I have just bought a most marvellous historical-embroidery book.
Two or three weeks ago, I was browsing the Yahoo Group for the Antique Pattern Library. I keep a regular eye on it – partly to see which old, out-of-copyright publications are coming online, and partly in case I can use my store of information and experience to help others struggling with old instructions and terminology. This time, it was neither of those things. Ruth Matthews, a regular on the group’s message board, had posted a link to a book review. Not another reprint of a classic embroidery tome, this one, but a newly written book.
Now, I am rarely tempted by modern embroidery books, because most of those I look at simply don’t go deep enough into one particular topic that interests me. I already have a very useful reference collection of ‘classics’ – some from second-hand books stalls and charity shops, reprints from the excellent Dover Books and other facsimiles, and some out-of-copyright books I have downloaded – mostly from the Antique Pattern Library. But when I read Mary Corbett’s review of Elizabethan Stitches by Jacqui Carey, which you can find here on Mary’s Needle’n’Thread blog, I knew that I had to have this book. If it was only half as good as the review…
I am pleased to tell you that is equally as good, if not better than I expected: in-depth research, very clear and detailed instructions and diagrams, case studies, lots of juicy close-up photos of the stitches on historic pieces. Photos that really do show every thread and fibre, and many showing the back of the work as well. This is above all a technical manual – Jacqui Carey has written books on Japanese braiding, and she takes a braider’s methodical, logical, precise approach to the construction of Elizabethan embroidery. Something it has long needed.
The book is available in paperback direct from the author at Carey Company: www.careycompany.com (There’s not very much information about the book on that website, not nearly enough to do it justice.) It is not a cheap book, but it is a tool, an investment and a reference work, as well as a beautifully produced thing in its own right. Elizabethan Stitches is definitely not a book for beginners or ‘improvers’: most of the stitches shown are not particularly easy, and Jacqui doesn’t fill up the book with information on stitches and techniques that is widely available in other embroidery books, nor with suggestions for modern substitutes for the threads and fabrics or projects and samplers. But if you have a serious interest in English domestic and costume embroidery from the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century, when it was fresh and inventive and delightful, or have a fascination with the unusual stitches used then (particularly the plaited braid stitches), and you have gained sufficient ’embroidery-fu’ to make use of the information, then this is an important book that you need to know about.
Back when I was doing embroidery for ‘O Level’ at school, our teacher, Barbara Snook, was using textbooks that she wrote herself, including a book of embroidery stitches. I remember someone in the class asking if she had managed to work all the stitches in the book herself. She said that she had, with just one exception. ‘Plaited braid stitch – I could never manage to get that to work out right. In the end I copied the diagram out of Grace Christie’s book [Samplers and Stitches, Batsford, 1920] but it doesn’t seem to look the same as the examples in the V&A.’ Never one to resist that sort of challenge, I tried hard to get the hang of plaited braid over the years, working from the diagrams in Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches and in Grace Christie’s book. Well, I sort-of managed it, after a fashion, about ten years after leaving school. I, also, thought that it never looked much like pictures of the stitch on actual Elizabethan embroidery. And it was so very awkward to work – it didn’t flow, I couldn’t build up a rhythm. In the end, I decided that the stitch was a total nightmare, and very reluctantly gave up on it.
If she were alive today, I am sure Miss Snook would have been delighted to discover that Grace Christie’s awkward way of working plaited braid stitch really is not the historic way of doing it. As a result of recent textile research, Jacqui Carey is able to show the correct method of constructing the stitch – a more intuitive method of working that virtually turns Mrs Christie’s method on its head. (She also includes another two historic variations of plaited braid and several similar metal-thread stitches which were used in a similar way.) And suddenly plaited braid stitch goes from being a total nightmare, to being just very, very tricky. Okay, ‘very, very tricky’ I can live with. ‘Very, very tricky’ I can hope to slowly improve at.
Ten days and many practice efforts later, I think I’ve got it down to just plain ‘tricky’. These two shots are of the latest, rather wobbly test piece, which I’m working on. As well as plaited braid stitch for the stem, I’m using corded detached buttonhole for the flowers and leaves, along with a bit of ordinary chain stitch and fly stitch, etc. I don’t consider that this piece is nearly up to standard, yet, which is why it’s just a practice piece. It is far from perfect. I still need much more practice. But it is already far closer to the Elizabethan ideal than I have ever achieved before. I have never claimed to be an expert at free embroidery – if you don’t count the fabric threads to do it, it’s out of my comfort zone. But I am not ashamed to show this photo here, wobbles and all, as a sort of ‘proof of concept’ piece.
Finally, my immense thanks go to Jacqui Carey for writing a book that feels as though it was written just for me alone, to Mary Corbett for giving it such a clear and such a thorough review that I had no hesitation in buying Elizabethan Stitches sight unseen, and last-but-not-least, to Ruth Matthews who took the trouble to let me know about it.