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.