March is for Canvas work!

Somehow, we have ended up in March already! Yikes! I did manage to finish up blackwork with a few days to spare, and then promptly used those days to madly start on March’s work. Blackwork reveal next week! Tromping through the alphabet, we’re on to Canvas Work!

Canvas work includes embroidery such as needlepoint and bargello where the canvas is completely covered by the design. This is often rugs, cushions, or wall hangings. Sturdy things, usually done in wool. I spent some time asking other embroiderers for their favourite canvas works from period, and there was plenty of pretty needlepointed cushions and the like, but one friend is on a crusade about SCA period bargello. 

parkham house flame stitch

Parham House, West Room

Bargello is that zig zag flame pattern that we all know and love from bad 1970s textiles when it had a glorious revival. It’s also known as florentine work, or hungarian point, or flame stitch. It becomes quite popular in the 17th century but there is a single example with a firm date pre-1600. It’s located in the West Room of Parham House in Sussex, UK, an Elizabethan manor house built in 1577. The hangings are described as ‘16th century Italian wool wall hangings’. A whole lot of time with Google later, and I found a single close up shot: (in a gardening magazine of all places. Gardens Illustrated, November 2017)

parkham magazine

Tulip garden inspiration, apparently

With my inspiration piece decided upon, it’s time to look at how I actually want to go about doing this. I have a couple of potentially suitable canvases, and a wide selection of wool. I have both 18 count canvas (brown in the photo) and 22 count canvas (white in the photo), and experimented with various wools on each. 6” is not a lot of space to show much design, which makes every stitch count. Adding to the pros and cons of each is the choice of wool. The 18 count canvas takes tapestry wool well, which I already own in a variety of colours. The 22 count canvas takes a vintage knitting wool best, which I only have in white and would need to dye myself.


Test wool

The next task was to manage to get something at least inspired by the extant piece charted up to have an idea on what I was going to stitch, and hopefully use how well the pattern repeat sits in the different count of fabric to decide between the two. 

I printed out the garden magazine at about the right size to get approximately one repeat to sit in my 6” square. Because the photo is so dark, it was not the best print, but sharpie to the rescue to make it visible on the light box. I then could trace the general shape onto graph paper. That general shape got translated loosely into a charted version. Considering how the pattern translates, I expect that the original fabric was not even weave (i.e., not the same number of threads per inch in the warp and weft), which is interesting. Counting out how many stitches I’d have at 22 count vs 18 count, I’m happier with the slightly more stitches. Unfortunately, that means that my next task is dyeing yarn. Plot twist!

Blackwork progress

Y’know, I was all ready to post a couple blog posts with other things I’d been working on, in some sort of delusion that I was going to have tons of time to work on things other than the 12 months of embroidery project. Hunh. Apparently I am bad at ‘quick’, and life doesn’t pause just because I have a desire to do more projects. So this might be a blog that’s got a whole helluva lot of embroidery for the next while. I promise that I do other things, but they aren’t terribly interesting (or finished enough for photos).

Alright, so February is Blackwork, and when last we chatted about it, I’d chosen my inspiration piece. After some fiddling with the photocopier to get it to a nice size on my 6″ square of linen (nothing fancy, retrieved out of the scrap bin probably from a chemise), the lightbox came into play to trace it onto my fabric. I am not a fancy tracer (and somehow I always manage to screw it up), but micron pen is my godsend here. It’s much easier to do little dots than drag the tiny tip along the fabric, but whatever works for you. (Dot tip acquired from a teacher whose name I’ve forgotten at Known World Fibre in Calontir a few years back. Shout out, thank you!) (While I’m asiding here.. y’know, it’s often the tiny offhanded comments that stick with me long after a class, not necessarily anything about the class material itself. Hanging out with other artistans who do what you do is VITAL.. but I’ve commented on that before.)


No matter that I’m tracing from a very clear image, eternally my roses are special snowflakes, but still, time pressure is a thing, and so I press on. They are clearly just heritage breed, non GMO roses. Clearly. I decided to do the outline in backstitch, just to be different from the split stitch I did my coif in. The thread is a 60/2 weaving silk that I dyed with cochineal a while back, and after a tight race of votes at an event, the pink won. It is really nice to embroider with, tightly spun and smooth, but not stiff and unyielding. I haven’t embroidered with it before, but I will again (and again, and again I expect in this year).


Outlines done, now it’s time to fill in some bits. There’s three main styles of fill in coif blackwork. There’s the little seed stitch highlights, there’s the dense geometric fill (The same fills that the modern world claims is the ONLY blackwork, but I rant about that a lot.), and the last fill style is to leave it blank. I decided to do my leaves in seed stitch, and my trio of roses in three different fills, and then leave my little leaves blank. Full spectrum of examples! Most coifs pick one and use it for the whole thing, rather than combining, but I’m leaning into this example thing, so we’re getting the buffet plate.


When choosing my fills, I knew exactly where I was headed. Over to Countess Ianthé’s book of fills, mostly historical, but beautifully charted and where I knew exactly where to find them. She’s got two volumes out, and all three of mine came from Volume One. I’ve used them before, I have favourites and I got to plunk a few into this sample. I did do them as counted work, over 2 threads of linen, using my shiny new magnifier. By this point, it was only mid-February and things were going great guns, I started having visions of being done in a day or two and getting a couple week’s ahead on canvas work! Life had other plans. I’ll show you braid work next week.

February is for Blackwork

First off, what is it? It’s the name of a style of embroidery that has a few forms, historically and tends to mean just one of those forms modernly.


Reversible edging

It is stitched with black thread, except when it is not. It’s counted work, except when it’s not. It is reversible, except when it’s not. It is only done with double running stitches, except when it is not. You get the picture here.


Peppermint Purple SAL Week 5

The first style, and the one that is almost exclusively used modernly, is counted blackwork. This can be reversible, or not. (Modernly, usually not). It is very linear, made up of repeated motifs on evenweave fabric. It is what one thinks of in Tudor collars and cuffs. It can be stitched with backstitch, or double running stitch (also called holbein stitch). Backstitch is not generally reversible, double running stitch generally is. The best resource I’ve ever found for the nitty gritty of double running stitch can be found on Kim Brody Salazar’s blog (Countess Ianthé, d’Averoigne): String or Nothing. Blackwork (the counted fill variety) seems to be coming into a current spate of modern popularity, if some current stitch alongs are anything to go by.


 My coif and spangles

This is not what I’m using for my February’s blackwork piece for the Athena’s thimble sampler. I’ve done blackwork before in my coif, (which apparently I never blogged about, but there’s a shot of it in progress there, and pictured above.) and I’m going with another motif from a different inspiration coif. The free stitch blackwork on coifs is generally done with your favourite outline stitch: backstitch, split stitch, stem stitch, plaited braid stitches are the usual ones, and then the centres are either filled in with either small counted motifs, or shaded with just little seed stitches. Sometimes there are pearls, sometimes spangles. Usually it’s monochrome, sometimes it’s not. 

This coif is from the V&A, it’s listed in Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery as being plaited stitch, stem stitch and back stitch and entirely done in black silk. I’m aiming to use some bits of dye experiments, so cochineal dyed silk on a scrap of linen fabric, and the current plan is plaited braid for the outline, and then split stitch interior outlines (maybe backstitch, we’ll see how the spirit moves me), with 3 leaves getting fills and 2 leaves getting seed stitch shading. Now we’ll see how much of this cunning plan survives contact with reality of stitching!

Derpy deer

January has come to an end, and with it the first month of my Athena’s Thimble sample of the month grand plan. I wrote about the inspiration and getting started a few weeks ago here on the blog. I really had to get my skates on to get it finished by the end of the month, but Jan 30th the final stitch went in.


Derpy deer in his final glory.

The basic details: Wool cloth (one colour dyed by me), linen thread, linen cord and silk thread. I am really pleased with how he turned out. A few modifications from the original, and some thoughts on the technique and challenges I bumped into. (aka ways I screwed it up.)

There was a lot of debate at the event I was showing it at about why on earth anyone would do this, when it’s a whole lot easier to just set the appliqué on top like a normal person. It does keep it from being overly thick, it helps maintain the hand of the fabric, both of which seem frankly irrelevant in a wall hanging. It is very fabric conservative, there’s next to no waste, but that also feels pretty irrelevant in a piece that feels gilded leather is a reasonable outlining cord. Ultimately, I think we came down to ‘someone realized they could, so they did’. If you have better reasons, although that’s a good one, feel free to share!

The most obvious change is size. This is about half the size of the original, and as such made from some extremely tiny (and fragile) spots. Everything was tiny, and while I am quite happy to work at tiny scale (Quote from the spouse: You do bonsai textiles.), this got so tiny, my cloth was losing structural integrity and I had to take off my glasses and squint to see the backstitches. (I am profoundly and outrageously nearsighted. I almost stabbed myself in the nose with the needle, it was that close.)


Speaking of my cloth, I should have felted it even more than I did. I would have sworn that the cloth was well fulled when I started, but tiny little curves and tiny little tacking stitches to hold it to another tiny bit of wool, and I found all the places the the threads just pulled away from the rest of the fabric and I had to pray for structure and for something to grip. It was maddening. The dyed wool was better, I’d been rather <cough> aggressive in my dye work and felted it a bit more, and that was a feature.


Green sharpie to the rescue

Accept that you are not going to cut both versions identically, and know that you are about to do some trimming. Be grateful that wool has some stretch and give to it, so the wee gaps just sort of snuggle in together. Trying to mark my template onto wool was miserable. I used a sharpie on the lighter colour (that worked fairly well), but on the dark colour? Nothing showed. I didn’t have a white gel pen (on the shopping list for next time), so I literally used the template like a stencil and rubbed chalk all over. I cut it out and hoped for the best. It worked better than I feared, but there was a lot of trimming up of details. It is for jobs like this that the Cricut was invented.


The original used gilded leather cut in approx 1 mm strips to outline it. I considered learning how to gild leather, then I considered painting leather with gold paint, and then I remembered half scale and I was not going to cut anything to 0.5 mm reliably. I used linen cord in a bright gold colour. Perfect. A really fuzzy linen cord in the perfect colour. Alright, beeswax will fix that.. and it sure did, and was perfect. It also shed so badly, my little chunk of beeswax looks like it needs a shave. Worth it.


Fuzzy beeswax

I would absolutely do this again, preferably at a more sane size, once I got past my ‘omg, I am gonna break it!’ brain, it was pretty fun to do.

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.


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.


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.

January is for Appliqué

And you thought it was for complaining about winter, and grumpily putting away shiny decorations.. p’shaw. (okay, I can multitask, I can do those WHILE I’m embroidering!) As I mentioned last week, we decided that the fact that the East Kingdom Embroidery guild category list has one for each month of 2020 was just too much to look past. Ergo, January is for appliqué.

When I decided on this project, I knew exactly what appliqué was going to be. A friend (and I wish I could remember who, so I could beg them for class notes.. if it was you, ping me!), took a class in inlaid embroidery at Pennsic a few years back, and I thought it was seriously cool. I never did manage to take the class, but I also never forgot it, just lurking around in the back of my head, seed planted.

So like a good little SCAdian A&S junkie, I went off and did some cursory research and found some period examples and more information. Mostly, I’m not gonna lie here, I found Mistress Katheryn Hebenstreitz‘s fabulous bit of documentation and was confident that I was in the right realm of history, even if I still wasn’t wholly sure how to /do/ it. Minor technical detail.  (Historical Textiles has a glorious write up as well. Go read it, I wish I’d found it earlier in my searching. I’ll wait. Heck, I’ll go read it again. They’re awesome, I can only aspire to be that cool someday.)

In short, inlay embroidery (also called intarsia embroidery, mosaic embroidery, inlaid appliqué.. so many search terms), involves taking wool fabric, cutting out the same motif in two colours and swapping them. Red design goes in design hole in blue fabric, blue design that came out goes in the hole waiting in the red fabric. Sew it in, add some embellishments (including gilded leather to hide the stitches, la de dah!) Sew all those squares together into awesome.

I knew I had some wool cloth left over from my viking coat, but it’s just a single colour. Using two different wools seemed like a poor idea, so clearly I should just dye the wool. Easy peasy, right?


I did not win this round.

Apparently this wool cloth is covered in teflon or something, but it rejected my madder and the paduak dye bath in a horrific sort of way. Plan B was a blast of food dye. Take THAT, you stubborn wool. I win.


Wiltons icing dye to the rescue

I did a rough outline of the derpy critter I liked the best, and then made a template and transferred it onto the wool. Easier said than done, for certain. A sharpie worked not too badly on the lighter colour, but that glorious dark colour I was so pleased to have gotten? Yeah. It was a bear to draw on. I ultimately used chalk to paint my template on like a stencil and cut as best I could around that. It wasn’t terrible, but needed some finicky trimming to get to fit in perfectly.


Finally I’m at the stage of sewing it in, and realizing that I have not got any gilded leather to outline it with, and not wholly certain I WANT gilded leather to outline it. Bears more thinking on. It is the period fashion (although I vaguely recall finding a source that claimed that some were outlined in cord, but of course I can’t find THAT source again.), and it would hide my messy stitches. (Working at about 60% scale to the original is fiddly, in case you needed confirmation of that obvious point.)


Not the easiest whip stitch I’ve ever attempted. (certainly not the neatest)

So that’s where I sit on this month’s Athena’s Thimble project. Progress is being made!

Ongoing 2020 projects

The drive home to and from Halifax last month provided plenty of opportunity to discuss projects and plans and thoughts and the state of A&S in big terms and little terms, and generally illustrated that stuck in a vehicle for 2 days solid, Emelote and I can talk for 2 days solid. Those who know either of us in person are nodding in a complete lack of surprise at the moment.


No handy wifi here.

On the way home, I was explaining all about the East Kingdom embroidery guild, Keepers of Athena’s Thimble. If you are ever at an East Kingdom event where they are having a panel and you are in any way interested in embroidery, you should go. It’s such a good time, spent with amazing needleworkers and even if you’ve nothing to panel (aka show and tell with some expert critique on offer), it’s worth gawking at the awesome and meeting great resources in embroidery. The guild has divved up embroidery into 12 broad categories, and they have rankings for skill level in each. In a car, going 120 kph down the highway with spotty cell service, I struggled to remember all twelve, but we got there in the end (or perhaps with the assistance of convenient rest stop wifi, I don’t recall). Ultimately, we commented that twelve categories fit really very nicely into twelve months of the year, and gosh wouldn’t examples of all these different ones be nice.

And so the year of embroidery was begun. Small projects, pincushion sized, one a month for all twelve categories. I did mention I’ve rather missed embroidering, right? Just wait, I am going to get plenty this year. For lack of any reason why not, I’m approaching them alphabetically, which places January as appliqué. I have long wanted to play with intarsia appliqué (inlay, mosaic, patchwork.. all the same thing), so I’m delighted. More on that project next week.


It all starts with a dyepot

That’s the first year long project, and honestly was aimed to be the only year long project, such that I had time for everything else I do. (Looking at you peacock, and the dressed looms, and and and.. oh dear.) Then I was surfing around the internet, as one does, and stumbled upon a year long blackwork stitch along from Peppermint Purple.

Stitch alongs, for those unfamiliar with the concept, are basically a mystery project where the designer doles out the pattern in small chunks, and you only know the bare bones to start, so it’s a surprise every week (or however often they release clues). I’ve done more than my share of knitting ones, but I haven’t done an embroidery one in forever, and I rather adore blackwork. It’s wholly modern, each week is a little fill in a wee box, and I failed my will save to resist. This is clue one, sorry for the spoilers. (22 count hardanger fabric, random unlabelled cotton floss)


Tiny! Barely a project!

So now I’ve got an embroidery project every week, and one every month. I am not going to lack for embroidery in 2020, that’s for certain! The stupid knitting continues apace with a doily that’s been haunting me for 20 years, but that’s a story for another time. I dare say I won’t lack for things to keep me busy this year. 

Slow string

Most (some?) people have heard of the ‘slow food movement’, but I am pretty sure that I not only fall into that one, but also the slow string movement. (Also the just plain slow movement, but that’s a whole different conversation.)

Nearly all of what I’m actively working on currently are destined to be anywhere from dozens and dozens of hours, to hundreds of hours. Nothing in my life moves quickly, which is fine all in all, except when you have a deadline. (NB: I have no hard deadlines. No one is waiting on either of these, they are not destined for any specific competition. I have a soft deadline on one, but life will go on if it doesn’t make it.)

I’m working on a super simple bobbin lace pattern, which makes it ‘fast’. Fast being defined, in this instance as ‘almost an inch an hour!’. I only want about a yard and a half, so this one is more in the ‘dozen and dozens’ rather than hundreds of hours. 2017-03-14 13.47.02

I am INCHES further than that picture, but as it all largely looks the same, I didn’t think you’d mind an old photo. This one has a soft deadline in that it would be lovely to have some of my own lace somewhere on my outfit at my investiture. I am such a process person that my life is full of samples and tidbits and experiments and very little in the way of finished objects. Those tend to be for gifts and are, well, gifted away. I don’t really need much, and it’s not the end of the world if its not done, but it would be nice.

The other piece I’m working on is entirely self indulgent. The only reason (ha!) it tags along places is because it’s portable, and it was to be my ‘I get to work on whatever!’ piece of no A&S deadline celebration, and well.. I should be working on other things. It’s by no means a secret project, exactly, except that I am wholly and utterly shy about showing it to people. (Clearly posting it to the internet is fine though? Brains make no sense.) It’s as if I expect some sort of HA Embroidery police to be channeled through anyone I show it to who will find all of the (many many) flaws in it and tell me so in (another) episode of Embroidery Jeopardy. The thread is my own handspun silk singles, which has a bunch of quirks (and provides to me really clear understanding of how uneven my spinning is), and I bought the pattern for the coif at Pennsic last year. Still, the colour makes me happy, and I’m hoping once I’m further, some of the shy will wear off. (And if everyone else hates it? Well tough.)  I only work on it at lunch hours, so it isn’t going to be finished anytime soon. (Which is fine, I’ve nothing to wear with it anyhow.)


I clearly need to add something knit from bulky yarn (ha! Like I own bulky yarn) to offset these.


Wow, it’s been a long and crappy winter. Nothing dire, but generally a whole lot of nothing on the creative side of life while everything else got sorted out. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a whole lot of good interesting work happening before that either. Some puttering, playing around, failed projects. All of which adds to base skill (and certainly to one’s humility when you fix yet another project with scissors), but doesn’t make for much in the way of blog posts.


Silk with weld, weld/indigo and indigo

Cue winter finally starting to give clues that it’s easing up. Cue some health issues settling themselves out. (Persistent pain is terrible for one’s creative brain. If you’re a chronic pain person, cut yourself some slack.) Cue the annual panic that comes about a month before Kingdom A&S.


I want this warp done!

But wait! I’m not entering this year! I’m last year’s A&S Champion, and I gave myself a year off. I can kick back and eat bonbons! (And judge ALL THE THINGS). Somehow, however, reading about everyone getting excited and posting their projects in progress reminded me about this final push and there was some conversation with friends about projects. And some acceptance that a big project was dead. (Fix it with scissors! The materials are salvagable, it was a big ‘now you know to never do that to a warp again’ lesson.) And Practicum. A&S focused events can’t HELP but inspire, the creative energy oozes through the whole building.


Brickwork experiment

So the dyepots came out. And the silk I bought in the fall got dug out (Silk! Untouched and ignored for months! A sure sign that winter had won.) A ‘I’d like to try’ embroidery project got started. The Big Scary Embroidery project took a Big Scary Step. I finished a hat that only needed ties, I decided I wanted to DO things again. It was lovely to DO things!


Big Scary Embroidery(tm)

Hello again, Muse. I’ve missed you. Please do stay a while this time. I hear you’ve been off with the bards, I hope you had a lovely time.