Bats in the Tortoise Loft
Above my head, the
star-specked, silent-movie sky
flickering with bats.
Back in 1998 or 1999, I went went to a talk at the Shropshire branch of the Embroiderer’s Guild where John and Elizabeth Mason, talked about discovering that they had one of the best preserved copies of Richard Shorleyker’s 1632 pattern book, A Schole-House for the Needle, a curiosity that John had bought in a rummage sale in Newport, Shropshire in the 1940’s, when he was a child. They told us something of the history of the book, and how they ended up producing an excellent reproduction. It’s a good story, which you can also read on the website, where the book is still available directly from Elizabeth Mason.
It is a wonderful old book, with a huge range of patterns: from geometric reticella lace to fruit and flowers, from complex punto in aria to my favourite pages – a selection of birds, beasts, fishes and insects. They must have delighted the children learning to stitch. Of those beasties, there is one pattern in particular which I have always intended to stitch someday, in some way, from the moment I first saw it – this delightful little bat.
(In case you’re not familiar with seventeenth century pattern books, I should point out that they are just pages of black engravings – don’t expect the kind of how-to’s and stitch instructions we are used to in modern magazines. No list of materials, no colours – no technical help. It was left up to the worker to translate these drawings into embroidery and lace. You need to be familiar with your chosen technique to make full use of these old books of ideas and inspiration.)
Now, if I was primarily a historical embroiderer, I would have wanted to tackle Shorleyker’s bat in the style of the period. However, although I’m deeply interested in historical embroidery, and the techniques and stitches of the Tudor and Stuart periods in particular, I generally like to adapt what I learn and the inspiration I find, rather than copying things too closely. I hope some readers might be interested to follow my thought processes as I work on this small project.
As I’ve said, I have had Shorleyker’s book for a dozen years or more, and although I knew I wanted to work the bat in silver metallic thread on a dark ground – either black or navy – that was as far as my intentions had got. And then three things happened in succession. Last month. I found a piece of very close-woven, suit-weight linen fabric in Watson and Thornton’s fabric shop, linen which is a very deep, inky blue-black. Then, talking about metallic threads a couple of posts ago reminded me that I wanted to do Shorleyker’s bat in silvery thread, and the very dark blue linen would be perfect. The third piece of the jigsaw was another eBay purchase that had brought me a few balls of Anchor Pearl Cotton #8 including one in variegated blues and mauves – colour 1349, to be precise. “Aha! I said, “That’s the background I want for my bat!” I do love serendipity, don’t you?
The final note of serendipity was that I had no wish to do any more puncetto lace for the present, so I was looking for a new ‘carry-around’ project for stitching while out and about. The piece of fabric I’m using is about 25cm x 28cm, and my stitching area is 16cm x 13cm. I made myself a pattern from the bat in the book, enlarged to 12cm wide, transferred it to my fabric with a fine ceramic marker, at a jaunty angle, and started on it in chain and buttonhole stitch while I pondered the design for the rest of the picture. I could have used DMC Diamante, but the reel I had here wasn’t the right colour, so I used DMC Metallic Thread Art 283, Argent Clair instead. It’s a similar thread to Diamante in size and construction, except that it is very slightly stiffer.
In China, five bats are a symbol of good luck: Wu Fu. So it seemed appropriate to have four more bats in the background, but not too clearly outlined. I wanted the feeling of night falling and things being difficult to see, especially, fast-moving, dark, fluttering things. I wanted the background to be stippled with the random-blue thread and the bats themselves to be slightly ambiguous outlines. (The haiku at the top of the page came from trying to explain to myself exactly what I wanted to achieve in the background.)
Looking through A Schole-House, I found another small bat, not as attractive to me as ‘my’ bat. I used the outlines of both bats, in two different sizes: I flipped one of each to give variety in the shapes.
When I started seeding stitch in the background around the outline of the main bat, I discovered two more things. Firstly, that I needed another needle. A size 24 tapestry needle was not making a big enough hole for the pearl cotton, and the closely-woven linen wasn’t happy taking a size 22. So I ended up nipping into W&T after work and getting a mixed packet of chenille needles. I have shedloads of needles here, but were any of them chenille needles? Nope. Not one. (Chenilles are exactly like tapestry needles in size-numbering, length and eye-shape, but they have sharp points not blunt ones.) The #22 chenille worked perfectly with the fabric and thread. The second thing I discovered was that my stitches were too short and ‘tight’ at first. You can see them going around the wing on the left in the picture above: tiny, tense stitches. By the time I had reached the right hand wing, I’d got my rhythm going and the thread had told me what size of stitches it wanted to make.
So out came the seeding around the left-hand wing, replaced with freer stitches, after which the rest of seeding went swimmingly and surprisingly fast. I left some little spaces for stars, although I may not use all of them, and I haven’t yet decided exactly how I shall tackle the stars. (I still haven’t decided exactly what further stitching is to be done on the main bat, either – I expect I will know by the time I have finished the background.) I left larger spaces at the bottom and lower sides for some tree branches.
As the background started to fill up, I decided that the outline bats needed seeding across them, in black, rather than being left as bare fabric. (Cue urgent shopping again, as I didn’t have any black pearl #8 in the house – of course!) Those four bats worked up exactly as I’d hoped they would. I’d been torn between doing black branches or silver ones at first; but once I found myself leaving spaces for stars, I knew the branches needed to be black for contrast. So now I am busy working on them.
The branches are a rather random mixture of fly, feather and reversed feather, to suit the shapes; some of the sky colour will show through the branches here and there. I’m also going to work a few branches in the background colour, to represent more distant trees. I don’t think the right shade of dark navy is available in pearl cotton, and I don’t have any stranded cotton that closely matches it. Fortunately the reel of dark blue Sew-It-All polyester that I had bought when looking at the changed structure of the thread had been deliberately chosen to match the linen, in case I wanted to sew any seams or hems. It’s a perfect match, so I am planning to use two strands of that thread twisted into a four-strand cord, which will be a similar weight to the pearl cotton.
And that’s as far as my thinking and stitching has gone right now.
I like to give myself a bit of a challenge, even on ‘carry-around’ projects for odd moments. This one has been sufficiently out of my comfort zone to be interesting. Apart from designing and choosing stitches as I am going along, which is always my kind of nerve-wracking fun, it’s my first real attempt at seeding, and it’s rare for me to stitch with a sharp needle or with a thread as thick as pearl cotton #8. Freehand stitchery on a bold scale, rather than counted thread or very formal stitching. And I am enjoying it immensely. I hope I’ll be able to show you the finished piece before too long. By which time, no doubt, I’ll be desperate for some nice, fine, fiddly-widdly counted work again!
Part Two of this project is here: Shorleyker’s Bat – the story continues