Got myself some new books on Elizabethan embroidery techniques, spent my evening stretching up my spare frame. But why is it this never feels like work?

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Slow tasks for quiet days

A few much needed days off. I spent my time flicking through some new books of Elizabethan embroidery techniques (included a few different versions of that ever-niggling plait stitch). I want to try them all out so I spent the afternoon stretching up my ‘home’ embroidery frame. This is slow, quiet work I prefer to do at home.
Stretching a cloth onto a frame takes time. The fabric must be pressed, a straight gran fold made at the top and bottom and then placed exactly matching the middle of the bar tape. Then you over-stitch the fabric to the tape, keeping the stitches evenly spaced every few mm. Repeat for the other bar.
Next you take a length of twill tape and bast it to either side of the cloth.
(the next stage will be to tension the cloth onto the roller bars and stretch the sides, but I didn’t have enough tape and pins so that’s a job for another day)
As I attach the cloth, fixing it down with hundreds of tiny stitches, wonder about the hidden labour – all the essential but usually unseen or undone stages in a process…

Drawings, diagrams, drafts and little windows

A morning in the Blythe House archive spent frantically documenting T.82-1924 – a pillow cover with an embroidered boarder


The photographs were not great quality but will do for reference. I also got some microscope images – these will have to be put together, but I’m rather keen on he idea piecing together fragments. There are many areas of the embroideries which are fragmentary – the whole basis of this project is the reconstruction of fragments.
Collaging together images is a method I use in my drawing practice and find my fingers itching to get to my drawing board and begin to draft these motifs out. I have a notion that I would like to make a drawing on a monumental scale – these stitches are so tiny, I have an instinctive desire to enlarge them to massive proportions…

T.82-1924: pattern 20 (microscope)

I had requested the backing fabric be removed so I could see the back of the embroidery but the linen of the pillow cover has become extremely brittle, so instead the textiles conservator cut a number of small rectangular holes in the backing fabric – creating little windows onto sections of the embroidery.
This pragmatic conservation compromise is unintentionally brilliant – creating frames of abstract compositions. I’m going to have some fun with this!

T.82-1924: pattern 24 (reverse)

Picking up research ideas

Back at Blythe House Archive – the plan today was to get some close-up images of the embroideries using the DinoLite microscope camera.

T.230-1929: pattern 19 (photograph)
T.230-1929: pattern 19 (microscope photograph)

The images from the microscope are much more detailed but I will have to splice them together as the focus area is quite small. I’m not sure how much additional detail will be gained over the photographs – I’ll have to work with both once I get back to the studio.

Today I was introduced to another PhD student, Rosie Taylor-Davies (, who is working on 18th century embroidery. I was very much inspired by her approach to research, in particular the research books she has produced for each object she is working with – I took some notes on the things she included that might influence my own approach (shared with permission):

  • Details on how the object was documented:
    * photo slices using a sliding camera rig;
    * scanning;
    * colour analysis.
  • History of the object:
    * provenance;
    * design sources.
  • Reconstruction:
    * documentation of process;
    * side-by-side comparisons of details.
  • Overall design diagrams (hand drawn) acting as a reference map.

I also had quite an interesting conversation when trying to explain my research, during which I had a moment of clarity regarding an aspect of my PhD that has been bothering me.
There has always been two approaches to the digital aspect of this project. The first is about the geometric structure of the patterns and digitally tracking the stitch paths – essentially regarding the patterns as visual algorithms – to create reconstructions. This could also be applied to the later, free form, speckled blackwork – but, I’ve had a niggle in the back of my mind that applying this ‘system’ to that style of blackwork would be artificial and the results inadequate. However, the second aspect of digital technology I am interested in pursuing is about physically integrating electronics into fabric to create reactive surfaces (trying to bring forward something of the materiality of textiles) – and I think this could work quite beautifully with the free-from blackwork.
In the back of my mind, I already have several ideas for pieces around these two ‘modes’ – indeed I’m already working on projects that explore both. However, I’ve been pensively wondering how to bring these two approaches together. What I realised during today’s brief conversation is that I don’t have to.
They are two separate (but related) approaches.

Weaving, drawings/diagrams and the shape of a place

I decided to come to London a day early so I could visit the Anni Albers exhibition before it closes (and visit the Tate Modern which I’ve not been to for years).
If I can, I like to approach the Tate Modern Gallery on foot, crossing the river on Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s. I enjoy the feeling of being suspended between the water and the sky. And I like to see how the city has changed. They have built glass towers since I last time I stood here – science-fiction skylines emerging.

Taken from floor 10 of Tate Modern

The first object encountered in the Anni Albers exhibition is a 12 shaft floor loom. It’s an imposing looking machine, but probably only because I’ve never used one. I do, however, understand the mechanism and I was delighted that the very last object in the show was an 8 shaft table loom, not too dissimilar to my own, that Albers used for her smaller weaving.

12 shaft loom

I was struck by the muted colours of the weaving, a limited number of basic colours mixing through various configurations of warp and weft to create shades, tones and tertiary colours.

Black White Yellow 1926/1965

I find this notion of the technique leading the work especially resonant. Of course, all art/craft practices are defined and confined by their processes and materials, but I always find work that brings this to the fore particularly fascinating. This exhibition is about the process of weaving.

“One of the most ancient crafts, hand weaving is a method of forming a pliable plane of threads by interlacing them rectangulary.”

Anni Albers – exhibition leaflet
Development in Rose II 1952 (close up)

The whole exhibition seemed to me to be about texture – surfaces and structures created by combining different materials, adding metal threads, using plastic and sticks, twisting the warps and wefts into knots and patterns… I just want to get to my loom and try some things out!

Red and Blue Layers, 1954 (close up)

One thing I did wonder with regard to Albers’ ‘floating thread technique’ is at what point a woven thread becomes a stitched thread? Generally we would say a stitch pierces a woven surface, but with counted thread embroidery techniques the needle (and hence the thread) goes between the warp and weft, so does the stitch then become part of the woven structure? And vice versa – if you are “adding surface threads to a basic weave”, isn’t that more like stitching? Perhaps it’s about WHEN in the process the additional threads are added? Does it even really matter?
(I’ll not even get into techniques like darning!)

Under Way 1963

What really fascinated me were Albers drawings, diagrams and sketches – the working out of designs and ideas. Quite beautiful drawings, but even more interesting if you know how to read the technical notes.
This is something I’ve been thinking about, that difference between a drawing and a diagram. All diagrams are drawings but not all drawings are diagrams.

1: A simplified drawing showing the appearance, structure, or workings of something; a schematic representation.
1.1: Geometry A figure composed of lines that is used to illustrate a definition or statement or to aid in the proof of a proposition.
1.2: British A graphical schedule for operating railway locomotives and rolling stock in order to provide a desired service.
1: Represent (something) in graphic form.
1.1: British Schedule the operations of (a locomotive or train) according to a diagram.
Early 17th century: from Latin diagramma, from Greek, from diagraphein ‘mark out by lines’, from dia ‘through’ + graphein ‘write’.


Implicit in the concept of a diagram is an assumption of prior knowledge on the part of the viewer/reader. In certain cases, there is an established method of creating diagrams so they can be read by another who is familiar with the conventions, e.g. circuit diagrams.
But there are also personal methods of creating diagrams, for example, when I am designing for laser cutting I rarely include dimensions for slots as I know the material thickness.
A diagram contains information, often in notation using accepted symbols, that is used to create or reference something beyond itself. It’s an abstract representation of a process.

diagram showing draft notation (plain weave), 1965

Still catching up with myself – some thoughts on drawing straight lines

I decided over Christmas that I wanted to create a ‘standard’ way of documenting all the patterns I’ve been encountering. Possibly to use as a data set when I begin to build the reconstruction system but mainly just to have them recorded in a comparable format and to spend a little bit of time with each pattern. I got myself a small notebook with dotted grid pages and spent my spare moments over the holidays drawing out patterns – one to each page as a repeat.

It’s fiddly.
The small size of the notebook makes it awkward to draw in. I’m not using a ruler, I never usually do when drawing out patterns. Even though I draw on pre-defined grids, I need to retain something of the ‘texture’ to the lines – keep an echo of the quality of a thread.
There is something compelling in attempting to draw straight lines by hand – it’s never going to be consistent. By avoiding the use of a ruler, you can see the lines wobble. But it is a much slower and demanding to draw straight lines without a ruler – so why do it?
Perhaps I want to feel closer to the pattern? (Less tools = decreased distance… I’m sure I read something about that…)
Let me try it:

I drew some small repeat patterns with and without a ruler to see if I could feel a difference, and I do!
Drawing without the aid of a ruler is far more absorbing – you have to concentrate more, think about how you are moving the pencil between the start and end points, with a ruler that thinking about the between is almost completely removed (you could always move away from the rulers edge but that’s a different thing).
The way patterns are plotted is also different. With a ruler you position the edge across the start and end points (and, due to the repetitiveness of the patterns, you can draw more than one line in a single act of ruler positioning), then it’s simply a matter of running your pencil along the edge between the points – it’s almost automatic.
Drawing freehand is subtler. Often the line is not made in a single stroke, I find myself making ghost marks, feeling out the angle of the line without touching the page.