Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Florentine Astoni

Astoni-embroidered bands of fabric in 16th century Florentine fashion
During the first half of 16th century Florence, fashion dictated that use of multi-colored garments was thought to be “unattractive,” and absurd (Landini and Niccoli, 2005, p. 28).  A more acceptable form of adding color to a garment was the use of astoni, contrasting colored bands of fabric, sewn to the garment, which were embellished most commonly with embroidery.  Astoni seemed to remain popular throughout the 16th century, and can be seen on garments ranging from the funeral dress of Eleanor of Toledo, to petticoats worn by middle-class women.
There are many portraits from the time frame that allow us a view of various astoni. 
The funeral dress of Eleanor of Toledo shows contrasting fabric bands, embroidered as embellishment:

In Janet Arnold’s book, Patterns of Fashion 3: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620 (1985), Arnold has drawn out the embroidery pattern from the funeral gown, detailing the intertwined acanthus (pg. 103):

Here is a similar extant gown, with astoni of satin, displaying couched gilded cord, also in interwoven patterns (from Moda a Firenze, Landini and Niccoli, 2005, p. 74):

This gown also emphasizes the overarching cut of gown for the time period; a pointed waistline, side back lacing, and embellishment made to make the upper body appear as an inverted cone, and the lower body as an up righted cone.  The astoni helped to establish this body shape through following lines that will emphasize the double cone effect.   This same cut and construction can be seen in various portraits of middle class women, as well as nobility.
 Among my various projects, (and copious spare time *giggles*) I plan to start a database of embroidery patterns and threads common in astoni of the period.
More to come...

Friday, May 27, 2011


Owing to the fact that I was in the ER with my son until very late last night, I haven't gotten much accomplished today, in the realm of embroidery.  I am working to make up for lost time tonight, however.  Looking for a subject for a blog tonight...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Technical Difficulties...

I've been getting some great feedback, but don't seem to be able to respond to comments, today.  I don't know if Google is hiccupping or if it's me...hmm....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

String Things for the Soul

Mistress Mahin swears by tea and weaving as medicine for the soul.  Tonight is a tea and embroidery night for me.  The man-child is sick, the niece had a rough day at counseling, and I am still succumbing to the utter exhaustion of this past weekend (thank you, CFS, for helping me appreciate the good days : ) 

Honey Lemon Ginseng white tea, chocolate crack made by the loving hands of my daughter (oreos, crushed and mixed with cream cheese, then coated in chocolate,) Ghosthunters on the tele, Scrabble with my Guy, and soft, supple threads in my hands.  These are creature comforts that make all the distance some nights!

The Quest for Research...

I've been pouring through historical "modelbuchs," pattern books that were written in period.  It has been easier for me to find lacemakers modelbuchs, than to find embroidery, however.  There are a few online modelbuchs, namely Giovanni Ostaus's "La Vera Perfezione del Disegno," 1561, and Federic Vinciolo's "Singvliers Et Novveaux Povrtraicts," 1587.  I've been trying to find an online fascimile of Richard Schorleyker's "A Scholehouse for the Needle," 1632, but it seems that all of the sites where it was published have been archived or no longer exist.  Hmmm....

Later period embroidery is a bit easier to study, as far as patterns are concerned.  We have extant garments to study, such as coifs and waist coats, there are painted portraits that show amazing detail in clothing embellishments, and the modelbuchs that do exist seem to revolve around this time frame.  Earlier periods are a bit more problematic, though there are still examples to learn from; clerical vestments, extant items such as the Bayeaux Tapestry, and some detailed portraits.  I wish I were able to better track the amount of time that I spend pouring through various media, studying embroidery patterns.  It has long been my goal to study *something* every day, whether it just be looking at a portrait in a new light, or reading modelbuchs and comparing patterns.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Madcap Recap

This past weekend was Aethelmearc War Practice at Coopers Lake campground in Western, PA.  I taught a new class, on the wardrobe of Eleanor of Toledo, along with a disability roundtable, co-facilitated with the lovely Lady Leonor Farfan.  Both classes were very well received, indeed!

On Saturday, I participated in the Artisan's Playtime, with my embroidery.  I set out several different styles, from the Opus Anglicanum to Elizabethan, and received some very valuable feedback!  I also got to play with some new threads, namely silk and bamboo!  So very soft!!

I have started a small project with the silk, (it is a 12 ply from Splendor that came highly recommended and was given to me to try : ) and have some embroidery projects in the works with the bamboo (from White Wolf and Phoenix-very yummy feeling!)

I will post more on my experiences with the silk and bamboo threads as the projects progress!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


This is a project I have been whittling away at little by little.  I am making a series of individualized sweetbags.  The blue cornflower is embroidered with detached buttonhole stitches, while the leafs and lion are embroidered using chain stitches.  The gold filigree around the lion is also done in chain stitches, and the gold metal stems are worked very carefully in chain stitches. 

There is a stitch, found in Elizabethan embroidery, used for stems that resembles a heavy wire-woven chain.  This picture of a coif is an example of the stitch I am referring to:

I have seen this stitch referred to as a plaited braid stitch, and I have tried to recreate it, but I haven't quite gotten the stitch down, yet.  My attempts have been pretty sad, indeed!  Many months ago, I ordered the Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques by Sally Saunders, et al, with the express purpose of learning the plaited braid stitch, but the book has been on back order since February.  For now, chain stitches for stems will have to suffice, until I can work out the stitch...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elizabethan Embroidery Primer

The Elizabethan era, (1558-1603,) was a beautiful time for embroiderers as they began to experiment with more colors, designs and three dimensional work.  Embroidery was seen in many venues of fashion, including coifs and cauls, partlets, shifts and shirts, jackets, aumonieres and sweetbags, as well as household items such as cushions, sheets and blankets.

During this era, the use of raised embroidery was at a pinnacle.  Stitches such as the detached buttonhole, hollie point and trellis became popular; as they were not sewn into the underlying fabric but were instead anchored to the preceding rows of stitching, could be padded as the embroidery progressed, allowing for a slightly raised effect. 

There are two basic three forms of Elizabethan embroidery, raised and flat.  Of the raised stitching, there are two styles, as well, padded designs such as flowers and leaves and designs which are partially detached, such as the wings of a butterfly or the outer side of a peapod.

Basics of Embroidery:

The first step in creating an embroidered piece is to choose your equipment.  Though Elizabethan embroidery was found on a variety of items, most background fabrics were linen canvas grounds.  If you consider yourself a beginning embroiderer, chose linen that has a larger weave and is a bit heavier in weight.  Until you are familiar with your own tension, heavier weight background fabrics will buckle less from the weight and tension of the embroidery threads.

The thread that you chose for embroidery is also an important consideration.  For beginners, DMC floss is easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and it is not far off in appearance from the silk threads that were used in period.

Another important consideration to make involves whether to frame the background fabric.  While many embroiderers use a hoop to keep the fabric even and taut, a hoop can actually damage the fibers of linen.  A more period method, which is forgiving with linen, would be the use of a frame.  Scroll style frames can be found at most sewing and art stores.  They can be used with a stand, or simply held as you would a hoop.  To stretch the linen ground, you can either baste it to a background fabric, which is then held in place by the bars of the frame, or you can “sew” the ground fabric to the bars, keep an even tension to stretch the fabric. 

Period patterns are highly comprised of florals, birds, insects such as butterflies, peapods and geometric borders.  If you would like to produce a period style piece of embroidery, you can easily find portraits and pictures of extant garments in books on the subject and on online websites.  I have included a listing of resources on the last page, for this purpose.

There are many methods for transferring your pattern onto the fabric background.  The most common period method is often referred to as “pierce and pounce” or “pounce and prick.”  The pattern would be drawn onto a piece of parchment.  The embroiderer would then take a blunt needle and prick holes along the drawn lines.  When this was done, the parchment would then be laid onto the ground fabric and a bag of charcoal would be pounced along the design.  When the parchment was lifted from the fabric, charcoal dots would be left on the fabric revealing the pattern design.  This method can be quite messy, however.

More modern methods of transferring patterns are less messy and time consuming.  You can find cheap disappearing ink pens at sewing stores.  You can even use a pencil, if the embroidery will be opaque enough to hide the lines.  You can also draw the pattern onto tissue paper, which is then pinned to the ground fabric. As you embroider along the pattern, the tissue paper can be torn away. 

Basic Stitches:

There are five common, basic stitches used in Elizabethan embroidery, though many more were used during this period.  The most common are the running stitch, chain stitch, split stitch, stem stitch and detached buttonhole.

The running stitch is simply a line of stitching, where the needle maintains a direction, and the stitches are accomplished with an in/out motion. 

The chain stitch uses a single strand in loops to resemble a chain.  The needle comes up through the fabric where the thread is held into place to make a loop, and then the needle is inserted back into the hole where it emerged, and back up at the opposite end of the loop.  The chain stitch is an outlining stitch, also used for stems on floral patterns. 

The split stitch produces a similar design as the chain, except that the needle is brought up through the working thread to create the chain effect.  This stitch is more flat than the chain, and is used prominently for filling on aumonieres, sweet bags, and background stitching.  The stem stitch is also good for outlines, as it creates smooth curves.

The stem stitch was also used for outlines.  It is achieved by working from left to right with small stitches, resulting in a “twisted” appearance.  It can be used as filling, if the lines of stitching are sewn closely together.

The detached buttonhole stitch is a filling stitch, and is the basic stitch most commonly used for raised embroidery.  This stitch is worked over a foundation line; for partially detached pieces, a couched outline is laid first, and the detached buttonhole stitch is then anchored onto the couched thread, which can be snipped free from the ground fabric to partially detach the piece.  To work this stitch, insert the needle from top to bottom, into the stitch directly above the work area.  As the needle is pulled through the stitch, it stays over the working thread, much like a buttonhole or blanket stitch.  As each row progresses, it will anchor into the row before, leaving the area between the stitching and the fabric open.  For a raised design, stuff this pocket with padding while the rows are progressing. 

With all of these stitches, you want to keep your tension consistent as you progress, in order to keep your rows even.  Your thread will twist; allow it to untwist every so often or your stitches will warp and become uneven.

This is an example of a coif I have been working on, using Eliabethan embroidery stitches.  It is a linen ground fabric, with wool thread.  The outlines and stems are created using chain stitches.  The fill uses  detached buttonhole stitches.  The leafs, flowers and butterflies are all padded to give a raised appearance.  The thread is available through Reconstructing History, and is very delicate, but beautiful to work with.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Discussions in Or Nue

Working with metal threads is delicate work.  You can't tie them off easily (though I have done it, I don't recommend it!) and they should be couched to avoid damaging the thread.  This is where "sinking" or "plunging" is your friend.

Leave an inch or so of metal thread at the beginning and end of each couched section, on top of the fabric.  Don't worry about knotting the ends to secure them, simply start couching leaving an inch or so of untouched thread.  When you have finished couching, thread a needle with a sturdy, unknotted thread (fishing line works well for this,) and bring it up through the fabric at the point where the couching started or began.  Make a loop over the inch of metal thread, and bring the needle back down through the same hole.  Gently tug on the string to pull the metal thread end to the underside of the fabric.  That is all you need do; no knots, no hiding the ends under your stitching, just a simply plunge!

In this picture, I used a light blue thread to sink the ends, so that you can see it:


I talk freely about my illness, because it shapes much of what I do.  Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.  This past winter, I also succumbed to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Both are autoimmune illnesses.  Treatment is varied, dependant upon the individual and how medications interact.

I am very active and head strong.  My body sometimes thwarts my plans, but for the most part, I am able to whine a little and keep on keeping on.  We have found a suitable cocktail of medications that keep me functioning rather well, and I do my best to walk and find forms of mild exercise to keep me limber.  I took up embroidery, since it was an activity that would keep me occupied when I wasn't able to get up and around.  I also wanted to find something that would stave off the stiffness and pain in my hands. 

There are days where I can not hold a needle...my hands simply can't do it.  I have found ways around this, using the rubber finger tips you find in the office supplies section of any department store.  I am always looking for new ways to navigate around the pain.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Or Nue Discussions

I first learned of or nue embroidery from Maitresse Yvianne, at Autumn Collegium several years ago.  She provided a kit for all of us to learn on, which was a little blue fleur de lis on a background of gold, couched with red.  I tried a few lines, and then set the project down for a couple of weeks.  Not quite a month after the Collegium, I wound up in the hospital for a 4 week "vacation" and I asked my family to bring in a few things to keep me occupied.  I had the or nue project finished within two days.

Mind, this is the first piece I ever created, and I was on a LOT of strong medications at the time ; )  However, I was hooked.  Many of the nurses commented on how opulent the metal threads looked, and on how interesting the technique was.

The biggest issue I have struggled with is learning to corner the metal threads.  Japan silk has a core of silk thread, with flattened metal wrapped around the core.  It is a very delicate thread, and unravels without much pull at all.  I tried using tweezers to pinch the thread where it turns, and tried pinching it between my finger nails.  Neither of these methods really worked well for me.  With some practice, however, I was able to get a decent crease in the thread by wrapping the couching thread half way around the metal, and pulling each gently in an opposite direction to the other.  Proper tension is the key, as too hard a pull will damage the metal, and too light will not give it a good crease with which to turn the metal.  It really is a matter of practice...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Adventures in Opus Anglicanum

Opus Anglicanum is often referred to as "needle painting," because the embroidery looks very much like a painted image, rather than needlework.

I currently have three projects started using the Opus Anglicanum style.  This first is a favor that I am embroidering for my significant other.  The design is based on a folio from the Manesse Codex. 

This next project is a medieval hood that I am embroidering for the newest Duke and Duchess in Aethelmearc, Duncan and Ilish.  I am embroidering various figures from the Manesse Codex, with colors and devices that represent Them.  This is one of the figures:

Next post in the Opus Anglicanum topic, I will detail the methods for "needle painting."

Adventures in Or Nue, pt. 2

Here is a scan of my progress on the Or Nue glove cuff.

From this picture, you can see the difference between the black and purple chain stitching, and the silver couched threads.  Along the bottom, the silver threads are tacked down with white in a geometric design.  On the tower, the silver is tacked down with a dark gray thread, spaced closer together for darker shading, and further apart for lighter areas. 

The rough ends of the silver threads are still sitting on top of the fabric, ready to be "plunged."  "Plunging" is where a strong string is threaded up through the fabric from the underside, and brought back down into the same hole, passing over top of the rough end.  The string is then pulled tightly, which brings the rough end to the under side of the fabric where it can be secured.  Metal threads are very delicate and don't take well to stitching, hence the use of couching.  By plunging the ends, the metal threads are not damaged during couching.

Adventures in Or Nue

Or Nue is a beautiful, historical style of embroidery that uses couched metal threads to create designs on the fabric.  Because of the metal threads, there is big wow factor with Or Nue projects.  My first real project experimenting with Or Nue, was a glove cuff.  (Forgive the small picture, I had to snap it on the run.)

Because this glove turned out so well, I have decided to make another glove cuff with my personal device and motto in Or Nue.  This is a special gift project, though I am tempted to keep it for myself : )

The first step was to decide on a pattern design.  The background design of gold will be couched with a geometric design of intersecting diagonal lines, in purple couching thread.  My motto, "virtus tentamine gaudet" (strength revels in the challenge,) will be embroidered in purple thread with a simple satin stitch, on a background of silver couched thread.  My device, itself, will have a silver tower with wings, on top of a shield of purple and black threads, embroidered in chain stitching. 

This is a project with heavy embroidery, and as such, it needs a heavy ground fabric.  I chose a black moleskin fabric, to match the black, leather glove that the cuff will be attached to.  I have found that iron-on fusible webbing acts to support heavy embroidery, and can be the background for transferring the pattern onto the fabric. 

Finally, I chose to use DMC embroidery floss for the black and purple threads, and Kreinik's Japan thread #5 for the gold and silver. 

I started this project 4 months ago, but due to work explosions, was not able to work on it as steadily as I would have liked.  My next post will have pictures of my progress, and more intensive explanations on how this embroidery is stitched.