Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Different Kind of Embroidery: Treadle Sewing Machine Tambour Work

This afternoon, leaving me confined to the house by the aftermath of yet another illness, my husband and boys headed to West Liberty. Yes, that West Liberty, the little town whose downtown was largely wiped away by a tornado earlier this spring. Each year the extended clan visits family gravesites to clean and decorate them, and then sits down to a vast and delicious dinner, from hamburgers to soup beans (stewed pinto beans) to slaws and red velvet cake.

Test number one: linen thread. Boo. See below.
I wandered around by myself, unaccustomed to the silence and the enforced ease. This morning I'd tried some spring cleaning, little tasks that could be performed at a snail's pace and mostly sitting down, but was enjoined to rest this afternoon. Normally I'd nap: what a luxury that is, to wrap an arm around your warm, fluffy, purring Muffin kitty and drift away, but today dreams didn't come. Instead, an old idea kept jabbing at me. I've often wondered if I could imitate tambour embroidery on a 1910s Wilcox and Gibbes chainstitch treadle machine I've had for almost a decade now.  You can believe I've fabricated myself some pretty magnificent embroidered garments in those daydreams.

(Awww, Muffin is back. This time she's gone under the skirted table where I am typing and has settled on my feet. I can sense her purring through the fabric.)

Well, the machine was only a few feet away, I had a span of hours when housework and other musts were must nots. How rare is that, eh?

So I tried it. Starched a square of lightweight muslin, drew a few motifs common to the Regency period on it, eased an embroidery hoop under the needle bar, and threaded the machine for embroidery. On the Wilcox and Gibbes, you draw on the back side of the fabric, place that face up, and sew that way, because the chain shows underneath, while the top looks like a straight stitch.

To embroider, you move, twist and turn the embroidery hoop by hand to "draw" the shapes. It's all freehand -- on a treadle there's no computer guide. So a sure, slow hand is essential or you get dreck and the thread breaks, too.

Try number two: silk thread. Better but not good enough. For reference,
the motif is four inches long by two inches wide.
First I tested linen thread used for sewing stays. Ugh. The machine hated it because the thread has slubs, so it kept catching in the tension and in the needle's eye. Plus, I was using a big size 1 Schmetz needle, the only one whose eye the linen would (mostly) negotiate. Plus I had to set the stitch length short or the fabric would pucker.

Then I changed the needle to size 3 Schmetz, closest to the size 4 the manual desires, set the stitch length to the suggested setting, and used tightly twisted silk, Au Ver de Soie; the manual says Thou Must Use Silk, you know. I know why now: it's strong, very smooth, and can take the pulling and shaping. Ooooh, it stitched really nicely, so long as I kept to large curves or straight lines.

Results? Meh...

 Meh is right. Meh on several accounts.
  1. The stitch lacks the subtle puffy quality that hand tambour has; the machine stretches the thread to an even tension each time and it's a little less round, a little more elongated than handmade work.
  2. The needle creates visible holes in the fabric and the silk thread can't quite cover them up. Sure, a tambour needle is big too, but you can use fatter thread. Here we're pretty limited to needles size three and four.
  3. The stitches are all the same length, and so small motifs with tight round curves don't work all that well, even when I hand-turn the wheel and lift the presser foot to shift the fabric. That's what you do on this kind of machine to radically alter direction -- you swivel on the thread, not on the needle. Wide curves and spikey shapes are better. So vines and carnations and to some degree, acanthus, shape decently; those tight rounded curves found in roses and spriggy leaves leave too many poorly tensioned stitches.

As you can see in the detail shot below, the thread tension goes wonky on curves. By the way, that is supposed to be a four-petaled flower, each of those petals is supposed to have three lobes. However, the lobes proved so difficult to do on the scale of 1/2" or less each that I decided to see how larger curves would appear.

Naturally, I could change up the design, introduce multiple rows of stitching to outline spikier forms, where smooth tension reigns, but the fact remains that the results are so obviously machine-made that the juice is not worth the squeeze for Georgian/Regency-era work. The embroidery still won't look real enough. At least real enough to me. Back to the tambour hook...

Those of you who want to do nineteenth or early twentieth century work? Give it a try! Any style that favors large, bold designs may give you just dandy results, and the machine-y look will be just like what they produced, since this sort of machine embroidery was coming into its own.

So that's that. The dream of oh, three-plus years went poof. Oh well, it was a thought.


Katie H said...

Wow I knew you live close to me, but I didnt know how close. My brother in law is from West Liberty! How amazing is that?

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I'm not an expert on this, in fact I don't even know how to do tambour but this looks very pretty to my eye. And from 3 ft away, I'd bet it would look awesome. Maybe it needs a stabilizer cloth behind it/on the top where you're stitching?

Summer said...

Interesting experiment, sorry it didn't give satisfactory results. It would be a good technique for home dec or daily wear items.
I've never heard of a size 3 or 4 machine needle, are those specific to chain stitchers?

MrsC said...

It looks exactly like the tone on tone embroidered dupion silks that were popular in the 90's for bridal wear (and still may be). Perhas just for stems only? But yes, it is so very perfect, and flat, it doesn't have that lovely 3Dness of hand work.

The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

Too bad the machine didn't work out! But at least you have that knowledge now. I find your hand embroidery to be really amazing--it's a skill I don't have yet! :)

ZipZip said...

Good morning, everyone!
Sorry for the delay in posting your neat comments: the tots are getting their big-boy beds and playing musical rooms, so upstairs everything literally is in flux.

Thanks for your thoughts about the embroidery! I am still chewing on the idea.

Beyt you're right about the stabilizer (memo to mental file!) Still think the effect looks too flat and finished, though, and if I am going to spend hours on Regency embroidery, I want it to feel right close up. The machine is faster, but not by much: you go single stitch by single stitch on curves.

Summer, those Schmetz needle sizes are for chain stitch machines. They look a little different than ones for lock-stitch machines, and someone told me Schmetz stopped making them.

Mrs. C., as usual you thought what I was mulling over: this machine effort would be good for stems, and then I could do the rest with a tambour hook. So, should I do something crazy like a dress embroidered with stripes, in vines and sprigs (see Marsh's 18th Century Embroidery Techniques), that would be an option.

Good morning, Quintessential Clothes Pen! Hand embroidery is so peaceful, and it's something you take on and learn slowly over time, bit by bit; I learned it as a teenager and have been doing it on and off ever since. The first hours I pick it up again the stitches kind of rot, but after that, the muscles and eye regain and build on their skills. You pick up the work, put it down, refrain from deadlines, and just enjoy it for the process, not the result, and you will find yourself learning.

Katie H., hope your brother in law is doing okay! My husband reported that the houses and hospital just up from his aunt/uncle's were damaged or destroyed, and just shook his head about downtown. I think it will all be rebuilt, though. Folks around here tend to be resilient, self-reliant, and stubborn, as you know doubt know :}

Very best,


Lauren said...

Good for you for not sacrificing accuracy just to save time! I wish more historical costumers would do the same.

ZipZip said...

Thank you, Lauren! Every so often I think, oh, why be so picky? It's just that it wouldn't *feel* right when worn :}

Very best,


Lauren said...

You are amongst the few of us who continue the beautiful and, sadly, dying art of 18th century clothing construction. You are doing an amazing job and your clothing just keeps getting better!!!

ZipZip said...

Dear Lauren,

Thank you, thank you! I've been so enjoying your latest costumes, too, especially the sleeveless open robe. Oh my goodness, it just *flows*.

Very best,

Natalie, who is so sad to be missing JaneFest