Archive for whitework

Hardanger embroidery – back to the fjords (via Sydney)

Posted in books, Embroidery, hardanger, Needlework, whitework with tags , , , , , , , on July 2, 2016 by suetortoise

I’ve been waiting eagerly for Yvette Stanton’s new book Early Style Hardanger since I first read about it as a work in progress, on her blog, White Threads. It sounded right up my street: firmly focused on the traditional Norwegian whitework technique rather than any modern interpretations.
I’m delighted to say that the book lives up to my expectations. It’s a substantial paperback: neat layout, enticing photographs, clear typography, copious step-by-step diagrams and charts. If I had to sum up the contents in one word, it would be ‘thorough’ – it’s one of the most in-depth single-subject embroidery books that I have seen.

Early Style Hardanger cover

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Floss Cotton and the Honeybees of Smooth

Posted in Embroidery with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2012 by suetortoise

No this isn’t exactly a story. Call it a learning experience with attached musings and explanations. And yes, we’re talking embroidery again, but don’t let that put you off. Meanwhile, in other news, I have some part-time work again. Only temporary, but it’s good to be in paid employment once more.

Back to the two Yellow Mats of my last-but-one posting. Yellow Mat One – that’s the finished one, this one –Yellow Mat Onewas beset with problems. The main problem was the thread, which was not robust enough to go through the closely-woven linen without fluffing up. Particularly as I didn’t always get the needle in exactly the right place first time, so was undoing a lot of stitches. (Sometimes it seemed I was working backwards more often than forwards. It gets like that some days!) I was using a single strand of stranded cotton – you may call it cotton floss, sticktwist, mouliné, it’s all the same stuff. I wasn’t using an economy brand, this was DMC thread and the thread was in good condition. But I struggled to stitch with it, even after I started making sure that I was working with the nap of the thread, not against it.

Stranded cotton has a nap?

No, not that kind of nap, Flossie!

Yes, it does. It’s not a very noticeable nap with good brands. (I’d never paid any attention to which end of the thread went into the needle before. I’ve never needed to. It’s never made any visible difference to the finished stitching before.) Yellow Mat One showed me that even that tiny difference could matter when the going gets tough.

How do you find out which end is which? Well, the simplest way is to run a strand between your fingers – in one direction it will run very smoothly, in the other direction it’s just not quite so smooth. It’s nothing like as noticeable as stroking a cat’s fur the wrong way (I’ve never yet had a strand of thread turn around and claw my hand, either). But when it matters, you want have the nap running from the end that goes into the needle to the end that you stitch into the fabric; so that as you pull it through the fabric, the fabric is not rubbing the fibres the wrong way.

This may sound horribly time-consuming, but once you’ve found the nap on one of the six strands in a length of cotton, all rest will run the same way, and other lengths cut from the same end of the skein will also run the same way. How you store cut lengths so that you know which way up they are when you get them out of your sewing bag is up to you. My current best idea is to keep them in a loose hitch, as I usually do, but leave the two legs of the hitch unequal lengths – the long one is the tail and the short one is the needle end. It’s not a perfect storage solution. Suggestions welcome!

Okay, back to the story. Using the thread the right way around certainly helped with Yellow Mat One. It wasn’t perfect and I was still wasting a lot of thread and having to make a lot of repairs, but it was better. Eventually I finished the mat.

Now we come to Yellow Mat Two. The new one. Good thread again, this time a shiny new skein of Anchor Stranded, but still fluffing up and still very hard to get through the fabric. Worse, the strand actually broke a couple of times while I was stitching.

What do I check when cotton breaks?

The first check is the most obvious thing: Is the eye damaged on the needle? Mine wasn’t actually broken, but it was bent and battered and could have had a rough edge in the eye. I sent that needle into retirement.

Second check: Is the needle big enough? Now this is quite a tough question. You want it small enough that you can get it into the right holes in the fabric. (It’s hard to see what you are doing with a big needle obscuring your view.) And on a closely woven fabric, you can’t get a very big needle through easily. But you want it big enough that the thread can get through without too much wear and tear. I had been using one of the smallest tapestry needles I have, a size 26. The replacement would be a size 24. One size larger.

The third check is worth doing any time you start stitching: Do you have a broken nail or a rough edge on jewellery or anything else that might be catching the thread? Oops! Yes, a split fingernail. Short pause for a five-minute manicure. (An emery board is useful in a travelling stitching bag – just keep it away from anything it could scratch.) I think the split nail on the worn thread was definitely the cause of the breaks.

There’s a fourth check, a very important one, if you don’t already do it from habit. That is: Are you sure you are not stressing the thread in the needle’s eye when you pull the thread through? It’s easy to do – especially when the fabric is hard to stitch through – so it’s worth getting into the habit of holding the needle and thread properly when you pull the thread. It seems awkward at first, but persevere with it. It will become second nature eventually. Here’s the grip:

The first finger and thumb grip the needle, then the second and third fingers trap the thread. So as you come to the end of the pull, all the stress is on the area of thread held between your second and third fingers. It’s not on the tiny bit of thread passing through the needle’s eye.

You probably already know to move the thread in the needle from time to time as well, so that same area isn’t always getting the wear. A slight digression: the risk of wear on the thread is one good reason not to loop one thread through the needle when stitching with doubled thread. The cut ends should go through the needle, if you use thread doubled. An obvious exception is for threading beads if you can’t get the thread through the holes any other way. I know that parents and teachers tell young children to fix the needle in a loop of thread – it saves a lot of dropped needles! But as soon as you are old enough to know better, you’d be wise to only put the cut ends into the needle, as if they were a single thread.)

And again back to the story. Having checked off points one, two, three and four, I tried again. This time the stitching went noticeably better. Better – but not as well as I’d liked. No more breaks, but I was still getting fluffing, and every stitch correction was making the thread more and more ragged. Who would rescue Floss Cotton from going to pieces on the Harsh Linen of Doom?

Cue the sound effects: the drone of the engines as the squadron races across the sky….

Back before the machine-perfect thread we take for granted today, before cotton was treated by ‘mercerisation’ and mechanically honed to silky-smoothness, there was beeswax. A wax holder was as normal a component of a sewing box as the scissors.

You don’t really want to use it when you can avoid it, but if you need to strengthen a frail thread on its journey through the hostile territory of awkward fabric and keep it from fluffing, beeswax is magic.

You can still buy special holders and expensive wax from shops that carry quilting supplies. (Hand-quilters often still like to use it to toughen up their quilting threads as they shove them through all the layers of cloth and batting.) You can also try a honey stall at a farmer’s market or talk to a beekeeper – they’ll sell you a chunk with no fancy holder, but at a far less fancy price. And all you do is pull the thread across the wax firmly, keeping under your thumb. (Pull it with the nap, remember – don’t rub the thread up the wrong way.) You might need to make two or more passes, but one may be enough, especially after threads have started to wear a little groove in the block, which lets the wax coat them more easily. It will make an alarming squeaky-creaky noise but don’t worry. You may overdo the wax a bit and end up with something as stiff as a cat’s whisker, but really you just need enough to give it that little bit of body – just enough to smooth things along nicely. It’s a matter of experience. Oh yes, you get that faint smell of wax and honey, too. (Hay fever, asthma and eczema sufferers – do make sure that you are not allergic to beeswax before you use it.)

Yellow Mat 2 in progress 16-05-2012

So now Yellow Mat Two is progressing remarkably swiftly. Despite the extra time taken in waxing the thread, I am working much faster than I was without the wax on Yellow Mat One. I haven’t had to spend so much time struggling with the thread. It’s also proving easier to cut the fabric away without snipping through the surrounding stitches, because they are not fluffy. No more stopping to rework damaged blocks. I’ve got this far with the first border already – the surface stitchery complete and the cutting and lace stitches well under way. I’ve done just over half the surface stitchery on the second border, too. I am delighted – I’m making much, much faster progress than I expected to. The stiffer, faintly tacky-feeling thread is not as pleasant to work with as untreated thread, but I am happy to put up with that in exchange for easier stitching.

This is an experiment, so I have yet to find out how easily I can remove the wax from the thread afterwards, and find out if the sheen of the cotton will revive (it looks a little dull with wax on it, but I assume that the gloss will come back when the wax goes). I will report the results of this experiment when I get to the cleaning and pressing stage, even if it all ends in hopeless failure. Meanwhile, so far, so good!

A Year with Stitches

Posted in Embroidery, everyday life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2012 by suetortoise

About time I updated the blog, I think! I am not making a New Year resolution to get back to more frequent blogging: I know what happens to resolutions and good intentions. But I am hopeful.

Whitework Band in progress

Embroidery. Looking back at the last 12 months, I think I can safely say that I have done more stitchery in 2011 than in any year since the early 1990s. I’ve never totally given up on embroidery, but there have been years when I’ve done hardly any. This was one of the most productive ones.

I also seem to have developed more patience and more willingness to stick at a piece of stitchery than I’ve ever had before, making me happier to take on more labour intensive embroideries. I no longer feel the urge to rush projects and spoil them, and I am less inclined to give up half way through – most of the embroidery projects I’ve started in 2011 have been finished, not left half-done. I even took up several pieces that had been left part-finished a decade or more ago and completed them. (There are more old unfinished projects still waiting for my attention, but I’ve made a good start on the pile.)

So what has sparked this revival of interest in embroidery? The main influence has been one of the things that previously got in the way of my stitching and craftwork: the Internet. I like to study old needlework, and more and more old patterns and embroidery textbooks being made available online. The amount of museum reference material online, with good, clear images, is also growing.  It’s rather wonderful to be able to study samplers in the V&A without the train fare to London, or look at early pattern books that I have read of but never seen for myself.

Openwork sampler, finished

A sampler of cut drawn and openwork embroidery, trying out stitches and techniques from books from the Antique Pattern Library

Heading the list of last year’s favourite discoveries is the excellent Antique Pattern Library – an ever-increasing collection of old books, charts and magazines, free for downloading for non-commercial purposes. (Not just embroidery – it’s a treasure trove for knitters, crocheters, tatting enthusiasts and more.) I’ve downloaded several books, mostly late Victorian and Edwardian, and they’ve proved very useful for both information and inspiration. It’s a wonderful resource which deserves to be much more widely known.

Eyelet band bookmark, detail

A bookmark for my mother. Made with a lovely variegated pearl cotton from Stef Francis, worked on 28 count Jobelan fabric.

And then there are the specialist suppliers for embroidery materials. Although I always try to source purchases locally and support shops in this area, it’s not always possible to find what I am looking for if it is something a little out of the ordinary – as it usually is. So then I am happy to support the small specialist companies who do business online. (The larger online concerns are very much my supplier of last resort.) It’s probably a good thing that I am short of money, because I can browse specialist thread suppliers websites for hours, getting more and more inspired in the process!  

I want to show you this piece, which I’ve been working on gradually for the last four or five months. (I was determined to finish it in 2011, and I did – just.) I am rather proud of it! It’s the finest fabric I have ever tried to use for counted cutwork, about 45 threads to the inch, although it is not exactly evenweave. These primrose-yellow linen placemats, already hemmed and with a narrow drawn-thread border, were on the antique stall in the local market at 50p each. I don’t know how old they are – even the hem is hand-stitched, so they were probably made for the love of it rather than for commercial purposes.
Yellow Mat
I decided to add some further decoration, continuing my exploration of counted cutwork. The stitches used are those used in modern Hardanger: satin-stitch kloster blocks, woven bars and dove’s-eye filling in the mesh areas, with Maltese cross filling in the large cut spaces and rows of single faggot stitch making the diamond shapes between the motifs.

A small, poor-quality photo of Swedish cutwork embroidery from around 1840.

The design inspiration was less from modern Hardanger embroidery than from Swedish and Danish white work from the 1840s. 

Here’s a clearer view of the stitchery:

Yellow mat 1 detail
I had to buy a new pair of embroidery scissors, as my old pair were not slim and sharp enough to cut these tiny holes. I used a single strand of stranded cotton for the embroidery. I also had to wear two pairs of spectacles at once in order to see the threads!
Yellow mat 2 part 1I am now starting a second mat. On the right of the photo is the mat in its original state, with the drawn threadwork border. I have just started working antique hemstitch around the inner edge of the border to neaten the raw edge. I will do the same on the outer edge. I’ve also marked out the area to be stitched. I still have to plan and chart the design for this one. I want to use different motifs (I think I shall have hearts on this one – another popular motif from the old Swedish whitework), but I will use the same stitches and the same Maltese cross motifs to be in keeping with the first mat. Maybe in another month or so I shall be able to show you the first completed section.