2012: The Year of the Blog

It’s been too long!  Jeff and I made it to Mississippi where he promptly had to undergo unplanned surgery, then six weeks plus of recuperation.  Then the Holidays.  But it’s a new year and with it comes fresh comittment.  I declare this the Year of the Blog–for me anyway!

I have four blogs.  That’s too many.  But each is important to me for different reasons so I can’t give any of them up.  I will remain comitted to a post a day, but the posts will rotate between four blogs:  The Shop Sampler, Relatively Ryan, Sight Sniffing, and, of course, Blackwork Lessons.

News on The Mystery Blackwork Sampler—I have picked patterns for the blackwork squares.  I have tentatively picked out a needlepoint stitch for the inner border as well as some patterns for the needlepoint squares.  I decided to add another color to the black silk.    I’ll pull it out and share that with you Thursday when my daily post returns to Blackwork Lessons.  Until then think about a second color you might add to your Mystery Blackwork Sampler.

Write and tell me what color background you are using and what your second color will be!  Tomorrow I’ll be posting at The Shop Sampler.

Types of Blackwork Embroidery

I have mentioned before that there are more than one type of blackwork.  Perhaps you have wondered what I mean.  In examining the different pieces of blackwork embroidery one might find in, say Victoria and Albert Museum, you will see three pattern types:

  • Linear
  • Free form with geometric fill
  • Outlined free form

The popularity of each form had its own time in British history with blackwork falling mostly out of favor around the 18th century, however all were present in Islamic stitching prior to Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII and the introduction of “Spanishe Work” to the English Court.  Linear came first, then the free form with geometric fill, and, finally, the outlined free form.  How would you identify which is which?

Linear Blackwork:  Typically the double running or backstitch is the stitch of choice.  The work is most likely reversible and found on collars,  cuffs, and other smaller spaces.  While the double running stitch may be named for the painter Holbein, he most certainly did not create it.  His name is attached to it after he immortalized the embroidery method in his paintings of Henry the 8th and his family.  Holbein also designed much of Henry VIII’s wardrobe and linens for his home.  The following pic shows linear blackwork on the cuff.  (Click on photos for larger image.)

Blackwork as painted by Hans Holbein

Blackwork Cuff as Painted by Hans Holbein

Note the sleeve includes free form blackwork, but the fill is spangles.  This is perfectly acceptable and something you might like to try, too!  Or maybe some beads unless you can afford gemstones!

Blackwork in Free Form with Geometric Fill:  This second most popular form of blackwork was typically a larger design, perhaps a coif, sleeping cap, sleeve, or foreskirt.  The designs were most often flowers and leaves that would have a geometric fill.  The following photo is a nice example of this type of blackwork.

A variety of blackwork shapes enhanced with geometric fills

Blackwork stitching on sleeve

Outlined Free Form Blackwork Embroidery:  This is very similar to the free form with geometric fill.  However the free form patterns are scattered and rather stand alone in nature.  Stitches you are likely to see are stem and chain stitches.  It is also possible you will see “seed stitch.”  These are little straight stitches that reflect the markings found on patterns that are by now are printed!  In your own designs seed stitches are a good way to increase or decrease shading.  Notice them in the leaves in this picture of a period coif.

Period coif done in blackwork

Blackwork Coif

The other form of this style of blackwork is called strapwork.  Again you will see stem and chain stitch in the pattern.  This helps to outline the bands of repetitive pattern.  This pic of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII is a nice example of this type of work.

Blackwork strapwork

I’ll bet you’ve noticed, especially in this image, that the threads used are not always black.  You’re right, they weren’t, but that’s a discussion for another day!

Hey?!  Are you learning anything yet?

Blackwork Embroidery and Moroccan Mosaics

Blackwork embroidery is, I like to think, the fabric and thread version of the art of Zillij, or Moroccan Mosaics.  The author of the blog Moroccan Design says that once you’ve learned what zillij is and seen an example you will always recognize it.  And I do.  In blackwork embroidery.  In particular in the linear model of blackwork that utilizes geometric design to create patterns, especially reversible patterns (same on the so-called right side and wrong side).

According to Muslim philosophy, life is ordered by a cosmic intelligence even though we humans may not always understand that intelligence and/or it’s message to us.  The patterns that are created in Islamic art and architecture flows from the Muslim’s wish to understand this Creation.  Meditating on the order and flow of the design, contemplating the meanings to be found in sacred geometry is the way to understanding.  This is in comparison to other cultures’ method of representative art which in the Islamic view is a pathway to idolatry, but is is not so different from other cultures’ (i.e., Native American, Tibetan Buddhist) use of mandalas as a meditative tool.

To see how simple it is to create such a design visit the Crayola website for a lesson in zillij or check out the wonderful lesson provided by New York City’s  Metropolitan Museum of Art on Islamic Art and Geometric Design.  When you’ve played with these lessons, put your design to fabric and there you have it–you designed your first blackwork embroidery piece!

Hand Health for Stitchers

Before we left for Mississippi, I had my thumb injected with cortisone as I was experiencing “trigger thumb.”  Very painful.  Possibly related to stitching.  I didn’t need the xrays to tell me I have arthritic changes in my hands.  I can see little knobs on my finger joints that told me several years ago that I would be heading for hand problems.  To be kind to my hands (and because I can’t freely bend my dominant thumb) I haven’t placed a single stitch on fabric for eight weeks now.  And I need to stitch.  Stitching is closely linked to sanity in my being!

Fortunately, The Universe sent me a special email message.  If you love stitching as much as I do, you need to read this message, too.  It is a timely post from my favorite Blogging Expert, Time Thief, entitled Hand and Wrist Exercises for Bloggers.  But, really it’s for anyone who uses their hands, wrists and fingers a lot.  Like stitchers.  It’s even got links for exercises for people with arthritis of the hands from experts no less than the Mayo Clinic!

I’ve already started doing the exercises, except for where it requires bending my thumb.  The thumb is getting better, but until the inflammation is gone, I’m not going to abuse it.  Instead I have splinted it and am finishing an afghan I’ve been knitting.  Just have to do the border now.  But how I want to stitch!

On The Road

We are hitting the road tomorrow, heading south to Mississippi.  I’m planning on keeping my eyes open to see if I can find any motifs in our travels that would translate well to a blackwork design.  I have also uploaded all the files I have gathered from the internet about Islamic Architecture and Art as well as quasicrystalline geometry, the foundations of Spanish Work or blackwork.  So there is much reading I can be catching up on while we are on the road and don’t have access to unlimited electric power.  Luckily, I can recharge my reader from the car battery.

When we stop and have a connection, I’ll post what I have learned in my travels.  BTW, today I found some nice red spangles to use on my Blackwork Mystery Sampler.  I was thinking, too, that if I can’t get the red congress cloth, I could do a basketweave in red on a plan 18 ct mesh canvas, then do the blackwork stitching over that.  We’ll see.  Would love to hear what you think about the outside border and if you are planning on stitching along with me!

Architectural Blackwork

Quick post today given my dominant thumb was injected with steroid today due to “trigger thumb.”  If you don’t normally look at Mary Hickmott’s New Stitches, you should look at issue No. 211.  Part 3 of a 3 part series of patterns of architectural blackwork is on page 50.  The title is Romanesque Blackwork and it is gorgeous!  To see all three sections of this piece visit the StitchDirect.com catalogue.  You may have to hit the control button as you click on this link.

When you get to that page, click on the Blackwork tab on the directory.  Click on the Button for Buildings on that page.  Then look for Romanesque, all three parts!  Then debate with yourself about ordering the patterns or finding the Mary Hickmott mags instead.  You can find her mags at the same site under the magazines tab on the left.  I’m a fan of her magazines for the diversity and the fact that she often has blackwork patterns.


Blackwork Mystery Sampler Fabric Size

Have you decided on a fabric for your Blackwork Sampler? I think I’ll figure mine out here. Maybe my calculations will help some neophyte. But before I figure the size, I should say that I have had a brainstorm about my colors! As noted earlier, I’m going use black silk or quilting thread for the blackwork. I’m going to use an overdyed floss for the needlepoint. I’ll be using beads not spangles for accents primarily because I have beads on hand. If I find spangles before I get to that point in my stitching, I’ll pick some up and see which looks better with the pattern. I’m thinking spangles may look better since I’ve decided my accent color will be red! Imagine the red spangles held in place with sharp little black stitches!

I’ve also decided I want my center grid to be marked in red. And to really make the piece pop I’d like to use red fabric. That means I need to see what red fabric my goto fabric shop has. That would be Fireside Stitchery. Well, they didn’t have red available now. So, on to the second shop, Stitchers Paradise. BINGO! They have 24 mesh Congress Cloth in Victorian Red which matches DMC 498 or 816. That works for me! So, I’ll be working with a count of 24 which means there will be 24 threads in one inch. Since I will be stitching over two threads, that means I will have 12 stitches per inch.

Now, my design size is 120 stitches by 120 stitches. Dividing my stitch count by my fabric size tells me the design will cover 10 inches. I am going to add 6 inches to give me a decent border and leave some margin for the dirty old edge tacking.

If I can’t get the canvas, I’ll use linen. Most likely 28 count. Again, I would be stitching over two threads, so that means there would be 14 stitches per inch. 120 stitches divided by 14 inch fabric will yield 8.5 inch square design size. So I would cut my fabric 13 inches square (rounded up).

Do you read the Nordic Needle Newsletter? I subscribe to it and often find very useful information. The latest Newsletter has a very good section on changing fabric sizes. As you scroll down to find it, notice the great info about testing for colorfastedness, working with beads to ensure they are color and tarnish fast. It’s a good page to bookmark!

What are your thoughts on thread and fabric colors?

A Photo Log of My Blackwork Projects

Perhaps some photos of my own blackwork projects would be a nice break between lessons in the history of blackwork and information about the mechanics of designing it.  The Blackwork Lovebirds I’m including are the result of a class I took with Tanja Berlin of Berlin Embroidery through Shining Needle Society.  The piece is off to be framed at this time.

Funny, I found Tanja’s site when I was looking for information on Berlin Embroidery which is an especially colorful embroidery developed in Germany when beautiful colors were so new to consumers.  Pelin Tezer had a lovely free pattern of Berlin Embroidery in a ribbonwork pattern.  Unfortunately, she has changed her website and I can no longer find it, but check this out.  It along with a half a million other things is on my To Do List!

The other photos are from the Blackwork Chessboard I am finishing.  Enjoy!  Tell me which is or are your favorite photos!  That could influence my choices in the Mystery Blackwork Sampler square choices.

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Mystery Blackwork Sampler Outside Border

Finally, I have a pretty good idea of my blackwork sampler design.  I feel good about how it is coming together.  I had decided I wanted to do a sampler as my Blackwork Chessboard has been so much fun to stitch.  Actually, I am almost done with it.  I’ve got two white chessmen to stitch on the outside, then the black chessmen.  A good, but gentle washing.  Finish fringing.  And it will be done!  Jeff has decided to make a leather box for the chessmen he has picked from his collection.  Then the chessboard will be rolled and set inside the box.  I would recommend Carol Leather’s pattern wholeheartedly, even if you are not a chess player nor have one in your life.  You could leave the chessmen off and have a simply lovely sampler of really cool blackwork motifs to inspire your own designs.

So for my design.  I have come up with a border I like.  Why start with a border rather than the squares?  I don’t know.  Feels right.  The border will help me set the tone for the squares it will surround.    I don’t want to just develope squares I like and stick them together.  I want to achieve a certain feel.  The border has a certain airiness to it, reminding me of a wrought iron fence you might find outside a Victorian home.  Neat.  Clean.  Geometrically lean, yet complex enough to hold moderately dense patterns.  I will need to create squares that will blend to not give the piece a heavy look.  The blackwork squares will be lacy and variably open while the needlepoint squares will be simple and linear.

Lessons figure 1

Figure 1 Outside Border

The top of the diagram (figure 1–click image for larger picture) represents one eight of the border.  The 60 stitches to the right  would be a mirror image of 1 through 60, left to right.  Repeat three times for the other sides.  Consequently, the piece will be 120 by 120.  The three stitch inner border will be a needlepoint stitch, I’m thinking.  The remaining internal area will be 92 by 92 stitches.  I’m thinking a 4 x 4 grid with each block being 23.   The middle 4 x 4 grid of squares will be divided by gold double running stitch.  Or you can use whatever color will contrast nicely with your main colors, a solid for the blackwork and overdyed for the needlepoint squares.  Whatever you use for the blackwork will be the proper thread for the outer border.  The number of threads you use should be appropriate to whatever fabric you choose to use.

Lessons figure 2

Figure 2 Detail Image

Figure 2 is a close up of the center section of the top row.  Note the yellow dot at the base of the partial cross.  The represents placement of either a bead or a spangle.  Your choice.  The color should complement your colors, maybe the color you use to define the middle grid.

So, to summarize:

  • Total stitch size is 120 x 120
  • You will need three threads:  one for the blackwork, one for the needlepoint, one for the center grid divisions
  • You will need either beads or spangles matching the thread for the center grid
  • Fabric of your choice cut with appropriate space surrounding the stitch area, with edges protected from raveling
  • Frame of your choice and other stitching tools of choice

The Islamic Connection to Blackwork Embroidery

You might be surprised, (I was) but to learn more about blackwork embroidery à la Katherine of Aragon I have been reading a lot about geometry.  As noted earlier, Katherine’s world in Spain at the time was very much influenced by its Muslim past.  For about 500 years before Katherine, the Iberian peninsula was ruled by a Muslim line that had escaped from Iran to Morocco in the 11th century.  These people were influenced, as was all of the civilized world, by the Byzantine world, trade along the Silk Road, and the former culture of the Greeks.  Mosaics, intricate goldwork, and divinely inspired architecture was the norm.

Islamic people surrounded themselves with reminders of the divine.  Geometry was critical to both building and ornamentation.  With just a compass and a straight edge, Islamic creators have defined the universe.  And it begins with a single point.  A dot.  Draw a straight line out from that dot and it becomes the embryo of one–the radius of a circle, or a simple straight stitch in the case of all embroidery.  Using a compass and that radius, a circle becomes One.  From any point along the circumfrence of the circle and using the same radius, you create another circle that intersects with the One.  And then you have Two.  As in Adam and Eve.  Male and Female.  The elements of Creation.

Although blackwork, indeed Islamic ornamentation in general, that we all recognize as such appears very linear, in fact it is created from the intersections of many circles.  The lines of the intersections may be flattened to create hexagons or triangles or squares.  Lines may be removed to create larger space or emphasize certain areas of intersection.  But it all starts with that seed of a dot extending into that line or that simple stitch.  Perhaps that is why I love blackwork so much and have always been in awe of the works I have seen.  Blackwork is divinely inspired.  I feel it.  And so does everyone else who loves the form.

If you have a hard time visualizing this, I would recommend the book “ISLAMIC DESIGN A Genius For Geometry,” written by Daud Sutton and copyrighted in 2007.  It is a tiny little book that you can put in your pocket to pull out and peruse whenever you have quiet moment.  The drawings are lovely and very clearly demonstrate how the same circles can lead to sooooo many different final images.  He also discusses that it is likely these Muslims did not understand the geometry perse, rather intended to describe their beliefs in a visual manner.  Rather than using compass and straight edge in building, they would use tile patterns to lay out their designs, much as we use motifs to create our samplers or designs on fabric.  That’s as far as I have gotten in this little treasure.  But I am looking forward to devouring the rest of the material.

In fact, from the drawing on the frontispiece, I have decided on the border for the sampler I am designing.  I need to graph it.  Then I will scan it into the computer so I can share it with you.  It may seem odd to start with the border, but it feels right to me.  You will be able to decide how big you will want your piece to be and stitch your border according.  I am anticipating squares of 24 stitches down and across, but I’ll let you know when I post the border/corner design.  So you know, I am planning on alternating squares of blackwork with squares of needlepoint patterns.  Personally, I will use black for the blackwork and use an overdyed charcoal thread for the needlepoint.  I’ve picked out several overdyed already and will test them out as I go to see which looks best with the blackwork.  I’m thinking of using black quilting thread or black silk for the blackwork.  Not cotton.  I want the finish of the thread to be smooth and and sharp to balance against the flowing of the overdye.

And here you thought I’ve been doing nothing!  A lot of creation spends a fair amount of time in one’s brain incubating.  Math is not my strong suit.  I spent more time passing notes during geometry than listening to the teacher.  So, looking at this lovely artform from a mathematical perspective, as is proper in this case, is a challenge.  Me seeking out math in pursuit of my art!  Who would have thunk?!

Luckily all of blackwork is not so strongly based in math. I will explore the two other forms of blackwork that are part of the whole body of the method in the future.  But I want to finish exploring this linear form fully before proceeding–while my brain is primed for math!

Until tomorrow…