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…
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.
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….
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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):
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).
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:
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.