Sunday, 23 January 2011

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, or maybe one out of three is not too bad.

Arilyn has been doing embroidery on some level or another since she was about eight.  I know that she was doing simple blackwork while we were at Kentwell, because that was part of our enactment. 

Recently, she started clamoring about wanting to do metal thread embroidery, probably because she has been watching me do it more with this class I am taking.  I finally decided that we would design a small sampler for her to work up on this new slate frame she got for Christmas.  Part of the deal was that she had to choose the stitches for herself, and she had to try them out first to be sure if she liked them, before we actually included them in the sampler design. 

Here are the three that she has worked on in the past few days, an eight-legged flat spider web, reverse chain stitch with detached buttonhole edging, and a diagonal half guilloche stitch.   She was using a handmade Japanese needle to stitch on 26 count linen with #4 passing braid from Golden Threads.
                  Arilyn's practice work

When I was about seven, my great-grandmother, Gertrude Ausbrooks O’Kain, taught me how to do a blanket stitch, or buttonhole stitch.  Sometimes she would have to babysit us, and once I remember she was at her wits end on a particularly rainy day.  She sat me down with a bit of muslin that she had pinned a carefully pieced butterfly to.  During that summer, I remember that when it rained, I looked forward to being able to sit with my Great-grandmother and stitch. I painstakingly stitched around that butterfly, and really enjoyed the time spent doing it.  I have no idea where the quilt went, but I know that the love of embroidery that I have can be traced to those rainy afternoons spent inside.

It is no secret that my other daughters do not sew.  I know, quite amusing considering that one of them is a surgical resident.  She famously used to bring her mending with her to Cornwall when she would come to visit, and I would of course dutifully stitch her pockets back together, put on buttons, or do whatever torn duds she had crammed into her suitcase.  She very briefly (very) flirted with blackwork, and indeed, she may pick it up again some day.  She sheepishly admitted to me once that she wished she had paid more attention to me when I was trying to teach her how to sew or embroider, because it might have helped her out a bit as she was learning to stitch up people. 

I had almost given up hope that any of my girls would pick up a needle for pleasure, until this one started inquiring.  And so it begins.  400 years ago, a girl did not have much of an option about having to pick up a needle in her life, but today it is a different story.  I am glad that Arilyn has chosen to stitch, and I look forward to sharing this journey with her.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Plaited Braid Adventures, or through the rabbit hole, again…

Over the course of these seven years that I have been pursuing this stitch, I have left no stone unturned in my attempts to find THE method that is right. Because of course we all know that there is only one way that could have been used. If you don’t do it that one way, you are of course wrong. Or so the story often goes. In my search to find the one answer, I found many. Not one? Oh no, what to do?

I struggled, mightily, to understand this stitch, and tried over and over to get it right. I would start a bit, get frustrated, move over on the linen, and start again. I have a pile of scraps that I take out and show people when I am trying to teach them this stitch, to show them that no matter how frustrating it is, you just have to keep going.

My first forays into this stitch were through my handy old “Samplers and Stitches, A Handbook of Embroidery”, by Mrs. Archibald Christie. I had a lot of adventures along the way, and spent many hours trying to perfect my work. I am not nearly so nimble with the needle as some, and so do not always learn as quickly as I wish I could.

My best efforts at doing this stitch with those instructions can be seen here. I was somewhat content with this method, because I found a photo of an antique sampler and felt that mine compared favorably with how this one looked. I have somehow lost the documentation to that photo, and if I find it I will post it here, but suffice it to say that when I saw it I was confident of the provenance of the piece, and was assured that I was definitely doing it the right way. It had only taken me something ridiculous like four years to get to this point, so I was happy to say that I was finished with learning this stitch.

Not so fast, intrepid stitchers! I had been talking with Jill Hall at the Plimoth Plantation, since November, 2007, about the 17th century style jacket that they were making there. All that I really knew at that point was that it had coiling vine motifs and flowers, just like the coif that I was working on for myself. I wrote to her about stitches and materials, and she was so kind in her responses, telling me what they were doing, how they they were doing it, and where they were getting materials from. I was ecstatic, right up until the point that she told me that the plaited braid stitch that they were using was most definitely not Mrs. Christie’s variety. I was aghast. Jill directed me to Linda Connors, at Calico Crossroads. Linda has a set of directions up for plaited braid stitch that make it very easy to do. I would highly recommend this tutorial if you would like to have a nicely printed photographic method of learning this stitch.

At first, I was rather close minded about changing my method, because after all I had worked for years to perfect it. I ordered the directions, and let them sit in a corner while I stewed about it. I finally decided to give it a go, and fell in love with the stitch that had caused me so much misery and woe. The method that she worked out just made everything so much simpler.

I made up a little sampler design of my own, just something to familiarize myself with the stitch, and the results were very encouraging. I was thrilled when I worked this little needlebook, and felt that I could finally say that I had found The Right way of doing plaited braid stitch, and so could start to really get serious on my coif.

And then…fast forward to 2011. I heard through friends online that not only did Jacqui Carey’s wonderful new book, “Sweet Bags”, have a ton of info in it on, well, sweet bags, but it also had a rather nifty bit of research revealed on plaited braid stitch methods.

I gritted my teeth, and asked for further clarification. I mean, I have my fabric, silks, needles and design ready to go on the coif, and here is someone coming out and changing the rules again?

I bit. Hard, but I bit. And when my friend explained the theories behind this method, I gave them a try. I am still trying to decide exactly how it differs from the method that Ms. Connors taught, but I have not gotten my head quite wrapped around the logistics behind it yet. I have practiced two of the methods in this beautiful book, and I assure you that if someone does not get me this book for my birthday that I will go and buy it myself. I love how the stitch works up, and how easily it goes together. I am still discussing back and forth about exactly what the difference is, and will post here, but in the meantime, please do go and check out my friend’s blog, Bluebell Wood

Elizabethan PBS The first one is the traditional Elizabethan version of PBS. I stretched it out at the right side, going a distance of two threads rather than one, just to see how the stitch would look spread out a bit. I was using 26 count linen, and #4 passing braid from Golden Threads.

Elizabethan PBS1

Next, I tried one of the variations that is featured in the book. This method involves going over and under more threads than the other method. It is a bit more complicated, and uses a good deal more thread.

two braids vertical

Here are both versions side by side, with the more traditional Elizabethan version on the right, and the variation seen on the left. When I get a bit of time later, I would like to work up the other two versions that I know and add them here on the same bit of linen. It will be a nice way to compare them all.

two braids sides

And here, they are seen from the extreme side, and it is clear to note that there are no little legs spidering out along the sides, as sometimes happens when working the braid by other methods.

I will say that to me, I cannot yet see much of a difference between this method and the last one that I was working on. I know that Ms. Connors specifically teaches to work it horizontally rather than vertically. I never could wrap my head around doing it that way, and so I continued working it vertically, with her stitch directions turned sideways. I think that in the end, you have to do what is going to work best for you.

I have photos of a sampler (T.84-1946) from the V&A, that show several different methods of this stitch worked in the top left corner. This tells me that there were different methods of working the stitch even then. I think maybe we need to not look at this as having to find the one right way. Based on what I have seen, I believe that each of these versions that I have tried in the 21st century were all done in the 16th and 17th centuries, so I guess it is fair to say that they are all just different versions of the beautiful plaited braid stitch. I am very happy with how I am doing it now, and am going to keep this method to use on my late period embroideries.

I thought I was through with all of this learning, and was really ready to make that big purchase and have a slate frame custom built to make my coif. I was quite satisfied with everything, right up until Beth Lea let me know that there was new research that revealed a different way of doing the trellis stitch. Now I really have to get this book, “Sweet Bags”, by Jacqui Carey, and see what she has to say about this as well. I suggest that you do too, if you have a strong interest in the embroidery from this period.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Those cute little heart shaped coifs, what do you call them, oh attifets?

A good place to start is their proper name, which would just be a coif. So far as I can tell, at least. I have not found any documentation to show that this style of coif was actually called an attifet during the period it was worn. Some people just call it the ‘Mary Stuart’ coif or the “Mary Queen of Scots” coif, which I love even more. I have heard it said, and read, that the only person who wore this style of coif was Mary Stuart, and of course that simply is not true. There are portraits out there that show this coif on women other than the ill-fated Mary Stuart.

Whatever you choose to call it, the coif is very cute, and looks nice, when made properly.

One of my favourite brasses is this one. It shows nice brims, and you can clearly see the gathered back portion of the coif. I cannot say for certain whether or not it is constructed by the method that I chose for this particular version that I made, but I do feel that it is close.

I have been trying to make an example of this style coif for several years. So far, my attempts have not matched my expectations. I have tried making the coif with the method that calls for a separate wired brim that has a caul gathered onto the back. The pattern for this came from "The Tudor Tailor". This is a side view of a draft that I was working on for Arilyn’s Kentwell outfit in 2008, and this is a view from the back. Unfortunately, I do not have any good pictures of the final coif, but it turned out about just like this one. The coif suffered a rather unfortunate end when the little girl's father picked up the coif with the white laundry and threw it into the wash.

I think that I am moving into the camp that believes that they were made of one piece of linen that has a wired brim. It is just making sense to me that the coifs could be drawn up, much like we now realize that the flat coifs were tightened, by using a drawstring. The flat coifs employ a particularly long drawstring, as has been evidenced by extant examples that still had theirs intact. The prevailing belief, based on portraiture, sculpture and brasses, is that the drawstring was pulled tight beneath the base of the hairstyle, and then pulled up over the top of the head, crossed just in front of the braid, and then pulled back down and tied beneath the gathered portion of the bottom edge of the coif. This gives you a very snug and well fitting head covering, that is practical and attractive.

The following photos were taken today of the coif that I made over the holidays. Truly Carmichael, proprietor of Truly Hats (, has been working on a design that she arrived at after much study and research into this form of headwear. She and I compared notes, and both of us feel that this is definitely one way that this style of coif could have been made. I am not nearly clever enough to come up with a pattern like this all on my own, and was thrilled that she had already done all of the hard work! She graciously copied one of her patterns for me, and this is my first go at making one for myself. It is of a fine linen with a wired brim. I sewed a casing along the underside (for the drawstring), and worked a bit of twill tape through to gather it up with. The hem is all hand worked, and the wire was inserted as I stitched the hem along the front brim edge. I then went back and stitched on the cotton lace.

Of great importance is the underlying hairstyle. Truly believes that the hair, braided up on the back of the head, is what gives the distinctive look that we see in many of the paintings of the period. I am very fond of the method for dressing the hair as demonstrated by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm Davies in “The Tudor Tailor”. A good website that shows a woman actually putting up her hair in this method can be found here. In these photos, I have my hair up in the back, and then grabbed a fake braid from my Courtesan costume box and added that as well. As you can tell from the rear photo, the additional braid was slipping down into a bit of a lumpy mess, but that was because it was too long and heavy for the bobby pins that I was using. I have a hairpiece that is already braided and ready to go for this hairstyle, but of course I could not find it when I was grabbing my coif and the camera. I realize I should have put my hair up in rats on the front, but I could not find but one of them and that would have looked totally silly.

I am going to re-make this, and will add a bit of extra fullness at the front, as well as a bit on the sides. We shall see how it comes along, and I will post my progress here.

Here are the pics.



Monday, 20 December 2010

Threads, Linen and Sampler News


And so, I finally have my threads ready to begin my coif. I am using a mixture of Gilt Sylke Twist and Soie de Perle. I have tried to choose a palette that is appropriate to the era as well as to my own sensibilities. Some of the colours will only be used once in the design. Examples are the Azure GST, for butterfly wings, and the soft grey, for the snail. I have been thinking about using the new kit from Thistle Threads for my snail, instead of my own design, but have not made a decision yet. That kit uses some really interesting threads and techniques, and I may use it just because it is so cute.

linen kingston 55 I am torn about the linen. Somehow my Kingston crème 55 ct. linen managed to get misplaced during my cross-country move, so I had to replace it. I purchased some Kingston white 55 ct. from a friend who has closed her needle arts shop, and am fairly happy with it.

linen antique

My other option is an antique piece of fine white linen. They are comparable in quality, from what I can tell, but the antique piece is somewhat finer, and has less slubs. Not sure if that really matters or not, but am trying to decide which to use.

I have made some fairly good progress on the sampler for my Thistle Threads Elizabethan and Stuart Gold Work Master Course. I have found that I have run out of two of the threads though, and am not sure why. I am using only one strand, per the directions, and am using every bit of the thread that I am able to. I try to have the mindset that they are very rare and precious, and that I have to use every small bit that I can, in order to mimic the 16th and 17th century stitcher as closely as possible.

I am well pleased with my work so far, and with the exception of a place where I cut the thread too close, feel that I have done a passable job with it. I am going to have to go back into the large honeycomb in the top left of the sampler and re-do a small bit, in order to fix that tail end that worked its way loose, but it should not be too painful to deal with.

Here are some photos of my work so far. I am really keen on starting the gold soon!!!

sampler top left honeysuckle small honeysuckle and lower left motif pinke and top center motif pansy flame stitch

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

coif progress

I have been studying Elizabethan and Jacobean coifs for about seven years now, and it all started with a photo of a gold and black coif at the V&A. I was able to visit the museum, and actually had one on one time with that coif, and several others as well. Since my journey began, I have studied the embroidery techniques that I would need to master in order to be able to produce an embroidered coif appropriate to this period, and I feel that I am ready to proceed.

There is a lot of back story here, but I am not going to go into all of my research and findings at this point. I am, however, going to post some photos of my final design, which I have only recently finished. I started drawing this about five years ago, perhaps longer. I have kept all of my concept drawings, and my embroidery practice as I have progressed.

This is my final drawing in this form, but I am going to take this and transfer the design in black ink to clean, white paper. When the design is drawn on the linen, the plaited braid coils will be drawn in a single, center line, as opposed to the two sides that are shown now. I did that for spatial reasons. I felt I needed to be able to "see"how wide the coils would be, so that I could properly size the motifs to fit in and around them.

My coif design is an original. I did not want to reproduce one that is in a museum. I studied, learned, and took what I saw and then created my own pattern. I made up several coifs out of linen, in order to perfect the fit for my head, and then started drawing, and redrawing my coif. I now have my Kingston 55 count linen, my Soie de Perlee, beautiful spangles and gold and silver passing thread from Golden Threads, and most of the Gilt Sylke Twist that I need. I am only lacking a slate frame of the proper size, but I am working on that.

Here is my final version. Any comments are welcome.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Shevaun's bodice and cap begin to come together

I have been sick with a yucky plague since last week, but I did manage to get started on a couple of things for Shevaun.

Her bodice is going to close up the front with hooks and eyes. I am using a redding brown wool from England for her gown, about the same weight and texture as mine. Pictures will come later. Out of necessity she is probably going to wind up wearing an old smock of Emma's, because I do not know that I will have time to make one for her between now and the 13th.

We started with her stays, and used the Elizabethan costuming pattern generator. I realize that there is no documentable proof that this is an historically accurate reproduction of 16th century stays, but feel that in the interest of time that it is a very appropriate option. I used a heavy weight canvas, and used plastic boning.

When I started planning for these outfits I still had not found my Tudor Tailor patterns that I bought when I made our Kentwell outfits. I decided that I would have a go with the Reconstructing History pattern that is listed as Elizabethan Commonwomen's Clothing because I needed the patterns in a hurry and did not want to have to wait for copies of new TT patterns to arrive from the UK. I am really not ready just yet to give a review of that pattern, but wanted to be up front that I was not using the patterns I am most familiar with. Of course I found my TT patterns almost the same day that my new one arrived.

We started with her bodice pattern. I made the toile up using the pattern that was supposed to be a size 12, and according to the measurements should have fit her to a T. This just goes to show you that you should always, always, always do a toile before you cut into your fashion fabric. I took probably four inches out of the back, and more out of the sides as well as needing to adjust the bodice length. I made her corset, including the glaringly inaccurate metal grommet eyes (for durability and again in the interest of time), and made her toile yesterday.

Up next was her cap. I compared the pattern from the Tudor Tailor book for the Elizabethan cap with shaped forehead cloth, with the pieces that were in my Reconstructing History pattern, and they matched up pretty much the same. I double checked the head measurements, and went ahead and made the forehead cloth from bagged out linen and then made the cap. I did use buckram and millinery wire in the brim, and am more or less happy with how it has turned out. I just really do not see how on earth the thing is supposed to stay on your head. I guess I will pin it to the top of a braided style that I will do for her. I had thought maybe to do the double braid style shown in the TT book, but it won't fit properly into that tight caul at the back, so maybe a single braid that is brought up and around on the back of the head.

Next up should be her bodice, so we shall see where that goes.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

1570's English Commoner Outfit

I am working on an outfit for SCA use, mid to late sixteenth century in general design. Since I primarily focus on English, that is what I am going with now, though sewing clothes for a common woman is fairly new to me. My research over the past 15 years has been in the area of gentry women's clothing, so there have to be some shifts in the design, embellishment and fabrics used for this outfit as opposed to what I am used to working with. My goal is to create an outfit that would have been seen out and about on the streets of London, and I am happy to have this Lucas de Heere sketch to base my outfit on. The figure on the right is the basic design I am hoping to emulate. (A group of English London Ladies by Lucas de Heere, circa 1570 . Add. Ms. 28330, British Museum)

I am using a middle weight wool that I brought from England. My original intention for this was to do an outfit of this time period and social class, but it has taken me a while to get back into the swing of historical sewing for myself, so this project has sat on the back burner for a couple of years. The wool is not really rough faced, it is just coarser than what I am used to working with. I have generally used a fine wool, something along the lines of a gabardine. I have already washed this wool and it did great in the washer and dryer. Yay for me, because the cost of dry cleaning long dresses, even ones classified as costumes, has really become quite prohibitive.

As I am doing a middle class, or commoner, as opposed to gentry, none of my ruffs will work. So I have been fiddling around a bit with a strip of linen that is one yard long, trying to figure out exactly what I want to do with it. My goal is to have a ruff that is no wider than two inches, probably an inch and three quarters, and wrist ruffs that are equally modest, probably about an inch in depth. A woman in this socio-economic group would not have had a lot of expendable wealth, and it is very plausible that she would have put a bit of embroidery around the edge of her ruff for embellishment. As there is portrait evidence that buttonhole stitch was used in this manner, that is what I have chosen to do. I will be using a red silk by deVere yarns that I have used before and really enjoy working with.

I have been making ruffs for about fifteen years, and have used three different methods. My very first ruff was one that was run in accordian type pleats, from the top edge of the neckband to the bottom. I made several ruffs by this method. I have made four ruffs with the stacked box pleated method, such as is illustrated in Jean Hunniset's "Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women's Dress, 1500-1800". Admittedly, I was unable to figure out the method by reading her book, and it was only through the kind generosity of Gina Hill that I was able to finally grasp what was really going on. The last method I have used is tiny cartridge pleated linen sewn to a neckband. In Janet Arnold's "Patterns of Fashion 4", the ruffs illustrated all show cartridge pleating to be the method used to attach them to the neckband, though not all of them have pleats that are sized consistently.

I decided to experiment, just to put them side by side, and to see how much fabric each method would use, and how the finished results would vary in appearance.

For my test, I took a one yard strip of linen, zig-zagged one long edge to stabilize it, hemmed the two short ends, and did a narrow, rolled hem on the other long edge. I encased a piece of fishing line type filament in the hem that was not going to be pleated.

First I tried the box pleated method, but as it was to be a ruff with a relatively small depth of ruffle,
I used only two sets of box pleats per stack, and I omitted the folding and double stacking step. I did not mark my one-quarter inch pleats and did them all free hand. In spite of my lack of precision in regards to the size of the pleats, this yielded a ruff with nicely turned figure of eights. The final size of the sample was seven inches.

Next, I tried the teeny cartridge pleats. My pleats were about one quarter inch across, so approximately one eighth of an inch in depth when gathered up. I drew the sample up until I felt it looked right, so this gave me a piece that was six and a half inches in length.

I think I have made the decision to go with the cartridge pleated ruff, but I am still working out some design issues. When I made Arilyn's ruff in 2oo8 for Kentwell, I turned under the selvage edge, gathered with cartridge pleats, and I attached them to the top edge of the neckband with a single stitch per pleat, so that the entire ruffle stood perpendicular to the neckband. I may be reading PoF4 wrong, but it looks to me like the ruffs made in the 16th century were all attached to the neckband and then the band was folded over to encase the edge of the ruffle, and then very carefully hemmed over it. This presents two dilemmas for me. Firstly, how to attach the gathered edge to the neckband if it is not finished in some way, for I foresee that edge coming unraveled very easily and not providing a stable base for the stitches that the ruffle would be pulling against. Miss Arnold does not make any notation about that edge being finished in any way, and it is obvious from her drawings that the selvages are actually on the short end of strips that are joined together to make up the length of the ruffle. Secondly, I feel that the resultant joining would be very thick and bulky. Not exactly sure how I am going to proceed from this point, but those are issues to ponder over and work through soon.