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.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

More Embroidery Progress: A Carnation Acts Difficult

Dusk is drawing on and the sun is past the horizon, leaving rays of orange-cream pop light floating through the trees out back. The flowers in the garden obtain that luminescence they only get in the evening; they and the grass are glowing and I can hear an early cicada trying his wings. He is weeks and weeks out of his due date, I think, and he sings alone so far.

I've just finished my own, embroidered flower, and it too is luminescent, this time in a soft blue and pink that a carnation never wore, so maybe I'll call him a bachelor's button. He's another motif on the sleeveless spencer, and he struggled for hours to come to life.

Here's the motif in natural light.

His first two incarnations lasted only minutes before I cut them to pieces, poor things. I had the devil of a time with making the petals feel like they were really lifting themselves out of the stem. After all, you cannot curve sewn threads, only couched ones. The first time the petals came out looking like a child's drawing; angles everywhere and nothing alive. Trying him in long-and-short stitch was just as bad, for soie ovale shows spaces in between stitches like nobody's business, and I haven't had practice in that stitch for at least a decade.

The Met spencer's carnations didn't offer advice: the blown-up photos have lost any stitch details. Consulting my embroidery books and 18th Century Embroidery Techniques, and Seventeenth and Eighteenth Fashion in Detail helped very little either, for they illustrate no carnations close up; all I got was the sense that threads might overlay and fan to produce a growth pattern. My Pinterest files brought nothing; all my carnation images are in tambour stitch. Grr.

So it was pencil to paper to experiment, and finally I came up with stitch directions that seemed sensible. The third round I allowed to fan the threads a bit, allowed some threads to overlay one another at the base, and I followed the petal growth directions, but gently. I let the needle and thread paint, sometimes laying the thread atop the fabric where I wanted it to go to assess direction, before I poked the needle to the back.

The blue thread took on life and slowly a blossom grew, and with the addition of a few light pink threads to indicate the lower petal portions, and a few to suggest the flower base, I had something that breathed. The picture is weak; he actually swoops to the side, instead of stands heads up. So tilt your monitor and you'll get a better idea :}

The stem and leaves were another challenge altogether. The leaves are sharply pointed, something that's not easy to do in silk chenille. The first petal is wonky, but the second leaf came out okay, after I'd learned to shape and fold the chenille to follow outlines and to use couching stitches to create sharp corners. I'd tear out the first leaf except that the couching thread continues to the second leaf and I haven't the heart to redo it just now.

You can see the results of the last effort above. Once again, the laying tool was integral to shaping most stitches, and essential for finally smoothing everything. For a first carnation, I am pleased. Long may he bloom.

The B-29

I heard the sound in the distance while at work here at home Friday, what they call a drone, large somethings beating the air and slicing it into falling pieces. I knew it had to be a propeller plane and a big one. The drone grew louder and in spite of knowing that I had nothing to fear, those cut-up slices of sound falling from the sky were menacing.

She flew overhead, right over our house, quite low, and the sound resolved itself to one I've heard in the movies. There were four big engines driving the propellers, and snub nose, a silver glow, wide, rounded wings. She was actually quite beautiful, and she sounded close up like an army of giant beetles. From this angle I couldn't see the narrow rods jutting out that would be her machine guns.

I knew her name was Fifi, having read about her visit in the newspaper. She's the last Superfortress still flying; her sisters are all gone, the two most famous, or infamous, living in museums now, memorials to the nasty birth of the atom bomb.

Over the next two days she would fly overhead perhaps eight or nine times, and each time all of us who could would careen outdoors to listen and watch her. She is a living memory of an era so terrible and such a part of our collective human history that she must be listened to.

My husband and I took the boys to the aviation museum last evening in the hopes of seeing her up close, but the museum had already closed. So we hooked our fingers into the chain link fence and looked at her. On the ground she was menacing once again, although that didn't impair her beauty. It was the gunners' positions, the machine guns the only sharp edges on her, that gave her nature away, and the doors in her stomach that had let fall how many thousands of bombs.

This morning, they and my mother visited again, and this time they toured the museum and saw her up close. I was confined home with yet another cold.

I won't say more. What do you say to something beautiful that's also destructive, whose every silhouette is a mixture of sublime design and embodied proof of man's propensity to mix the hideous and the incalculably stupid with the heroic and the selfless?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Embroidery Progress: Two Motifs Finished, and A Children's Milestone

Quick progress report: 2 motifs finished! Here's one:

Here's Muffin, enjoying the sunshine with me:

The working milieu was especially nice this morning. The boys were at nursery school, their last class day, so I brought out good coffee into the sunshine and copious sounds of birds: crows calling and their babies nickering, robins telling territory tales and fighting over the serviceberries, finches, and other birds I couldn't name. Such a peaceful time, and warm light to work in, a pleasant neighbor to talk to, and an unexpected and very welcome visit from my friend Caroline.

The last day of nursery school. There's a milestone I am loth to see pass. They have loved those Tuesdays and Thursdays. They have made friends, they have sung "And the Green Grass Grew All Around", they have rocketed under the maple trees on the playground playing "pirate police", they have loved their teachers and the process of learning. A gentle, slow, pleasurable introduction to school. For Curte and I, the joys of children's wobbly letters, construction-paper pictures, songs sung with hand motions, graces memorized to say at dinner. I will miss this safe, very happy, softly paced and nurturing place.

At nursery school fun night

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sleeveless / Convertible Spencer: Embroidery Experiment 2 a Success!

The working milieu
After the annoying and coarse results of the first embroidery experiment, I decided to order flat silk thread that would divide more easily. When the Eterna silk thread I chose finally arrived, however, most of the threads I had ordered turned out to be out of stock, and the few colors that I did order lacked the fine shine of the Au Ver a Soie thread, although the threads certainly divided easily and so could be used for fine motifs. Depression. What to do?

I thought of ordering the gorgeous Japanese flat silk that Hallie Larkin of At the Sign of the Golden Scissors discussed in her recent embroidery post, but it goes for $7 a spool, and even though you get 60 meters per spool, I don't need 60 meters of any one color and would have dropped over $50 on more thread.

Depression deepened. I set the project aside to sulk.

It kept calling out to me from the closet. I listened, disgruntled, but gave in.

A sunny afternoon found me on the pine floor in the kitchen, with a 20" thread of the Au ver Soie on my knee, and a long, narrow beading needle in my fingers. I attempted to use the needle to divide the silk filaments into narrow strands. Both Hallie Larkin and Mary Corbet said it could be done, with care. Indeed, the almost liquid silk DID divide, half-way through. Then it fuzzed up and tangled. I picked it up in my fingers in desperation, and slid it through them back and forth, between my fingernails, attempting to work out the tangles.

A miracle. The tangles smoothed, the gloss returned to the silk, and it flattened out, easing into a tiny rivelet of vibrant color.

I had a thought. My applique needle had a round eye but my beading needle a long narrow eye. What effect could I attain if the silk were truly applied so that its filaments were all laid out really flat, flatter than they could become when trapped in a round-eyed needle?

The silk easily threaded the beading needle, and did lie in my fingers quite flat. I took an experimental stitch, and in a second burst of inspiration, changed out my laying tool, a long pin, for the flat side of a seam ripper, and when I finished the stitch, I ran the seam ripper along the threads underneath, guiding them into flatness. The result was lovely and smooth, with the many filaments laying side by side reflecting light and looking like many stitches, not just one. Could this be repeated? I brought the project upstairs, into more even light.

The beading needle's length was a help, because I could find the placement for the next stitch without a shadow or fingers getting in the way of my eyes. The second stitch worked too. The third not so much, but I kept trying.

I worked a basic flower shape in laid stitch in a deep coral pink, and then threaded a narrow section of Eterna silk, and overlaid the centers of the petals in a light pink. The laying tool flattened and guided each stitch into place.

Then, after all the stitches were placed, I ran the flat side of the seam ripper laying tool under the stitches composing each petal and worked with them, repositioning the threads, and making the light pink thread nest down into the coral color. I "petted" and stroked each stitch to flatten and straighten it. I'd read or heard (was it Robert Haven who told me when several of us toured the UK Costume Department in January) that you could do this, and for Pete's sake, it worked.

Here is what I ended up with. In the image the Eterna silk (the inexpensive Chinese dividable silk) is threaded in the beading needle; the seam ripper and the coral Au Ve a Soie lie nearby. I am very pleased with this second effort. If you consider that each petal is the size of a woman's pinky nail -- about 1/4" -- when looked at with ordinary eyesight and not the camera's magnifying lens, it's pretty darn satisfying.

So that's what I will keep doing! I'll pet and poke and massage and primp the stitches until I have them the way I want them, and the handsome little flowers will soon start blossoming all over their lilac ground.

Let's look at the original Met spencer again. Here's a similar flower. The flower center is a single spangle. If you look at the little divots at the end of each stitch, and especially at the light pink sections of the petals, you notice that there aren't that many stitches composing each petal...there are lots of filaments of flat silk, but not that many threads. When I had last looked at the flowers, I had focused on the filaments. They are numerous and make you think there are lots of actual threads, but it's not so. The low number of stitches is even more evident in the leaves.

A similar flower design, from the original Met spencer.
 A final note: really good light is essential for this kind of embroidery. You want indirect bright light, and as few shadows as possible. This table sits at a double window, direction north-northwest, and it's barely good enough. A sixty watt bulb at night is not enough at all, and a bank of overhead lights only causes shadows, at least in my house. I've had to experiment a lot.
Good light is essential.
 So, onward ho, the greenery on this flower, and 15 more flowers to go!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

1790s Lilac Silk Petticoat: All About Hems

Hemming the lilac petticoat.
Good morning, everyone! Here I front-porch sit, playing hooky -- again -- from church, and feeling very guilty about it. Still, it's been a bit of a week due to illness and workmen in the house. The peace of a slightly damp but sunny morning out among the clover, the migrating songbirds, and the breakfast-hunting squirrels, the memory of a radio sermon in my mind, and the sewing box beside me are restoring health and energy.

The lilac project goeth strong. While I await the Eterna silk thread to arrive so I can complete the embroidery on the lilac sleeveless spencer, I've been making up the lilac petticoat. You first met it last fall in Making the Wrap-Front Dress Do Double and Triple Duty, and again in Lilac, Lilacs, and a New Look.

As with many of my projects, it is going through several iterations over time. This summer it is just a plain petticoat, accented only with silk stitching at the hem. Sometimes mantua makers and seamstresses sewed seams in contrasting colors to add fun and visual definition to function. I've tried without luck this morning to locate the Regency-era dress in the Victoria and Albert that features yellow silk stitching on a deep-colored ground: it's in Nineteenth Century Costume in Detail, an all-time favorite book. During subsequent years it will receive sprigged or swagged embroidery; right now the pattern is maturing in my mind.

Hemming the Petticoat

During the 1790s petticoats were still common, still worn with jackets or spencers or robes/open gowns. Many of the fashion plates that show what appear to be dresses are in fact made up of separate articles. Have a read of Gallery of Fashion or The Fashions of London and Paris at the Bunka Gakuen Library and this becomes abundantly clear.

This petticoat is no different. I am making it up just like countless 18th century petticoats, early or late. While I use more panels than they did, because most of our silk comes in wider widths (in this case with two panels of silk shantung), the rest is normal MO: the panels seamed selvage to selvage with combination stitch, with a narrow hem at the bottom (ordinary for the period and conserving of fabric), and a waist stroke-gathered to cotton tapes that then tie around the waist and two pocket holes at either side built into the seams.

The hemming is again ordinary for the period. No blind hem this, just a running stitch. Here is where the contrasting silk offers a little punch. Purple and yellow! Drops of sunshine on the lilacs.

Here's how to make the stitches even.

First, if you are sewing on tightly woven silk, use as narrow a needle as you can, and make sure it's fresh: run it through an emery (that little hard strawberry that comes with the ubiquitous strawberry pincushion) to remove any burrs or heaven forbid, rust. I am using a Clover applique needle, size ten. (In the wish list are good English needles that stay sharp longer.)

The sewing silk thread should be high quality. I am using Au Ver a Soie and the thread is waxed with beeswax (mmmm, good!) to prevent tangling and to help it slide through the silk.

Example of the running stitch hem.

Sew the fabric under tension, just as recommended in period texts (such as those gathered into The Ladies Stratagem. You could use a sewing brick, or pin the work to your knee, but I choose to pin it to my sewing box. Then stretch out the fabric taut, and turn the raw edge under perhaps 1/4 of an inch for a few inches, turn it under again, and press the hem flat with my fingers until it holds, and pin it for good measure.

Then running stitch the hem those few inches, rocking the needle to gather up two or three stitches at once, and make sure that the stitches and the spacing between them are as even as possible, perhaps 12 stitches per inch. Running hems on downs of the era do not use the minute stitches used for shifts; one wanted to be able to pull out the hem to remake the garment later.

Next turn under a few more inches to a hem, finger press it, stitch it, and repeat, ad infinitum until the hem is complete.

The example image below shows two stitches gathered up. I pulled them out of course, but would have anyway. Why? Look at the middle stitch -- actually a space between stitches, where the needle shows. Do you see how much needle is showing? Is that space the same size at the stitches to either side? No. It's longer. Unh, unh. For a neat hem that is not nice: pull it out and do it over. Force yourself to be a somewhat OCD and you will be happy with that hem for years.

Another example of the running-stitched hem.
That's all for today! Doesn't seem much, does it? Each little bit to me is special, a small practice in ancient skills.