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”.
Any book on embroidery will usually tell you about methods for transferring designs to the fabric. In fact, I think some of them are guilty of plagiarism – although from whom, in the best traditions of the circular firing squad, it would be hard to know.
Last week there was a discussion on Twitter relating to the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off and particularly concerned with transferring the design once you’d chosen it, and I suddenly realised that not one of my shelf (ahem, shelves!) of embroidery books actually suggested which method might be most appropriate when, or what hazards or difficulties they present.
So I thought I would pull together what I’ve picked up and found out over the years…
First, Prick and Pounce. This is one of the oldest methods – almost certainly the only one available to the Lady’s Magazine subscribers. I’ve come to it relatively recently, but I use it a lot. It’s not good when my tennis elbow flares up, because pricking holes in the pattern is a slow and repetitive business, perfectly designed to produce a repetitive strain injury. It’s also not good – as I discovered with the pashmina for the Stitch Off – with a mobile fabric which is a little widely sett for the thickness of the constituent yarns. I had to reinstate the lines with a dressmaker’s chalk, which wasn’t nearly as precise as I would have liked!
Next, the Light Box method. Actually, not having a light box, it’s a “tape it to the window and do your best” method. I did this with the Gentleman’s Glittering Nightcap, and it worked fairly well, but it’s limited to the size of your window or lightbox, whereas Prick and Pounce is limited by the size of your table! I also become nervous when using indelible ink such as the (recommended and provided) Pigma pen. I’m always terrified of inadvertently drawing a line somewhere I can’t cover it.
Which leads me on to a caution. I’ve used quilter’s “disappearing” felt pens instead in the past, and had one of the scariest embroidery experiences I’ve ever had. First of all, the lines didn’t last quite long enough for a hand stitcher, and then…
When I washed the piece, the lines reappeared, and what’s more, they kept coming back. I can’t remember what it took to be rid of them, but certainly some prolonged soaking in detergent was involved.
Hair-raising doesn’t begin to describe it, and as mine is nearly a yard long, that’s no joke!
I used a Transfer Pencil for the Map of Amarna. This works nicely – provided you remember to reverse the pattern if it needs it! – if the fabric is a natural fibre. However, it can be hard to keep the transfer clean as you make it, and then there is a risk that you will transfer indelible smudges to the fabric.
I’ve also found that the lines sometimes spread as they transfer, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how detailed the design, and how much unembroidered fabric may be showing. As it always says on the packaging – test the whole process on your fabric before using it for anything important!
In the case of a really tricky fabric, such as the velvet for the Camberwell Panel, Running Stitch through tissue paper works really well. It’s rather time consuming, but then, I don’t think any method is especially swift.
There are soluble fabrics which I know many stitchers recommend, but I’ve only worked one piece using it, and the design drawn on the soluble film was hard to see, so I can’t describe it as an unalloyed success.
In truth, a stable natural fabric such as linen will probably happily accept anything thing you do, and the fragile, “difficult” ones will each require a different response. The trick is to remember to pause before starting, to make sure you pick a sensible method for the fabric and the design!
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.