How’re you doing?

escalator

Well. Goodness. I think all the memes about ‘well that escalated quickly’ basically sum up the world right now, with the pandemic changing the world around us by the minute it feels like. The vast majority of us are now at home full time, some with work to keep us busy, some chasing children who are bored out of their minds, some with unending amounts of free time stretching out to infinity and beyond.

There’s no one right way to handle this, by the by. Some folks are diving into big creative projects they’ve always wanted to try. Attending classes every couple of hours, driving from the firehose of online information and fresh productivity that comes from having copious free time all of a sudden. Some folks are retreating back a bit, not quite as delighted by a whole slew of MORE new things and finding solace in familiar crafts and media while everything else is in chaos of new. Both of these, and somewhere in the middle, are totally reasonable. I’m in the second camp. I am a creature of routine, and lists and expectations and suddenly things are changing ALL THE TIME. I will find my new normal and find some concentration and creativity again, but for the moment, I’m settled in on the familiar. A bit of (terrible) weaving. Some mending. My journal has come back out of hibernation as an invaluable spot to settle all those many thoughts into a non judgemental location. I’ve started a new utterly basic dishcloth shawl out of scrappy yarn, my plague shawl. Garter stitch and cozy wool. I can literally knit this in my sleep, and it provides a familiar motion for my hands while my brain is overly full. My social schedule seems to be just as full of zoom / FB live / etc etc meetings with friends to chatter and craft together. It’s not quite the same, but it’s a welcome sense of connection.

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It’s okay if you don’t write the next great novel, or King Lear (the quip being that Shakespeare wrote it while in quarantine), or produce a pentathlon worth of perfectly researched A&S projects. (It’s awesome if you do, I wanna see the cool things!). Bake some cookies, watch a familiar movie and knit on your plague shawl. We will find equilibrium, and we will come together to hug each other close when we’re on the other side of this.

Madder abuse, pt 2.

We’re back for more ways I did terrible things to my madder dye pots in preparation for March’s canvas work. None of these are the end of the world, clearly.. spoilers.. I got dyed fibre in the end. That being said, I absolutely did not follow best practices.. kinda. More on that shortly.

First off, more about mordants. (I love talking about mordants, I mean.. I teach an entire class just about mordants, not a dye molecule in sight, just getting things ready.) Anyhow, it’s an important step. It’s laying the foundation for everything and a lot of people, especially newbie dyers (and those of us who tend towards the impatient <cough>) spend a lot of time asking ‘Do I need a mordant? Really?’ Assume yes. If you aren’t sure, mordant. The dyes that are substantive and effectively self mordant won’t mind, and it’s good practice. It should be the default, not the exception. If you tend to use a lot of a certain kind of thread, mordant more than you need. Then, when you are impatient, or a friend says ‘hey, I’ve a dyepot going, wanna toss something in?’ (happens more than you think in certain circles), you have it ready and waiting. The mordant makes a chemical reaction with the fibre molecules, that’s the point of the process, it’s fine to get dried out and wait for your next dye day. (The dyes that don’t generally need a mordant are usually full up on tannins all built in, just in case you were wondering.)

By the same token.. experiment! Toss a mordanted skein of something and an unmordanted skein of something in the same dye pot. How do they differ? How do they differ in 6 months? We want this to be an exact science, but it’s not. The dye stuff, and the fibre itself are natural products and change year to year, growing season to growing season. There are trends, and generalities, but sometimes.. dye pots do whatever they darn well please, and we appreciate the colours they give us, even if it might not have been the one we were expecting. (Sometimes that appreciation takes a few days.. weeks.. to develop. <ahem>)

So when last we left our hapless skeins of yarn, they’d hung out in a mordant bath all day, while I went off and did things that get me a paycheque (I am fond of those paycheque things). I pulled them out of the mordant bath, and tossed them into a bucket to wait for me. I was planning on using them right away, so no need to carefully dry them out, and honestly, I was fine if some extra water and mordant hung out on the skeins (Sometimes mordant molecules don’t find their home with a fibre molecule.. it’s sad, but it happens. A missed match in the love lives of molecules.) While the skeins were hanging out cooling off in the big dye pot, the little crockpot was cooking away all day.

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I am notorious for not gathering up my dyestuff into a little fabric baggie to keep it contained, and I did that this time as well. The last of an elderly (although at that point, I’d rather forgotten how elderly) package of madder (about 40 g) into a crockpot of water, put on low and away I went. A crockpot on low sits at about 200F, just a shade below the boil. (Thank you Edith for hunting that up for me). Madder shifts towards the browns at 160 – 180F. (Did I mention the lack of exact science? Right. Exhibit A.), and I was alright with getting browns. I rather like the red/brown that hot madder gives, and my dye crockpot doesn’t have a keep warm setting, and I wasn’t going to fuss with a sous vide water bath, or babysitting it to keep it warm, but not hot. Brown is lovely. Yay brown. It got to sit in the crockpot all day, and then I strained it through a scrap of cotton cloth into the dyepot when I got home. Like making stock for soup.. the liquid is the bit you want. Ask any dye worker (or cook) and you’ll find someone who has once.. just once.. absently drained some or all of what they wanted down the sink. <sigh> But not this time! Hold onto that strained stuff too, tie it up into a packet like I should have done to begin with. It goes back into the crockpot to get simmered again (hey.. could have more dye molecules left in there!), the dye liquor now is safely ensconced in the big dye pot.

This is, or should be, the strongest colour you’re going to get from your dyestuff. It’s the first extraction, it should snag the most dye molecules (even if they’ve been shifted brown cause lazy crockpot). Top it up with some water, toss in some mordanted fibre and hot it up. This time, I really did just get it to hot and then turned it off and left it to cool all on its own. You can just let it stay cool and ignore it for a really long time, but your dye molecules are making a chemical bond with your mordant molecules (who have already made a bond with the fibre). That reaction happens faster when things are hot.

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There’s a few important notes in here. Your dye pot needs to be big enough to let everything float around with space in there, otherwise you will get splotchy spots. This is a grand dance of dye molecules surfing the room looking for a best beloved with a mordant molecule and relationships rarely bloom when you are nose to jowl with a pack. Wool likes consistency, if it’s going into hot water, it should already be warm at least. If it’s going into cold water, it should be cold. Wool doesn’t like getting roughed up, especially when its wet. Gentle swishing. Silk doesn’t mind the temp changes, and it’s moderately robust against swooshing, but it doesn’t like getting too hot, it wants to stay under that 180F as well (80C). Fibre should already be well soaked, or else the dye will strike differently on dry fibre vs wet fibre. The mark of a good dyer in history was not the funky dye effects that are popular in hobby dye now, but having a perfectly even product.

I generally leave it in the dyepot for a few hours, because otherwise I yank it out immediately which is fine in some cases, not fine in others. This time, I left it overnight, letting the dyepot cool off on the stove naturally. Rinsing is up next. This is where wool is the most fraught. You want to make sure to wash the wool well, but the water temp needs to be pretty much exactly what it came out of, and you need to not agitate the wool too much. Gentle! Gentle, gentle, gentle. Either pull the wool out of the container you are running water into, or run the water on the side without the wool. Gentle swoosh, or just let it sit. Squeeze lightly, or not at all. The adage I’ve always worked under is that one rinses until one is willing to drink the rinse water. Then you know it’s clean enough. You want it to get all of its running over with now and not when it’s made up into a finished piece and it rains. Or you spill a cup of coffee on it and it needs a bath. This is the time to solve the dye running issue. If it never stops running dye, you need to keep rinsing, or brain storm a new way to convince the dye to bond with the fibre. (That’s a whole different post.) Tah dah! You have dyed your fibre, hang it up to dry (I used to use a drying rack in the tub, but my drying rack turned out to be the perfect size to hang sausage off, so now I have a much smaller rack that fits in the tub. I think it was supposed to be a shoe rack at the dollar store.)

But wait, I can hear you say, there’s still colour in the dye pot, and the little bundle of madder dust has given a wee bit more colour.. yes there is! This is when you start tossing more skeins in and getting the paler colours, as there is less and less dye left in the vat. When you started with a darker red/brown, now it’s more peach, or pink, until you’re getting the most vague blush and then it’s time to toss the bath. At this point, you could pop them into an afterbath to modify the colour, which I did with one. Some iron sulfite into water (a more period route is to let metal hang out in tub of water ’til it’s good and rusty, or simmer it in an iron pot for a while, I went the modern route), let the dyed skein hang out there to have iron molecules mess with things a bit. Iron makes colours ‘sad’, sort of dulls them out, which is a nice shift when you’re looking for shades.

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I got pale (for madder) colours, even on my strongest bath, because my madder is elderly. Like ‘could start school’ sort of elderly. I combated that somewhat by simmering the snot out of the poor stuff, but it shifted colours, even from when I used it for my pent a few years ago (yes, same batch of madder, and it wasn’t new then!). There’s a good reason why madder is one of the most common and popular dyestuffs, it is versatile and even when you are a complete jerk to it, you still get pretty colours that are fast. They don’t budge much.

I harp a lot about not using random stuff to dye with, because for my time at a dye pot, I want something that is going to give me good colour and be pretty solidly light and wash fast. In my early dye days, I didn’t care.. I tossed anything and everything in to see what happened? You get a lot of terrible yellows that fade quickly, but that time built skills and taught me a lot of things, even while I got fugly yarn. If you’re starting out.. experiment! Make ugly yarn, you can always overdye it, but know that for those working in a professional environment as a dyer, they used the tried and true that was worth their time doing.

Madder abuse (pt 1)

So.. plot twist! Instead of calmly gathering threads out of stash, I’m digging out the dye pot. Get comfy, this is a longwinded chatter about my dye process, as I’ve had a lot of questions recently.

Y’know, when I started this hare brained scheme of doing a sample of embroidery per month, I figured it would be a quickie couple week tiny project, badaboom, badabing, and done, move on. Instead? A full month for each so far, generally involving doing dye work, or elaborate tiny stitches and a whole lot of trying to ruin my eyesight. Clearly the answer for March was to dye a spectrum of shades in natural dye on elderly wool. (I swear, one of these months, I am going to pull everything out of stash, and I won’t have dyed or spun or woven any of it and I will feel /so guilty/ for the whole month. I am ridiculous. When this happens, please remind me that I am being silly, and I do not have to mine my own gold.)

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This is probably Kool Aid.

Anyhow! Back to the dyepots. I should mention a couple of points here. I have been doing dyework for a really long time, and I am the absolute WORST for throwing things at the pot, accepting and acknowledging that I am going to get whatever, and not being too stressed about that. It makes me a moderately terrible resource when people ask me for a precise recipe to follow because my notes read like most historical recipes. ‘Season to taste, cook until done’. I can’t always articulate the why of doing something at the time, but I know that it’ll get me what I have vaguely imagined in my head. (And then I talk to a dear friend who does not work in a spaghetti at the wall sort of fashion, and she points out in an organized analytical fashion why everything I did got me what I got and I go ‘oh yeah, that makes sense’) I also work in tiny quantities. I dye skeins of embroidery thread. Even my skeins of knitting or weaving yarn are quite small, because a couple thousand yards of threads lasts me approximately forever at the scale I work at. I am not certain I have ever dyed finished fabric. I know the theory, but I don’t work at that scale. Heck, I dye primarily in a small crockpot. (Which is never, EVER used for food. If you looked at the inside of this, you would know why you NEVER EVER dye in food pots. EVER.) (exceptions made for kool aid and icing dye, but I don’t use that all that much anymore, although it is /so much fun/.)

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Madder experiments in 2016

I have dyed extensively with madder before. It is one of my favourite dyestuffs, and its often the one I turn to first. I love the colours, I love that it is really quite fast, I love that it is not a terribly expensive dye, I love that even when I do all the stupid to it, I still love the colours. It is, however, a fussy dye. It is not indigo / woad levels of high maintenance, but there are a LOT of variables that will change the colour of madder. It’s sensitive to temperature, pH and water composition, and can vary from deep brick red-brown to eye searing orange, depending on what you do to it. It also had the advantage of being in my dye stuff stash, which is getting well picked through and elderly at this point. (More on that later, but I really do need to do a good solid stock up soon.) I was on a timeline, and it was handy. Done and done.

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Skeining off silk.

First up is getting the yarn skeined off. Tossing a ball of yarn into a dyepot is a fast train to the outside being a great colour and the inside being undyed. I have totally done this on purpose at various points to get a neat gradiation effect, but it’s not the medieval aesthetic, so I rarely aspire to it these days. So! Skein it out, and then I use about 8 figure 8 ties to keep everyone together. That means, at 8 spots in that skein, I have split the skein in half, and popped a little tie around both halves, VERY LOOSELY. You want to be able to have a couple fingers worth of space in that tie, and you will make the weavers whimper. (Weavers, when tieing off yarn, want it to not go ANYWHERE. Dyers, when tieing off skeins, want it gently herded to not get too far. The transition between the two mindsets takes a moment.) Some folks live on the edge and only do 4 ties, but I’m a weaver too, and I can’t quite be that zen, so I err on the side of paranoia and keep it a little more constrained. You want the ties to be loose such that the fibre can move freely around in the water, tie them tightly and you get 8 (or however many ties) regularly spaced undyed sections. (A feature for some! I’ve also done it on purpose, to great effect.)

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Onwards to mordanting! (As with most things in the A&S world, there is a lot of prep before you get to the thing. You can either rail against it, or just embrace it as part of the process. I am not always very good at that second bit, I’m a work in progress.) Mordanting is a pre-step in natural dye work, to basically lay a chemical foundation for the dye reaction. Not all dyes require it, but most do. I teach a whole class in the chemical processes involved in mordanting, but the crux of it is that most fibres need a little chemical bridge between fibre and dye molecule. The most common of these is alum. (Yes, the same stuff you use in pickles.. okay that reference might not be helpful to most.) Dye work is done by weight. This is the reality of life, and the sooner one picks up a scale the happier it is. Weigh the dry fibre. (dry is important here), for alum, we generally want about 10% of that weight in alum. (This starts to become personal dye attitudes. Some folks aim for 5 – 8%, some add 1 or 2% of cream of tartar into the mix. I am boring, and mordant with straight up alum at 10%. Done.) The amount of water.. fairly irrelevant beyond ‘enough to ensure the yarn isn’t crowded’. We are specifically aiming to put enough aluminum compound molecules in there to react with the locations on the fibre. (dye molecules.. much the same.. the amount of water is irrelevant, beyond ‘enough’). As a friend once put it: it’s like marbles in a bathtub, adding more water doesn’t make more marbles appear. The yarn should be wet going into the mordant bath, and wool takes forever to get properly wet. It has a hydrophobic (hydro: water phobic: dislike) layer on fibre, and it needs some time to get past that. Best practices say soak it for an hour or so. I don’t always, sometimes I soak it for much longer. Toss the wet yarn in, and get the whole thing hot. The reaction WILL happen at room temperature, eventually, but most chemical reactions are much more zippy when they are warm, so hot it all up! I had silk in the mordant bath as well (if I’m getting the stuff out, I might as well dye more than I need, future me will thank me), and silk doesn’t like to boil. It starts to lose its sheen above about 80C. So I got to ‘thinking about simmering’, and then shut it off and went to work.

Okay, that’s more than enough rambling about dye work for one day.. part two coming soon!

 

 

 

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. 

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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)

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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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.

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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.

Tools of the Trade

With getting back into embroidery and tiny knitting and other handwork this year, I’ve been doing some shopping to make my life easier. I figured I’d show some of the new toys I’ve gotten recently and some old favourites.

A couple caveats here in how my workspace is set up. I work at the dining room table. Yes, this does mean I have to clean up what I’m working on if we want to pretend that we’re civilized people and eat at the table, and I have to clean it all up every week when we have people over for dinner and D&D. (Why yes, I do let my nerd flag fly proudly.) This means by nature, my set up is very portable and transitory, I do not have a ‘set up all the time’ work area. I also prefer to work at a table, rather than curled up in the couch with my embroidery, sewing, knitting etc. I appreciate being able to have my charts, coffee, notes, notions etc sprawled out in reach rather than falling into the couch cushions, or having a cat laying on them. It’s perhaps not as comfortable, but it works for me.

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The first and most beloved of all is my Ott light. Acquired on killer sale at Jo Anns a few years ago, I have a small gooseneck LED lamp that just sits on the table. It is light weight, it travels well, it is brilliantly bright and it makes everything I do possible. I adore natural light most of all, but the mix of Canadian winters, full time jobs and being the short house between two taller houses ensures that I do not have much natural light in my home when I have time to do handwork. Take (nearly) everything else away, but pry my Ott light out of my cold dead hands.

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A very new addition to the workspace is my magnifier. Until very recently, the reality of my extremely nearsightedness meant that tiny was fine, I just held it closer with good light. (See the Ott light above. So much <3)  Now with progressive lenses, and that whole ‘aging’ thing that none of us really signed up for, that’s not working out as well for me as it once did. It clamps to the table edge and it’s a 3x magnifier, which I’m finding just about perfect for my embroidery work. It has a built in light, but I find it far too dim to be functional for me. I am spoiled by my Ott light. (I swear it’s not sponsored.) Even though my house is not noted for its direct sunlight, I am trying to keep good habits of leaving its cozy on when not in use.

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The next new toy is my snazzy light table. Acquired for a pittance off Amazon (bad me, support your local retailers etc etc), it’s a smidge larger than a standard piece of paper, plugs in via USB (helllooo battery pack at events / Pennsic), and has 3 brightness levels. It’s about the thickness and weight of a cutting mat, and indeed, I store it with my cutting mats, because it’s that damn convenient. While it will not be amazing to trace a whole jacket’s worth of blackwork pattern onto, it is brilliant for smaller pieces, and honestly, big pieces are just a whole lot of small pieces put together. I expect it will be fine. Also, I feel as if I should mention that I do own other mugs, but that IS a favourite one, painted for me by Dagmar, I’m not surprised that it shows up often in photos.

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The next piece of super important kit is a bit more seasonal, but I swear I seem to find myself working with silk most winters, and winter = dry hands. Silk loves dry hands. It loves to catch on the dry spots, and pull apart, and stick and generally make your life absolutely miserable, so hand cream is vital. This is a very personal preference, so my favourites might be another person’s worst misery, but I tend towards hand cream that is not suitable for putting on right before embroidery. Or much else really. The super goopy, super greasy, wait for it to soak in for a while sort. I’ve a couple of homemade hand creams (one by me, one given to me by a friend), one that’s commercially available sort of homemade (shown above) and they all work well. I cover my hands before bed, and while I’m drinking my first coffee, when I’m not about to be doing much for a little while anyhow and it seems to keep the worst at bay.

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The next bit are even more personal than hand cream choices. Needle choice. And here I could mean knitting needles, could mean sewing needles. I really could say tool choice, because I’m certain that it’s the same for paint brushes and chisels and whatever else people use. Get the good ones. You don’t have to get the best ones, I personally don’t buy tulip needles, cause while they are amazing, I lose embroidery needles far too quickly to justify spending the extra, but get up to good. Crappy points, burrs in the eyes, nasty finish.. it all makes for a miserable work experience. Yes, it does mean I spend 20 bucks (or more) on a set of dpns. (This is a lot for a set of double pointed knitting needles, not crazy, just a lot to casual knitters.) It means that my good embroidery needles are about a dollar each (goodness, phrased like that, I really need to stop losing the damnned things!), but with how much time you spend using them, and how much nicer it makes the experience, spend the money. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not even that much money. Ditto with thread. Please throw out the 3 / 99 cent threads. Please. They aren’t worth it. The environment will forgive you.

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What the 3/99 cents thread deserved and got.

Alright, I think that’s enough rambling for the moment about my new (and old toys), I promise I’m also using them and toddling my way through February’s blackwork, I should have an update on that for you soon!

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.

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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.

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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.

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 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!

Pepper

Every so often, working at the University has some unusual benefits to it. One of the recent ones was opportunity to attend a lecture (and book tour stop) about the history and production of pepper. That ubiquitous spice that hangs out with the salt on every table, which is barely thought of these days.

The book was written by a retired professor from the School of Hospitality of Tourism, Joe Barth. (Now part of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics ’cause with enough money, you can get a whole college named after you.) Full disclosure, I met Joe over 20 yrs ago when I was his IT person and he was actively teaching. I no longer support that college, and he has retired, but I remembered him as an interesting speaker, so I was confident that he would not make a 2 hour talk about pepper boring.

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HG Kitty at the talk

I was absolutely right. He’s an engaging speaker, and I’d say we spent almost an hour on the history of mentions of pepper (back to the earliest papyruses! 1550 BCE in a medical guide (Ebers Papyrus) And allllll the way through history, as those of us who hang out in medieval and renaissance cooking well know), and how it informed the spice trade along the silk road and various countries aiming to take over other countries to get a chunk of that sweet sweet spice money pie. His research claims that pepper was the most traded spice in history, and I believe it.

Other tidbits that I found fascinating from the talk.. most foods are fairly bland on their own, and humans like some zip in their food. (Most humans at least.. pungency trips off our endorphins and let’s face it.. endorphins are literally happy making.) There’s only 3 broad things that can be grown in Europe natively that are pungent. Garlic (allicin), mustard and horseradish (both containing allyl isothiocyanate.. probably why I dislike both of them, I’d no idea they have the same chemical compound!) Everything else that we use to spice things up come from tropical places and had to be imported. Which makes it expensive, as we well know from medieval studies. Spices are a show of wealth. Even more so than silk and gold, because you consume them. You still have gold after you work it, spices? Poof, gone in a fine meal.

True peppers (green, black, white and red pepper) are all the same plant, Piper nigrum. The four different varieties are different ripeness of the berries when they are harvested, and the nature of the beast makes it impossible to harvest mechanically. Every peppercorn you’ve ever used was harvested by hand. Even in 2020. Amazing, and crazy. Up very tall trees (pepper is a vine and they are trained to grow up a tree, or post), generally via sketchy bamboo ‘ladder’ (mostly a stick with spikes) and I got a little shuddery just watching it via video. India still grows pepper traditionally (intercropped, high quality, lower yields), Vietnam has gone the factory farm route (monocropped, higher yields, lower quality, required fertilizer and irrigation), and is the largest producer of pepper currently.

Black Pepper Farming Business

Image shamelessly stolen from: http://smallbusiness-jambuabang76.blogspot.com/2013/12/black-pepper-cultivation-black-pepper.html

The two other pepper varieties I’m familiar with in medieval cooking are cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) and long pepper (Piper longam). Both part of the pepper family, but different species. There’s a great many other things colloquially referred to as peppers that have nothing to do with the piper family. Chili peppers spring to mind immediately (capsicum), but there’s also grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) which was sometimes referred to as melegueta pepper, alligator pepper (Aframomum danielli), Sichuan pepper (various Xanthothylum species) and pink pepper (Schinus molle)

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Alligator pepper

It was a great talk, we did some pepper tasting (that blows your palette out for the evening, lemme tell you. I had no idea that cubeb pepper was SO wintergreen!) and I’m really looking forward to digging into the book in more detail. (Of course I got a book! Autographed and everything!)

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Peacock

I’ve been teasing this project out on the book of faces and on instagram all through the progression of it, enough that I get surprised when I mention it as just ‘the peacock’ and someone is ‘uhh.. wtf are you /on/ about’. Social media, not always very social. But anyhow.

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So it begins.

This project is over 20 yrs in the making. Allow me, if you will, to ramble a bit about the Good Ole Days ™ on the internet, aka the late-90s. It was a time when finding anything was /hard/. Google wasn’t yet a thing, but putting up a webpage, if you were at all technical, was pretty easy. Running a mailing list was very much a thing, most of us were some form of academics (students, staff, faculty) and the world didn’t much care what the weirdos did with the university computers as long as it didn’t break anything. Usenet was a thing, and most of us knitters found ourselves, at one point or another on The Knit List. It was THE list. A listsrv that required just having faith in arcane directions to join. It was where all the knitters of the internet hung out, and there was everything from ‘how do I start?’ to ‘I am knitting guru, and here’s some of my latest design work’. I fell into that first camp on the knit list, just so we’re clear.

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Disaster dodged. (Spilled candle wax is bad for lace.)

Regular posters to the knit list became early internet superstars (very much like the ‘fame’ of costumers who are on YouTube these days. #Costube etc.) and I hung upon their every word and project. They were amazing, and one in particular was crazy. My sort of crazy. She knit tiny before knitting tiny was a thing, and I wanted to do that SO BAD. Not only did she knit tiny socks, and a tiny bag. She had knit doilies. A peacock doily. She noted that she’d used piano wire to make her needles and sewing thread for her yarn. I went out and found 0.3 mm piano wire (dutifully following her comments to the letter) and picked up a spool of navy blue thread from the stash to make a sample.

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Hey look, peacock!

This was, in a word, a nightmare. That blue thread? Faintly fuzzy polyester of the ‘3 spools for a dollar!’ variety. Navy blue. About as easy to see as finding a black cat on a new moon night in a mud puddle. I never did get nice points on those damn wires, and it caught with every other stitch. I am notorious, legendary even, for having bulletproof tension. I was no different then, and even for sewing thread, I probably should have been up in the 0.75 mm or 1mm needles.

I knit a wee thing about 2 inches by 2 inches, determined that it was 36 stitches to the inch, and when we were packing to move almost 10 yrs later? Threw it in the trash. (I have regrets now, but at the time? It felt cathartic.)

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But that peacock doily? I kept the pattern. Not only did I have the original pattern (found at a junk store back in those knit list days), but I had the reprint in one of my lace knitting books. And I was determined. The swatch may have been a hot mess of awful, but the doily.. that should be fine, right?

Reader, it was not fine. Terrible thread (at least I’d moved to a light colour!) and worse needles did not make a complex lace pattern easier than a swatch. I didn’t make it past half a dozen rows, ripped it all out and shoved the pattern back on the shelf.

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The original

Fast forward, and I join the SCA. And I discovered more people who are quite reasonable about tiny knitting. And by now, I have acquired more than 20 years worth of knitting experience, and knowledge about thread, and some rather lovely tiny needles, and find myself in need of a distraction project. Thus, the peacock got another crack. An ode, perhaps, to how far I’ve come since the days of that hideous thread and those poor little wire needles.

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Early in my bobbin lace learning, I bought myself a rather nice spool of cotton. (Brok 32/2 for those keeping track at home), and it’s been waiting for just the right project. This seemed like the time to break it out. I tried it with 0.75 mm needles (I know what tension is now!) and it was too tight, so 1.0 mm needles (5-0 for the Americans) and that was just about right. I am not going to say that this was the easiest pattern I’ve ever worked. There was language at a few spots and there’s a whole section that is just a mess of picked up tiny stitches and knit 3 togethers that is a nightmare at this size. I took off my glasses to get closer to see what was going on, and poked myself in the face with needles sort of miserable sections. The Interweave reprint has errata no longer easily available on the internet (thank you wayback machine) and even IT is wrong. Thank goodness for having the original available to refer to.

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Peacock!

Most who, back in the day, knit the peacock in tiny (it was a /thing/ amongst a few crazy folks), stopped after the peacock section, and called it good enough, but I rather liked the extra border to make it a square, so I decided to do the whole thing. I have no regrets. It’s just about exactly 8″ square, and ultimately it will be tacked down to fabric, framed and hung on the wall. I’m not wholly delighted with my blocking, I might yet block it again, but for the moment, it is done.