Thank you everyone who recommended Tulip and Bohin needles. I tried some, and I like both – on balance I prefer the Bohin, just because they’re more like what I’m used to. I like the little glass test tubes that the Tulip needles come in though.
I started with the Tulip sashiko needle. It’s enormous! It was like sewing with a harpoon. It sews well though and is a good choice for this thick cotton thread.
I also tried the Tulip silk needles, which are meant to be fine enough to glide through silk. I’m afraid it didn’t, really, even after a swipe with the emery. I tried this one on a scrap of fine silk sari ribbon covered with a bit of silk organza, using my finest silk thread (I think it’s Coats fine silk but can’t read the small print on the tiny label. My ageing eyesight frustrates me no end).
I also used a fine hand-dyed silk thread in shades of purple. I used the Tulip silk needle for one half and a Bohin embroidery needle for the other. I don’t think you can tell which is which, but the Bohin was easier to use.
I guess the moral here is that a good needle is a good needle, whatever that turns out to be for you. It’s useful to try a few different types just to see how they work.
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.
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?
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.
I thought I would have a go at a little dress for my 19th-century-style sampler book. Ellen Mahon’s sampler book contains some truly adorable little dresses:
My version has turned out to be a little more three-dimensional than either of these, but I will flatten it later when I attach it to a page. I haven’t decided yet whether I will use paper or cloth pages to display my samples – there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but I’ve got a lot more to make so I don’t need to decide yet.
I decided on a vaguely 1850s-style flounced day dress, using some vintage sari silk fabric and some fine silk thread. The Workwoman’s Guide is quite sketchy on dress patterns, and tends to stick to basic instructions for children’s clothes and plain dresses for servants and the working classes. The anonymous author says that making as much as you can at home will save money, but “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker, as those which are cut out at home seldom fit so comfortably, or look so well, as when made by persons in constant practice.” I had to make a few concessions, but it has turned out more or less as I intended.
There was no way I could make it wearable, but it’s doing a fairly convincing impression. Under the subtitle ‘Order is the best economy of time’, The Workwoman’s Guide advises, very sagely, “it is of great consequence that dresses should be carefully and neatly put away, as their preservation depends much on the attention paid to this: a gown smoothly folded, and laid by directly it is taken off, will last half as long again as one that is thrown about upon dirty chairs, or tumbled and creased in the wrapping up.” I have taken her advice and placed it in the box with the other samples.
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.
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:
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:
Of all the examples of fine needlework in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, it’s the tiny clothes I find most fascinating. One of my favourite stories as a child was ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ because I loved the idea of making tiny clothes for elves.
Here is a page showing Ellen’s example of a basic shift and a more complex shirt:
The shirt in particular is impossibly detailed. I have emailed the V and A to ask them for the dimensions of this book but haven’t had a response yet, so I can’t tell how big (or small) these examples might be. As I mentioned in my last post, it is often difficult to get a sense of scale just from looking at pictures – this book might be foolscap or bigger, or it might be much smaller than that and more like a pocket exercise-book. I’d like to know, just out of interest.
I’ve been using The Workwoman’s Guide as my main source for nineteenth-century sewing. Written by ‘A Lady’ and published in 1838, it has a baffling amount of information about what, and how, women were expected to sew. Most daily needlework would have been functional rather than decorative. I am astounded every time I think about how much sewing there would have been for a household before people had access to sewing machines. Every item in the house made of cloth would have been cut and sewn by hand – so that’s everyone’s clothes, towels, sheets, curtains, table linen, bed covers and quilts. The Workwoman’s Guide gives cutting instructions for six shirts, as it’s more efficient to cut and sew six shirts than one. That’s about 22 yards of fabric, all to be cut by hand.
Measurements are given in nails (a nail is 2.5 inches), and the book lists the nineteen useful parts of a shirt. Apart from the body, sleeves, cuffs and collar, there are various kinds of gusset, plus binders and shoulder straps.
It was therefore with quite a sense of trepidation that I embarked on an example of my own.
In the end my poor effort only has 7 parts – a back, a front, two sleeves, two cuffs and a collar. I used a bit of vintage cotton sheet and in this scale it looks and feels like fine wool or flannel, so definitely a labouring man’s garment rather than anything a gentleman would consider suitable. The sleeves are rather too voluminous, on reflection, and the body is probably too short, but as a sample, and as a learning experience, it’s as good as it’s going to get. I did manage to get a few little pintucks into the front, and I found some very tiny beads that will do as buttons.
Don’t zoom in, it doesn’t bear close inspection. It is kind of cute though.