WOOLLY THOUGHTS

 

I’ve started on a promised project – a rendition of my Harsh Language piece, as a gift for a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. They survived Covid, and made a special request. I honor their determination.  The objectionable word has been zealously cropped out of the image below to prevent irritating the easily-offended.

Although this is a small, quick-stitch, simple piece, I couldn’t resist using it for testing and learning. The Stealth Apprentice’s specialty is researching and recreating historical dye recipes – trying them out on yard goods, threads, and yarns. Of late, she’s been working on a group of dyes derived from lichens and mushrooms, with spectacular results. Sometimes when she’s working on a new recipe, she lets me beta-test her end result. I’m supposed to look for handling properties, color-fastness during stitching (crocking on fabric, or reside left on hands), and the like. And I am very happy to oblige. It’s fun to play with new materials and give useful feedback. 

We chatted about this project, and Stealth Apprentice suggested a purple, dyed using “an uncertain lichen – probably a Parmotrema species”; and a mustard gold, dyed using “a dyer’s polypore mushroom”. The purple is a deep claret, and the yellow is a sunny mustard. They are equally saturated, so one doesn’t eclipse the other. I had no idea that these hues could come from lichen and inedible mushrooms, both which I will now view with greater respect.  The purple is more true to the snippet above than the magenta it looks like on the winder below, but you get the general idea.

Both wools are of the same base stock prior to their color baths. They are of very soft and fine fibers, a single strand of two tightly twisted plies (which cannot be separated), about the thickness equivalent of three plies of standard cotton embroidery floss. They’re more plush and rounder, of course, with the stretch you’d expect from wool.

For this counted project due to fact that the wool thread is more robust than the cottons, silks, and faux-silk (rayons) I usually use, I’ve picked a ground cloth that’s far coarser than ones I usually use. Coarser in that it has fewer threads per inch – not that it’s harsh to the hand. This well aged bit from my stash is about 24 threads per inch, give or take; with slightly more threads per inch on the warp (parallel to the selvage) than the weft (perpendicular to the selvage). Since I’m stitching over two threads, I’m at 12 stitches per inch – big as logs to me since I’m used to working at 18 to 25 stitches per inch. But the result is spot on what’s required if one strand of this wool is used. If I were to double the strands, I’d probably be looking at working at 10 stitches per inch or fewer, probably down around 6-8 stitches per inch for better, less crowded effect. 

Working with the wool and how it differs from cotton, silk, and rayon:

  • Needle size: Obviously the tiny eye, round point needles I usually use are too thin for this and their eyes are way too small. Instead I’m using a tapestry needle. I think it’s a size 22, but it has been long divorced from any packaging, and has been living in sin with its mismatched fellows in one of my needle cases.
  • Needle threading: Even with the larger size needle, threading is still not easy. Wool fuzzes (obviously) and waxing is right out (also obviously). My little bee needle threader is an absolute must for this project.

  • Frame: I am using a hoop. The piece is small, so most of the area to be stitched fits inside it. But not for long. Eventually I will need to re-hoop over previously stitched bits. I will try to avoid doing so as much as possible, but right now I don’t have the option of moving this over to a flat frame. If I have to hoop over the letters in particular, I will be covering them with a soft fabric as padding, to prevent crushing or skewing the wool threads. I’d recommend flat frames, slate frames, or scrolling flat frames for countwork in wool, and will make sure to avoid my hoops in the future.
  • Thread abrasion: This is much more pronounced in wool than cotton, rayon, or silk. Drawing the fluffy thread through the tiny holes of the ground cloth’s weave does degrade the strand over time. Spare yourself waste, agony, and an uneven appearance on the front – use shorter strands than you would with any other thread. And yes – if I were to be working on Aida or a ground cloth with larger holes, or using a larger needle this would be abated somewhat. But I much prefer the uniform look of a nice, tight even weave ground over the scattered holes presented by the purpose-woven stitching fabrics, so I am bringing this bit of extra work entirely on myself.
  • Stitching technique: Even more so than with cotton (the most forgiving), silk, or rayon (the most unruly), wool needs to be worked in double running or back stitch with vertical passes of the needle through the cloth – not with a “sewing” or scooping stitch. Working with one hand in front of the work and the other behind means that care must be taken not to snag the working thread when the needle is returned by the unseen hand. It’s all too easy to pierce the working strand (it’s fuzzy and soft) and create an headache to untangle later.
  • Tension:  Wool is springy and stretchy.  Cotton is not.  Silk and rayon are even less elastic than cotton.  It’s easy to stitch the less elastic threads quickly, and getting the feel for how tight to snug them up on a nice, taut, hooped ground is relatively quick.  Wool by contrast stretches and then bounces back.  It’s VERY easy to stitch it too tightly – stretching it as the stitches are formed, only to see it bounce back later when the ground is released from tension.  Save yourself a headache and only draw the threads as tightly as it takes to make them lie flat and even, which will be significantly less tight than you are used to with other fibers.
  • Ripping back after mistakes: Don’t count on it. The fuzzy nature of the thread makes it far more likely that stitches will pierce those laid down before, rather than slide alongside them. Ripping back will be painstaking, and the thread that’s recovered (if you are able to do it at all) will be seriously damaged by the removal, too much so for invisible difference re-use. Unless it’s just going back one or two stitches, treat mistakes as lost causes and sacrifice the strand. Snip on the front and withdraw the ends from the back to minimize fibers left on the front.

I’ll continue on with this, learning as I go.  For all of the differences, I am enjoying working with wool and look forward to doing more of it in the future.  I’ll continue to post (fig-leafed) progress on this piece.  Like I said – it’s small and will be a quick finish.  I’ll have to put it on hiatus for a few days at the end of next week for another obligation, but even with that should have it done and on its way to my convalescent friend well before mid-September.

COMPLETE!

All stitching is finished on my bony boi piece! Next it goes off to the framers. This one deserves a nicer finish than I can do myself.

And having played Thread Chicken, this is all I have left.

First sincere thanks again to Paula from Austin, who staged an intervention and shared her own stash. Since the thread I was using is not generally available, her generosity was key to this finish.

And a close-up of one of the “islands,” designed and added at last minute because the composition needed them:

Let’s see… Lessons learned. There are always lessons learned.

First and foremost, the obvious one – double check thread quantities, color numbers and dye lots. While I had two large hanks of multiple skeins of red, both with the same color number, it’s now obvious that one of them was either mis-numbered or a different dye lot. Or perhaps a lot older than the other. They didn’t match. Not only were the colors different (especially in natural light), the thickness of the individual plies also varied, with the “bad” stuff being just a tiny bit heavier. I ended up marling together the last of the “good” color (abetted by Paula’s donation), with the “bad” stuff, and making do.

I tossed caution to the wind in my hurry to get started and did not hem the edge of this cloth. But I did plan an extra generous blank area around the entire piece for later framing, so this ended up not mattering. Other than the annoying shed of edge threads, of course. I have to force myself to edge-control discipline. Hem, hem, hem.

I didn’t grid the piece prior to stitching. Yes, I know others do and find it helpful, but aside from marking my center north-south, and east-west with a line of basting thread, I don’t really feel the need. I went “around the world” on this one. I started the center top and continuing the border counter-clockwise, and had no problems mating up perfectly when I joined back up with the start after my journey. I proof constantly, and I admit a fair bit of picking out and re-doing to stay on count and true.

You CAN stitch outdoors in high winds. Hand held hoops work better than flat frames that can act as a sail when it really starts blowing. One of those zippered clear plastic cases that new sheets and blankets come in helps, especially if it has an inside pocket where the product info used to be. That works great for keeping a chart clean, dry, and away from the wind; and the zippered part is great for containing your threads and other essentials away from sunscreen and salt spray, (and holding the project between working sessions, too). You can even use two magnets to keep place on the chart without removing it from the pocket. Tethering your snips with a retractable badge holder works nicely. But at the beach on on very humid days, watch out for the damp! Some threads may crock or leech dye.

In a rare departure for me (although more common if I include text), I graphed out the entire project. I wanted the corners to miter nicely, which means I had to compensate at the centers of each side (12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock as you go around). That meant I had to lay out my design against actual count, so I could fudge the centers. And I did the fudging on graph, rather than on the fly as I stitched.

But having drafted out the entire thing doesn’t mean I stuck entirely to the pattern I had drawn out. Those snails… My original stuck to the small twig and leaf of The Dance, the skeleton pattern I shared. I picked out that first twig and improvised a snail, then kept using the little guy on every repeat after. I also altered the plume flower slightly, taking out a couple of extra bars inside the outline that muddied the design. I did NOT go back and rip out the first two plumes. Those bars are among the mistakes I left in.

I will probably not be going back and ripping out that one very red plume, where I discovered the inadequacy of my “bad” batch of thread. Another difference batch to batch is that the “bad” stuff crocks like crazy, and oozes dye when it’s damp. If I get up close and personal I can tell which bits I stitched at the beach or during our weeks of high humidity and summer heat, just from the halos around the stitched bits. I will NOT be washing this piece. Ever. And I will not be perturbing already-stitched bits, lest I exacerbate the haloing.

Now on to my next piece. I have promised a rendition of my Harsh Language design to a good friend who is a virus-survivor. This friend prefers to remain anonymous.

This should be a quick stitch after Lucus Orthai Ta, and I will use it to test out some new threads received from The Stealth Apprentice. She asks me to trial run some lichen-dyed wools that she dyed herself and is currently evaluating as a potential product for her Etsy shop. I am happy to oblige, doubling the value of the new piece.

And again because someone WILL ask about the meaning of the motto on this one…

The Resident Male is an aspiring science fiction and fantasy writer. He’s getting attention for Fractured Symmetry, the first book in a series featuring a classic detective pair – a grumpy, reclusive genius, and an hands-on action assistant. Only in this case, the genius is Terendurr the Blackstone, an imposing alien; and the assistant is Blair MacAlister, a woman you wouldn’t want to trifle with. The mysteries allow fascinating trips into off-world cultures (his universe is populated by many species, each with their own ethics, biases, strengths and weaknesses). He’s working on a second volume of stories right now. No spoilers – this phrase is a motto of a group that figures prominently in those stories. It’s not in any Earthly language, and translates roughly to “Life’ll kill ya.” So as his #1 fangrrl, I made this piece up for him. Yes, a bit quixotic I admit, but I do believe that he will find his audience, and I won’t be the only fan for long.

STUMPWORK PEN DRAWING

A while back I posted about a drawing that came to me from my grandparents. It hung in their dining room/library. As a kid I adored it and since it was hanging so far up on the wall, was especially delighted after I finally got glasses, and discovered all the details – the flowers, bugs, and little goodies hidden in the piece.

I am convinced that my drawing is a rendering of an actual artifact. The sketch probably dates to the 1920s or 1930s at the latest. The artifact itself is clearly a stumpwork piece of some type – a style dating to the 17th century. Possibly a mirror, possibly a bookbinding. Possibly a combo of motifs from more than one piece. But I don’t think it was just dreamed up by the artist.

I’ve gone looking for the thing several times. I’ve hunted in on-line photo collections and books cataloging famous embroidery collections. I’ve paid special attention to items in New York City area museums because I have a hunch that “art student selling on the street” was more in my Brooklyn dwelling grandparents’ budget than was purchasing from a gallery. And an art student might well have sketched something seen on display in a local museum.

I even read about a collection of stumpwork pieces being acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in the 1920s, so I wrote to the curators and asked if it was still in accession, and if anyone dealing with it might recognize my piece. Sadly, not. But they were very gracious and wished me luck in my hunt.

Recently I was part of an on-line discussion among historical needlework enthusiasts, and posted my (not very good) photo. Several folks there requested higher resolution pix. So in the hope that I can enlist others in my hunt, or provide inspiration to someone wanting to stitch their own stumpwork frame, I post some here.

Bottom center – note the shark-like fish, and detail that looks very much like the artist was trying to depict actual stitching. Hills with an ocean or lake in front are very common center bottom treatments on mirror frames.

Lower left corner – the pony, plus a dove(?), a snake, and a centipede. And flowers. There are always flowers.

Lower right corner – the camel, and a beetle. That hump looks like turkey work to me. Also what might be a partial signature at the left of this detail shot – a little roundel that might be CCS or HS, or HCS.

Upper left corner – the leopard, with a caterpillar a bird, and a worm. Leopards (and lions) are common corner residents.

Upper right corner – the moose-nosed stag, with the worm and a two small snails. (Hmm… Maybe this is why I often include snails in my own work.) Stags show up often on similar pieces, too.

Center top – buildings, plus fruits and birds, below. Buildings, perhaps visions of Jerusalem or the city of heaven are also a standard feature of stumpwork mirror frames.

Left edge – Now this is where it gets complicated. On mirror frames there is often a couple – a king on one side and a queen on the other. Family folklore (with or without any reason) claims that in this drawing the center figure, a queen, is in fact Queen Esther, and this guy on the edge with the wide collar is King Ahasuerus. Whoever he is, he has bugs, a bird and a bunny to keep him company.

Right edge – If the Esther interpretation is correct, this would have to be Mordecai. Not quite as sumptuously robed as the King, but escorted by a bird, grapes, and another caterpillar. (Haman, being the bad guy gets no depiction.)

Center – Finally we get to Queen Esther and her attendant. And her own bunny, worm, and bugs, plus even more lovely flowers. From what I’ve seen it’s unusual for just a queen to be shown alone in these English stumpwork pieces – more often a couple was shown, usually in homage to the sitting monarchs.

So there we have it. If you look closely at these pix you can begin to see stitch detail – a raised braided stitch of some type as the heavy outline, the mentioned turkey work on the hump of the camel, a three-D thrust on the parasol, satin stitch and shading on some of the flowers and fruits (either to indicate depth or stitches – I can’t tell).

So now the APB is truly issued. Seen these characters, or pieces like this one? Let me know. If the link is accessible, I’ll post it here.

Adapting one of these pix for your own raised work piece? Let me know! I’d be happy to post that, too. (I think the corner animals in particular would make lovely tops for small, round boxes).

Museum Examples

Metropolitan Museum, Mirror Frame, Third quarter 17th century, British. Accession 64.101.1332: Leopard at lower right, pond or sea with fish at bottom, couple left and right.

Mirror frame, Satin worked with silk, chenille threads, purl, shells, wood, beads, mica, bird feathers, bone or coral; detached buttonhole variations, long-and-short, satin, couching, and knot stitches; wood frame, mirror glass, plush, British

Victoria & Albert Museum, Mirror Frame, 1660-1680, British. Accession 351-1866. Lion and unicorn in lower corners, couple at left and right, pond with mountains and fish at bottom.

Drawing presented on Lizapalooza/Elizabethancostume.net’s blog (photo borrowed from that site, I hope they forgive me).

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…

ROUND THE BEND

Yes! I have successfully rounded the corner, and reached out a tendril that confirms that the entire piece is spot on count and accurate to the repeat.

Now it’s just a matter of filling in that little bit at the upper right.

Of course, now I may go in and add something on either side of “TA” just to balance out the design. Still thinking on that, but in any case, the finish line is palpably near. Here’s the proof of alignment “tendril” – the inner border along the top edge fits perfectly, mating with the work I laid down at the very start of my journey around the edge (the bony boi and the border above his head, at the hoop’s right edge).

To put this in perspective for my non-stitching pals, this rendezvous is like marking a chalk X in front of your house, standing on it then putting on a blindfold and dancing wildly around the block nonstop until you decide you’ve gone far enough; then taking off the blindfold, looking down and realizing you have arrived exactly back on your point of departure.

Why not so much progress this week past? It’s been hot. We got back from our week on the beach in the middle of the heat wave. Like many in the northeast US, we have no air conditioning. Sitting under a halogen work lamp in the evening was more than I could contemplate in temps of 85 to 100 deg F (29.4 to 37.8 C), with high humidity.

I’ve been marling the offending brighter red (glaringly odd third inner plume flower up from the bottom of the right inner border) with thread in the color (or closer to the color) I have been using. By using one strand of “good” and one strand of “less optimal” together major color discontinuities are not so evident. I may go back and replace that offending plume flower. Or not. The “bad” red seems to crock considerably more than the other batches, and removal will leave a very evident halo.

Before I forget, extra special thanks go out to new stitchpal Paula from Austin, Texas. She read about my thread shortage problem and dug into her own stash, sending me oddments of various colors in and around the values I needed. Her generosity is what has enabled me to pursue the marled thread strategy.

Paula, I truly would not be able to finish this piece to my satisfaction without you help. My gratitude is eternal. When such things can happen again, the next time we are down that way visiting family, I reserve the right to drag you out for a special treat!

SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

I don’t think I ever wrote anything about this piece. It’s one of our India-acquisitions – a beaded toran (small window curtain or alcove decoration). Glasses for scale.

We bought it in the Koregaon Park neighborhood of Pune, in a curiosities/furniture/antiques shop called Sanskriti Lifestyle. The clerk there was only able to tell me that it was old – he had no other information to share. So I began to research.

The beadwork style is called “Moti Bharat“, and is practiced in both Gujarat and neighboring Rajasthan, but is a relatively recent practice, only dating back to the mid to late 1800s. I don’t know enough about how the execution of this style differs between those two provinces to identify the exact source. All I can say is that compared to many on-line examples from both areas, it’s a rather modest and understated little piece.

On “old” – it’s definitely not a recently made piece, but neither is it very aged. I suspect it was probably made before the 1970s, but probably not earlier than the 1940s, based on the colors and types of beads used (all glass rather than plastic, with a wider color set than pre-1940s pieces).

Observations:

I believe this piece was beaded off-fabric, using a mesh technique. That’s the traditional method.

It may or may not have been displayed in this original un-backed format – the condition is quite good with no breaks or evidence of stress, which leads me to believe that it probably wasn’t. But I don’t think this piece is totally untouched.

I think that what I have might be a fragment of a larger toran.

Look at the red/orange beaded line that surrounds the center motifs. On the left, it’s a straight line, and the width of the white beading to its left is more or less constant. But on the right it’s wavy, it corners earlier and the white beaded area varies in width, and is oddly bunched in places by the blue/white/red border. If my hunch is correct, the border (which has a different periodicity than the field) might have been applied later, after the bulk of the piece was salvaged from an earlier work, and after its right side was more or less restored.

After the beading (including any theoretical restoration) was finished, this piece was affixed to the current red cotton cloth backing, by hand. I’ve looked closely at these myriad little attachment stitches, and they do NOT go through the beads themselves. Instead they loop around junctions in the beaded mesh, to attach the entire structure to the backing.

Again – there may have been an earlier presentation that involved the beads and the red backing, possibly with some sort of other edging because the seam allowance of the red bit shows evidence of earlier hand stitching.

And at a still later date (based on wear of the backing cloth), the edges of the beadwork were stitched down again, with long reinforcing stitches in heavier string, and the piece was edged around with the yellow bias binding. At this time the white ruffle on the bottom was added. The bias binding, hanging loops, and ruffle were all put on with machine stitching. There is evidence that the piece was hung for display in this configuration – rust stains on the inside of the top loops, plus one of the bottom loop that has been pulled from its attaching stitches.

As to what the motifs symbolize – all I can say is that trees and the little bulls are traditional. The top center motif might be a representation of a divine figure, I can’t say. All I can observe is that the composition although balanced and pleasing is very simple for pieces of this type. It was a decoration that brought joy to a modest household, albeit it one of the means to afford such things. It now hangs in my house, and continues to bring joy.

I invite my India friends to chime in with more details!

MODELBOOK BLOCKS: ACORNS AND CHICKENS

Long time SCA friend/needlework penpal and costuming/stitch research role model Kathryn Goodwyn recently began posting her transcriptions of charted modelbook pages she’s collected over the years. She’s in the middle of a series from Matteo Pagan’s L’Honesto Essampio del Uertuoso Desiderio che hano le done di nobil ingegno, circa lo imparare i punti tagliati a fogliami, published in 1550, in Venice.

This is her chart of one of the pages, presented here with her express permission:

In her post to the Historic Hand Embroidery group on Facebook, Kathryn noted that in the original, there was something odd with the acorn panel – that the count inside the frame didn’t match that of the other strips that accompanied it. Lively discussion ensued. Some people opined that the strips were all cut on individual blocks, assembled into a page at the time of printing, and pointed to the large number of designs that appear in multiple books over time, put out by different publishers.

I agree that there was lively trade and outright reproduction (authorized or not) in early pattern books. There are many instances of designs appearing either verbatim (probably printed from the same blocks), and being re-carved with introduced errors and minute differences. And it makes perfect sense that in the high precision work of block production, carving separate strips would be more forgiving of errors. If a chisel slips, only one design would be spoiled – not the entire page.

However in this particular instance, I think that this piece was carved as a single, integral block. And the skew count for Acorns was a kludge, done when the carver realized that the design would merge into the border of the block and took pains to nibble one last partial-width narrow blank row from the wide border, to separate the leaf from it.

I have found two (possibly three) renditions of this page, all from various extant Pagano volumes.

From the L’Honesto volume (1550) held by the Sterling and France Clark Art Institute Library, available on Archive.Org:

Sadly the edition of L’Honesto in the Gallica collection in France (dated 1553) does not contain this page, but modelbooks were probably issued as folios rather than bound volumes (buyers later paid to have them bound, and decades could have elapsed before that happened), experienced hard wear, and it’s not unlikely that this one is only partial.

The plate however shows up again in a composed edition of Pagano’s later work, La Gloria et L’Honore di Point Tagliati, E Ponti In Aere (1556) now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Accession 21.59.1). There is some confusion in the museum’s presentation – it’s not clear if this page is included once or twice. There are two images of it each tagged with a different page number, plus one image with no page number tag. On all three the facing pages are identical, as are tiny print imperfections on the pictured plate; which leads me to suspect that (gasp) there is a mistake somewhere in the museum’s on-line listings:

I have found this plate and its constituent strips ONLY in these images. I have not found the plate as a whole in another work, nor have I found these exact strips (identifying mistakes and all) replicated in combo with other strips in other Pagano works, or in issues by Vavassore (a close associate).

However other designs do appear to wander. Or do they…..

I’ve noted a couple of these before – but those tended to be full page designs. How about clear instances where a page of designs was created from constituent individual blocks, and those specific blocks can be spotted in different compositions/pages?

It’s surprisingly difficult to find evidence of independent re-use of identifiable single-strip or single motif blocks. Even for a very recognizable and common design that at first glance looks like a single block that wandered among several pages.

Here’s a well represented one. The Chicken Page. (My own shorthand name for it, nothing actually official.) This design shows up again and again, and persists over the ages in folk embroidery styles of Sicily, the Greek Islands, and up through Eastern Europe and into Russia. It’s meant to be rendered in double running (or back stitch) and in modelbooks often appears with other designs of similar technique on the same page. For a very long time I thought there was only one chicken. But not so.

The copy on the left below is the chicken page from Quentell’s Ein New kunstlich Modelbuch, Cologne, 1541. (I normed these pages to the same orientation for easier comparison.) The middle copy is from Ein new kunslich Modelbuch dair yn meir dan Sechunderet figurenn monster… published in 1536 in Koln, by Anton Woensam. It’s also in Ein new kuntslich Modelbuoch…,attributed to Hermann Guifferich, with a hard date of 1545 (the same page is also in his Modelbuch new aller art nehens und stickens, from 1553). On the right is an example from the composed volume La fleur des patrons de lingerie – an omnibus volume that contains four different modelbook editions bound together. While the archive lists 1515 as the publication for La fleur, that’s not correct.

Some more. At left is the Chicken Page from Zoppino’s Ensamplario di Lavori of 1530, in the version cleaned up and presented as Volume I of Kathryn’s Flowers of the the Needle collection. On the right is another imprint of the same exact block or set of blocks, from Pagano’s Trionfo di Virtu, of 1563.

Obviously the second set of chicken images was printed from exactly the same full page block, in spite of being both the earliest and the latest example in our total set. There are no deviations, and all copyist’s errors are the same, left and right for every strip. However they are also clearly not printed from the same blocks others. Most obviously, the chicken repeat in the set of two doesn’t begin or end at the same point as it does in the first set of three.

But I don’t think all three chicken panels in the first set came from the same nest either. There are too many differences between the first shown panel and the other two next to it. Not just partial lines where ink may not have reached during the print, but actual deviations in the carving:

The other strips on the leftmost example of the three also deviate from the other two examples in its set, elongated stitches represented, different numbers of counts in comparable stepwise sections and the like.

My conclusion from this flock of chickens is our bird motif was carved three times. One imprint appears in Quentell [Chix1]. A second is in Woensam/Guifferich/[La fleur] [Chix2]. And a third appears in Zoppino/Pagano [Chix3].

Our timeline is now something like:

  • 1530 – Zoppino – Chix3
  • 1536 – Woensam – Chix2
  • 1541 – Quentel – Chix1
  • 1545 – Guifferich – Chix2
  • 1553 – Guifferich – Chix2
  • 1567 – Pagano – Chix3

What we are NOT seeing in this ONE particular case is that the chicken motif although quite prevalent and highly mobile was NOT being re-used as a single block, in combination with assorted blocks to make unique pages. Instead it appears with its established companion set – verbatim. And in the instances where it looks like it might be nesting with new friends, it is in fact an entirely different carving – a totally different chicken.

Finally, I am not sure why the positive/negative presentation is so prevalent for this particular style of block. My guess is because the dark lines/light ground carving was fragile and more time-consuming to produce than the dark ground white lines areas. Perhaps the dark areas were an economy measure, or their presence strengthened the block as a whole so that it lasted longer or warped less (dark/light areas on these blocks tend to alternate left/right).

Apologies for the length of this post. If folk remain interested I’ll look at the peregrinations of other specific designs.

THE CLASSIC PROBLEM

Too much stitching left to do. Too little thread. With about a quarter of the stitching remaining I have a problem.

I am using thread I brought back from India. I found it in a shop in the old shopping district in Pune. They specialized in crafting materials, especially beads, pre-embroidered pieces, knitting yarns, and other goodies. But they had a few skeins of what looked like silk floss in one of the display cases. I pointed at it and asked the shopkeeper if he had more. He sent a little boy up into the storerooms, and he came back with a very dusty and crumbling cardboard box full of odds and ends. All of the same type of thread (which turned out to be “art silk” – rayon) but all of very limited quantity. I picked out all of what remained in non-pastel colors, including several multi-skein hanks of deep red, and bought it all, for an astonishingly low price.

As you can see there’s a pile of crimson there. What remains of that pile now is much less –

The wound bobbin in the middle is what I’ve been using (with a caveat). It’s Cifonda Art Silk color number 145. So is the hank on the left. The hank on the right is color number 144. It’s in the same continuum, but a click lighter. At the bottom is flaming cherry red 530, not even close.

The caveat on the bobbin? It’s holding two skeins of 145. Underneath is New-145. On top is Old-145. I wound off the new one, then after stitching the bit below, went on a Wild Hunt, and found one last remaining skein of Old-145. You can’t see the difference between them, right? Neither could I until this happened.

I bet you can see it now. Leaf #3 and part of the interlace below it stands out. I stitched it with the New-145. It’s redder, more garnet in tone than the established work. Clearly the same color number, but a different dye lot (even though dye lots are not labeled ). Even if I could get more of this stuff the chance of matching color with my very-well-aged stock is practically nil.

I will finish out as much as possible with my last skein of Old-145. I may or may not pick out this leaf . Still thinking on that… And also thinking on how to finish out the piece using only what I have on hand. Go for New-145? Go lighter with 144? I’ve seen historical pieces whose stitchers faced the same problem and blithely ignored it. Which is what I will end up doing, one way or the other…

PROGRESS BY THE BEACH

Lest anyone think I’m on vacation, not so. Yes, we ran away to the beach place this three-day weekend past, but in this work from home era, we worked from there, and prepped the place for our booked guests in compliance with the state COVID-era short term rental requirements.

Still, even though it wasn’t all for fun, on Sunday I did get the chance to stitch on the beach. I adore it, even though the intense sunshine can lead to “white out” conditions on the linen, making thread counting difficult.

As for how far I’ve gotten so far – I’m just starting on the third corner:

Excuse the wrinkles – I don’t iron until the very end.

You can see the diagonal “spine” of the mitered corner. A snail will squeeze itself in underneath the rightmost tumbler’s feet. I will wrap the plume edging up and around the corner, too. You can even see the start of the double border with extra knot on the inner edge of the rising strip-to-be.

I wish I had grand new insights to share on this piece, but being in the home stretch, I’m fresh out. This is also always the most dangerous part of a project for me. I’ve figured out all that’s new, and all that’s left is perseverance – dogged execution of the known until completion. It’s the point where I often wander off to do something novel and interesting, with the promise of new challenges.

So, if you have any questions about working these long repeats, keeping place in them, how to draft them up, or pretty much anything else, feel free to ask. Now’s a good time to engage my attention. And I’ll thank you for keeping me on track and marching in time with my bois.

PROOFING

And we march around the perimeter, making skeleton after skeleton.

I’m just shy of half-way now, and I had to extend a tendril out to that point to make sure that I’m hitting my center mark. And I did!

As you can see comparing the blue line on the photo and the red line on the snippet of my chart, I’m spot on for alignment – not even a thread left or right of my center line.

One question I keep getting is how I maintain my location and ensure everything is in the correct spot without pre-gridding my work (without basting in an extensive set of guidelines to establish larger 10 (or 20) unit location aid across the entire groundcloth). I generally reply, “By proofing against established work,” but that then generates the second question. “How?”

So I attempt to answer.

For the most part I almost never work on fully charted out projects, with every stitch of the piece carefully plotted in beforehand. I compose my own pieces rather than working kits or charts done by others, and as a result I never have a full every-stitch representation as my model. My working method is to define center lines (and sometimes edge boundaries), but I pick strips or fills on the fly, starting them from my established centers, and working from smaller charts that are specific to the particular motif or fill that’s on deck. However, if lettering is involved I am more likely to graph that part out to completion prior to stitching, to ensure good letter and line spacing. (Leading, spacing, and kerning are close to my heart both as someone whose day job deals in documents, and as a printer’s granddaughter.)

For this project I DID prepare a full graph to ensure the centered placement of my very prominent text motto against the frame. I also wanted to miter the corners of the frame (reflect on a 45-degree angle) rather than work strips that butt up against each other, AND I wanted the skeleton repeat to work out perfectly on all four legs of the frame. To do that I had to plan ahead more than I usually do. (Note that the repeat frequency of the accompanying smaller edgings are different from the skeleton strip, so I also had to “fudge” center treatments for them so they would mirror neatly – another reason to graph the entire project).

But even with a full project graph available against which work, I didn’t grid – I worked as I always do, relying on entirely on close proofing as I go along.

The first step is a “know your weaknesses” compensation. To make sure I am on target I almost never extend a single long line ahead of myself, especially not on the diagonal because I make the majority of my mistakes miscounting a long diagonal. Instead I try to grow slowly, never stitching very far away from established bits, so I can make these checks as I work:

  • Does the stitching of my new bit align both vertically and horizontally with the prior work? Am I off by as little as one thread? Am I true to grid?
Checking grid against prior stitches. Am I on count?
  • Is my new bit in the right place? Does the placement of the design element align with what’s been stitched before? For example, in this case, is do the toes of the mirror imaged bois back to back to the pomegranates match in placement in relation to each other and to the bottom of the pomegranate’s leaves?
Checking placement of design elements in relation to each other.
Are my motifs in the right place?
  • Am I working properly to pattern? It doesn’t matter if I am using a small snippet with just the strip design or fill that’s being stitched, a full project chart, or (as I am now) using prior stitching as my pattern – copying what’s been laid down on the cloth. Am I true to my design as depicted?

As I work, I constantly proof in these three ways – checking to make sure that my work is true. And if I discover a problem, I trace back to see where I went wrong, and I ruthlessly eliminate the mistake. For the record – there’s nothing to be gained by letting off-count stand in the hope of compensating later. Trust me – you’ll forget, mistakes will compound on mistakes, and you’ll end up wasting even more time, thread, and psychic energy on the eventual fix.

I hope this explains what I mean by proofing as you go. I know for most of the readers here, this will be second nature, and they won’t have thought of it as a disciplined approach, but for newer stitchers the old maxim “Trust but verify” should become a mantra. Verify, verify, verify. The sanity you save will be your own.

Finally, for Felice, who doubted I was using double running stitch for such a complex project in spite of the in process photos that showed the dashes of half-completed passes, here’s the reverse.

Yes, I do use knots for work with backs that won’t be seen, but I do it carefully so that the knots don’t pull through. Point and laugh if you must, but I reserve the right to ignore you.