Tag Archives: blackwork embroidery

A MISSING LINK?

Folk who play around poking into historical styles of counted work often note far flung similarities and make wild conjectures about cross-pollination, imported influences, and neighbors-in-commerce catering to each other’s markets. I’m no different. But I try to contain myself. Still sometimes things present at just too convenient a time or place to NOT raise eyebrows, and make one wish one had the time for real academic research.

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum houses several artifacts that make my heart flutter.

Where did the style of inhabited blackwork come from? By inhabited blackwork, I mean the style characterized by heavy outlines and geometric fills (ok, sometimes they are freehand, and are not always counted). My old coronation dress underskirt is a classic example.

The style hit big time in Tudor England, cloaked in vague associations with Moorish styles imported from the Iberian regions. There were certainly monochrome or limited palette pieces done before then, scrolling leaves/flowers worked with outlines, and certainly things done on the count. But all of those elements together? And where are “ancestral pieces” in Spain? What can we point to as a seed of the style?

Apparently there isn’t much. Some folkloric associations with Queen Catherine of Aragon, and “general knowledge” but not a lot of actual items that are clear ancestors of the Great Tudor Blackwork Explosion.

That’s where the Ashmolean’s Newberry Collection of Islamic Artifacts comes in. Dating is not very precise, and the provenance is Fustat, Egypt, where many fragments were found, preserved by the dry climate and fortuitous funerary customs. There are lots of bits there that look like the precursors of double running strapwork – bands of repeats done stepwise, that look a like the famous Meyer bands in the Holbein painting.

But there are also these.

Ashmolean Jameel Centre Newberry Collection, “Textile Fragment with leaves and squares”. Egypt, Fustat. 10th to 15th century. 6 x 47cm (warp x weft approx 18 x 19 thread count/cm) Accession EA1993.222

Textile fragment with leaves and squaresfront

Ashmolean Jameel Centre Newberry Collection, “Textile Fragment with scrolling vine leaves, flowers, and leaves”. Egypt, Fustat. 10th to 15th century. 6 x 47cm (warp x weft approx 18 x 19 thread count/cm) Accession EA1993.223

Textile fragment with scrolling vine-leaves, flowers, and leavesfront

These are not Spanish, but they are from a part of the greater Islamic world. They are not monochrome. Being rather broadly dated they only vaguely inch up to the period of inhabited blackwork’s rise to popularity (The 1400s are not the 1500s).

BUT. What we do see here are scrolling leaf and flower forms, with prominent outlines, and simple geometric/abstract fills, with a strong stylized (as opposed to representational) iconic feel. They would have been thought to have vague Moorish associations at the time blackwork arose.

Did works of this type make their way across the entire length of the Mediterranean to Spain, and by extension – to England, to influence the style we know so well? Trading and travel were robust, so it’s not an impossibility. Remember, we have no way to know for sure.

You have to admit though, it’s a juicy bit of speculation…

QUESTIONS ON THE LEAVES

Questions about my current project are popping in. I’ll try to answer the ones so far. Feel free to send more.

First, a progress shot:

As you can see, I’ve established the border on the second long side of the piece. I still have not decided on whether or not there will be wide borders along the short sides. That decision probably won’t occur until I have to advance the piece on the rollers of my roller frame. Right now the ground cloth’s center is (more or less) at the center of the exposed working area.

On to the questions.

How do you get the design onto the fabric?

I don’t. This is a counted style. I have a paper pattern that shows my repeat, graphed up into a grid. I look at that, then replicate the design on my cloth, using each group of 2×2 threads as my graph grid. It’s just a matter of looking left, seeing “Five stitches in line straight, then one diagonal to the left, then three straight left,” and stitching it.

As I work I constantly check back and forth to make sure that the newly stitched pieces are on target – true to the count of the design. To do that I tend not to work out on a long lead. I try to work adjacent areas so I can check them against each other as I go. For example on this design, I’ll confirm that the ed

My teacher told me that I always need to baste in an even grid before I start a large charted project. Why haven’t you done that?

Because I don’t need to. I do have basted lines that indicate the edges and center point of the area I will be stitching, but I tease them out and clip them as I go along to keep them out of my way. I’ve never used a fully gridded ground with guidelines basted in every ten or twenty stitches apart. I’m comfortable working that way, although I know that others need more alignment aids than I do.

Will you be making this available as a chart or kit?

Not as such. This leafy design will be included in my (ever) forthcoming book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook. (News of that book’s publication will be here on String first). But I won’t be issuing a project chart or kit for this piece.

What thread are you using?

I’m using the vintage “art silk” floss I bought in India. I wish it were real silk, but we do with what we have. One nice thing about it – it’s very fine, and presents much like finger spun if stitched closely.

For the green double-running stitch, I am using two strands of this floss, heavily waxed. For the satin stitch, I am using three strands, unwaxed. The stuff is a bit unruly, and keeping the satin stitch even and smooth is much harder than establishing the design in double running.

What’s the count of your ground?

It’s an 40-count evenweave 100% linen, stash aged. I’m not sure where/when I got it, but I dug it out from the bottom of the pile, so it wasn’t a recent purchase. I’m working over 2×2 threads, so that works out to about 20 stitches per inch. But I think there’s a minute variance in count north-south vs. east-west, so it’s probably more like 20 spi x 19.5 spi.

What will this be when you are done?

A monument to the time it took to stitch.

Seriously, while I had originally thought it would make a nifty pillow for our sofa, complementing the room’s colors and being a different finishing treatment from yet-another-wall-hanging. However, I’ve decided against that. The art silk in satin stitch is too friable, prone to snags and catches. The thought of throwing myself on the sofa and having the rivets of my jeans play havoc with those shiny, smooth bits is a harsh reality check. This will probably end up on my walls, like so many of my other pieces.

TAKING ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN

I continue on the Italian Renaissance leafy multicolor piece.

The skewed weave you may see is an artifact of image compression, and is not indicative of the appearance of the ground cloth.

Originally I had thought to do yet another sampler cloth, with lots of designs grouped rather willy-nilly, but I have changed my mind. The look of this particular ground is so striking that I want to do a larger example of it. I also have a companion edging for this all-over that I’m itching to apply. Right now I’m leaning towards a large rectangular piece, surrounded by that edging, possibly using some surface work in gold thread for added bling. I’m not sure what the finish will be, but I am considering making this into a pillow, which is one of the possible original uses for a design of this type.

Along the way I am re-learning the delights of Satin Stitch. It never was one of my faves, but the play of light using the faux silk thread can’t be beat. The deep green I’m using for the counted outlines in double running is waxed, but the satin stitch in-fillings are not in order to maximize sheen. And no – I’m not going to stitch every area in every leaf. I’m going to leave the piece partially filled in as it is above. That’s more or less along the lines of the original, but possibly leaving a bit more unfilled. The decision on working the red on the other half of each large leaf is still being made. On one hand it would look interesting, but on the other hand, so much red would overpower the rest of the stitching. Opinions are solicited here.

I’ve also learned the hard way how NOT to handle the multicolor fill on the branch. Originally I had done it as multiple rows of one-unit tall satin stitch, vertically. That broke up the color too much, so I picked that out and re-did it wider, but with the color broken up by the little bits of cross hatching on the sides of the stem. I am not entirely pleased, in part due to clumsy execution of the first. Working that bit horizontally is right out, both for fidelity to the original reasons, and due to the breadth and spread of those areas. I may need to explore threading my satin stitches underneath some of the crosshatches. Or just learning to do them more neatly…

The current plan is to work up the rest of the area inside this hoop, and then transfer the piece to my big flat frame. The thought of hooping over all that satin stitch brings the visceral feel of fingernails on a chalk board.

CORNERED AGAIN

I’m still doodling on the Stupid Cupid sampler, having fun with some of the larger strip designs that will be in The Second Carolingian Modelbook.

As usual, I’ve leapt off into the deep end with no particular plan.  I know that some people hyperventilate unless they have drafted out every stitch of a piece or are working from a fully graphed kit, but I have more fun improvising as I go.  I have learned to leave myself as many options as possible as I work, so that I don’t “paint myself into a corner.”  I’ll try to explain…

Ground Prep

The first thing I did was standard prep.  I like to hand-hem all four sides of my ground cloth, cutting off any skew-to-weave edges before I hem.  I also lay down minimal guidance lines.  At the minimum I will use a light color/barely visible standard sewing thread to baste a line of demarcation across both the horizontal and vertical center lines of the piece.  Sometimes I also add a perimeter line, measured from the cloth’s edge, to mark the edge of the area to be worked.  I don’t count the threads I go over as a baste (the basting stitches are not uniform in length), but they do follow the weave exactly.  This gives me a nice, stable piece to work on, with pre-defined center points and stitching boundaries.

Thread Selection

I pick a thread color (or colors) that work well with my ground.  If multiples, I try to pick colors from stash that are in quantities that would allow me to make my selection on the fly, rather than limiting what can be done to fit what’s on hand.  Depending on the size of my piece, the fragility of the threads to be used and whim, I drag out either my flat scrolling frame or my sit-upon round frame.  In this case, I picked the green DMC floss (#890) I had left over from my tablecloth, to coordinate with the natural light brown of my linen.

Design Selection and Placement

Then I begin thumbing through my design notebooks and collections.  Sometimes as I prep my ground, an idea of what to do is already forming.  If it does, I may add some additional guidance lines to help reserve areas for words, or to further subdivide the available area – but to date I have never laid down a grid over the entire piece, nor have I ever outlined specific counted-out areas in which to place particular strips/fills/motifs.  Others may wish to do those things, but I don’t find it necessary.

Once I find my first pattern, I decide where on the cloth I want it to go (top, bottom, centered, offset from the center a bit), find that design’s calculated or motif-visual center, and start.  I always begin at one of my center lines and work from there.

Here’s the current piece at this stage of work.

You can barely see the pale blue threads that mark my centers and my margins.  That “tail” hanging off the bottom of the piece is part of one.  They don’t live long. I never stitch over them.  As I encroach upon my marking lines, I pick them out and snip the about-to-be-crossed bits out.

At the point above, I hadn’t decided on what to put north and south of this bit.  I hadn’t even decided up and down because this design is north/south symmetrical.  And I wasn’t thinking yet of any framing mechanism.  But that didn’t last long.

As you can see in the bit above, I decided on a second strip, and decided to separate them with a narrow barred border, stolen from the stems of the first pattern.  I began adding the bars north and south, but not knowing what was coming next, or in fact where the roly-poly cupid/cockatrice bar would end relative to the first strip, held off adding them to the left and right.

And here I found my first problem.  I had aligned the center of the vase between the first cupid and the cockatrice with the center of the symmetrical strip, above.  But I didn’t notice that the areas bearing the figure and the creature were not of equal width.  Because the cupid’s alcove is wider than the cockatrice’s, the left and right ends of that strip did not end neatly aligned to the area already worked.

What to do?

Ignore it and keep going.

So I did.  I added the third major strip, the cupid/lion/fleeing boxer/dolphin panel.  It’s a VERY wide repeat, with no exact center, but I aligned the visual center of the featured cupid with the already established center line.

Again, the design repeats, but the counts are not exact, so worked my piece left and right to a “good stopping point.”  As I did so, I noted that the bottom strip would probably be the widest, so I added the bars left and right to finish out the frame around that section.

I then continued the bar north from the surround of the bottom strip.  And encountered the second challenge.  How to deal with the empty area to the left of the center strip?

I thought about several possibilities including finding a one-word motto to stitch vertically; continuing with the center strip design to fill out the area; or making this bug into a design feature. I chose the lattermost.

At the bottom left of the photo below you can see it.  I continued my outer bar north, but added a second one, that defined a narrow strip.  Then I improvised a standard acorn meander.  I didn’t even bother to draw it out. I just found my center point, replicated an acorn from the top strip, and stitch-doodled up the linkage.

Then I took a stand-back look and decided that I didn’t want to add more strips to this piece.  But a deeper, coordinating yet frilly outer companion border would work.  So I flipped through my to-be T2CM collection and picked one out.  I started in the north/south center of the left edge and stitched it until I got to the corner, then rounded the corner and continued on, spacing the edge of the first plume on the top roughly equally far away from the exact corner point as the bulk of the foliage on the left.

This time to fill in the empty space between my top stitched band and the newly established border(s), I decided to eke out the existing design.  That’s what I have on-the-needle in the photo above.

Purists will note that I am using Heresy Stitch for the baseline of my frilly plumed border, rather than sticking to strict double running.  I’m going back and adding a narrow border, using Heresy I can move along faster with minimal re-setting of my hoop.

Challenges yet to come….

  1. How will the plume border butt up against the three corners to come?  Will I be able to round them as gracefully as this one?
  2. Will I go back and engineer some sort of corner treatment for the point of the plume border after I get all four done?  Will I be able to use the same one for all four?
  3. The center strip is short on the right-hand edge, too – but not as short as on the left. Will I have room to add another supplemental bar and narrow border there?  Will I do something else?
  4. Where will I sign and date this thing?

Now these burning issues may not seem like the epitome of suspense in your world.  But in mine, they are fraught with danger and excitement.

FRAMED!

At long last.  Framed and hung up in the bedroom.

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Obviously I now have to paint the bedroom walls…

I’m quite happy with the way this turned out.  The frame is simple enameled steel, in deep navy.  I ended up going to Walden Framer in Lexington, MA.  Mr. Ed Pioli, the owner and artisan in chief, did an excellent job at a reasonable price.  I will be bringing my other as-yet unframed pieces there, too.

To answer more questions on the piece’s composition, mostly from other people outside the framing shop when I was there.  No, neither of us is a follower of astrology, and it’s not a panel depicting anyone’s sign.  It’s just two koi, in a traditional arrangement.  And no – there isn’t a boy-koi, and a girl-koi (or any other manifestation of yin/yang) intended.  It’s just two koi swimming in a circle.  And no, that’s not real gold thread.  It’s high quality imitation gold sold for Japanese embroidery.   And no, I didn’t sew it on a machine, I did it by hand.  Really and truly. (People are curious about the strangest things.)

What am I working on now?  Well, the Great Tablecloth/Napkins project is  done, but I still itch to stitch.  So I’m just doodling.  Filling up a small piece of linen, waiting for the Inspiration Fairy to chuck a brick through my mental window.

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I’ve written about this design before.  I think this time I’ll circle the center panel with other, narrower bands.  Again, no set plan, I’ll just pick them as I go along, with no composition agenda in particular in mind.  Eventually I’ll figure out what to stitch next.

UPDATE

It’s taken me a week or so to get this post up and out.  In the mean time my doodle has grown, but still has no plan.

20190613_065908 (2)

The lower design is a curious one.  Although it’s a clear repeat with the rather bulbous naked cherub alternating with the cockatrice, there is little symmetrical inside the repeat.  Close attention has to be paid to this one because even the internal framing mechanism (the bar and beads below the feet of each) has a different counts in each of its two instances, and the usual urn or leafy unit between the creatures also exists in two incarnations.  It’s a curious one, for sure, but fun, and is keeping me on my toes.

Both of these designs will be in T2CM, which is moving again towards release.  No date yet, but watch this space.

 

ANOTHER ENDING

Within a general miasma of the-project-is-over-what’s-next blues I present the tablecloth and napkins set:

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Yes, I will iron the thing before I set a formal table with it, but there’s no point in doing it right now.

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I left the areas close to the place settings bare so that in the absolute eventual occurrence of gravy spills, it will be easier to treat the stains.

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Special thanks to Elder Daughter for these shots.  She’s much better at general camera, even cellphone camera than I am.

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Now.

What’s next…

I feel the need to keep stitching.  If I can find my stash of green silk I may go back to my Long Green Sampler.  But I put it away in a Safe Place; that classic Safe Place that is now out of memory.   While I keep hunting for it I might do a quickie, improvised project, then turn it into something useful, like a carry bag or zippered pouches.  So many patterns to try out, and so little wall space at this point.

Now in summary and project post-mortem.

I started by buying a plain pre-finished cloth and separate set of napkins from Wayfair.com.  I wanted a “rustic linen look” and intended to use them as-is.  But when they arrived I noted that the thread counts on both were close enough to even weave to be usefully stitched, slubs and all.  I used a mix of threads – a red Sajou embroidery floss #2409, and DMC 890 green floss for the napkins; and (having run out of my souvenir Sajou) DMC 815 on the tablecloth.  For the various flosses, I used three plies of both kinds, even though the Sajou was marginally thinner than the DMC.

I started with the napkins, doing one at a time, half red and half green, for no other reason than I thought it would be fun:

20190301_100052

The designs are primarily from my ever-forthcoming Second Carolingian Modelbook.  After the napkins were done, I wanted to make a coordinating cloth, similarly mismatched in the same two colors.

I started with the center panel design which I graphed up, also for T2CM, from an artifact in the collection of the University of Rhode Island. While it is voided here in the photo provided to me by Christine Lee Callaghan (SCA – Lady Cristina Volpina), I chose to work it outline-only for this piece.

Cristine-photo

Riffing on the motifs in the historical artifact, I designed a companion edging and end-triangles to complement. Those designs aren’t in T2CM, but as soon as it is released, I will post them here.

All in all, I am quite pleased with the result.  Now to figure out what to stitch next, because I find stitching more relaxing than knitting, and the need to stitch is still upon me.

TABLECLOTH MILESTONE!

I have finished the center panel of my mismatched-napkin-accompanying tablecloth.

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And on the table with the doodle napkins:

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Now comes the hard part.  I want to add some red to the cloth, to coordinate better with the napkins.  I don’t want to stitch on the pre-hemmed “skirt” part of the cloth that hangs down from the table.  Not only is the fake Italian hem quite deep and double thickness, but also I want the embellishments to show on the table top, and not be obscured by place settings.  There are a couple of possibilities here.

  1. Subsidiary motifs “north and south” of the main panel:

Redbit-1.jpg

2. Subsidiary motifs in the corners:

redbit-2

3. Another border, concentric to the main panel:

redbit-3

Not sure yet, but itching to design it and stitch it up, whatever it might be.

UPDATE:

Why stick to original thoughts?  This is what I’ve settled on for now.  At least until I get enough done to let me see whether I like it or not.

redbit-4

red-end

 

FINAL FUDGING

I’m pretty far along with the tablecloth now, having completed the center panels, and most of the edging top and bottom.  Now time to plan out the edging on the two narrow ends, left and right.

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Being a bungee-jump stitcher, when I improvised the companion edging I did not bother to consider how wide it would have to be to repeat evenly across.  I just went for it, figuring that because I started at the center, each corner would end more or less in the same place.

And when I got to the corners, lo and behold!  They are spot on.  Here are the three that are done, the other one is still in the frame.

Perfect alignment.

So I’ve taken my border, looked at what’s been stitched, aligned the center of the border with the center of the main motif (and adjusted because the center in this case is a block unit, not a single stitch), and doodled up a juncture.

corner

I’ve taken some liberties, joining the main motif to the side border – not a historically accurate practice – but since I am not making a historically accurate reproduction, why not?  Also note the center.  I’ve elongated the wrapped scepter motif used elsewhere in both the main and companion designs.  We will see if I like it when it’s stitched up.

What’s after this?

I’m still thinking of adding secondary smaller medallions at either end of the cloth, in red.  Another design, probably, but I have to either find or think one up that plays well with the established stitching.

TRY, TRY AGAIN

Back from the drawing board.  I plan to try this version out tonight.  (Quick and dirty plot, not neatened up for general consumption).

second try

You can see how it is wider, more open, and looser than the last version, below

snippet-10

Both are original compositions, incorporating and adapting motif bits from the main design, but they have very different movement and feeling.

My fellow bungee-jump stitchers, note that I also decided that aside from centering the companion border’s repeat on the midpoint of the established work, I am totally unconcerned with how the longitudinal counts of the two interact.  This border will not end “neatly” at a corner.  I will have to improvise something on the fly when I get there, so Off-the-Cuff Design Fun hasn’t officially ended yet.

I can sense the rising collective gasps of horror from the mass of people who prefer the entire project to be complete and neatly charted  prior to being worked on a basted, gridded ground.  I understand you and respect your ways, but I enjoy the frisson of danger inherent in my method, and accept that picking out is always a a looming possibility.

And for those of you who want to know what I’m using to create these, here’s a link to my tutorial series for using the free drafting program GIMP to set up and work charted designs.  I’m afraid that due to the vagaries of blogging software indexing, the lessons are in reverse order.  Go all the way to the bottom of the page, and start with the entry,
“Squares!”

Stay tuned for results of this experiment.  At the worst, it’s picking out, and back to the drawing board.  Again.

UPDATE

Its a keeper!

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Now on to finish out the leftmost repeat, add the one on the right, and add the now-established edging.  Also to noodle out how to treat the corners…  Adventures in needlework, for sure!

TABLECLOTH PROGRESS, FORWARD AND BACK

On to the tablecloth!

Here’s one full repeat of the pattern I am using for the main lozenge in the center.  It’s one of the largest I’ve found.  Not the longest – several of the narrower strips beat it there, but certainly with length and width taken together the one with the largest area north/south plus east/west.

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I am in the process of adding another panel of the main design (the section between the “ice cream cones”) left and right of what you see here.  Possibly two.  We’ll see how I feel about proportions after I’ve finished the initial center set.

And I decided to draft my own companion border for this panel, after looking through and discarding others in my collections.  While coordinating borders are less common compared to ones that have absolutely no relation to the design elements in the main panel accompanied, they do exist.  Here’s an example (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession 79.1.14):

MMoA-79.1.14

I doodled up a couple of possibilities.  One didn’t make it off the drawing board.  The second I was more pleased with, and began trying it out:

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But once it began to make the transition from paper to stitching, I decided I didn’t like the way it was turning out.  It’s too tight, dark, and linear.  Plus I don’t like the proportions against the main pattern.

So I will pick out this little bit of companion border, and go back to the drawing board.  The goal is something lighter, looser, with more white space.  And wider – probably twice the width of what I had doodled up before.