is quite special.
Two weekends past The Resident Male and I went to an SCA event, a local one held here in the greater Boston metro area – known within the group as the Barony of Carolingia. We went to honor a worthy friend as she received a well-deserved high award. Sadly, we got there just in time for heavy rain, so our movements were rather constrained, and we did not find many of our old friends. But we did get to chat with several folks.
I brought my latest embroidery in a carrying case I made for an older frame and project, probably circa 1993. While my fancy leaves project was well received, the plain and boring cloth carrying case that was keeping it safe and clean hogged the majority of the attention.
Now, I never thought of that case as something special, and I did blog about it long, long ago (a post that now appears to have been eaten by Internet Gremlins). But apparently it is something that people really would like to have. So I write about it again, to the best of my recollection.
Here’s the cover, shown with the old scrolling/laced frame for which it was designed. Note that although my cover was made for adjustable scrolling frames with protruding parts that stick out in the corners, this could work just as well for a rectangular or square non-adjustable slate frame
And here is the same cover used with my new wider Millennium frame, showing how the piece wraps and holds itself in place without closures or fasteners even on the too-big-for-it frame. We are looking at the inside of the cover. The handle is on the outside, mounted on the long flap at the opposite end from the slit.
In the best of all possible worlds, I would make a second cover, wide enough to protect the side bars of my new frame. But in truth, because lacing isn’t necessary with the Millenium, nine times out of ten, if I want to carry it I just release tension, remove the stretcher bars, and leaving the work on the horizontals, wrap the whole thing up in an old tea-cloth size tablecloth, skipping the carrying case altogether. But for the event weekend event I knew I would often be moving from place to place, and didn’t want to do reassembly each time I wanted to stitch or display my work-in-progress.
I used well washed and savagely preshrunk white 100% cotton duck (a tightly woven twill fabric a bit lighter than denim), but anything sturdy can be used – one of the lighter weight canvases in cotton or linen, for example. I picked white to minimize the chance of color crocking onto my framed work. The adventurous might want to use a showy fabric for the outside public side of the long center strip, and something else on the inside that comes in contact with the stitching. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to deal with differential rates of shrinkage, or dual laundering requirements.
I can’t tell you how much yardage to buy, but note that ALL pieces of this are doubled, except for the handle, which was a rectangle, folded to make many layers, then topstitched. A length cut from a heavy martial arts belt from a karate or judo/aikido gi would work just as well as my improvised handle. Savagely pre-shrink any repurposed belt prior to stitching. (If you know someone who practices, chances are that he or she has a whole bag of leftovers, because most new uniforms come complete with yet another white belt.)
Note that there are NO fasteners on the case, of any kind. The only thing that holds it together is the insertion of the handle into the slit in the front flap. I did this on purpose – I didn’t want to risk snagging my embroidery, or any corrosion of metal parts and subsequent staining if the case happened to get damp. As is, my case can be thrown in the washing machine and laundered on hot, then machine dried without worry.
Here’s a schematic. Apologies for drafting it upside down compared to the photos above:
Note that all measurements on the schematic above should be adjusted to include seam allowances (for example, approximate height of stretchers + (2x desired seam allowance). All measurements are taken OUTSIDE the frame – measuring the working area plus the width of the wooden components assembled in the configuration in which you will be working. Don’t worry about any bits on the corners, they can stick out, like they do on mine.
The “shoulder flap” rectangles should be generous, they need significant overlap to stay in place.
The handle is positioned at the red rectangle, roughly the height of stretcher bar, as measured from the spot where the “shoulder flaps” join the center strip.
The black rectangle is the slit, and is cut and edged after the piece is assembled, positioning it to accommodate the handle. I topstitch/zig-zagged around mine, not taking special care to finish the edge with great precision.
Measuring and cutting:
- Determine the measurements of your target frame (how tall, how wide).
- Sizing the long piece: About 3.75 to 4 times your frame’s height plus seam allowances. That will give enough extra for the tuck part on the handle side, and the front flap that hangs below the slit. It’s width should be the approximate width of your stretchers, plus seam allowances all the way around. Cut 2.
- Sizing the side flaps: Approximately the height and width of your frame plus seam allowances all the way around. Cut 4.
- Sizing the handle. I used a piece of the same fabric, a square of about 12 inches (roughly 30.5 cm) I folded it in half and ironed it, then folded the left and right ends in to meet at the center, ironed it; and repeated – finally folding the entire piece down the center line to encapsulate the layers. Once I had my multilayer strip, I topstitched it the long way, as indicated below, and zig-zagged the short ends rather severely to prevent fraying. I ended up with a heavy, belt-like strip that was about 12 inches long and about 1.5 inches wide (30.5cm x 3.8cm). Precision is optional here – longer or wider/narrower won’t matter much, but I’d avoid making the strip shorter. And you can see why I recommend recycling a martial arts belt instead of fiddling with this part.
You should now have two long strips of fabric, and four smaller units to make the side flaps, plus your handle.
- Lay your long strips down and mark a point on each long side, approximately half of your frame’s height down from one end. Then lay your frame on the strip, aligning the top to the marks you just made, and make a second mark indicating its height
- Sew the side flaps to the long strip, positioning them on the marks (and taking seam allowance into consideration).
- You now have two roughly cross-shaped units, with the side flaps placed such that there’s a “long end” of the center strip, and a “short end”. The short ends will become the front flap.
- Place right sides together, and sew them together all the way around the outside, leaving about 6 inches unsewn so you can turn the piece inside out, capturing all of the seam allowances inside. Do so, teasing out the corners with a knitting needle, skewer, ruler, or dowel. Iron the thing and sew the turning hole closed.
- Up to now, if you used only one fabric for the whole piece, it hasn’t mattered which was the public side and which was the inside of the cover. Pick your favorite side to be the public side/outside.
- On the public side on the “long end” measure down roughly half of the height of your frame and make a mark. Then take your frame, and position it as if you were going to wrap it as I show above. Confirm that the mark is the correct place for the handle to be (it will ride on the top edge of your frame in carrying position). Centering the handle left to right on the “long end” of your strip, sew it to the public side. You might want to leave a little slack as you do so (rather than stitching it on absolutely flat) so that the handle loops up neatly when used.
- Try the cover on your frame. Note where the slit to accommodate the handle needs to be cut. Draw a line here. Take the piece back to the sewing machine and sew around the line several times as reinforcement (you could also zigzag, edge stitch or otherwise finish the area to be slit). Once you are satisfied that the reinforcement is sufficient, use a razor or knife to cut the slit itself.
- You are done. Put the thing on your work-in-progress and admire that your dressed frame is now additionally dressed, warm and safe for transit.
About the only structural element to improve upon the base design would be to stitch some kind of stiffener – possibly another length of the same folded fabric or judo gi belt underneath and parallel to the handle. That reinforcement should be wide enough to stretch clear across the entire width of the cover at that point. The reason is that my handle does pull up through the slit after extended carrying, especially when I use the case for frames different in size than the one for which it was designed.
If I were to make a new case, I might also include a “built in” needle book or pouch on one of the flaps, for convenience. But I am still loathe to add fasteners to the piece, so I’d have to figure out a secure closure that avoids velcro, snaps, zippers, or buttons. Perhaps tied lacings…
Also, I never embellished or embroidered my case. I suppose that I should have (at the very least) put my name on it. If you do decide to ornament the outside of yours, I would suggest selecting hard-wash-compatible threads, and doing any stitching on the pieces, prior to assembly.
If you make a carrying case like mine, please feel free to send pix – especially if you personalize it or improve on my meager design. Your photos will help others as they contemplate making one of their own.
Questions about my current project are popping in. I’ll try to answer the ones so far. Feel free to send more.
First, a progress shot:
As you can see, I’ve established the border on the second long side of the piece. I still have not decided on whether or not there will be wide borders along the short sides. That decision probably won’t occur until I have to advance the piece on the rollers of my roller frame. Right now the ground cloth’s center is (more or less) at the center of the exposed working area.
On to the questions.
How do you get the design onto the fabric?
I don’t. This is a counted style. I have a paper pattern that shows my repeat, graphed up into a grid. I look at that, then replicate the design on my cloth, using each group of 2×2 threads as my graph grid. It’s just a matter of looking left, seeing “Five stitches in line straight, then one diagonal to the left, then three straight left,” and stitching it.
As I work I constantly check back and forth to make sure that the newly stitched pieces are on target – true to the count of the design. To do that I tend not to work out on a long lead. I try to work adjacent areas so I can check them against each other as I go. For example on this design, I’ll confirm that the ed
My teacher told me that I always need to baste in an even grid before I start a large charted project. Why haven’t you done that?
Because I don’t need to. I do have basted lines that indicate the edges and center point of the area I will be stitching, but I tease them out and clip them as I go along to keep them out of my way. I’ve never used a fully gridded ground with guidelines basted in every ten or twenty stitches apart. I’m comfortable working that way, although I know that others need more alignment aids than I do.
Will you be making this available as a chart or kit?
Not as such. This leafy design will be included in my (ever) forthcoming book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook. (News of that book’s publication will be here on String first). But I won’t be issuing a project chart or kit for this piece.
What thread are you using?
I’m using the vintage “art silk” floss I bought in India. I wish it were real silk, but we do with what we have. One nice thing about it – it’s very fine, and presents much like finger spun if stitched closely.
For the green double-running stitch, I am using two strands of this floss, heavily waxed. For the satin stitch, I am using three strands, unwaxed. The stuff is a bit unruly, and keeping the satin stitch even and smooth is much harder than establishing the design in double running.
What’s the count of your ground?
It’s an 40-count evenweave 100% linen, stash aged. I’m not sure where/when I got it, but I dug it out from the bottom of the pile, so it wasn’t a recent purchase. I’m working over 2×2 threads, so that works out to about 20 stitches per inch. But I think there’s a minute variance in count north-south vs. east-west, so it’s probably more like 20 spi x 19.5 spi.
What will this be when you are done?
A monument to the time it took to stitch.
Seriously, while I had originally thought it would make a nifty pillow for our sofa, complementing the room’s colors and being a different finishing treatment from yet-another-wall-hanging. However, I’ve decided against that. The art silk in satin stitch is too friable, prone to snags and catches. The thought of throwing myself on the sofa and having the rivets of my jeans play havoc with those shiny, smooth bits is a harsh reality check. This will probably end up on my walls, like so many of my other pieces.
OK. Fresh off Cupids, I begin another haphazardly planned piece. As I start this write-up, I have no clear idea as to what I might be doing. But I do know how to start.
I’ve taken a piece of linen from my stash – it’s probably around 40 tpi – and I’ve hemmed it on three sides. The last side is selvedge and I am lazy.
I have also used regular sewing thread to mark out my absolute edges, and the centerlines. I hesitate to say horizontal and vertical because at this point I am not sure which orientation I will use. Note that I have not gridded the entire piece, nor are my basted guidelines done on any sort of regular count (other than following a specific line across the entire cloth).
Now on to think about threads. I’m tired of the DMC cotton I’ve been using. I still have some significant quantities of the faux silk I bought in India. My color selection is more limited, but there are several that remain in multi skein hanks. I’ve picked out some of these in deep forest, a burgundy, a gold, and an off-white/silvery. Polychrome!
Now on to the design itself. And observations on a design cluster.
I’m basing this one (at least in part) on an artifact on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Accession 1894-30-114. The image below is cribbed from their site.
It’s a curious piece, not only because of the use of multicolors, but also because of the clearly counted linear outlines plus the satin stitch fills. Here’s my color-change start:
I haven’t done one of these multicolor, filled pieces yet, and I’m interested to see how I can gild this particular lily. In true bungee-jump stitching style I am not sure if I will fill out the entire cloth with this design, or if I will just do it as a center, then edge it around with other concoctions. Time (and thread availability) will tell.
Now as to why I think this one is part of a design cluster.
While I note that the dating for the Philadelphia Museum snippet is a bit odd (they claim 14th century, which to me is way too early), this piece has significant family resemblance to several other artifacts. One is the center panel of my Stupid Cupid sampler. Both it and the one I’m working now will be in The Second Carolingian Modelbook.
Here’s another sample of a similar design. This bit is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession 79.1.14, along with my stitched rendition of the a very similar design as presented in Pauline Johnstone’s Three Hundred Years of Embroidery, Wakefield Press, 1986, on page 17. My bit is in red at the right. I included the chart for my version in The New Carolingian Modelbook.
UPDATE: The sample in Ms. Johnstone’s book (shown below) is a holding of the Embroiderer’s Guild, #5376. It looks like it and the Met fragments are more long-lost siblings. It’s stitch for stitch identical in every detail to the Met piece.
We have a clear provenance with the Jewish Museum’s piece. It’s dated with a reference to the Jewish calendar year 5343, which puts it at 1582/1583 on the standard Western calendar, and it’s from a congregation in Rome. The lady Honorata Foa either commissioned it or made it herself for donation to that congregation. I’ve written about it before.
The Met’s sample is “Italian, 16th century” (The Embroider’s Guild pegs their piece as 17th century); and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s sample is also pegged as Italian, but bears rather that rather specious early date.
Now these three designs are not the same pattern. BUT they are quite similar in composition, aesthetic, and motif. All three use semi-realistic gnarled limbs in combo of stylized leaves and crosshatched branches. Two employ grape or berry clusters, and two use those odd multi-tier bell like flowers along with the leaves. All decorate leaves either all or in part with parallel lines, or segment them with some areas accented with parallel lines. And all use large leaves of similar form. Two employ similar sprig companion edgings, and all refer back to the crosshatched branch form for a small dividing border between the main field and the companion edging.
I have not yet found a modelbook example of a pattern in this style.
Are these all examples of a regional substyle – a design vocabulary popular in Rome in the late 1500s? Are they products of a specific professional family of embroiders, or a commissioned workshop/atelier? Were these motifs in general circulation – copied from household to household either from printed pages or from previous stitcheries? Were they done by or associated with other members of Honorata Foa’s congregation?
We can only speculate, and acknowledge that these designs are in fact visual cousins, and in all probability present a snapshot of a specific style, from a specific place, and a specific point of time.
Oooh oooh! What should I find in the Uffuzi Museum’s on line taste of their current “Colors of Judiasm” exhibit, but another 17th century piece with stylistic ties to the items above! It’s beginning to look like this particular group has very close ties to the Italian Jewish community of the 1600s-1700s!
At long last. Framed and hung up in the bedroom.
Obviously I now have to paint the bedroom walls…
I’m quite happy with the way this turned out. The frame is simple enameled steel, in deep navy. I ended up going to Walden Framer in Lexington, MA. Mr. Ed Pioli, the owner and artisan in chief, did an excellent job at a reasonable price. I will be bringing my other as-yet unframed pieces there, too.
To answer more questions on the piece’s composition, mostly from other people outside the framing shop when I was there. No, neither of us is a follower of astrology, and it’s not a panel depicting anyone’s sign. It’s just two koi, in a traditional arrangement. And no – there isn’t a boy-koi, and a girl-koi (or any other manifestation of yin/yang) intended. It’s just two koi swimming in a circle. And no, that’s not real gold thread. It’s high quality imitation gold sold for Japanese embroidery. And no, I didn’t sew it on a machine, I did it by hand. Really and truly. (People are curious about the strangest things.)
What am I working on now? Well, the Great Tablecloth/Napkins project is done, but I still itch to stitch. So I’m just doodling. Filling up a small piece of linen, waiting for the Inspiration Fairy to chuck a brick through my mental window.
I’ve written about this design before. I think this time I’ll circle the center panel with other, narrower bands. Again, no set plan, I’ll just pick them as I go along, with no composition agenda in particular in mind. Eventually I’ll figure out what to stitch next.
It’s taken me a week or so to get this post up and out. In the mean time my doodle has grown, but still has no plan.
The lower design is a curious one. Although it’s a clear repeat with the rather bulbous naked cherub alternating with the cockatrice, there is little symmetrical inside the repeat. Close attention has to be paid to this one because even the internal framing mechanism (the bar and beads below the feet of each) has a different counts in each of its two instances, and the usual urn or leafy unit between the creatures also exists in two incarnations. It’s a curious one, for sure, but fun, and is keeping me on my toes.
Both of these designs will be in T2CM, which is moving again towards release. No date yet, but watch this space.
Within a general miasma of the-project-is-over-what’s-next blues I present the tablecloth and napkins set:
Yes, I will iron the thing before I set a formal table with it, but there’s no point in doing it right now.
I left the areas close to the place settings bare so that in the absolute eventual occurrence of gravy spills, it will be easier to treat the stains.
Special thanks to Elder Daughter for these shots. She’s much better at general camera, even cellphone camera than I am.
I feel the need to keep stitching. If I can find my stash of green silk I may go back to my Long Green Sampler. But I put it away in a Safe Place; that classic Safe Place that is now out of memory. While I keep hunting for it I might do a quickie, improvised project, then turn it into something useful, like a carry bag or zippered pouches. So many patterns to try out, and so little wall space at this point.
Now in summary and project post-mortem.
I started by buying a plain pre-finished cloth and separate set of napkins from Wayfair.com. I wanted a “rustic linen look” and intended to use them as-is. But when they arrived I noted that the thread counts on both were close enough to even weave to be usefully stitched, slubs and all. I used a mix of threads – a red Sajou embroidery floss #2409, and DMC 890 green floss for the napkins; and (having run out of my souvenir Sajou) DMC 815 on the tablecloth. For the various flosses, I used three plies of both kinds, even though the Sajou was marginally thinner than the DMC.
I started with the napkins, doing one at a time, half red and half green, for no other reason than I thought it would be fun:
The designs are primarily from my ever-forthcoming Second Carolingian Modelbook. After the napkins were done, I wanted to make a coordinating cloth, similarly mismatched in the same two colors.
I started with the center panel design which I graphed up, also for T2CM, from an artifact in the collection of the University of Rhode Island. While it is voided here in the photo provided to me by Christine Lee Callaghan (SCA – Lady Cristina Volpina), I chose to work it outline-only for this piece.
Riffing on the motifs in the historical artifact, I designed a companion edging and end-triangles to complement. Those designs aren’t in T2CM, but as soon as it is released, I will post them here.
All in all, I am quite pleased with the result. Now to figure out what to stitch next, because I find stitching more relaxing than knitting, and the need to stitch is still upon me.