31 little blocks, side by side, one per day. I keep saying there is no plan, but of course there is a plan – the plan is to stitch a little box for every day of 2022. What I mean is, there isn’t a design. There isn’t a design or drawing for each day, I just thread a needle and see what happens. And really, this isn’t true either. It would be more accurate to say that I thread a needle and reflect on where I am in time and space and then translate that feeling into thread on linen. It is mindful, and it is meditative, to witness the passing of time in this way. It means we are alive.
Some days seem longer than others. Some days bring bad news that hangs around for weeks. Some days make you feel lost. Some bring peace.
The fact that days always have more coming after them I think can bring a helpful sense of perspective – if every day is followed by another, then sometimes the next day can be a new beginning. I find optimism in this stitch journal, and I find myself wondering where I will be in say, May or June, and what the days will bring to me. Or what I will discover in them. Sewing, for me, is always about healing and connection, about anchoring myself to my life with thread, stitching old wounds closed, looking behind and ahead while standing in the present.
Tomorrow is 1st February, Imbolc in the pagan calendar. The first day of spring, where hope reaches a tentative hand out of the cold ground, clutching the green shoots of new life.
I’ve now compiled and assembled the pages for my nineteenth-century style sampler book that was inspired by this amazing example by Ellen Mahon. You might want to go and get a cup of tea and then make yourself comfortable. There’s a lot to look at today.
The pages are about 7″ square, and I’ve chosen to use cotton rag paper, 150gsm. I like the handmade look and the ragged edges. I also chose to stitch my samples to the paper as I didn’t like the glue stains that you can see on some of Ellen’s pages.
I kept my title page as close as possible to Ellen’s, in appreciation of her skill and dedication. It’s worked in cross stitch on 32-count even weave linen with one strand of DMC thread, and it has a drawn thread hem around the edge.
Pages 2 and 3 are based on plain sewing, which would have taken up most of a nineteenth-century needlewoman’s sewing time. Clothes, sheets, towels, table linen, curtains – all would have been made entirely by hand before the arrival of sewing machines. On page 2 I have included a sample of cotton flannel hemmed with herringbone stitch, and a sample of pleats and gathers, stitched to a plain cotton cuff. The hand-worked button holes are functional but they ain’t pretty. I’ve added some etched mother-of-pearl buttons and a packet of vintage needles. The modern tape measure ribbon is a bit corny but I like it. Page 3 includes a selection of fabrics and trims that might have formed the basis for making clothing.
Pages 4 and 5 focus on darning and mending. Page 4 is a set of darning samples; on page 5 I have attached a very ragged fragment of 19th-century linen to show mending and patching. If you lift the paper you can see the vintage darning needles.
Pages 6 and 7 are all about patchwork. I really like patchwork. I like the way lots of fragments can make a whole, the way lots of years make a life. I’ve used some of the treasure from my little collection of antique fabrics, including a fragment of unfinished patchwork made by someone probably in the later 19th century. The fragment still has the papers attached, and I’ve used some of the papers from other fragments on the page too. You can see that one of the papers has come from a letter that has been crossed (written across both axes of the page) to save paper.
Pages 8 and 9 show samples of clothing. The shirt is made from vintage cotton, and I’ve also attached to the page some vintage/antique samples of (I think) French printed cotton. The fabrics have come from a sample book as they still have their labels attached. Page 9 is an 1850s-style day dress, made from a vintage silk sari. I’ve added a fragment of block-printed cotton to suggest a shawl, along with some hand-dyed silk ribbon and lace that might have been used for trimming.
Pages 10 and 11 show samples of tent stitch needlepoint on canvas. All the designs were taken from mid-nineteenth century sources. It’s really amazing how the designs come to life when you see them in thread on canvas. The tiny samples were stitched on 40-count silk gauze; the larger one on page 10 is based on a sample in Ellen Mahon’s book. The thread-wrapped card is made using some of the threads I used on page 11, mostly hand-dyed cotton and silk perle.
Pages 12 and 13 are both worked in counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric. The red work sampler is inspired by those worked in the Bristol orphanages from the 1860s onwards. The alphabet sampler takes the alphabet and numbers from the anonymous The Workwoman’s Guide (1838) and the floral band motif from the Antique Pattern Library.
The final page is based on simple hand embroidery, designed by Sarah Bland in the mid-19th century. I’ve used a vintage cotton handkerchief as the background, and I’ve attached a Victorian mother-of-pearl thread winder. The embroidery samples are worked on silk taffeta and 22-count hardanger fabric.
The book collectively looks pretty much as I imagined it. There is still quite a bit to do – I need to sew the pages together, back to back, so that it works like a book, and then I need to bind the pages. I will probably need to use felt spacers between the pages in the binding margin to prevent the samples getting too squashed – the day dress in particular is worrying me a little because it is very bouncy and sits quite high off the page. Then of course I will need to make a cover for the book. But most of the work is done, and I am pleased with the result. I made most of these samples in the evenings, which is when women would probably have sat down to sew, after all the chores of the day had been done. I am used to sewing by hand – I sew every day, and I don’t use a machine – but even I am amazed and impressed by the sheer amount of work that it would have taken to clothe a family in the first half of the nineteenth century.
For my 19th-century style sampler book, I tried out some designs from Mrs Henry Owen’s The Illuminated Book of Needlework (1847) which you can read online here. Clockwise from top left are Berlin stitch, Perspective stitch, Darmstadt pattern, Willow stitch, Diamonds, Double pointed star, Point stitch, Feather stitch, and (centre) Sutherland stitch.
I don’t know much about Mrs Henry Owen, but she certainly knew a lot about needlework. I’ve worked these samples on 22-count mono canvas, with various silk and cotton perle threads, mostly no. 8 or 12. The space-dyed threads are particularly effective when worked on canvas like this.
I particularly like the centre design, which Mrs Owen calls Sutherland stitch:
I also like the double-pointed star:
And this is Perspective stitch, surprisingly effective and quite modern:
I wouldn’t normally choose to do this kind of counted canvas work, and I don’t normally enjoy following charts, but I did enjoy making this little sample. It’s very satisfying how the stitches come to life as they are worked. Soon I will be able to start compiling the pages of my sampler book to bring all the samples together.
It seems impossible that we’re just over halfway through January already, which means I have completed 18 blocks of my stitch journal.
I worried that it might be a chore to work on this every day, but in fact I look forward to stitching a daily section. I sew every day anyway, so it’s just a matter of making a separate space for it. I don’t always like what I’ve stitched, but it surprises me to find that I don’t mind that so much. These are days, and some days are great, and some days are not so good. Most days are a mixture of the two.
I set out with the premise that this would be just thread on a single piece of cloth, so no lining, backing, applique, paint, dye, or patching. I hardly ever sew on a single layer, and whereas I usually bury thread ends etc between layers, I really wanted the back to be visible on this one. I’m already finding it challenging that the background is always white, which is also unusual for me. Some days I have wanted to stitch a white thread on a coloured ground, but I said no paint or dye, so the only way to colour the ground is to fill it with stitch and then stitch over it. That has been working just fine.
I see this as less of a personal diary and more as a universal marker of time, a record of the passing days, the turning of the wheel. We all live through the same day, at the same time if we’re in the same time zone, and the days mean different things to all of us. I find there is something very moving about witnessing the passage of time in this way, and to see it recorded on a roll of cloth.
I look at the blank outlined blocks and think of the days and weeks ahead, and wonder what they will bring.
The third sample of miniature needlepoint for my sampler book comes from a chart in the Antique Pattern Library and, like the previous samples, is worked on 40-count silk gauze. I used spun silk thread and tent stitch.
This is the original nineteenth-century charted design, which I printed:
I wasn’t keen on the colours so I changed them.
It’s amazing how different it looks for being worked in an alternative colour scheme. I adapted the original design by leaving off the outer border and adding a more simple satin stitch edging.
I don’t know why I have decided to make these samples so small, but I do enjoy miniature needlework. Since this little venture is purely for my enjoyment, I figure I can make my own rules, right?
Or, as I prefer to describe it, trial by cross stitch. Ellen Mahon has several cross-stitched samples in her sampler book (you can see the whole thing here) – whether that is because she particularly enjoyed cross stitch, or whether she was made to do a lot of it, we will probably never know. Having done it myself, I suspect the latter rather than the former.
I drafted a chart on A3 graph paper, which in itself took longer than you might think. I used an alphabet from The Workwoman’s Guide (1843) and a floral band motif that I adapted from a design in the Antique Pattern Library – set aside plenty of time if you follow this link, you can easily lose a few hours looking at all the vintage and antique needlework patterns.
I stitched it on 22-count hardanger fabric with one strand of embroidery floss. It measures about 5″ x 6″. Lots of people out there enjoy counted cross stitch. Regrettably, I am not one of them. I don’t generally like following charts and patterns, I prefer to set out with a vague idea and let the thing evolve in its own way. I made a fairly significant mistake and didn’t spot it until quite late on in the proceedings, by which time I had neither the patience nor the inclination to unpick a whole section and re-stitch. This is not a good attitude, but there we are. I decided life is too short, and getting shorter by the day.
More optimistically, I have quite a collection of samples now and will soon be able to think about how I’m going to combine them in book form.
I made a small sample of embroidery for my 19th-century-style sampler book, based on patterns drawn by 19th-century designer Sarah Bland. You can see more of her designs at the V and A Collections here.
I am no expert embroiderer but I should do more of it because it’s enjoyable and very satisfying. I found that using two colours in one needle gave a nice variegated effect on the daisies (grey with white) and the French knots (red and apricot).
I had a bit of left over hardanger fabric so I did a few random freestyle stitches.
Here we are in a whole new January, and a happy new year to you. One of the things I’ve been wanting to make for a while now is a stitch journal – some sort of ongoing cloth with a little stitching every day. I sew most days anyway, of course, but hardly ever in the same place. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to see how the threads of days join up over time. I don’t keep a written diary or journal, because not that much happens in my life – which is just the way I like it, incidentally. A new year seems like a good time to start.
I’m using a long strip torn from an antique linen sheet, about 12″ wide and about 8 feet long, and I’ve mapped out a block of 31 fields that I can use as a template for each month – obviously, some months are shorter than that so I can adapt the template as necessary. Each monthly block is about 8″ x 10″ altogether, so each daily field is an inch and a half or so. I will fill in a field every day for the rest of this year, and I’m hoping that the end result will look something like a cross between a map and a path through the year.
I really want this to be just thread, on one single layer of cloth – so no patching, applique, layering, lining, etc – just thread, whatever happens to be at hand, and whatever kind of stitch presents itself on the day. I will let it unfold in its own way and in its own time, and create an overall pattern (or not) as time goes by. Because I don’t know how this is going to go, I’m starting with very simple running stitches, but I think that will change as I settle in to working with this cloth.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how this unfolds. The older I get, the more quickly time seems to pass, and the more precious time seems. I’m hoping that a daily stitch journal will help me to slow down more and notice each single day for the gift that it is.