TINY SOCK SILLINESS

Long time readers here know that I knit and crochet as well as embroider. These things tend to happen in phases, and I rotate among my hobbies, going from one to the other to keep fresh.

As I was going through the endless piles of cruft in my basement I found this.

It’s a tiny sock, full figured, worked with the same figure-8 cast on and short row heel that I use on my normal size socks, but knit on blunted hat pins using the reinforcement yarn that comes with some brands of sock yarn. I’ve done a couple of other teeny socks over the years, but this is one, from 1996 or so was one of the first. And it has a story behind it.

At the time I was working for Bay Networks. It made the high capacity routers and other networking equipment that large companies and even service providers needed to connect to the Internet. I was a proposal specialist, and worked side by side with engineers and sales teams to respond to opportunities. Bay decided that in order to write about the equipment I had to take the same training classes as the sales engineers, although I was not expected to sit for the qualifying exam to get the exiting service certification. So I sat in several training classes, auditing them and absorbing what I could. They were multi day sessions, and I have to admit my mind would wander as the class did exercises in provisioning or “speeds and feeds” – info with which I needed to be vaguely familiar, but I would never be called upon to calculate.

Outside the classrooms was a lobby. I could see it through the glass door. On the wall opposite me was an enormous mounted swordfish. One of Bay’s founders had a serious fishing mania, and many of the common areas were decorated with his trophies. An Evil Idea came to mind.

I went home and that night knit up the tiny sock. I rolled up a bit of one of my business cards and stuck it into the ankle, so the sock looked like it was on the leg of a tiny person. Then I snuck into the lobby early the next morning, and put the sock into the fish’s open mouth, posed to look like the fish had just swallowed a victim. And I told no one about it.

The next few days of class were enlivened by watching the fish and the people who passed by. Several noticed and fell out laughing. A couple dragged their buddies over to see the thing. After the class was over I left the sock there, and so it remained.

Flash forward five years. I am leaving Bay quite unceremoniously after it was acquired by Nortel. I swung by the fish lobby to retrieve the sock. Other employees saw me reaching for it and told me not to touch it because it was a fixture of anonymous company folklore and affection. I told them to look at the scrap of paper inside. It being my card and my name, they had to admit that I had the right of first possession.

The sock and I left Bay forever. Given Nortel’s steep subsequent plunge into obscurity and acquisition, they might have been right about its talismanic virtue.

BUNNY-HOUNDS AND PELICANS

Last week’s columns and plume flowers strip was a quick one. Not the least because it was in plain old cross stitch. I am pleased with the darker-but-not-overwhelming density. And as you can see, I’m on to the next one, featuring the hounds and pelicans, yet another design that will be in the ever-forthcoming T2CM:

I am looking forward to unrolling this piece when this new strip is done, to see how much more real estate I have to cover, and to make plans for how dark or light those strips will need to be. Then I get to go hunting for what to stitch next.

This week’s strip is an interesting one on a couple of fronts. First, in terms of history, it has a specific point of origin – in 16th century Sweden; not Germany or Italy or any of the other countries better known for linear embroidery at that time. It’s in the Swedish History Museum, Inventory number 19600.

The museum citation says that the piece is from a chapel in Uppland, Östervåla; stitched in red silk on white linen. It also includes the matching vertical border which I haven’t graphed yet, plus a sweet row of heart-shaped cartouches bearing heraldry, the frames of which are also on my futures list. I haven’t stumbled across another piece of linear stitching in this style from this region/time, so it’s a bit of a mystery. How prevalent was it? Was this type of work limited to church linen? Did it appear also on clothing? Obviously more research is needed. If you know of any other pieces in this family, please let me know.

Now on to iconography. While this piece has non-secular origins and was part of a chapel’s furnishings, its religious symbolism is not as direct as most church hangings. No martyrs. No pascal lambs, sacred hearts, or other standard symbols. Just pelicans and hounds. Even slightly misshapen, the quadrupeds are identifiable as coursing/sight hounds of some type. They are collared and belted, slim waisted and long legged, with floppy ears and pointy muzzles. Dogs, especially hunting hounds would have been seen as symbols of fidelity, determination, and loyalty. Pelicans are a bit more esoteric. Here they are shown “vulning” – piercing their breasts with their beaks, in order to feed their young with drops of blood. This was a standard bit of common folk legend at the time – along with the belief that worms spontaneously generated from the soil, and hedgehogs carried berries home to snack on later, impaled on their quills. Obviously the imagery was associated with self-sacrifice, devotion, and parental care.

Therefore, we have a cloth covered with symbols of devotion, loyalty, and self-sacrifice – something that would have special meaning in the religious setting. The background for this may be Sweden’s departure from the Catholic church in the late 1520s. Perhaps this rather humble, non-demonstrative bit of stitching (no gold, no gems, no saints) with its generic paean to virtues fits into the schism between Catholicism and Sweden’s developing Lutheran-based faith.

I admit I knew the pelican story courtesy of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). It’s no secret that I’ve been involved with it deeply in the past, and continue to have many friends active in the organization today. The highest SCA award for service is the Pelican, and its badge is a pelican vulning. This highly respected honor recognizes those vital individuals whose labor, largely voluntary, is the fuel that keeps the organization running. If you ever attend an event and see someone with a brooch or pendant with a pelican, know that the person you have met is Very Important, and widely respected by their peers. My sampler will have pelicans on it, but I am not a member of that order, nor do I intend to display it in an SCA context. I could wear a badge with a laurel wreath, but that’s another story for another time.

Finally, I announce that we have embarked onto another Great Home Improvement Journey. This time it’s the basement. I will post before/during/after pix, but right now I am still packing up and stowing my needlework library, office area, and craft room. The chaos is palpable. Here are a few of my stitching and knitting books. I’ve already had reason to refer to them, but have had to sit on my hands and just contemplate my wall of boxes. Work on the basement proper should begin by April. Until then, it’s lift, sort, box, and stack for me.

ANOTHER WEEK. ANOTHER MOTIF

Moving on from the dolphins, we leap to the next motif. I wanted something both darker and less dense than the massive meshy panel, and hit on this column/flower meander. It’s another one from my ever-forthcoming The Second Carolingian Modelbook (T2CM – it includes both linear patterns and block unit designs).

The columns design appears on Plate 70 of my book, but it’s source is a 16th century Italian openwork piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession 20.186.27

The museum description is rather cryptic. It says “Bobbin lace, buratto, punto a rammendo.” To me it looks like buratto – darning on a woven gauzy ground, and not bobbin lace or a withdrawn thread technique (punto a rammendo). Buratto and lacis are very close, with lacis being worked over a hand-knotted net mesh, and buratto being worked on a purpose-woven gauzy linen fabric. It’s structure is not unlike Penelope canvas, but made from much finer threads with much wider gaps between them. It’s effect is entirely that of an open mesh – no where near as dense as the Penelope. Admittedly this piece might be lacis. I am not seeing knots at the junctures of the meshes, but sharper photos might reveal their presence.

While my treatment of it in plain old cross stitch isn’t necessarily something that can be defended as a common historical usage, the use of these designs for both openwork (lacis or buratto, or even withdrawn thread designs) and surface embroidery on the count is well documented. Since I am not doing a historical piece I chose POCS because it on this ground with only one strand of silk, presented an airy and lighter contrast to the mesh technique, and the long-armed cross stitch and Montenegrin stitch that I’ve used in elsewhere on this piece.

Oh. And the source for the dolphins? Plate 29 of T2CM. But it is my rendition of an illustration in Lady Marian Alford’s Needlework as Art (Plate 42), originally published in 1886. There it is cited as 16th century Italian. I tracked it down. That piece from Lady Alford’s collection and shown in her book is now in custody of Belton House, Lincolnshire UK, and registered with that country’s National Trust (#426944). I know of no no on-line photos of it. If you do, please share the citation in the comments.

As mentioned before, the original shown that I drew up for T2CM features the dolphins and connectors (but not the rondels) and the background of the original is voided – filled in, but with a grid of tiny one-unit squares.

When will T2CM be out? I know it’s been a very long wait, for which I apologize. However I do know that if all goes well, my schedule will emerge from some significant time constraints in late spring, and I will be able to devote myself to publication. I am loathe to promise after so long, but 2021 has every indication of being The Year.

MESHY DONE, PLUS KITTING OUT THE FRAME

Yaay! A bit of self discipline imposed, and the forever voiding on the meshy lettuce pattern panel is complete. I have to admit that while I adore the look, I am not wildly fond of the hard-pulling needed to achieve it. I might try it again if I ever find a linen that’s the right combo of threads-per-inch plus nice soft and lofty constituent threads, instead of skinny hard-spun ones.

How does this strip fit into the growing project? After all – it has been about 8 years since we’ve seen the whole thing laid out. For the record, I’ve filled about 45% of the available real estate – there’s a lot more to go.

Now for the next. I don’t think I’ve play-tested these dolphins before (another design in the ever-forthcoming T2CM). The original showed them with a squared fill background in voided style, but I wanted something lighter to follow the dark band I just finished. I left off the voiding, but then decided that the bit looked rather spare. My dolphins needed something to play with, so I added the round elements, and am now pleased. A quickie, this bit took just Saturday and Sunday evenings:

I will add the roundels to the dolphin at right of center, but I left it off so you can see the rather unfinished look it had without something there.

After this one? Probably another narrow strip, possibly a bit wider than this one, and possibly darker for contrast. Then after that I have a double running stunner queued, but it’s rather wide and needs a bit more spacer ground between it and the giant meshy lettuce panel.

In the mean time, as I get up close and personal with the frame I am making little improvements to my set-up. For example, the jaw of the Lowery is steel, and well loved by magnets. But it’s not exactly accessible with the large frame extender unit. BUT when I flip the thing over to terminate a thread, it is. Add a strong classic U-shaped magnet, and I’ve got a handy place to park my snips (the red magnet is just behind the red snipper).

My needle minder works quite well, and sometimes I use it to park my threader. It often does double-duty as a holder for my pattern page. But that can get in the way of the stitching area. So I glued a magnet to the flat side of one of my Millennium frame scroll bars – on the flat side (yes, I tested it to make sure the correct side was up – that’s the one that attracts rather than repels the other magnetic goodies I wanted to use):

I can use this as a rather plain needle minder all by itself, or I can park my fancy one there instead of in the hidden spot where you see it now. Or I can use another magnet with it to hold my pattern page. But best of all, I can use it in conjunction with this page holder I picked up years ago (it used to stick on my fridge door, to hold tickets, recipes, coupons, or whatever).

By just gluing on a magnet, I’ve left the door open for all sorts of other magnet-enabled organizers. There are other styles of clips. Hooks and loops with magnetic bases could accommodate scissors, for example. Finally, I’m still looking for it to test out, but because the rare-earth magnet I used is so strong, I’m betting it can hold my smaller flat metal magnet board. That would allow me to use placeholder magnets on my pattern page while the page is displayed right on my work area.

And where to find inexpensive strong-hold magnets? I recommend the geeky source, American Science & Surplus. They are a clearing house for engineering tidbits, science gear, weird surplus items, kids’ educational toys, and other miscellanea. They are especially good for containers, magnifiers, bags, precision scales and measurers, cutting implements, office supplies, and magnets. Like any surplus store, their inventory turns over quickly, so if you don’t see what you want there today, visit again next week.

SUMMER IS COMING – I PROMISE

Time once again for String’s annual post of shameless self promotion.

Summer 2021 rental reservations have opened for our beach place on Cape Cod. It’s in North Truro, just over a mile from the Provincetown line.

Reservations can be made at the Kinlan-Grover website. For some reason the link has changed this year, wiping out the prior years’ reviews and feedback. But it’s still the same place, same amenities, and is already filling fast with repeaters from prior years. Prices vary by week, and there are significant savings in the shoulder seasons.

While I’m at it, how about something to read while you self-isolate on the beach?

Fernando’s catalog continues to grow. Of course I am biased, but I do recommend all of these most wholeheartedly.

Fractured Symmetry

The first of a burgeoning science fiction/mystery series.  This collection of stories features a strong woman of action and a reclusive alien genius as the detectives. It’s fast plotted, tight and full of compelling characters, alien cultures, heroics, and intrepid investigations. With great lashings of sarcasm thrown in.

The Temple of Beauty

This collection features retro-inspired short stories, and includes both SF and fantasy, ranging across a wide variety of tones and subjects.  More aliens, stealthy killers, high camp wandering heroes, and the clash of class and ideals.  Some played for ironic amusement, some less flippant. 

The Lady of Dungeness

The latest offering – a novella for plague times. This is an intrepid tale of perseverance, love, art, science, and separation, set in a near future that is both all too familiar and strange.

Treyavir

A novella length taste of epic fantasy in the classic style, this is the story of Reginal Maigntar, Falcon Knight and Lord of Thul, who seemed destined to live a life built on the achievements of his predecessors. Until…

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.

REACTIVATION AND SPOILING

I admit it. I was horribly spoiled this holiday past.

My family has fitted me out with all sorts of stitching goodies for the new year. There were silk threads and linen grounds from my mom and the Elder Offspring – enough to keep me going for quite a while. In addition, The Resident Male drew inspiration from a recent Facebook post (plus the general state of the stitching supply midden next to my favorite chair), and gave me a mercer’s chest from Sajou in which to store my embroidery supplies and tools. A princely gift. And yes. It’s already full.

Younger Offspring hand crafted me a Special Object. That book next to the chest – assembled and bound, with an embroidered and beaded cover all of their own devising, it’s full of graph paper pages – perfect for stitch design and doodling. I think my family knows me very, very well.

During the supply sort and consolidation to populate my new tiny chest, I stumbled across the thread I had been using for my Long Green Sampler. That’s a project from about six years ago. I was working on it just before we departed for our expat stay in India. I brought it with me but had no well lit comfortable place in which to work on it, so it languished. I poked at it a couple of times in the years since, but I hadn’t set it up for reactivation. I remounted it and set in again yesterday evening.

No, that’s not a real cat. I would love to have one, but I am very allergic to them. It’s a stuffed toy, liberated from the Spawns’ menagerie. It usually does duty as a very conveniently sized elbow rest, but here he’s blocking sun glare. He can be both obliging and versatile, although (sadly) not very affectionate.

To reprise, Long Green is a long strip sampler, done in Au Ver a Soie’s Soie d’Alger, in color #1846 on 40 count linen (20 stitches per inch). I am picking my strip patterns on the fly, mostly from my ever forthcoming book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook. This particular strip features my attempt at the tightly pulled and totally overstitched meshy background found on so many historical artifacts worked in the voided style. The design is one that appears in museum collections, and that exists in several clearly related versions. I’ve nicknamed this one “The Lettuce Pattern” for obvious reasons.

My redaction with its curious Y-spring companion edging is largely based on this version in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, Accession 99.176:

The date attribution has wandered forward a bit over the years, but is now listed as probably 17th century, possibly being of Spanish or Sicilian origin. Here is another example of Lettuce, also from the MFA, now cited as being Spanish and 17th century, Accession 95.1116 :

Although this one shows quite a bit more in-motif detail than the one above, it is still clearly a closely related pattern, and not a slice off the same original artifact. Both of these have meshy grounds, worked by tightly stitching and displacing the warp and weft, bundling them tightly together – NOT by cutting and withdrawing threads, then stitching over the remaining scaffolding. That’s another technique but distinctly different from the one employed here.

Here’s another example of the Lettuce family. This one features a simple boxed ground (no drawn meshy work here). The original is in the Brussels Museum of Art and History, Accession 20048516. The description cites it as being stitched in red silk, and dates it to the 1500s, but does not include a geographical provenance.

The Brussels example has another special spot in my heart. You can’t see more than a sliver from my clip, but it pairs Lettuce up with another favorite design, proving them to be contemporaries.

As you can see from the photos of my green piece, I’m about half-way done with this band. Here are the others above it, a photo montage shot and composed by fellow India Expat, artist, and friend Tamar Alsberg. I’m a bit greyer now, but so are we all in these salon-challenged days.

Some highlights – bit of braiding in the lower left was a ton of fun – the solid stripes are done in Montenegrin Stitch, and the bit between my hands in the center top – that’s the back. Double running rules!

If you still want more info on these individual bands, you can call up the whole project (in reverse chronological order) here.

DECEMBER SLIDES INTO HOME

A hectic month and a miserable year come to a conclusion. But not without completions.

First, as promised in the last post – a family photo of this year’s cookies. I tried to have smaller batches of only ten kinds, but was foiled by a concerted group effort.

Working it clockwise (recipe links for most of these can be found in my last post.

  • Noon – Lemon cut-outs, magically maniacal. Special thanks to friend Laura Packer, who sent me the twisted cutters. Oh, and bonus tiny leaf (see below).
  • 1:00 – Chocolate pudding cookies. A surprise addition courtesy of Elder Spawn, who for a first fling into the communal cookie pile, did quite well with an intensely fudgy bit of delight.
  • 2:00 – Orange marmalade cookies with fresh orange icing.
  • 3:00 – Cinnamon swirls. A specialty of Younger Spawn, who dazzles with flavor and presentation.
  • 4:00 – Mexican wedding cakes.
  • 5:00 – Classic Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies
  • 6:00 – Our Oysters – a hazelnut spritz sandwich, with dark chocolate ganache filling
  • 7:00 – Meringues (also see below)
  • 8:00 – Bourbon/cocoa balls
  • 9:00 – Triple Ginger/white chocolate cookies
  • 10:00 – Earthquakes – Most folk call these “chocolate crinkles” but we like the more dramatic nickname. For some reason the crevices closed up. Possibly due to overbaking this year. My cookie, my fault.
  • 11:00 – Peanut butter cookies
  • Center of dial – Jam thumbprints, with mixed berry jam. Another contribution of Younger Spawn.

But that’s only the start. Younger Spawn also made a magnificent Buche de Noel (Yule Log Cake), with chocolate buttercream outside, and hazelnut buttercream rolled in a rich cocoa genoise. Including the traditional meringue mushrooms and little leaf-shaped sugar cookie leaves.

Not to be outdone, The Resident Male rose to the occasion and presented us with a Christmas Eve feast – seared fois gras with chanterelles; French onion soup au gratin; rack of wild boar with maple/chili glaze, plus potatoes Anna and spinach souffle.

And there are more year end finishes!

My Bony Boi piece, back from the framer and suitably hung in its place of honor in the Resident Male’s office:

The Great Masking

And I also finished my three blackwork plague masks.

I used one of Ancient Elna’s specialty cams to make a multi-stitch “hold fast” edging around the outer edge of each of the embroidered components. Then I cut out the shapes with confidence that the stay stitching would prevent any unraveling. (The stay stitching will be buried in the seam allowances, and never be seen.)

After that I sewed my stitching together down the center to make the outer layer. I toyed with a couple of treatments for the center seam to disguise the mismatch, but settled on a simple line of stem stitch, done in Krenick #16 metallic braid. The Elizabethan plaited braid I had originally envisioned was too heavy.

Then I cut the actual protective layers, traced from the same template I used to lay out the stitching, plus the lengths for the ties (I favor ties over elastic). Each mask has two layers of high thread count percale (harvested from retired sheets and pillowcases) in addition to the decorative outer layer.

When that was done, I sewed my linings together down the center, pressed them, and pinned on the ties. Those get sandwiched between the right sides of the lining and decorative back double-layer, with care taken to make sure they are not accidentally sewn over when front and back are seamed together. The two fronts, with the ties pinned to the lining are shown below.

Once that was done it was a simple matter to sew front to back (right sides inside), leaving a bit of a turning space between the two ties on the left. The thing is flipped right-side-out by teasing the ties out and yanking. A press followed by a line of topstitching all the way around to set the edges and seal the turning aperture, and I was done:

Now on to the next thing. But first I have to decide what that is….

AND THE ANNUAL BAKING MARATHON COMMENCES!

Long time readers know that for decades now I’ve been making at least 10 kinds of cookies for the holiday season. Along the way other goodies have joined them. This year is no different. But how to manage it all?

Systems design and phased planning.

I’m only half kidding. I don’t sit down and do a critical path chart for cookie preparation, but I do put some thought into it. Last week I sat down and composed this year’s list. Over the years the list of must-do kinds has grown, leaving fewer slots for experimentation. This year we hit max do-over – ten kinds now proven and loved. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

  1. Chocolate chip cookies – The original Tollhouse recipe (minus the nuts because so many other kinds I make have them).
  2. Peanut butter cookies – A family favorite. More or less the one from Joy of Cooking, but using Teddy Superchunk natural peanut butter instead of the more sugary big commercial brands.
  3. Mexican Wedding Cakes – Another gotta-have. Buttery pecan shortbread, rolled in confectioners’ sugar. I don’t stint on the toasted pecans.
  4. Bourbon Balls – Another standard done every year since I began this. A no-bake cookie. But I’ve been disappointed in the old recipe of late, so this year is a change-up. I’m trying out a recent NY Times recipe. https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1021660-fudgy-bourbon-balls
  5. Sugar cookie cut-outs – Another Joy of Cooking standard, but I add lemon zest and extract to the cookie, and made the plain confectioners’ sugar/water icing with lemon juice instead of water. Tons of fun to decorate with the kids when they were small, but a lot of work for one person, now. Some changes to this one, too this year.
  6. Oysters – One of my own invention. Or as they say in knitting – “unvention” (personal discovery replicating something previously done by others, but not known to the unventor at the time). This is a rich hazelnut spritz cookie, served up sandwich style, with chocolate ganache filling between.
  7. Iced Orange Marmalade Cookies – This will be the third year in a row for these. Obviously they’ve made the cut from exotic newcomer to gotta-have.
  8. Triple Ginger White Chocolate – Another successful original. I started with a variation on a light brown sugar drop cookie, made with ginger juice, dry ground ginger, plus minced crystalized ginger, along with white chocolate chips, that act as “internal icing” and counter the ginger’s heat. Love these.
  9. Earthquakes – Most other people call them Chocolate Crinkles. They are the fudgy, brownie like chocolate cookie that is rolled in confectioner’s sugar prior before hitting the oven. During baking they crack and split, making distinctive dark canyons across the white surface. Much loved (and nicknamed) by the kids, long long ago.
  10. Cinnamon Swirls – A specialty of Younger Spawn, who was Padawan, has now eclipsed the master. Spawn’s swirled icebox cookies are food-stylist-perfect, feather light, and intensely tasty.
  11. Jam Thumbprints – Eleven? Yes. Eleven. This was a late addition, by special request. I hope it will be a learning experience. Former Padawan Spawn says that a never-fail recipe for them is in their pocket. To date though, mine have been dismal – with no useful divots to retain the jam. No recipe for this yet – I eagerly await the personal import.

Oh. And Panforte. I make this liquor-soused chocolate/nut fruitcake every other year (one recipe makes two). It sits on the sideboard supping up its nightly drink until the day before it is served, when it gets a chocolate ganache top-icing. My mods to it include using less expensive dried fruit – 40% pitted prunes, 40% apricots, and 20% berries or cherries, and NOT using whole nuts. The thing is dense, and having whole hazelnuts and almonds in there make it quite difficult to cut. Instead I use halved or smashed hazelnuts and slivered almonds.

The secret of this juggling? Spreadsheets.

I have a master workbook. Each year I add a new sheet. I copy the previous year’s cookie row or enter new data. The sheet sums up my major ingredients at the top. It feeds into a shopping list form that I can tick off as have-on-hand or to-buy. There’s also a sheet where links or hard copy references to all the recipes live.

Geeky, yes. But effective.

Most years I’ve had to do these solo, although I was spoiled for a few when Younger Spawn was still living at home and evinced interest and growing skill. And I’ve always held down a full time professional job with an intense end of year activity burst (work has an annoying way of interfering with life.). Therefore I tend to do these as two-night exercises. Make dough on night 1, bake on night two. When I can I double up on baking and making the next night’s dough, but that isn’t always possible, leading to some intense weekend sprints to catch up.

And on preparation order – I group cookies by how far in advance I can make them (without freezing). Some types stay fresh longer than others. Some require time to cure or set properly. And some are truly ephemeral, best consumed on the week that they are made. Sequence runs something like this:

First – Panforte. Lasts forever, is better if it is made early and soused with extra liqueur daily until consumed. Ice with ganache the day before finally serving it. I usually do this the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.

Second – Bourbon Balls. They are better if they have sat to cure a couple of weeks. Always the first cookie made. Usually the same day as the Panforte.

Third – Peanut butter. The natural oil content of peanut butter keeps these soft for a very long time, they are great keepers, and lead off the baked cookie production line.

Fourth – the sturdy drop cookies. Chocolate chip, triple ginger. Not quite a long lived as peanut butter, but if tightly sealed, better keepers than the more fragile guys.

Fifth – Sugar cut-outs, Iced Orange cookies, and the spritz cookies for the oysters. Both of these can be baked ahead and stored without their respective finishing frosting or filling. Kept tightly covered, they will dry out a bit, but will gain regain moisture from their wetter components when they are finished.

Sixth – This batch are more fragile and shouldn’t be made more than a week ahead of need. Earthquakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes in that order.

The ones that depend on Younger Spawn will of course have to await arrival, but if I were to slot them in regardless of Spawn-presence, the Cinnamon Swirls would go in the Fifth group, and the Jam Thumbprints in Sixth.

The instant icebox fudge comes last. Our old neighbor and adopted family member Ms. Jean taught me how to make it the very first holiday season we celebrated together. It’s a special treat that everyone loves, takes very little time, and that’s handy for using up small amounts of leftover nuts along with the chocolate. Like there would ever be leftover chocolate in this house.

Pix of these as they are finished. Or maybe I’ll wait until the end and post the traditional “family photo.”

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.