Confident threads

Alright, I am wholly a media child of the 80s, because typing that word makes me hum a deodorant jingle.. but I digress.  It has been a long time, a very long time really, since I enveloped myself in the modern needlework world. Easily more than a decade since I was part of a mundane needlework guild (who are sadly closing this year! Hard to believe! But I digress again), and I’ve spent the last five or so years pretty solidly amongst historical embroiderers. (Amongst many other bits of handwork, but this example is embroidery atm).

I am going to also preface this by acknowledging that in any group, the folks who are happily going along, doing their thing are not the ones posting the most. They get their pattern, they stitch it up, they admire the progress, they move on with their life. There are thousands (literally!) of stitchers doing exactly that in this stitch along.

The amount of hand wringing, stress and uncertainty is heart wrenching. For context, this is a modern designer (Shout out to Peppermint Purple, who was utterly not expecting this to go viral) doing a blackwork sampler, with a small square of counted blackwork fill released every week for the year. 52 weeks, 52 fills. I will say that they are very accessible for beginner stitchers, literally you look at the chart, and you make your thread lines on the even weave fabric look like that. This is 52 weeks of backstitch. The designer gives suggested colours for each block (different one every week!), but many people are personalizing the piece by selecting their own colours. (so much rainbow variegated. So. Much.) Based on the posts, choosing those colours, and the colour of one’s base fabric, is an act of life and death. Choosing what brand of embroidery thread, or other kinds of thread, how many threads, what count of cloth.. all are decisions that cannot be made without much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Phew. It’s exhausting just watching people fret.

For the record here’s my thoughts on thread. Your work does not care what the label said. Crochet thread, tatting thread, embroidery thread, sewing thread, knitting thread.. the piece does not care if you embroider with tatting thread. (Or knit with sewing thread, or sew with crochet thread.. you get the picture.) The handwork police are not going to bang on your door and take away your birthday.

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Crochet cotton, sewing thread, knitting yarn

Your work cares very deeply for the properties of that thread, and often (but not always), the name on the label gives clues about those properties. Tatting thread is, usually, very smooth and tightly twisted and quite thin, often quite similar to sewing and quilting thread. (really, all of those are same style, the names are mostly about the size, because goodness forbid this not all be hideously confusing.) Embroidery thread, at least the gloriously common DMC 6 strand embroidery floss, those strands are more loosely spun than tatting cotton, and squish a bit more, so they take up more space and cover better, and are often ever so faintly fuzzier. Perl cotton? Thicker, squishier, more loosely spun again, great coverage. Knitting yarns take that to an extreme. They are comparatively very loosely spun, and super squishy, because that makes a glorious cozy sweater. Can you embroider with them? Sure can! Just know that they are not going to hold up well to getting pulled through fabric over and over again, and you are going to have to be gentle with the twist. It will LOOK different if you embroider with knitting yarn, or weaving yarn, or DMC floss, or tatting cotton. None of them are BAD, but they are all DIFFERENT. Pick what look you want, and run with it. It’s your piece. You need to be happy with it, not the internet.

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2 squares of floss, 1 square of sewing thread.

Historical embroiderers have, largely, figured that out. We have no convenient package from the designer saying ‘use this count of evenweave cotton, and these colours of DMC floss, and here’s the pattern’. We generally have a moderately terrible photograph, sometimes a really amazing photograph and some guesses, and a lot of ‘well, I tried this, and hey look, it was a miserable failure compared to the picture, but next time…’ We stress about ‘how did they DO that!?’ rather than what colours to choose. (I have no illusions that we don’t stress, just different things.) I hope for the modern stitchers, those who are so worried about a few stitches find their zen. It’s a cute little sampler so far, and now you’ve been properly spoilered up to week 3.

P.S. Dear Modern Stitchers.. a few points. 1) messy backs are have a long and glorious historical tradition, stop telling people that the Elizabethans started the neat back obsession, we can stick that blame on the Victorians where it solidly belongs. 2) Blackwork was not ‘historically done always on sheer cloth’, and it was not ‘historically done in black because that was the most colourfast’. (Warn the natural dye folks before you say such things so we don’t have a mouthful of coffee at the time. Cause yeah.. no. Just no.) and was not ‘always reversible’. You can think it all you want, but the archaeological record disagrees. 3) When you take a strand of thread and you fold it in half and then use those TWO strands to make a stitch with, you are using 2 strands of thread. When you complain that it looks so messy, and we say ‘your thread looks thick, are you using two strands?’ You answer ‘yes’. The words ‘no, just one strand but doubled’ translates to ‘yes, I am using two strands’. Thank you.

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