Tag Archives: embroidery

IT’S NOT A MYTH

I know I’ve been promising for quite a while, but serious progress is being made on The Second Carolingian Modelbook:

book

The thumbnail shows the first fifty or so plates, plus their write-up pages.  There are seventy-five in all, well over 200 patterns, with each and every one linked to a specific historical artifact or primary source.

About two thirds of the patterns are specific for counted linear styles, or mixed linear/voided works.  The rest are solid block unit patterns suitable for background or foreground stitching.  They can also be used for knitting, crochet, marquetry, mosaics, or any other craft that uses charted motifs.

Right now I’m touching up a few of the pages, writing a similar number of comments, plus the intro essay, and cleaning up the bibliography.  I’m torn about including indices like I did in the first book. I don’t think they were of much use, so I am thinking of omitting them in order to get this puppy finished for once and all.

So that’s where I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing.  I promise to trumpet here when the book is available for sale.

NOT HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Whether you’re living abroad, in a dorm, newly moved to a new location, or spending time away from friends and family that you’d normally spend with them, there’s nothing like time zone and distance separation to make one feel disconnected.

It’s Passover time.  We generally don’t make a huge deal of it in our house.  Some years we celebrate the Seder with friends, or travel to Florida to do it with my mother and extended family down there.  But even if we are having a quiet year with minimal fuss, to me at least Passover foods and at the bare minimum – a special dinner – are sure signs of spring and the comfort of home.

I am sure that somewhere here in Pune, matzoh can be had, along with macaroons and other seasonal goodies.  There is after all a Chabad House here in town.  I haven’t found these things yet, but to be fair, I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search, either.  Instead, I improvised our own special dinner last night, roasting a tiny chicken in our Easy Bake Oven, making potatoes and onions, plus a sort of a ratatouille with the local baby eggplants.  We talked about the holiday and the special significance it has to us this year, as literal “strangers in a strange land.”

However I can’t let the holiday time slip by so unmarked.  To make up for that I present some stitched historical artifacts found in museum collections, with direct connection to either the Jewish community of the 1500s, or to the Passover story itself.

First up is this bit of stitching, a Torah binder in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York:

Torah Binder

F 4927, Torah Binder, , Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

The full citation for this object is here (accession F-4927; the photo above has been shamelessly borrowed from that website). In short, it is dated on the artifact itself – 1582/3 (Jewish calendar 5343), and was donated by a woman, Honorata, the wife of Samuel Foa, to a congregation in Rome. It’s unclear if she stitched this herself, or if she commissioned it, because the inscription can be interpreted either way: “In honor of the pure Torah, my hand raised an offering… it is such a little one.”

The pattern is so typical of its time: double running stitch (or possibly back stitch, we can’t see the reverse), counted, in silk on linen.  It might be modelbook-derived, although I haven’t spotted the exact source yet or found the same design on another artifact.  I will continue to look for it.  The museum does mention that the Sephardic community of Italy and Turkey commonly used secular design elements for devotional items, and that donation by a woman without a specific dedication in the name of a male child was also a normal practice.

Was this was in fact done by Honorata Foa herself based on a published or copied design?  Did she stitch this as the donation of a home-needlewoman; or was she somehow part of an embroidery atelier or other enterprise, and used her professional skills to make it?  If the latter – was the Roman Jewish community in the late 1500s involved in the production of counted embroidery as a trade?  Obviously, more research here is required.

I have graphed this pattern and will include it in T2CM.  I may also pull together a separate project instruction sheet for a matzoh cover using it and its lettering.

UPDATE:  YES! I knew I’d seen something like this before. This pattern is a very close cousin of the Large Grape Repeat with Matching Border, presented in Plate 71:1 of The New Carolingian Modelbook. It’s not spot on the same, but the leaf shapes, the berries, the crosshatched angular stems joining to a more organic trunk – they are very, very close. That one is also illustrated in Pauline Johnstone’s Three Hundred Years of Embroidery, Wakefield Press, 1986, on page 17. No modelbook or broadside sheet source yet.  Here’s my rendition of 17:1, on a sampler I did back in 1989:

grapesPlate-47-small
My stitched version of TNCM 17:1                        My rough plot of Torah binder’s design

One curious note on the Johnstone citation, she notes that the piece she presents was done in chain stitch on the reverse side, to give the appearance of double running or back stitch on the front.

UPDATE UPDATE:  Chris Berry of Glasgow, former Chairman of the Embroiders Guild has sent me a delightful note of clarification.   She has examined the artifact pictured in Ms. Johnstone’s book, and is convinced through close observation that the chain-like appearance on the reverse was in fact a by-product of back stitch. The point of the needle split the floss on the reverse as the back stitches were formed, giving the reverse the look of split or chain stitch.  But it’s back stitch, all the same.  Heartfelt thanks for this information!

 

Here’s the second share.  This is a series of Italian voided work panels depicting scenes from the Passover story.  They are collected at the Cleveland Museum of Art, dated to the 16th-17th century.  I’d guess from the inscriptions that they were not made for a Jewish audience.

The final plague, on the first-born (accession 1939.355):

ump.secure_uma

Preparing unleavened bread and crossing the Red Sea (1939.353):
ump.secure_uma4
Baking of unleavened bread: (accession 1939.354)

ump.secure_uma2

The Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh’s army (accession 1939.352):

ump.secure_uma3

It’s pretty obvious that these are all fragments of the same work or pieces made and intended to be displayed together – a series of panels with vignettes of the story, spaced out with floral ornament between.  As to technique, there were several ways to produce a voided piece.  One was clearly counted, with the design elements being plotted out on the ground cloth based on a full graph of some sort, and replicated true from repeat to repeat.  These panels weren’t made that way.  Not even the narrow borders are count-true.  I would hazard that the images were sketched onto the cloth, then outlined in double running or back stitch.  After the lines were established, the background was filled in using long-armed cross stitch. I would also guess that the lace applied along the bottom edge is needle-made, not bobbin lace.

So there you have it.  Pesach far away from home, enlivened by holiday-themed needlework.

Happy holidays, Chag Sameach! Enjoy.

FOR SOMEONE DOING NOTHING, I SURE AM BUSY

It’s a fair question – “Where have you been?”

The answer is “Busy.”

I’ve been out fabric shopping with friends; trying to establish a regularly meeting needlework circle at a local mall on Fridays; battling the Sacred Dust of India as it tries to repossess the flat; writing a presentation and workshop on the style intersection between Kasuthi embroidery and Renaissance counted work; dealing with assorted technology annoyances; working on TNCM2; trying to parse out more interesting blog entries from my London pix; and playing with various stitching and knitting projects.

First off, I’ve taken up Big Green again.  It’s tough to do here.  I need very strong light, and even with a small task spot in the living room, the only place bright enough is next to a window in the middle of the day.  I long for my comfy chair and spotlight at home.

green-20

It’s hard to spot the progress on this strip because it advances at such a slow rate, but it’s there.

Then there’s a new stitching project, as leggy and coarse as Big Green is fine.  I bought a pack of ultra-cheap dishtowels at the supermarket, because I always seem to have run out of non-terry ones when I am looking for something to toss over rising bread.  One quick wash later, and as expected for bargain basement Indian cotton – they’d faded and shrunk.  But wait!  That dark indigo one is now a pleasant, mottled chambray.  And it’s almost even weave:

blue-doodle-1

So into the stash for some ecru DMC linen floss (which I’ve now learned has been discontinued.  It figures…)  Because I’m stitching over 3×3 threads to even out inconsistencies in the weave, and because the linen thread is fuzzy with its own rustic character, I decided to play on that folksy appearance rather than going for crisp, tiny detail.  The pattern is yet another one that will be featured in in TNCM2.  This, when finished out, will be a strip decorating a pocket edge of a zippered stitching caddy.  The entire outside of the case will also be worked in one of the larger all-over patterns in TNCM2.  Without cutting up the dishtowel, I intend to origami it into a series of graduated pleats, then stitch perpendicular to the folds to make pockets opening “up” and “down”. 

The final step will be to fold the entire thing in half, then take an over-long large-tooth jacket zipper (toddler size), and run it around three sides.  This should make an organizer pouch that when zippered, lies totally flat.  I may sew one of the smaller interior pockets shut, stuffing it with some sort of padding to make pin cushion (perhaps with a finer gauge fabric as liner, so I can put emery into it).  And I may also stitch in a couple of pieces of sturdy felt, so it has an integrated needle-book on the inside.  The details of this finishing are still idle speculation at this point.  Right now, it’s just a quick doodle.

I’ve been busy with knitting, too. 

redlace-2Bead-scarf-1

I’ve finished the body of the beaded red lace scarf.  I’m drafting up the companion edging, with more beads and mitered corners.  I also have to “kill” the acrylic yarn so that it lies flatter.  Not quite sure how I’ll achieve this, since the beads make ironing problematic.  But I’ll figure it out, even if I have to do up a couple of sacrificial beaded test swatches. 

Also in the photo above is the latest pair of socks.  That’s pair #5 in the past two months.  I work on them while we wait for the school bus in the morning, or any other time I’m waiting on a line, for a car, or find myself idle outside the apartment.  After this pair I’ll have to get creative in combining the leftovers on hand.  I’ve gone through most of the sock yarn I brought with me.  I have a couple of balls of Noro sock yarn left, but I’d prefer to use that for some other accessory.  The yarn is beautiful but I prefer wearing (and washing) other sock yarns, for comfort and durability reasons. 

METAL LACE

Quality ironwork,, armoring, weapons work, and smithery fascinate me.  Especially wrought, as opposed to cast iron.  I am also fond of arms and armor.  The precision, tracery, and especially the contrast between the hard medium and delicate forms speaks to me, with parallels to textiles and couturier design.  Oh and the elements of fire and danger.  Let’s not forget the purpose…

While there were many other famous textile examples on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Tower of London, and the British Museum, most of my embroidery and stitching readers have already seen them.  They’re the examples presented in just about every textbook or reference work on stitching. Instead, I’d like to take a cross-craft side trip and look at some of the things we saw that are less well known or documented in the hope of kindling some cross-pollination.

Today is wrought iron.  The V&A has a magnificent hall of ironwork.  How could one not adore this dolphin, so much like a calligraphic image?

iron-1

It is one of a pair.  The V&A’s citation is Number 280:7-8-1879, and from that citation, it is dated 1520-1530, of Spanish origin, by Juan Francés, part of a larger altar screen.

I also love this pair of window grilles:

iron-2

The thin bars that form the center diamonds are all independently forged to the frame and are formed and spaced with great precision.   The contrast of geometric and organic traceries in the side triangles and arch are blackwork in iron. This piece is V&A Number 125-c-1879, from Italy, dated 1575-1600. 

I fell down on the job and didn’t get the annotation for this piece, and I can’t find it in the on-line photo collection to provide provenance and date, but it’s in the same gallery as the grille above.

iron-3

The play of curves and symmetry fights with my mental preconception of iron as unyielding and linear.

Finally two figural pieces.  Fear the iron chicken, and the lion key-master!

iron-4iron-5

The weathercock is French, dated around 1700-1725, made of wrought iron and copper.  It’s Museum number 909:1 to 3-1906, and bears evidence of gilt and polychrome finishes.  The wrought iron locksmith’s standard is German, dated around 1760 to 1800, and is Museum Number 545-1869.  I would have thought that elements of the lion would have been cast iron, but no – they’re all wrought. 

Now – why the side trip through metalwork?  Because I want to show that the aesthetics of historical embroidery are even better appreciated in context.  The forms of the late locksmith sign mimic those of Rococo laces and goldwork stitching.  The earlier grilles echo contrasts, shapes and lines of Italian and French strapwork embroidery, done at around the same time. 

Finally, imagine the shadows thrown by those window grilles – sitting in the afternoon sun made lace as it sifts through the iron, stitching oh-so-similar shapes until it is too dark to see.

CROSS STITCH

Stitching geeks – like those immersed in every esoteric discipline –  love to argue; even when an issue is settled.  Sometimes assertions bubble up again, are discussed with passion, and then go into remission.  Occasionally these debates cycle back, usually because reference materials with outdated opinions are found by a new generation of hobbyists who take the authors’ words at face value.

One of these oft raised/oft settled debates involves the use of plain old common cross stitch in historical eras: was or was it not done before 1600. And the answer isn’t crystal clear, nor does it come with hard boundary dates.  Let’s look at modern stitching and a dated example from the late 1500s.

Figural cross stitch isn’t new.  It isn’t modern.  But it has morphed into a recognizable modern style that has migrated from its pre-1600s cognates.  The photo below is of a contemporary sampler designed by Marilyn Leavitt-Imbloom, for Lavender and Lace.  It’s entitled “Angel of Dreams” and is widely available for purchase (a quick Google search will turn up retailers):

04-2378

Ms. Leavitt-Imbloom’s work is pretty much the poster child for the modern needle-painted cross stitch style.  Note the fluid forms, the subtle shadings that mimic painting, the half and quarter stitches and sparing (though dramatic) use of double running stitch outlines.

By contrast, here is one of the Oxburgh Hanging panels dated circa 1570, stitched by Mary, Queen of Scots (and/or Elizabeth Talbot, one of her ladies) during captivity.  The first photo is shamelessly borrowed from the artifact’s Victoria and Albert page (Museum accession #T.33JJ-1955).  The detail shots below it were taken by Elder Daughter on our visit there.  If you click on the details, you’ll be taken to larger versions for closer inspection (patience please on the download, some are huge).

2006AM5759_jpg_ds
Ox-1Ox-3

Now, the official descriptions cite “tent stitch” for all of the Oxburgh hangings.  But if you look closely at the insect being inspected by the sea monster, it’s pretty clear that cross stitch was employed on this particular slip.  Also note that the different parts of the insect were stitched with no regard for maintaining “the same leg on top”.  Although some unworked bits just north of the Monster’s  head can be seen and counted, we can’t rely on that because the bright white cloth peeking through the stitching is conservator’s ground, onto which the fragile stitching has been affixed.  Fortunately, there is a small damaged area just north of the insect where we can see the original fabric:

Ox-2

Yup.  Cross stitch, worked over a 2×2 thread grid.

On style – yes there are shadings, produced by marling a small number of colors of fine floss-fiber together to make threads of intermediate hues, rather than selecting pre-dyed solid threads of graduated color.  But the shadings are far les subtle than the modern work.  There are strong outlines also worked in cross stitch, probably related to the drafting methods of the time, in which the design was drawn directly on the linen prior to stitching.  It is possible that black outlines were worked in part to cover those inked or otherwise drawn lines.  I also think the outlines were worked first, based on the way that other stitches encroach upon them, with the colors added later – first to the foreground items, and finally to the background areas. Note that the lines do break in a couple of places, but I can’t say whether that is due to differential thread wear or they were truly omitted. 

Now these all-over figural embroideries like the Oxburgh slips are not the only form of historical cross stitch.  In fact, pictures like these are among the minority of surviving examples. Far more represented in artifact collections today are borders and strips in long-armed cross stitch or its variants.  They’re not common, but cross stitched pictures did exist in the world of of the 1570s.  And they looked rather different from contemporary figural cross stitched pieces.

ELIZABETHAN BLACKWORK SMOCK

O.k.  I know a few of you want me to do a blow by blow travelogue of our London trip.  But that’s not my forté.  I’ll wander over and cover some of that material several posts, but mostly want to write about specific things we saw, this being one of the first times I’ve been able to get relatively up close and personal with historical artifacts.  Besides, The Resident Male is a much better travel writer than I am.

First off, to satisfy my stitching readers, is this blackwork smock, currently on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

Smock-5

The full citation cites it as being of British make, and stitched some time during 1575 to 1585.  They posit home manufacture rather than a professional house.  If you read through the full description, you’ll find out that the top part (the stitched bodice) was done on fine linen, and the unseen and unstitched lower part  was also linen, but of a much coarser fabric.  The plain lower skirt and the needle lace around the neckline and cuffs are modern reproductions.  The accession number is T.113 to 118-1997.

I tried to take pix of this artifact to show the details.  It’s basically three large rectangles, with underarm gussets (each sporting a flower, and unseen here).  One rectangle for each sleeve, plus a larger one with head hole for the front, back and shoulders.  I wanted to see if that center strip was seamed from smaller parts, but I wasn’t able to do so based on my examination.

One thing that delighted me was the use of various techniques for the fills.  Some were done on the count.  It looks like the grid may be 4×4 threads.  I can’t estimate the stitch per inch count, but it’s roughly comparable in look to between 20 and 25 stitches per inch.  The thread does look finger spun from floss silk, with some areas more tightly twisted than others, and some variation in thickness.

Some filling placements were eyeballed, and done freehand (note the trailing vines and spot motifs that follow the flower forms rather than marching rigidly in diagonals). The solid bits look to have been done in satin stitch or a stitch in the Romanian couching family.  The dark borders around the shapes look to be either outline or stem stitch in some places, and in other places possibly whipped or threaded back stitch.  There may be knot stitches in there, too, (especially the knotted line stitches that sport little side stitch “legs”) but my eyes couldn’t pick them out for absolute identification.

Effort was made to use the same filling in matching areas of symmetrical designs, but some variations do occur.  In fact, the occasional lapses in attention to detail on the fills, and that some are presented in a couple of variations (see below) are charming, and makes me think that my guess that the fillings were thought up on the fly, rather than being copied from canonical works may be true. (Filling inventors, take heart.)

I tried to get very close to the turned back cuffs to determine whether or not they were exactly double sided, with both front and back identical.  Well, they’re close but not absolute.  My pictures aren’t good enough to show it, but there are (barely) detectable knots on the inside of the cuff.  The double running stitch fills and solid areas (satin stitch in this case) are certainly worked very neatly, especially compared to the relative chaos of the back sides of other contemporary work, but they are not spot on exactly the same front and back, although they are presentable and nicely done, for sure.

Here are some more pix of the thing.  These shots were taken by Elder Daughter, with her superior camera skills and equipment:

Smock-1Smock-2Smock-4Smock-7

And finally, to satisfy the people who pointed out that I did not include exact citations for every fill in my free-to-download Ensamplario Atlantio collection, here is a set of 10 plates with fills sourced specifically to this artifact.

fillings-160-V&Afillings-158-V&Afillings-155-V&Afillings-157-V&Afillings-152-V&Afillings-154-V&Afillings-153-V&Afillings-151-V&Afillings-156-V&Afillings-159-V&A

So much for facts.  I have to say there were several items on display that caused me to hyperventilate like a Twilight fangirl.  Blackwork geek that I am, this was one.  It’s in excellent condition, with the stitching, dense, the threads shiny, and minimal wear or damage.  The overall effect was one of understated opulence, but not splendor.  For one, there is an aspect of “loving hands at home” to this piece, especially in the composition and heaviness of the fills.

But what struck me the most was that the standard of excellence in this piece is entirely achievable today.  Yes, it’s exacting, and acquiring the materials would be difficult, but it’s not miles beyond the capability and reach of modern amateur needleworkers.  It’s time we stop bowing to “the ancients” and banish our temporal craftsmanship insecurities  The best of us are darned good (no pun intended), and many of the contemporary projects I see on the web are just as well executed as this prime piece from the 16th century.

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART V

It occurs to me that before I can begin writing about our holiday week London trip, complete with meet-up with Elder Daughter, plus all sorts of interesting sights at various museums, historical places, and theater performances, I have to finish my posts about our November trip to Agra and Delhi.  Apologies for the delay, I plead computer woes, spotty connectivity, and ennui (in no particular order).

Here’s the prize piece from our big India trip – a tamboured Pashmina jacket, made in Kashmir, but purchased in Agra.

jacket-1 jacket-2

It is one of the nicest, most finely worked tambour items I’ve handled.  The colors in these shots are pretty true, but they glow a bit more in person.  The golds, oranges, reds, and browns twinkle against the cobalt blue ground.  The edging isn’t trim – it’s more densely packed tambour work, done on the same piece of cloth as the scrolling vines of the main body.  The buttons are cloth, covered with more stitching. The thread is all Pashmina wool, too.  No metallics or glitter. You can see the surface sheen from the fine, densely packed chain stitches in the button placket. 

I will say that this was an indulgent gift from The Resident Male – the price made me giddy, even after he bargained it down from the stratosphere.  But for work of this quality, the price was fair. I adore my luxury present, and am looking forward to wearing it in cooler climates.

I am still looking for other good examples of Indian needlework, more within my budget.  Sadly, as with so many handcrafts, bad drives out good.  Since most of the tourist market does not recognize or reward quality craftsmanship, artisans pursue greater revenue and higher volume over better artifacts. 

Pieces that show skill and solid artisanry are few and far between, but  I’ve seen endless piles of poorly stitched shisha (mirror) work cushions, sloppy satin stitch hangings that look like they were done in one evening, and beadwork that sheds its sequins after a light shake.  I can’t fault the makers – they are pressed to provide income for their families.  But I won’t buy those things, either.  So the hunt continues…

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART IV

I’m not done yet!

Here’s another piece we found on our Delhi/Agra trip.  This came from a dealer in Agra, and not the fair trade market in Delhi.

BlackHanging-2

This is a patchwork wall hanging.  It’s sort of in Crazy Quilt style, although the piece is one huge block, roughly 4 feet x 2 feet.  It’s made up of fragments of highly embellished antique textiles, much of it overdyed in black; plus some newer pieces to eke things out.  The fragments are appliqued to totally cover a background, and that ground cloth is in turn backed by another heavier cotton cloth.  There is minimal quilting between the layers to hold them together – mostly some tacking stitches along the rolled borders between the fragments.

Close up you can see the amount of beadwork, sequins, gold stitching and other encrustations:

BlackHanging-1

The dealer had several like this.  Believe it or not – this was the plainest.  It was also the one in best condition.  One problem with antique pieces is that often the cloth is not stable.  Silk is friable, and crackles with age.  All the more so when it has been overdyed.  Threads securing hand-hammered sequins or rough edged metal beads can break easily.  I looked long and hard at the five offerings, and picked the one in the best shape from a curator’s perspective.

The number of techniques in this piece is hard to estimate.  There’s tambour in silk, cotton and metal threads; beadwork and sequins applied in myriad ways; satin stitch, laid couching of various types; buttonhole stitch; something very much like or nuée, with gold threads affixed with colored silks in patterns or to create shaded effects; appliqued lace; some very old mirror work (shisha); and heaven knows what else. 

The way this piece is put together reminds me a lot of a cherished gift at home.  Jackie of the late and lamented Wild & Woolly, gave me this knitting bag for services rendered when I helped her with a major home reorganization:

bag-2

It’s also of Indian origin, assembled patchwork style from small pieces of sari borders and other embroidered snippets.  In this case the backing fabric is cotton velour, instead of heavy flat-woven matte-finish cotton.  I have a feeling that this bag is somehow related to the black hanging, if only distantly.

But as jaw-dropping as the black piece is, it’s not our ultimate acquisition (so far).  You’ll have to wait until the next post to see that!

IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES–PART II

Here’s the second group of purchases.

B-W-

These are three cushion covers and three small glasses-case-sized pouches, all done in pattern darning.  We also got these in Dilli Haat, in Delhi; from a Government-registered ethnic arts stall.  In this case, the pieces were done by a Toda cooperative.  The Toda people are from South India in the Niligiri Hills and surrounding areas.  Their traditional culture is pastoralist, centering on dairy herds. 

Their stitching, seen on a Toda’ woman’s outfit below, has been adapted for retail sale. The Dilli Haat vendor was selling the square cushions and small bags I bought, plus tote bags, larger throws, and bolster cushion covers (think cylinders, with the stitching going around the circumference). 

1426197_238922012940818_601167039_n

Image credit for the lady above:  6 Assago via the Fair Trade Forum – India, which also works with Toda cooperatives to market their crafts.

Anyone who is familiar with my love of black, red and white geometrical stitching will know I was especially delighted to find these pieces.  It will be difficult for me to part with any of them, even though I bought them as gifts.

b-w-2 

In terms of technical specs, the white ground cloth is a bit like Aida cloth, even weave with a well defined “stitch here” hole structure; at roughly 20 doubled threads per inch.  The thread used looks to be an acrylic lace-weight plied yarn.  It’s a bit friable, so gentle care is in order to minimize surface fuzzing.  The pouches and cushion covers are lined, so seeing the reverse is problematic.

Now, there are several embroidery styles in India that use pattern darning.  For example, Kasuthi also employs Negi (weaving) stitch for individual stand-alone motifs or for borders in which the stitches form the foreground.  But the Toda style is a bit different.  It’s characterized by strips of uniform patterning, with the stitching making up a solid background against which the unworked ground cloth peeps through in geometric designs.

And I love it. 

KASHMIRI TAMBOUR-EMBROIDERED CARPET

Mary Corbet over at Needle n’ Thread has just posted an interesting piece contrasting tambour needle produced chain stitch with the same stitch produced by a traditional threaded needle.  She notes the speed, density and coverage factor of tambour stitching.  I present a truly huge sample to corroborate her observations. 

I have an entire room-size floor carpet done in tambour work. 

For those of you who don’t know what tambour is, it’s a method of producing an even embroidery stitch with a chained appearance, by plunging a hook through a base fabric, catching a loop of decorative thread, then repeating the process to create a line.  The hook used (called arhi, here) looks a bit like a fine crochet hook, but the end of the hook is a bit more pointed, to make piercing the ground fabric easier.  Mary offers up some excellent discussions of the technique, so I’ll skip doing so.

In any case, Mary’s piece made me think about the rug we recently purchased:

Rug-2

This piece is roughly 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters).  Everything  you see here is stitching.  The white cotton ground is totally covered by vibrant, dense-pack chain stitch in jewel colored cotton:

rug-3

By getting close up with my gauge square, I can see that the stitch count varies between 10 and 12 stitches per inch, with the longer stitches being in the plain areas like the simple straight pink and brown runs at the bottom of the detail, above.  For width, about three rows of stitching equals 1/3 of an inch, with the longer stitch areas being a bit narrower in addition to leggier.  Perhaps the less skilled stitchers were assigned the boring border areas, and the more skilled artisans did the intricate motifs. In any case, because of the variability of stitch length and some small mistakes here and there, I am pretty confident that this rug was done by hand and not with a sewing machine.

If I flex the heavy canvas ground cloth, I can see some pencil lines behind the stitching that mark off major design areas, but not every area or motif is indicated.  Finally, the entire piece is backed with another layer of cotton sheeting, slightly thinner than the natural color ground cloth.

Our rug came from the Kashmiri area further north, the source of so many of the handcrafts available here in Pune.  It’s a bit unusual because this type of stitching is more commonly done in wool.  Namdas for example, are tambour stitched rugs worked in wool (or sometimes today, wool/acrylic blend or even cotton) on a felted wool ground cloth.  I’ve seen them both here, and occasionally in import stores in the US.

Back to our carpet – how long did it take to make?  Tambour is speedy, but 6’ x 9’ is a huge amount of handwork.  The crafts merchant who sold it to us said that these pieces were the product of family manufacture.  It typically takes several people (I’m thinking four to six, more can’t easily fit around the cloth to work) about two weeks to make one this size.  I base this on the fact that he says one family can produce between two and four big pieces per month.  Ours was one of the largest.  Most of the other samples of cotton tambour were about half this size.  To my stitcher’s eye, ours was also the most accomplished of the four available cotton rugs.  It was the most evenly and densely stitched, with the best color balance and patterning.

The stitched surface is holding up nicely to moderate traffic, although we are careful with it. We do not wear shoes in the house, and I do not subject this piece to the vacuum. Instead I light surface sweep with a soft plastic broom, and supplement that with occasional shake-outs. Thankfully, nothing has spilled on it. Yet.

We bought this piece because we fell in love with the brilliant color, intricate patterning; and because I appreciated the skill that it took to produce, and the magnitude of labor it represents.  It’s time and care, rendered in cotton, and will be one of my favorite keepsakes, long after we return home.