Saturday, April 11, 2009

Embroidery Explorations

I recently fell into a conversation on Ravelry about embroidering period clothing for reenacting history, specifically within the SCA. I was once an active member, and have lapsed in the last five years as a single working mom trying to keep my head above water and the house passably clean (Not always successful, but trying!) Since I thought some of you might be interested in this, I'm posting my embroidery projects here along with a small amount of the history of them.

Long before I was obsessed with knitting, I was obsessed with embroidery. Particularly historic embroidery. I studied it, went to museums to examine it, searched every reference I could find to understand it, and I tried to reproduce it. Some things I finished, others are still languishing in corners and cupboards, waiting for me to get the inspiration to finish them.

Some are languishing because I later learned I was doing something "wrong". Others are sitting there because once I met the challenge of the project, I didn't feel compelled to finish it (for whatever random reason).

Some (completed ones) are lost. I loaned out the garb for a Ren Fest last summer, and it was never returned. (We'll forgive her, since she has cancer and 2 young girls...) Some that are gone were photographed, and now the photos are missing, too (No idea on that one...I'll have to dig deeper into the Piles 'O Mess around here).

In the SCA I played Lady Playne Jayne (I earned the "Lady" title during my time in Indiana with the Shire of Strikkenwoode), a merchant-class woman (my now-ex-husband was Hans Hannibal Hutter von Hutterhofen, advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor). As Playne Jane, I didn't look plain a all, and usually skirted the edges of sumptuary laws dressing to the nines in English garb with German influence (from HHHvH). I loved making the fancy outfits and finding and creating the details that set me apart from the herd.

One of those details was that I was wearing coifs before anyone else in the area. I know they're seen pretty regularly now, but I was rare back then. I had a fine linen one for when I dressed up for court, and a coarser linen one for when I was merchanting (I made and sold garb, too). And then I got the wild hair (hare?) to embroider one, like the period examples in museums. I chose this one, because I had found more available documentation on it than any other one that caught my eye at the time. (Credit for the following photo goes to an unknown internet poster years ago, she took this in the V&A Museum. If it's yours, let me know and I'll credit you)The coif was worn over the hair and under any outer hat. Some have been found totally plain, others are elaborately embroidered, and there are plenty of examples in museums to show that just about every embroidery technique of the period (1580-1610) was used on them. Some look professionally done, others are obviously amateur-stitched. They appear in portraits sometimes, but most often, being worn on the back of the head, they are out of sight and unpainted.

Using a light table, I layed out the pattern on linen and drew it on the fabric with a permanent fine-point pen (totally period). I stitched it into a frame and got to work.

Then I guess I got bored, because this is what I found in the embroidery box. Not even close to finished.
I stitched with red silk thread, following the lines and "speckling" the open spaces. Teeny tiny work.Striking, though, yes?

Part of me wants to finish it, just to say I did. And part of me thinks that there's no point, since I have no opportunity to wear it. Kind of like the next one:

I went through a blackwork embroidery phase, and starting embellishing all our linens. I was obsessing over portraits of people with blackworked linens. It was most popular a little earlier than my persona (around 1575), but I couldn't resist making some "antique" linens to show off. (What? Isn't that what all the embellishment was about in the first place? Showing off??) Lots of blackwork showed up on collars and cuffs, and often (earlier in the fad) in stripes down the front and back of the shirt/chemise.

Again, with silk on linen. I pulled the design from a portrait and went at it.

I got as far as box-pleating the ruffs onto the cuffs, but never built the shirt. I did a really wide, elaborate blackworked collar band, but can't find it right now. So sad.

Another little experiment I found in the box was this one:
Three tiny rows of stitching, 12 stitches across. Cross-stitch. I had just returned from an exhibit at the art museum in Detroit on English Embroidery, had taken lots of pictures, stood in real close taking notes and drawing sketches, and was fascinated by the stitch-count I found. Some of the finer embroideries were done at 43 stitches to the inch. The example I tried was 41, and after those three little rows I had a migraine. Compare the size of one row of stitching to the date on the penny. Then go look at a penny real close...scared yet?

The next bit I'll share with you was my (unfinished) pride and joy. The Sweete Bag. A sweete bag is one of those things we have in museums that nobody can agree on exactly what they were used for. They're usually elaborately embroidered little bags, often with an attached pincushion. It's suspected that they held fragrant herbs and spices that could be held near one's face when the "less-washed" folk were nearby. Some think they were for holding small items. I agree more with the first hypothesis, since the extant examples are not (in my opinion) distorted enough to suggest they were used for carrying anything heavy, ever.

This one is done on linen canvas, in silk and metallic to mimic the original (again, trying for a reproduction, not an "inspired by") and was never finished.
The frame its tacked to is about 7"x14", and I've never removed it. It's (period) tent stitch, 36 stitches to the inch.

I lost track of how many hours went into this project. I finally bought a period-ish embroidery stand to hold it because it was wearing me out. The multiple needles in the upper corner were so I could thread several colors and stitch until I ran out before cutting threads and threading needles again.
I wish I could find the rest of my projects, both finished and unfinished. Or the pictures, even. I have all the documentation somewhere, and it bothers me that it's "lost". I can't even find the picture of the original sweete bag!

I'll keep up the search, and post more as I find them. If you're still reading, thanks for hanging out.


Julie said...

You're insane. I mean, it's nice to have company and all but... you're insane.


I think I got a migraine just looking at that cross-stitch.

Lovely work, though. Beyootiful stuff. Ya really need to finish the sweetie bag. You could put a cell phone in it or something.

NeedleTart said...

No, you're not insane at all. You just have a passion. This is a good thing. If you ever get a little freaked out with the knitting list, you can always fall back on the (unfinished) embroidery list. I was more active in whichever needle art when I was involved in a guild. It's more fun when the people around you get the work involved. Beautiful work. Thanks for sharing (now where did I put that cross stitch that I started years age?)

Alwen said...

Dude. I think I love you.

My own embroidery phase, unfortunately, passed when I was a teenager.

But if I had one now, I think I would want to grow up to be you.

Monica aka Gloria Patre said...

Your stitching is marvelous! Really really beautiful!! Thanks for sharing the pictures! I've done lots of embroidery in my time but you are a master stitcher!! Your passion is contagious!! sigh.... I have zero time to resurrect a favorite old hobby!