DETOUR INTO KNITTING – FIREFLIES IN THE WINTER
It’s true I haven’t knit in a while. But I did do nine pairs of socks for the holidays this year, some of which are shown below. And while I was at it, I dropped hints to Younger Offspring, who was enthused by the thought of a new pullover.
I first knit this classic Penny Straker unisex design decades ago. It was probably the third sweater I made and was a present for one of my sisters. This is the cover photo from the original leaflet. Note the armhole depth (we’ll get back to that later).
It was the early 1980s – long before blogging, so I don’t have pictures or notes detailing my first attempt, but it was a happy success. I’m pretty sure I used Germantown worsted, in a deep burgundy and a lighter, coordinating plum. I do remember that it was super thick and stiff because of the Eye of Partridge stitch uses a lot of slip stitches, making a double-thick fabric. In fact that stitch often used as a self-reinforcing treatment for sock heels, to make them both cushier and more wear-resistant.
My sister’s sweater ended up being a great outdoor activity wearable – perfect for someone engaged in winter exercise like cross country skiing, and too warm for indoor wear. But as we were flipping through some possibilities it was the one that caught Younger Offspring’s eye. So I downloaded a copy of the revised pattern from the Straker website (it’s now offered in an extended size range) and off we went to Webs, making a small detour out in western Massachusetts on the official Deposit-Child-Back-At-Home-Away-From-Home trip to Troy, New York.
At Webs I found a candidate yarn that came in the desired black and screaming chartreuse colors – Euro Baby Babe 100. It’s a butter-soft acrylic/polyamide (nylon) blend, and at 356 yards for 100g, a great value.
But it’s not a true worsted. It’s a DK. That means that instead of the standard 5 stitches per inch (spi) in stockinette, it works better at 5.5 spi in stockinette.
Although the pattern is clearly written for a heavier yarn, but I took a risk and bought the Babe anyway. I swatched until I found a needle combo and gauge that I liked. In this case, 6 spi/8 rows per inch (rpi) on US #7s (4.5mm) in Eye of Partridge instead of the pattern’s specified 5 spi/7 rpi on US #8s (5mm).
I’ve done the math for Younger Offspring’s chosen size (a swim-in-it oversize fit), and have cast on the revised number of stitches, plus two more – I always add selvedge stitches for easy seaming. I will work my new number until I am close to the specified length for the below-arm torso, then I will figure out the raglan shaping, taking notes so I can match the row count on the sleeves. I know that these Straker patterns were all written with very tight armholes by modern standards. It was the style back then. So there is room for me to err on the up side. If I need a few more rows to accommodate the raglan shaping than the original used, that will be ok. The armhole will end up a smidge larger, and that won’t be bad at all.
So to finish this already over-long, stitching-free post, here’s three evening’s worth of progress on the back. The drape is fluid, and the yarn is super soft and luxurious, uncommon in an acrylic. The color contrast reminds me of fireflies on a dark night. With luck this one should knit up quickly into a bundle of fun.
Just because I’ve taken a departure from classic stitching and am issuing heretical blackwork patterns for spaceships, robots, and dinosaurs doesn’t mean I haven’t abandoned research. I am also inching The Second Carolingian Modelbook (T2CM) closer to the goal posts.
I continue to find multiple instances of design duplicates scattered across various museums. Here’s a trio. Clearly stitched from the same inspiring pattern. Whether it’s from an as yet unidentified modelbook or broadside sheet, an atelier’s cloth reference sample, or just copied among stitchers hand to hand is impossible to determine. However, this design will be included in T2CM so stitchers of the future can keep this historical “chain letter” going..
First, my own stab at the thing, as worked on my big blackwork sampler. I call it “Leafy-Bricks” for obvious reasons.
The first instance of Leafy-Bricks I stumbled across is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Accession #07.816. It’s a small fragment, but it’s the one on which I based my redaction. They tentatively identify it as likely to be Italian, but do not date it. This snippet was collected in the very late 1800s/first decade of the 1900s during the “Indiana Jones” era of embroidery and lace sample acquisition – the time in which monied families took a season touring Europe, vying with each other to bring back the most exquisite samples of whatever struck their fancy. These collections were eventually donated to major museums to form the backbone of their historical embroidery holdings. The time/place provenances furnished by dealers or middlemen and conveyed with these pieces upon donation are not necessarily to be trusted. Many museums are now revisiting these pieces to correct annotations that haven’t changed in 75+ years.
One interesting thing to note is that the count of the historical ground above is not as square as the count of my modern linen. The design is somewhat squashed left to right and elongated north-south compared to mine, although the unit counts are the same.
The second one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession 09.50.55. Unlike many duplications among museums it’s not an instance of one original artifact having been cut apart for sale to multiple buyers. Not only is the center panel duplicated here, there are also subtle differences in the design, especially in the border. The Met only shows this in black and white and does not provide information on the color used. They date it to the 1600s, and attribute it to Italy.
And third, which I only stumbled upon today. This one appears to be a photo only recently released by the Victoria and Albert Museum, Accession 645-1896. Be still my heart, it shows the design on fragments that were pieced into a wearable apron, providing a use case beyond what can be known from a simple fragment. The V&A also notes that the apron was composed from previously stitched fragments. They label the assembled wearable as 1630-1660, Italian, but it’s unknown what life the embroidered strips had before that usage. Best of all, among their images is one that shows the back. Yup. Double running stitch. And yes, I know they see vases in the composition, but my mind is stuck on describing the center bits as bricks.
Note the stretch across the bottom, seamed together from two distinct fragments. And the butted corner formed by a third, although butted corner treatments are more commonly represented in survivals than are pieces with carefully planned mitered or otherwise customized corners. As far as the design’s manifestation on the apron, it’s very, very close to that on the MFA’s fragment. But it’s not identical. There are small differences in the veining pattern of the main repeat’s leaves which lead me to believe it’s a fragment of another original, and not a leftover from whatever item was repurposed into the apron.
If you’ve spotted other instances of Leafy-Bricks out in the wild or have seen it in a modelbook of the 1500s to 1600s, please let me know.
Oh. And if you are interested in obtaining a copy of The New Carolingian Modelbook (my first and now out of print book), I know it’s hard to find. I don’t have any to sell myself, but on rare occasion someone finds a copy and sends it to me. Just such a copy recently came into my hands. I have sent it on to a charitable auction to benefit the SCA Barony Concordia of the Snows, which recently lost all of its communally held equipment in a devastating fire. That auction will be held on 28 August at East Kingdom Coronation. I do not know if the auction will be web-accessible. If I find out I will update this post accordingly.
BAGGED UP AND READY TO GO!
A finish! The mini-bag kit I savaged and repurposed to feature my own choice of stitching is now complete, and can be sent to the recipient.
To recap, in order to have better access for my hoop I unpicked the side seams of the evenweave decorative layer, and of the heavy cotton twill lining. The evenweave had no seam at the bottom. The twill lining was left with the bottom unseamed. Earlier in the process the bag could be splayed out flat, with only the bit of seaming at the top surviving – where the lining and evenweave were sewn together with the red handles. Here you see it draped out and in the hoop.
When I finished both sides, I sewed it back together by hand – my sewing room and machine being off limits due to the big basement rehab project. First I sewed the lining using back stitch. Then I attempted a fancy decorative openwork seam in black to reunite the two sides of the evenweave.
It didn’t work.
It looked rather Frankenstein-like. Of the stuff of nightmares. So I covered up the buttonhole stitch based seam with three rows of reverse chain, done with a whole 6-ply strand of my linen floss. The first row of reverse chain went down the openwork bit at the center of my former decorative seam, and the other two courses went left and right of that, hiding the bits that encroached into the body of the bag. Which is why there’s now a thick black stripe along both sides of the thing. Not an optimal solution but the best I could do right now.
And on to the next project.
This one I have to admit I am posting as a tease. I used time over the past pandemic year to design a free stitch-along. It’s a rather large and complex stitch-along, with a distinctly nerd-world/fandom theme. It will be released on The Enablers Facebook group, and also here on String, on a two-week delay, starting sometime in August. I will be creating a new page here on String to host it. Beta-test stitchers from that group have been working on their pieces to proof the design and confirm the directions, and their efforts have been much appreciated. The thing will NOT be a mystery stitch-along (folk should know what they’re in for before they commit), but it will be released one panel at a time, with periods between releases pegged to the complexity of the individual panels.
However, until now I haven’t started my own rendition. I won’t spoil the surprise, but as I warned – I will tease here.
Obviously not a historical redaction (for a change), and that’s going to be part of the fun.
CAT AND MOUSE
An odd confluence of happenstances and the resulting doodle.
Last week there was a discussion in one of the Facebook groups dedicated to 1500s costuming or blackwork that started with someone asking for a historical blackwork design that featured cats. There aren’t many examples, and the chat covered iconography, citing that cats weren’t the most auspicious of symbols at that time.
Then an unusual source came across my feed: a line-rendered group of cats, but not from the period in question. This plate flew across my Twitter feed. The source is Ernest Allen Batchelder’s Design in Theory and Practice, New York: Macmillan, 1910.
This appears on page 157. The book is a rather lively examination of design principles across history, and appears to be a transitional work, including the natural elements of the aesthetic/Art Nouveau style, but more solidly grounding the more angular principles that characterize the Art Deco/late Craftsman mood. For all I know it may be a seminal point in decorative design history, but I will leave that point to be hashed over by any readers who are schooled in design theory and lineages.
In any case, here were some linear cats just crying out to be graphed and stitched. So in response to a generalized (as opposed to Elizabethan-specific) demand for cats and to delight cat-loving friends and family, here is what the Batchelder sketch inspired:
An easy to download PDF file containing this chart is available on the Embroidery Patterns tab of this site, or by clicking HERE.
This is rather large to be used as a fill pattern in inhabited blackwork (the subtype with outlines and fancy fills), but it is in scale for use as a large all-over design. I could see it being worked as is, in double running or back stitch, in monochrome or in multiple colors (those yarn balls cry out for variegated thread). It could be done voided, with the background filled in. The cats could be solidly stitched or left as is, or customized to match the markings of favorite pets (I provide a rudimentary tabby and tuxedo but any other markings might be fudged in). A frieze of this as the leftmost third of a placemat might be fun. I leave use up to you.
Like my other designs of late, this is “good-deed-ware.” If you like it and use it, I encourage you to look around and make a donation to a local cause that is helping people hit hard by plague-related economic challenges. “Starving artist” should be a metaphor, not a life description.
BLACKWORK THREAD THICKNESS AND GROUNDS
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.
HARSH FINISH, SOFT BEGINNING
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.
REVISITING THE STUPID CUPIDS
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.
OCTOBER ISN’T ALL THAT FAR OFF
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 NARRATIVE PANELS
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.
UPDATE – NOVEMBER 2022
13. I’ve found another Old Testament scene stitched in a very similar style. This one is Adam and Eve, from the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Accession #83.241. The museum places it as mid-17th century.
It’s most similar to items 1-7 above, with the foreground enhanced by little scattered stitches, the inscription running across the top, and the alternating floral/critter band below.
TRAVEL COVER FOR A FLAT FRAME
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.