Pulling threads

It’s the weekend and so I am finally getting some time to sit and work with some materials. I’ve purchased a variety of threads to test out – I’m trying to get a feel for the materials.

My usual working threads are stranded cotton, a 6-ply thread which I split depending on the weight (thickness) of stitch line I’m after, and standard machine cotton which I use for fine detail. However, having now spent some time examining the embroideries in the archive in close detail it’s apparent to me that my usual threads are far too heavy (thick) in comparison. While it’s not my intention to make precise physical replicas, the aim of this project is to translate embroidery digitally, I do think it’s vital to get a ‘feel’ for the materials and the scale at which the original pieces were worked.

However, I do hit a moral problem with regard to materials. The original embroideries were worked using silk threads and I have avoided the use of animal products for over 15 years. My intention is to find an alternative (and get some, hopefully, interesting insights into materials and techniques of thread manufacture in the process). I have access to vegetable fibres that were unavailable 500 years ago, but in order to find a comparable equivalent I think I will have to try some small samples working with silk.

But that’s a dilemma for another day…

This weekend I have been trying out various types of cotton, stitching sample lines in back stitch and running stitch so I can compare them. I noted that none produced a smooth stitch line, as these particular threads are not mercerised, and that when split into single strands the soft cotton and coton a broder (16 & 25) were extremely fragile and pulled apart after only a few stitches. Which makes me wonder how the original embroiderers managed to work with (the much more fragile) single strands of silk?!?!

2 thoughts on “Pulling threads

  1. I find that waxing threads (lightly running them over a chunk of beeswax) helps maintain thread integrity. I also find that sometimes the fraying can be mitigated by moving up a needle size (larger hole, less friction), and ensuring that the needle’s eye is smooth. A surprising number of modern, quality needles have micro-burrs in the eye that are death to thread. For the record, this has been my experience with both silk and cotton.

    An aside: silk – especially long staple stranded silk – is much more resistant to shredding than modern cotton embroidery thread, and is key to being able to do that meshy ground found on voided Italian pieces. Cotton is too friable and doesn’t stand up to the tension required.

    1. I do use a little wax on my threads (kindly given to me by a local bee keeper) but I try to avoid using silk for personal ethical reasons. I’m actually finding machine cottons and polyester threads to be quite a decent substitute for the really fine threads of many of the historic embroideries. I’ve recently been doing a lot thread/fabric/needle/stitch tests (which I’ll be writing about in a blog post shortly) – I agree about the micro-burrs but I’ve been using John James needles almost exclusively this last year and have had far fewer problems!

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