When the summer comes, some women turn to shorts and vest tops, some go for swishy skirts and gypsy-boho tops. I have a third option – to turn to my grandfather’s old tropical uniforms, which are in lovely sturdy cotton drill softened by all those years of washing, and very nearly indestructible. I’ve dyed two sets, and painted paisley patterns on one of those, but I’m completely outclassed by my mother, who embroidered one set when I was a child.
The designs are based upon very stylised strawberries, strawberry leaves, and flowers. The jacket has short sleeves, epaulettes, and a standing collar, decorated with rows of chain stitch using all the colours used elsewhere in the design. The usual uniform buttons were replaced with vibrant pink mother-of-pearl effect buttons, which make the whole thing markedly more frivolous-looking..
Most of the embroidery is near the hem of the trousers. The strawberries are worked in trellis couching, and the rest of the embroidery is in stem or satin stitch.
I have memories of thinking my Mam looked fabulous in it when I was a child – so much so that I wrestled it from her a few years ago, and feel fabulous myself, every time I wear it.
What I don’t recall is what my Grandfather thought of the transformation…
I bought the turquoise pashmina with the intention of working one of the Stitch-Off designs on it, but as I was playing around with colours, I had a sudden thought…
It’s an absolutely gorgeous faience colour, so why don’t I choose colours inspired by my Dreams of Amarna project. And while I’m about it, create a design inspired by those patterns I’ve been playing with…
In the end I’ve decided to take my inspiration from that famous bust of Nefertiti, discovered by Ludwig Borchardt in 1912. It would therefore have been known to Mary Chubb. This picture is a Creative Commons-licensed image I found online, but in this particular case, all I wanted it for was to check on the distribution of small and large segments and colours.
So that’s garnet or carnelian coloured sections, lapis-coloured sections and jade-coloured sections, all outlined in gold. In this case, I don’t want to use metallic thread, so the gold will be rendered in golden-yellow.
I’ve been working on making a design printing and transferring board, so I pinned out the end of the pashmina I want to embellish on the board, and simply drew straight lines as a guide.
Then I had a wonderful time fishing out jewel-coloured silk threads.
All I need now is some idea of the stitches I intend to use!
If I were writing a report card for myself, I would write: Rachel has made a good attempt, but continued application is required to produce excellence.
Finally, after much muttering, wrangling, and stitching, I have finished the pashmina I decided to embellish as a part of the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off. I’ve washed it (carefully, by hand) and pressed it (carefully, on a cool wool setting) and photographed it draped over my parents’ settee, which isn’t the right period, but does make a lovely backdrop..
Time alone will tell whether it is a practical piece that I enjoy wearing and don’t spend all my time repairing, but for now I am pleased. Although I must admit, rather more of the little paillettes flew off in the course of the stitching than I was expecting. It will only be dotty in patches!
One end has a row of motifs, all the same size, and worked purely in outline. Primarily I have used stem stitch, although split stitch and chain stitch both make an appearance, too.
The small motifs were fairly quick to stitch, and didn’t require much self-discipline because I could see the progress I was making. I’m not good at repeated motifs – I lose interest quickly – so this was very good news.
At the other end, the motifs are larger – in two different sizes in fact, two larger ones interspersed with three slightly smaller.
The larger motifs used a wider combination of stitches. Stem stitch for the stems – naturally! Satin stitch for the petals, worked over a split stitch outline, and using three strands of the stranded silk thread instead of two. It might have been better to use four, in terms of the coverage, but that would entail larger holes in the fabric, and I wasn’t willing to do that.
The leaves are worked in Romanian Couching, using the couching stitch to create a vein up the centre. Since the green thread is an unspun, indeed untwisted floss silk, it spread nicely. It has also got a mind of its own and unstitches itself unless finished off with great thoroughness.
One of the reasons the researchers wanted to extend the stitch-off project was to see whether they would gain any insights from it into the lives and work of the readers of The Lady’s Magazine. One thing I’m sure they will be reminded of anew is that the designs may be the same, but the treatments so different as to render them almost unrelated in appearance.
As I said in my earlier post, I have a renewed respect for any lady who embroidered her own silks and muslins, but I should also highlight something I believe we are inclined to forget. I’m sure the general standard of embroidery was good – it was an expected accomplishment, after all, – but I don’t believe it was all as breathtakingly exquisite as what we see in some surviving pieces.
Textiles were extremely valuable until quite recently. They were reused, altered, left as bequests. The pieces that remain are either fortunate accidents of history (a forgotten trunk in an attic, say) or they were so remarkable as to be treasured. Embroidery worked at home for a day dress or other garment would have been worked quickly so that it could be worn, and in due course the dress cut down into something else, and finally, no doubt, sent for rags. The little aprons which protected expensive wool and silk dresses had to survive the washing of the day – pounding in a tub of boiling water – and again, when they could no longer be made respectable, became cleaning rags.
I wrote an entire post about transferring designs, but again, drawing was an expected and widespread skill. Many of the readers may have simply copied the design freehand onto their fabric, unconcerned about pinpoint accuracy, aiming only to provide an approximate guide for their needle. These are skills no longer as widespread, and we trust ourselves less than they would have done.
This isn’t evidence of one of my finest hours, but it is a perfectly competent piece of work, perhaps in the traditions I have just described, of work done quickly for a particular occasion or event. I am going to send it to Chawton House as a contribution to their exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s “Emma”.
The pashmina, when it arrived, was a lovely caramel colour, with rather unanticipated silver spots on it, and it was a good deal flimsier than I was expecting. The others I have are all in fairly sturdy twill weaves. In truth, I’m not sure that would be easier, and if I ever finish this one, I may choose to find out..
Regular and long term readers of my blog will be aware that I have a thing about scale – scale of thread, scale of stitch, scale of weave. I’ve even discovered – much to my surprise – that the dreaded Plaited Braid Stitch isn’t always easier when it’s stitched wider and longer. So it will be no surprise that I spent a bit of time playing with various different threads to see what I thought of them, before settling on a final choice.
Scale isn’t the only concern, either. The right texture and sheen matter as well.
In the end I have settled on silks. The Medici yarn might have worked if I had had more of it, but I don’t think it is even made any more. The Appletons crewel wool was too heavy, and the Gumnut yarns (although I love them) somehow didn’t settle in comfortably.
Now I have to unpick my experiments and get started. I already have a newfound respect for any lady of the period who embroidered her muslin dresses, or her silk gauzes. There’s a story that Jane Austen embroidered a muslin dress with satin stitch spots, and the mere idea gives me cold shivers!
Although I doubt they had to contend with stuck-on paillettes!
Rummaging around on Twitter, I found a most intriguing idea. A research team at the University of Kent, headed by Dr Jennie Batchelor (@jenniebatchelor on Twitter), is investigating the content and development of an eighteenth century periodical, The Lady’s Magazine. The magazine was sold with pull-out song sheets – and pull-out designs for embroidery. Generally speaking, they don’t survive, having been pulled out and used as they were intended to be.
But recently, a bound volume of a half-year (1796) came to light, with some patterns included. A little more discussion, the idea arose of scanning those designs for modern stitchers to play with, and The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off was born. For more on that, visit the project’s blog post on the subject.
I couldn’t resist the idea. I’ve downloaded the first five designs, and started to stare at them thoughtfully. The project suggests that stitchers might like to work modern versions as well as in some cases working versions which are as historically accurate as possible, so there is going to be quite a variety to look at.
I’ve decided that I’m going to work the designs on a pashmina shawl, and while I am waiting for it to arrive, I’m contemplating what I might choose to do, from highly modern needle-felted versions, to more or less classical embroidery.
I wanted to share it with you before I started stitching, because the vagaries of the post may substantially delay my first stitch, and a few of you may want to join in. Do let the project know if you do, they’re really enjoying what they’ve been seeing!
Update: They have recently posted their first round-up of Stitch Off contributions and planned contributions.
This rather fabulous coat was a collaboration. My mother made it for herself to wear at a friend’s wedding in the early nineteen-sixties, and when she began to run out of time, Grandmama stepped in and stitched like a whirlwind to get it finished!
The original outfit was a silk dress and coat combination, a very simple sheath dress, and this edge-to-edge, three-quarter sleeve coat. The front is completely unadorned, because, after all, at a Church wedding people will mostly see each other from the back!
The design of Tiger Lilies is from a transfer. Actually, we think it was three of the same transfer, cut and put together to create a design that fit the coat back. After the darts had been put in…
I’ve seen a few cream running stitches which suggest to me that, rather than using the transfers as transfers, the design was stitched through the paper. Given the sensitivities of silk, that was probably very sensible!
The embroidery is worked in stranded cotton. It’s all very simple stitchery, long and short stitch, stem stitch, French Knots, and a few buttonhole wheels.
It relies for its effect not on complexity of stitching, but on the colour and pattern combination.
If I’m going to be picky, the silk was a bit light for the stitching – although the puckers may be a result of years and cleaning, as I can’t imagine Grandmama, after Miss Hunter’s training, would have stitched with such tension, and no more would my mother, after Grandmama’s training!
Grandmama also contributed assistance in making a pillbox hat, ornamented with swirls of gauze to match the colours, and then they painted a pair of shoes (Rayne, no less!) and a handbag (Marks and Spencer, alas) to match the green gloves which were bought new. A three-strand green stone bead necklace completed the outfit, and my mother remembers receiving a lot of compliments, at that occasion, and several others later.
Many years later still, when I was in the Upper Sixth, with a pale orange sheath dress underneath, I wore this for the Founders Day Service at school. We went into town afterwards, and my goodness, how people jumped to serve us!
Regrettably the coat fits neither my mother nor myself these days, and we’re wondering what to do with it…
Since summer is here (supposedly!) I’ve changed to summer clothes. Pink is not usually my colour, but I found this top in a charity shop and it goes beautifully with the crepe skirt I was wearing that day.
However, I got slightly twitchy fingers and improvised some embellishment for it. The top is knitted in quite a heavy cotton, so the embroidery is in soft embroidery cotton, and it’s very, very simple.
Only three colours – white, pale yellow and pale green. And only three stitches – Lazy daisy petals, French knot buds and flower centres, and leaves made of nested fly stitches. I didn’t attempt to make the sides at the front identical or symmetrical, only to make the front appear balanced, and when I’m wearing it, it does. The ribbed knit of the top made stitching tricky at times, since I was trying to avoid piercing the thread, but perfection is overrated, especially for a casual top.
The little spray of flowers at the back does get seen (by others!), because although I have long hair, I almost always wear it pinned up; but of course the frustrating thing about embroidering the back of a dress or top is that you never get to catch sight of it unexpectedly and get the chance to think “I did that!”.
Never mind, like the contrast lining or facing, I still know it’s there…
This seems a good enough point at which to say the Circle Skirt is finished, although I may tweak and titivate further next winter.
Click on the picture to zoom in..
Some of the circles have been needlefelted, to greater and lesser extents, to help them to stay in place. Now I have my embellisher, I think that the next time I try this sort of thing, I will needlefelt very thoroughly, to try to help blend in the edges a little more. Once I have tried both ways I will feel that I am beginning to gain an understanding of how the embellisher affects the handle of the the fabric. I already know that it does, of course, but now I need to learn how to predict the effect and allow for it.
The skirt is now much more useful and wearable than it was. Unembellished, it was a strange light greyish colour that seemed just slightly “off” with everything I owned. Now, however, the burgundies, reds and greens tie in nicely with an assortment of tops, and the way the embellishment shrinks around the sides to the back helps to emphasize the kick-flare at the back.
In the right company, it’s a fabulous conversation starter, and it’s a wearable sampler as well. I’m rather looking forward to wearing it at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate in November!
I managed some really close close-ups here! This is the Crested Chain Stitch on one of the small circles on the back of the skirt, on the flaring panels.
The thread is a very ordinary stranded cotton, used straight off the skein – although as you can see, a couple of strands are making a bid for freedom, even so!
This picture also gives you a sight of the rainbow of colours involved in the tweed fabric I used for this particular circle – isn’t it lovely to see!
The trailing spiral is high up on the front of the skirt, off to one side, and it was – in spite of the order of its appearance – one of the earliest elements which trailed off the circle and onto the fabric. I thought this would turn out to be quite important, to help link the various materials and create a cohesive whole. I had to work the spiral twice because the first time it barely showed at all. I’m all for the painter’s technique of “lost and found edges”, but there has to be something to find!
The purple chain stitch is there purely to make sure of the edges. If I had already bought the embellisher, I might have simply used that, very heavily, first.
I love using rayon chainettes in this sort of experimental embellishment. As a one-time specialist in the industrial production of “novelty” yarns, I have a sentimental attachment to chainettes, chenilles, and eyelash yarns.
This particular chainette was striped, which echoed the twill weave of the tweed very nicely. It was also a real trial to stitch with – hence the simple running stitch. I simply didn’t have the energy for anything else..
I’ve recently bought myself an embellisher, and this is one of the circles I’ve used it on. The stitching is a simple blanket stitch wheel, which some small straight stitches between the spokes and French knots on the skirt fabric. The thread is wool, so I thought this one might be a good candidate. It has had the effect of making the stitches seem much more part of the tweed circle – almost drawn or painted on. In turn, that helps the French knots to seem a little more textural.
Learning to use the embellisher – and in particular, how soon to stop! – is going to prove interesting. Here you can see that there is a less fuzzy texture at the centre of this tweed circle. That section has been more heavily treated with the embellisher. This was quite deliberate, because the very free ornamentation on this skirt allows me to experiment, and one thing I would like to know is – will this change in texture be permanent, or will this fabric become fuzzy again as the skirt is worn?
In this case, I’m not sure I can even distinguish the effects of the embellisher! I couched a bouclé thread over the top of the tweed in this case, then ran the embellisher over the tweed and bouclé at random. There is extensive scope for investigation and experimentation here..
Incidentally, for those who’ve not heard of one before – an embellisher is something like a sewing machine, but it replaces the needle and thread with an assembly of barbed needle-felting needles. The barbs entangle the fibres of the fabric, creating new textures and joining the fabrics without stitching. So far I’ve only had a chance to experiment a little, but I think it might be a very useful tool when I start work on the Vision of Placidus!