Aside from the weakness for yarn common to all knitters, I don’t often spoil myself buying things for my own use. But given just a nudge, I have given in and have treated myself to two things:
A Hardwicke Manor sit-on round frame (aka a fanny frame), and a tambour needle set (not shown in proportion to each other).
I’ve wanted to try the round sit-on frame for quite a while. I like using my flat frame on its holder. Doing so allows me to position one hand above and one hand below the work, and stitch more efficiently, without needing to conjure a third hand to hold the frame in place.
For smaller pieces in non-fragile threads and stitches, I do prefer to use the smaller hoop though. But using it does raise those same third-hand issues. I am eager to experiment with the sit-on, and hope that I don’t miss the agility of being able to rotate the hoop in hand for optimal stitching direction at the same time as I appreciate having both hands free to work.
A fixed position frame is one of the things that enables use of a tambour needle. Again, one hand uses the needle on one side of the work, the other is positioned on the opposite side, and feeds thread to the hook, using up my quotient of hands before holding the frame in a convenient position is achieved.
I looked for a tambour hook in India. One would think that given the staggering array of tambour-produced textiles there, finding one would be easy. Indian Ari hooks are (in theory) slightly longer and finer in diameter than hooks made for the Western market. Sadly, I never saw one myself. In my region there were few shops that offered needlework supplies, and the ones that I found catered to ladies of leisure rather than people doing embroidery to make a living. Clerks in those shops either didn’t understand what I wanted (although I was armed with the correct name and drawings); or they didn’t carry them because they were “working” rather than “leisure” tools.
What sort of things are embroidered using an Ari? The overwhelming majority of stitched textiles offered in traditional crafts markets. Not all – running stitch quilting, satin stitch, poorly done Shisha, and pattern darning were also present, but tamboured pieces that looked like chain stitch predominated, especially in the better quality works that interested me most. Here’s a smattering of what we brought back:
The cushion cover on the left that we had made into the chair seat is densely stitched in wool on a cotton backing. I believe it’s from Kashmir.
Also from Kashmir is the rug in the center. Yes – that’s 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters), totally stitched in tamboured cotton, with no ground showing. I had it professionally cleaned when we returned from India because it had been in daily use there. I’m not sure where we will eventually put it, so it’s rolled up in safe storage right now.
The third thing is our Dodo Curtain – a large cotton panel covered in tamboured metal threads, with probably man made silk (rayon) accents and paillettes. It’s covered with roundels featuring this bird, giving it a very Medieval appearance. I have plans to back this cloth with linen, then hang it as a portiere curtain between my living and dining rooms. We got this piece in Agra, but its ultimate province of origin wasn’t noted.
The jacket is also Kashmiri. It’s fine Pashmina, entirely tambour-worked using the same fiber. Even the plackets and hems that look like trim are densely packed tambour chain. This is probably the most extravagant thing The Resident Male bought for me on our stay, and wearing it makes me feel like royalty.
A side trip into literature and symbolism for those who wish to hang around for such things:
Some folk have told me that my curious dodo hanging may show the Garuda Bird, the king of birds, champion of justice, and celestial mount of Lord Vishnu, but I am doubtful. The noble Garuda is usually shown in with wings outspread, robust and fearless, often with a human face and limbs.
These big-beaked, comfortably round, bald birds, if not dodos, may represent vultures.
There are several vultures in Hindu epics. One is the mount of the deva Shani, revered as a teacher and righteous judge, punishing evildoers and betrayers. But Shani’s mount is rarely pictured alone. Other famous vultures in the story cycles appear in the Ramayana – two brothers, Jatayu and Sampaati. They figure in several tales, including one that echoes aspects of the Icarus myth, with Jatayu flying so high he was seared by the sun, but rescued by his loyal and courageous brother Sampaati who used his own wings to shield Jatayu from the sun’s fury. Unlike Icarus, Jatayu survived, and is not a symbol of the folly born of overconfidence. Jatayu also plays a supporting role in the story of Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravana, flying to Rama with news of Ravana’s escape route.
One last possibility – dodos were giant flightless parrots. If these birds are parrots, we veer off from justice and bravery into the worlds of compassion and love.
Origin stories vary, but Sukadeva was a parrot, and pet of the gods, particularly befriended by Krishna, who showed mercy and compassion to it when Sukadeva fluttered away from his mistress Radha. I’m not clear on the relationship between that story and others, but Sulka the parrot is often painted in henna on the feet of brides, in recognition of his service as the sacred mount of Kamadva (also known as Mandan and Mara) the god of sensual love.
While not as lofty as Garuda, if my dodos are the vulture brothers, they are still exemplars of bravery and self-sacrifice. However, if the bird shown is Sulka, the connection with love might make my curtain more apt for the bedroom than the dining room.
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.
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…
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:
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:
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.