Elizabethan Inspiration

I have just bought a most marvellous historical-embroidery book.

Cover of 'Elizbethan Stitches' by Jacqui Carey

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.

Interior of book'Elizabethan Stitches' by Jacqui Carey

Now that's what I call a close up photo! The metal spangles or 'oes' attached by red thread on the right-hand photo are just a couple of millimetres wide.

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.

PB test piece wip 1 20-03-12

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.

PB test piece wip 2 24-3-12

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.


13 Responses to “Elizabethan Inspiration”

  1. (came here from Antique Pattern Library).
    Wow, you have Barbara Snook as an embroidery teacher at *school*. Double wow!
    I’m waiting avidly for my copy of Carey from MadSampler.
    Reading your journey with PBS (Plaited Braid Stitch) it sounds very similar to the journies many many people have taken. It gets better from here on in, as you learn ‘muscle memory’,
    Your piece looks lovely….love the detached layer on the larger carnation….(can’t think of the historical word for carnations right now). I’m off to explore the rest of your blog 🙂 🙂

  2. suetortoise Says:

    Thank you for your comment, Megan.
    I think I’m now doing the ‘standard’ version from the book, but really I am just doing what seems most comfortable to me. It seems to work, anyway!

    • Hi SueT 🙂
      I’ve finally answered your comment re trellis stitch in my blog. It took awhile, because I was wondering why you thought of trellis stitch in particular and I asked my friends if there was something that I hadn’t thought of. It’d work fine (and look really nice) for the outer parts of the thistle, but one would run into trouble trying to do the inner (heart) parts of the thistle. (see my answering comment for more info) 🙂

    • Ye Gods, I’m a dimwit! Of course trellis stitch would work! Lying in bed reading a novel, and suddenly I thought “doh!” The layered hearts would just mean a series of outlines, and you’d stitch going around in a circle each time! It would have been a good opportunity to practise my trellis stitch too 🙂

      • suetortoise Says:

        Well, it looked like trellis to me, from the close up photo on your blog. The outlines done first in cross and/or holbein, and then the spaces filled with trellis afterwards. I have seen this (in photos) used on several similar samplers, with the same sort of shading in stripes. (Sometimes it may be one of the other ‘semi-detached’ fillings, but mostly trellis.) I’ve never really tried trellis stitch at all. It’s on my list of things to try – especially as Jacqui Carey has a different version in her book to the Grace Christie and Mary Thomas one.

      • I’ve just had a look at my notes and zoomed in on my hi-rest copy of Heart/Thistle part of the sampler and I think you’ve solved the mystery for me! I’ve been going nutty trying to reproduce the slight transtional effect of the colours in both tent and cross stitch and it hasn’t worked. But trellis stitch makes perfect sense! Oh, wow! I can’t believe I didn’t see that – it’s screamingly obvious now.

        The ‘stitches’ part of the item record says
        “: Linen, embroidered with silk, linen and metal thread in back, cross, two-sided Italian cross, satin, plaited braid and detached buttonhole stitch, with cutwork.”

        but that’s for the whole sampler. I thought is was cross stitch for the Heart/Thistle because of the straight rather than looped lines within the ‘net’. And that was with my assumption that the museum notes were correct, which I know they aren’t always, so it looks like you’ve found a mis-identification for at least that part of the sampler!

        I’ll blog about it asap (I’m booked up for the next 3 days, but soon). May I use your name and point to your blog, as being the genius that figured this out?

        I’m not going to strange myself, as I choose this specifically as an ‘easy’ project to do as a recuperation from a year long illness – something I didn’t have to think about too much. But I am kicking myself, all the same. Thankyou so much, my dear lady.

  3. Your work is absoltely beautiful. Those threads are gorgeous too! Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for embroidery 🙂

  4. It’s a wonderful feeling when you master something difficult, isn’t it? And that is so beautiful. My inexpert eye can’t detect any wobbles. 🙂


  5. Would have you Museum/Acc. Numbers for the motifs you’ve seen done in a similiar way? I’d really love to see them.

    • suetortoise Says:

      I’ll have a look at what I’ve got at home tonight and let you know. It’s more likely to be book/page references than acquisition numbers, but I might strike lucky!

  6. suetortoise Says:

    There are several in the Susan Mayor & Diana Fowle book “Samplers” – the copy I have is the old Studio one ISBN 1 85170 368 3 which has huge poster-sized pictures so the trellis is obvious. Some of the best of these are labelled ‘Swamethan Collection’ but I don’t know where that is kept. Maybe someone reading this will know?
    The Fitwilliam Museum has one of the most extensive sampler collections in the UK, and Cambridge University Press published a book called “Samplers” by Carol Humphrey in 1997. Not huge pictures, but good ones. ISBN 0 521 57592 3 for the pb edition. Also small and not very clear photos on the Fitz’s website – but lots and lots of samplers from the period and the trellis is obvious when you have ‘seen’ it once. That’s at http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index – a link to the samplers is on the right of the page.
    Oh, and there’s trellis on the strawberries on the bottom right of Jane Bostoke’s sampler – another counted design with trellis added afterwards, although not attached to a cross stitch outline.

    • Ok….Morning, Sue 🙂
      Fitzwilliam – found trellis stitch samplers easily, but can’t get a detailed view at all 😦
      Googled the Swametahn Collection in Google/Google Blogs/Google Scholar, and the only ‘real’ link I got was your link to the Bristol Orphan’s Sampler in Flickr.. You’re a Hardanger worker – that explains why you understand something like Trellis stitch so well 🙂 even without actually doing it.

      I’m in a rush, but my next options are
      a) to search for trellis pattern fills at the V&A, where I know that I can get hi-res images
      b) ask on the Facebook Historic Hand Embroidery group. I don’t suppose you are a member? It’s a very good group. It’s supposed to be generally historical, but we do rather focus on the 16thC. Some very very good people on there. Lots of discussion/showing of work/asking of questions.
      c) Get the Mayer and Foyle, if there is a copy to borrow in Australian libarires. I like the idea of poster sized pictures!

      I only want further examples for my own interest, and to show others in a blog entry. I’ll have to look in Eliz Embroidery as well.

      I could see in the hi-res image last night that red wool had been used to form each net regardless of the colour used for the fill. It makes sooooo much sense!

      May I use your name in writing this up? “SueTortoise” or would you prefer something else?

      Such a rush this morning – what a pity!

      Thankyou ever so much for the addtional information as well as your original insight.

      • suetortoise Says:

        There’s no trace of any Swamethan Collection online, that I can see. It may be a private collection. The Fitz pictures are too small online, which is a pity. Maybe one day they’ll have as good an online presence as the V&A.
        Amazon had the smaller version of Mayor & Fowle’s book for a very modest price if you can’t get the big one. Good luck with tracking it down.
        I don’t do much on Facebook – I prefer blogs and Flickr, where the pace is slower and there’s room to spread out a bit.
        You’re welcome to mention my name and the blog if you wish – Sue Tortoise is probably the best name for me, as there are rather too many other ‘Sue Jones’s out there. I answer to either.
        And now it’s gone midnight here in the UK so I must get to bed. I’m glad I’ve been some help.

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