4th May 2020: Returning to the fundamental ‘stuff’

I’ve been thinking about Chapter 2 of Tim Ingold’s Being alive in which he talks about the lack of actual materials – the ‘stuff’ things are made of – in writing about materiality and material culture. And I could help but think I’ve fallen into this – for all my pondering about the materiality of stitch as a network of paths through the surface of the cloth and the embodied experience of making embroideries, I’ve somehow lost the ‘stuff’ of making embroideries – the materials and tools, how it ‘feels’ to work with them. I think this might be because, somehow, even though this way of thinking about embroidery is core to the research, I haven’t actually done much embroidery for a very long time.

So, I decided to go back to fundamentals. Before embarking on the experiments in learning new stitch techniques, I need to reacquaint myself with the actual ‘stuff’ I work with.

I began yesterday by going through my stash of fabrics, threads and needles (NB – I’ve actually managed to find some incredibly fine round ended needles that are used for bead embroidery – round ended needles being vital for counted thread embroidery as they go between the threads of the weave). I decided that it might be quite useful to put all my notes and tests into a single notebook (a sort of scratchpad). I usually make a few small tests at the start of a new embroidery, and I often find myself repeating the same exercises in finding the right combination of needle, thread and fabric, so this process of returning to the basics of the materials and paying attention to how the behave can also serve me as a reference later.

I began by working with one of my most usual set of materials and tools – 26TPI (Threads Per Inch) white even-weave fabric, a 26-tapestry needle, standard machine cotton and stranded embroidery cotton (split into 1, 2, 3 or 4 strands (it comes in 6 ply)) for various stitch weights.

I began by making running stitches 1″ long on the horizontal and vertical, as well as a line across the diagonal. I’ve done this in bright orange machine cotton to make it easier to ‘read’ the scale of the weave of the fabric, pretty easy with this particular cloth but I have in mind a lot of the fabric I have is much finer and not even-weave designed for this type of embroidery (it’s much closer to the historical linen)

Next, I stitched the basic ‘shapes’ used in Blackwork, running stitches along the horizontal, vertical and each diagonal, as well as crosses, squares and a solid backstitch line. The first set of basic stitch shapes I worked in machine cotton (the finest thread I have) at a 1 thread scale, meaning the stitches are worked over one thread of the fabric weave. I noticed the ease with which the needle pushed through the gaps in the weave and the rhythm of sewing the basic repeating stitches but that sometimes I had to change the direction I worked the stitches when I wanted to move to a new row, or risk making the occasional ‘long jump’ on the underside, something to be avoided if possible as it makes the embroidery more vulnerable to snags or loss of tension (meaning the top stitches may not lay flat). I noticed that I became more aware of the position of the needle when reaching the end of each row as I worked and began to adjust the stitch path almost automatically the longer I worked. I also noticed that the machine cotton moved slightly in the weave as I came back through the same gap, this was particularly noticeable in the squares and back stitch line, distorting the shapes ever so slightly.

Next, I worked the same set of stitch patterns in the same machine cotton at a 2 thread (over two threads of the weave). I noticed that there was still a slight distortion to the stitches, even in the ones that didn’t cross or come up through the same gaps, though it seemed to me to be more to do with the length of the threads on the surface of the cloth. If you think about it, the gaps in the weave of the fabric are wider than the thickness of the embroidery thread so it shifts ever so slightly depending on the position they are pulled from/to – the angle of the needle and the tension applied in pulling the thread through to the next point. Quite simply, these stitches are looser, a single thread going over and under the surface of the fabric weave shifts depending on where it has gone before and where it is going next, all effected by the imperceptible motion of the embroiderer’s fingers. I’m looking at these ‘uniform’ stitches and each one is minutely different – I can see the trace of my own hand.

I then moved on to working the same stitches at the same 2 thread scale but this time in a single strand of embroidery cotton. This thread is slightly thicker and ‘hairy’ – I could feel a bit more resistance as I pulled it through the gaps in the weave and there was a very quiet rasping sound of friction between the thread and the cloth. I noticed the slight difference in friction as I slid the needle through and pulled the thread – moving from smooth metal to rougher, almost fuzzy feeling fibre. I also notice, again, the very slight difference in the stitches – these are not smooth lines but textured ones, more like the patterns I scribble down freehand and I’m reminded of the little test I did way back at the start of this research comparing lines drawn freehand vs. lines drawn with a ruler (19th January 2019: Some thoughts on drawing straight lines ), how even though the visual effect is linear, it retains something organic in the wobbles of the line that marks it out a being done by hand. It makes me think, in a moment of reflection while I follow this thought, that this is the essence of something you can’t capture with a screen, or at least not with the digital tools I use at the moment…

My last little test today was stitching straight lines of running stitches (and a single one of backstitch) in different weights of thread (sidenote: why do I refer to thickness as weight? Where have I picked that up from? Is it a textile term or one I’ve acquired from vector graphics?) – machine cotton and stranded embroidery cotton split into 1, 2, 3 and 4s. I don’t think I’ve ever worked this type of 26TPI fabric with more than 2 strands before, and even that I’ve not done for a very long time. I noticed the friction, and the rasping sound of the friction, increasing each time I added a strand, to the point where the 4-strand thread felt like it was jerking as soon as the needle was through and making a quite deep rasping sound – it also pulled the surface of the fabric with it into a small peak, though a flattish one a bit like pinching the skin on the knee, settling back flat once I stopped pulling.

These multi-strand stitches are also slightly distorted, though here it’s not so much the threads ‘sliding’ in the weave gaps but being squeezed by them. The weave gaps are smaller than the thickness of the threads, so the stitches look rounder, little bobbles with points at each end. They also vary in length, I have a feeling each stitch is pulling the cloth ever so slightly, holding the weave in a ‘micro-tension’.

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