Hearts and flowers

Well, it is Valentine’s Day.

‘Have a Heart’, 20.5” x 20.5”

I’m still going through cupboards and finding work that needs to be re-homed, to make some space. This one is a square(ish) cloth made from hand-dyed silk on a vintage damask cloth backing. The heart is hand-pieced, from new and vintage fabrics.

Vintage (1920s) beaded decoration

The background is made from layered sheer and semi-sheer silk fabrics, quilted with hand-dyed threads.

Hand-quilting on layered sheer silk

This cloth is very lightweight as I didn’t use batting or wadding between the layers. It is thin but strong, like love. The heart is pieced and patched, as all our hearts are after a lifetime of love and loss, but somehow all the pieces join together to make a whole.

Love

And talking of sharing the love, I am thrilled to have been featured today on Carina’s blog here. Go and give her some heartfelt appreciation from me ❤️

January, days

stitch journal, January complete. I see Birdie has given himself a comical-looking monocle with an accidental loop of red thread. Always photobombing.

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.

a long day in January

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.

Some days are blue

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.

January 31st, looking back across winter and looking forward to spring

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.

Sampler book pages

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.

I felt a bit like a schoolgirl again, stitching this. I hardly ever write my full name on anything.
Ellen Mahon’s title page, worked on finer linen than my sample.

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.

page 2: plain sewing
page 3: fabrics and trims. Ribbon and lace, vintage thread card, with a piece of Victorian wool paisley and some French ticking

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.

page 4: darning samples on 32-count even weave linen
page 5: mending and patching

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.

page 6: fragments of patchwork in progress; the large sample was made in the 19th century and still has the papers (from letters and envelopes) left in
page 7: fragment of 19th-century quilt, hand-pieced and hand-quilted from fine wool fabrics. My sample, made from triangles, is made from vintage and antique cotton fabrics.

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.

page 8: sample shirt, with vintage fabrics and linen buttons
page 9: 1850s style flounced day dress, made from vintage silk

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.

page 10: tent stitch needlepoint on canvas
page 11: 9 samples of needlepoint from Mrs Henry Owen’s The Illuminated Book of Needlework (1847)

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.

page 12: red work counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric
page 13: alphabet/numerical marking sampler, counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric

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.

page 14: hand embroidery samples

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.

detail from page 2. I am particularly pleased with that back stitch.

A little needlepoint (4)

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.

9 x 2″ samples from 1847 needlework book

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:

Sample of Sutherland stitch, from Mrs Owen’s 1847 needlework book, worked with hand-dyed cotton sashiko thread. Mrs Owen suggests adding beads.

I also like the double-pointed star:

Double pointed star, from Mrs Owen’s 1847 needlework book. I added the long cross stitches to unify the space between the stars.

And this is Perspective stitch, surprisingly effective and quite modern:

Perspective stitch, from Mrs Owen’s book of needlework (1847)

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.

Stitch journal

It seems impossible that we’re just over halfway through January already, which means I have completed 18 blocks of my stitch journal.

top right, January 2022

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.

Top left, January 2022

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.

Stitch journal ready to unroll

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.

The rest of the year awaits

I look at the blank outlined blocks and think of the days and weeks ahead, and wonder what they will bring.

A little needlepoint (3)

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.

Needlepoint sample on silk gauze, through the magnifying glass

This is the original nineteenth-century charted design, which I printed:

Cross stitch/canvas work chart from the Antique Pattern Library

I wasn’t keen on the colours so I changed them.

Needlepoint sampler before border

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.

You can see the pin marks from where I blocked it back into a square (ish) shape when it got distorted through stitching

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?

Sampling cross stitch

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.

cross-stitched samples by Ellen Mahon, 1852-54

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.

Cross stitch sample for 19th-century-style sampler book

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.

cross-stitched sample based on 19th-century designs

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.

A little embroidery

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.

Small sample, about 3″ x 4″, silk and cotton thread on silk fabric

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).

next time I will use a less permanent pen to draw the pattern 🙂

I had a bit of left over hardanger fabric so I did a few random freestyle stitches.

A little red and white

I made a little red work sampler for my Ellen Mahon-inspired sampler book. Ellen herself didn’t make a sampler in this style for her book, probably because it wasn’t yet a popular form of needlework. Red work samplers began to be made by girls at the Bristol Orphanage Schools during the 1860s-1880s. Their work is very fine, often around 30 cross stitches per inch, and the range of original designs is astonishing.

I drew some of the motifs after looking at the work of the Bristol orphanage girls, particularly this example by Mary Jeffries, and I stitched the sample with one strand of DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric. The stitched area measures about 5″ x 6″.

red work embroidery sampler

I haven’t done counted cross stitch since the 1990s, and I have to say I wasn’t much looking forward to making this, but I did enjoy it in the end. Unlike the plain alphabet marking samplers, which would have been made to practise marking household linens and clothing, these designs would have been purely decorative.

red work embroidery sample

I can totally understand that plain sewing would have been an essential skill to learn in the days before we had sewing machines, and I can see how decorative embroidery would have individualised garments and linen. Having spent many hours on this sample, I can also see that sewing a single repetitive stitch of the same size in the same colour over and over again may incidentally have functioned as a means of keeping girls still and quiet and out of the way. You have to concentrate in order to ensure the correct placement and size of stitches, and you need relative quiet in order to focus and count. This is fine, and quite enjoyable, for introverts like me, but I can imagine that extraverted girls might have become bored or frustrated by this kind of activity.

red work embroidery sample, single DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric (detail)

A little needlepoint (2)

Another sample of needlepoint for my Ellen Mahon style sampler book. This one is taken from a design by Sarah Bland (1810-1905), who created many designs for canvas work and embroidery. You can read a little more about her here, and you can see more of her work at the V and A Collections here.

Details from a needlepoint sampler by Sarah Bland, V and A Collections

The great thing about antique canvas work and samplers is that it’s relatively easy to replicate the designs and motifs by zooming in to a photograph and transposing the stitches onto graph paper. I really like this little stylised flower motif:

Needlepoint sample based on a design by Sarah Bland

It isn’t an exact copy, but it’s near enough. I like the idea that women were designing their own work despite the fact that embroidery patterns were commercially available in vast numbers. To me that suggests a recognition of self-worth and individualism, finding a voice through which to express a lived experience. Needle and thread often seems to me more like writing than drawing. Hand stitches in particular are as characteristic as hand writing, whether they depict text, shapes, or abstract patterns and lines.

I worked this one very small as well, like the last one – single strand of DMC cotton thread on 40-count silk gauze:

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