April is for Padded Work

I was vaguely musing on what to do for the Padded Work category of the EK Embroidery guild samples. The usual is stumpwork, which while it can have some padded work, is best known for being exceptionally fine work, usually with a wired edge so that it can be posed in 3D. It’s gorgeous, it’s fussy, it’s tiny fiddly work and while usually that is 100% my jam, I wasn’t feeling it. There was a ton of meh about doing a stumpwork piece.

Then, at a panel, someone had done a trapunto piece, and it was gorgeous and simple but elegantly so, and someone in chat noted about the Tristan Quilt being in period and I had a ‘where have you been all my life’ moment.

Just one panel!

So, some back story. The Tristan Quilt is how its most often referred to, but it is probably better referenced as the Guicciardini Quilt, as it is suspected that it was made for the Guicciardini family of Florence, and figures in the quilt (Tristan) bear that family’s arms. It is a bed covering that was made between 1360 and 1400 (or so), with the story of Tristan and Isolde quilted into it in many panels. It’s monochrome, dark brown thread on cream coloured linen, and is enormous. The chunk at the V&A is 320 cm x 287 cm (126″ x 113″) , the chunk at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence is 238 cm x 207 cm (98″ x 81″) and there’s speculation of the missing bit being as large as either of those chunks, or possibly a little bit larger. (For reference, a modern queen size mattress is 60″ x 80″) and current research speaks to them being part of one giant quilt to start, and hacked up in later eras. (Randles) They are the oldest surviving examples of decorative quilting in Europe, and I fell in love.

Dude and his spotted horse.

So! I had my inspiration piece, and then I went hunting through online images to find a wee bit of the giant whole that I wanted to add to my samples. I considered the horses, but once they were down to something that fit into a 6″ x 6″ square, they were too small to stuff with any sort of interest. Then I found the fish. And well, that was that. Fish it was to be!


I chose a natural oatmeal coloured linen for my backing fabric, and then took some linen embroidery thread (conveniently stranded for me) and dyed it with an unholy combination of iron, pomegranate, walnut and padauk to get a fairly good dark brown. Not quite as dark as I wanted, but good enough.

Dyed linen thread

While a lot of trapunto is done by either cutting, or teasing apart the loosely woven back fabric to shove your cotton, or wool, batting into the stuffed sections, and then adding a backing, the original was not done that way. The stitching is shown on both sides, and the back fabric is as tightly woven as the front, so it is speculated that it was stuffed as they stitched. I went with that tactic on my fish as well. While there is no indication of traced out lines on the original, I have no illusions about my artistic skills and used modern washable fabric marker to trace out my fish and some background squiggles.

The blue is so startling. I promise it will all go away.

Being a ‘stuff as you go’ experience, it makes the most sense to start in the middle and then work your way up and down. So fish first! Stitch an area, add wool fleece (the original was cotton, I’m using wool because it’s what’s in my house.), shove fleece to where it’s supposed to stay, stitch more. Then add some details on top, and shove more fleece in. It’s a fairly basic procedure, all in all, if a little fussy to get the fabrics to stay relatively flat, with the fleece not spilling too far.

Fishie backside.

The stitching, even with fighting with fleece, went quickly. I used a basic back stitch throughout, and it was really a satisfying experience. I can utterly see why they’d choose something like this for a giant area, it is pretty zen and works up pretty fast.

A hem around the edge and then a quick bath to get rid of the marker and then voila! Fishy, fishy, fishy, fish!

All done!


Randles, Sarah. β€œOne Quilt or Two? A Reassessment of the Guicciardini Quilts.” Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Pp. 93–128. Accessed April 30, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/4523166/One_Quilt_or_Two_A_Reassessment_of_the_Guicciardini_Quilts.

Alum experiment

The lovely folks over at Natural Dye Education FB group, mostly the group’s fearless leader from Mamie’s Schoolhouse, put forth a challenge after watching a talk at the Natural Dye conference in 2020/2021 about alum not being absorbed out of the water quite as much as we think, and so clearly we had to try it. If you want to read about the results from the whole group, she has a collective blog post about it.

The premise was to use 7 identical skeins of wool, and one pot of mordant water. That water held 7% wof (weight of dry fibre) of but a single skein. So the first skein of wool into the mordant bath got a full dose of alum. Then, without topping up any alum in that pot, the next six were mordanted (and labelled!) in succession. So, in theory, we would have no alum left.. somewhere in that chain. All 7 then went into a dyepot, all at the same time, such that they would get the same dye exposure and show up where the alum stopped. So the theory went. It was left up to the dyer on what dye they wanted to use, but alum and wool were consistent for all of us.

This is not spaghetti.

I used madder (because of course I did), and had dug up some bulky weight wool yarn out of the depths of the stash, each 55g. (Except for the 2 that I mismeasured and ended up 65g. whoops.) So because my skeins were (mostly) 55g, a mere 3.85g of alum went into that giant pot of water. I kept each skein at a simmer for about an hour, and then hauled it out hot and let it cool, unrinsed. Eventually there was a giant pile of damp wool.

Cleaned out pot and and fresh water and in went 100g of madder. I had a grand plan of containing it in a little cloth bag so I didn’t have to rinse out madder dust for days, but my bag wasn’t big enough once the madder started expanding on getting wet, so that was abandoned early and I resigned myself to a million rinses later. (Dear Future Me: When you do this again, let the skeins dry after you pull them out and then whap them on the deck railing a whole lot to get most of the madder out that way. You’ll be much happier, you’re welcome.) That sat on the stove at not quite a simmer, about 70 – 80C for a couple of hours.

Top: Most Alum Bottom: Least Alum (plus bonus silk skein)

In goes all 7 skeins at once, and those got to sit around at not quite a simmer (80 – 90C) for another couple of hours before the heat got turned off and everyone went to bed. The skeins in the dyepot, and me.. well.. in bed. Next morning, rinse (and rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse) and plot what else is going in that pot of still dark red dye liquour. The exciting thing here is that in spite of there being successively less and less alum on these skeins, my 7 skeins are functionally identical. Now, madder is a dye that will take without a mordant, but not usually quite this dark and strong, so clearly more experimenting is required. (Oh /darn/, I’ll have to do more dye work. Such a tragedy. πŸ˜‰ )

Well! I have more of that stash wool, so I grabbed another 600g of it, got that mordanted up (10% ish) and in it went to the same dye bath as the last batch. The madder bath was on a roll! The first 300g were still pretty solid colours, but by the last 300g I was getting pretty pale pinks and I was not in the mood to slowly simmer it down enough to bother storing it, so I called it there. Currently the big bulky wool is telling me it would like to be a stripy big thick sweater, but we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m not very good at using up the bulky yarn in my life, although I better start using up more of my dyed yarn, or I’ll be overrun!

Exhaust baths

Padauk experiment redux

When I wrote about my experiments using padauk wood shavings and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) vs ethanol (vodka), there was a great conversation (mostly on FB alas) about it all. Those very same people who prompted me to do the first set of experiments, of course, had more questions. As did I! The main question that came out comes from how much distilled alcohol differed from fermented. So we (I) decided to do more playing.

The obvious one is concentration. Vodka starts out at 40%, my ale was 4.2%. (I brewed the ale in the last post, it’s not worth drinking, don’t be sad that I soaked wood in it. Better than it deserved really.) I finally remembered to soak some of the padauk in water, as I hadn’t done that in the last one, having done it before, but I don’t think I’ve ever proven to you, gentle readers, that padauk does basically nothing when soaked in water, so I figured I’d prove it.

Turkey basters are very scientific

The four jars are 5 g of padauk soaking in water, vodka, the ale I brewed and then.. just to be careful.. the ale that I brewed having been filtered through some butter muslin (good quality cheese cloth) that I stole from my cheesemaking spouse. It changed not a whit, nor was there any residue on the cloth, so it felt like an extraneous step. It sat for a few weeks at the back of the kitchen counter, largely being ignored to be honest, but not protected from light or anything, and kept at basic room temperature.

Eventually, I got off my butt and skeined off more silk, and got it mordanted with 10% alum. (Eventually I’ll write up more detail on that process, but honestly, it is barely exciting enough to get mentioned, let alone a whole post about it. Still, I’ll add it to the list.)

I usually dip a bit of paper towel into these dye baths just to see how much colour sticks there, it’s not a perfect indicator on how the dye bath is going to go, but you get the disappointment early at least. Rarely do you get no colour on a dip test and plenty of colour on your skein. Sometimes you can get pretty good colour on the dip and not great on the skein, so there’s opportunity for disappointment certainly, but it’s a good first guess.

I decided that I would dye all four at once in a water bath, as I just was not invested in working up four dye pots. Basically that means that each dye was in a jar, and that jar was in a large pot, filled about halfway up the jars and the whole thing heated on the stove. I do most of my dye work hot, I don’t have the patience (usually) to leave something for a couple of months at room temperature to let the reaction happen slowly. I generally want it now now now!

In this case, the dip test was a pretty good predictor. The water soak got my silk from white to vaguely beige. I had such high hopes for the ale soaked padauk, but the dip test tempered my expectations pretty solidly. It’s coloured at least, but not by much. Well sigh. The vodka was as an awesome a colour as ever, better this time for the longer soak!

Vodka, water, ale, filtered ale

Distilled alcohol is still the king of extraction, the fermented side of things is letting me down here. At this point, I am out of padauk to play more with it as my dyestuff, but I’m not yet out of alcohol extractions to experiment with! Suggestions welcome on the next dyestuff to include. (Must not extract well in water, must extract well in alcohol.) I am also on the hunt for any sort of historical context for alcohol extraction of dye. I’ve only really started poking there, but if you have a lead on it (pre-1600 please!), let me know!

February is for Goldwork

At the beginning of February I was excited to take a beginner goldwork class at an East Kingdom embroidery event. Not only did I have a handy stash of bits and bobs of goldwork supplies from various other classes I’d attempted to take and never quite managed to for a whole host of reasons, but it was another category in my sample collection! Win win all around.

Demonstration zoom classes are a challenge, there’s no two ways to put it. You are trying to have a good view of what the teacher is doing, and they are trying to have a good view of what you are doing, with only sketchy web cams to connect you (and often sketchier internet). The most effective demo classes I’ve attended have had a dedicated camera (often a phone camera on a tripod) aimed at the workspace and quite narrowly focused in, and then a completely separate camera aimed at the teacher (often their normal web cam, be that in their laptop, or an external one). Each camera is signed into the call separately and doesn’t move much during the class, so that you arent’ fussing with getting things to focus or making your students motion sick as you wriggle a camera around. If you can only have one, the close up camera is the important one, and a tripod (or other rigged up stable solution) means you do not have to rely on someone to hold it steady for upwards of an hour, which is a helluva long time to hold something steady. Showing the teacher where you’re having trouble is still a challenge and requires a lot of description, guesswork and holding things up to questionable web cams, but by and large the pack of us seem to manage. Mostly.

Because I’m me, I decided to use one of the silk fabric squares I experimented with dyeing with padauk. It isn’t the most even dye job, but it’s alright enough for a sample. Literally it’s a chunk of silk scrap left over from the banners that my husband makes, so it’s even waste fabric! Win! I got that basted down onto a square of linen, because the silk has no weight to it at all, and the metal threads would just win in that fight. You do not want the threads to win over the fabric, the fabric should be your stable backdrop. So the silk got some linen backup, and then popped into a hoop.

Silk in the dyepot

I picked what I hoped was about the centre of my square and started tacking down the felt to pad up the acorn top. Smallest piece first, then mid size and then the largest so that it’s smooth on top. The steps of felt would catch the metal laying on top, so you want the largest padding on top. At this point remember that a sensible person would have traced their pattern down before they put felt down, but I managed. (With a pencil, because the micron pen incident is still fresh.) Couch down gold thread onto that outline and realize that my ‘acquired goodness knows when or where’ gold passing thread does NOT want to make a nice point. Too much plastic, not enough metal I dare say. Get those suckers tucked into the back of the piece and then face the acorn top.

The little pieces of gold are actually tiny and delicate tubes, that need to be clipped to exactly the length to cover the felt and then you run your needle and thread through them like a bead basically to sew them down. I had a helluva time with that, my current glasses are not amazing and managing to see exactly where I was cutting was an adventure. A lot of glasses on, glasses off, peer, squint, cut, swear because it was too short, set aside to use later (always start with the long middle ones, when you miscut, you can use them later!) and then realization that I was running out of materials because I had quite a bit of damaged perl. If it gets stretched out of its spiral, it does not come back, and a fair bit of mine was looking pretty beat up. So it’s not quite as shiny as many others, but it is all mine, and all from stash! I’m pleased. I can see how to improve, but I’m still pleased.

All done!

Natural Dye along pt 1

Conversations in the last little while has prompted me to think that I should document the process by which I natural dye and bring the blog along for the ride. I want some new colours for this month’s embroidery, so I’m dyeing up some silk anyhow.

There’s a few caveats and comments required here. I dye exclusively on protein fibres.. wool and silk in my case. There are others who are wizards with cellulose fibres (cotton, linen etc), but I don’t play in that realm. I also dye almost entirely spun threads. Sometimes I’ll dye unspun fibre, but that’s rare, and I basically never dye fabric. I am a knitter, weaver and embroiderer and I generally work in tiny so my quantities are equally tiny which has some pros and some cons. (Seriously, a 50 yd skein of tiny silk feels like a lifetime supply at the rate I go through thread. Materials are never my cost challenge.) I generally only mordant with alum, copper and iron. Tin and chrome are not generally seen in period and more toxic, so I just don’t bother anymore. I have in the past, but I don’t generally anymore. I am also a one-off kinda dyer. I work with the colours I get rather than being super obsessed about getting a specific thing. Phew. Lots of caveats.

All of that being said.. the very first place to start is with equipment. You need to have pots and utensils that are dedicated to dye work. Yes, that’s a pain in the storage butt, and feels expensive to start. (although my equipment is all dollar store and thrift shop). Dye likes to stick, and while perhaps not immediately drop dead toxic, it is not something that you want to ingest on a regular basis. It is bad for you. If you use modern dye powders, those are also toxic and not for the eating. (Or the breathing. Wear a mask until it is in solution. Fortunately we all have masks now. πŸ™‚ ) There is one exception to this conversation and that is if you work exclusively in food dye (as I did for many many years). Food dye is non toxic, a great way to dye with kids who might well stick things in their mouths and is quick and shockingly wash and light fast. I heartily recommend it, and there’ll be a whole big blog post about it soon. No, they did not have icing dye in the 13th century, but if they could peek into my box of dyestuffs they’d be super jealous that I have that luxury. (and super confused about the digital scale, but I digress.)

There’s a relatively short list of must have items:

  • A pot
  • A scale
  • Something to stir with
  • Something to strain with

The pot

I personally dye in thrift store crockpot about 80% of the time. My amounts are tiny and I utterly appreciate the reality of being able to set it up to simmer somewhere that isn’t in the kitchen because I’m married to someone who loves to cook. This is not a practical solution if you dye kilos of yarn at a time, or have a love for chunky weight, or are dyeing fabric. I generally am dyeing < 100g of thread sized silk or wool. On the rare occaisions that I am working on a bigger batch or something, I have a healthy sized stock pot. It got a little to beat up and bedraggled (and the lid broke) to be one of our ‘nice’ stock pots, so I adopted it into the dye stash. This is another place to keep an eye on yard sales, thrift stores etc. It does not need to be pretty, it just needs to be water tight.

The scale

While I’m quite certain that our medieval ancestors did not use a digital scale to calculate their dyestuffs, modern dye work does, especially for natural dye work. I prefer a digital scale and recently got a new super high detail scale (0.01g! Teeeny!) because I routinely need to measure things less than a gram because my full batch of silk is under 10 g. If you exist at sane quantities, then you do not need a scale that makes your friends think you’ve taken up an illicit sales side gig, but that scale you got for that diet is probably sufficient.

Something to stir with

This is seriously basic. For years, I literally used a scrap of 1″x2″ lumber that was convenient, now I’ve levelled up to a dollar store wooden spoon. If you are working over a fire with a large pot, you will want a longer handled spoon. I also like having a couple sacrificial plastic spoons for scooping out mordants and dyestuffs.

Something to strain with

I do have two here, a mesh strainer and a cheapo plastic colander. The first strains out the dyestuff (if it’s very fine, line it with linen or cotton or a coffee filter), and the second holds yarn while I rinse it. These are equally of dollar store vintage and nothing fancy. Thrift store, also an excellent choice.

Random extra bits

I also seem to always have a couple plastic pots (yogurt pots, or peanut butter jars, or ricotta or the like) to hold yarn while I weigh it, or hold onto sodden stuff, or be a little cup to hold my mordant or dye stuff while I weigh it, or to let some dye soak a while first, or other found bits and pieces just to hold things such that I am not getting my countertops red. (or blue.. or or or..) I also own gloves to keep my hands from becoming multicoloured, but I don’t always remember to wear them. Any gloves will do, I tend towards the dishwashing ones because I prefer reusing them and they hold up better to being used. I destroy a pair of disposable gloves faster than you can blink and then my hands are walnut brown anyhow.

What dye equipment can you not live without?