The end of December was focused almost exclusively on completing my RF1 form. Draft, review, edit, redraft….
A useful exercise in trying to articulate my research project plan concisely – but how many ways can you say the same thing? Anyway, it’s done now and handed in – just need to wait for feedback.
I had a plan for today – edit my ACE bid for a project, draft an residency application and sketch out some ideas for possible conference papers.
I didn’t do any of those things today.
Instead I just existed in my new studio space.
I moved in here on Sunday and I’ve spent the last few days setting it up but it feels strange and a little uncomfortable – like it’s not quite mine. I’d been in my old studio space for four years – it was comfortable, private and I was part of a community – I felt settled, established, rooted.
But now I’m in a whole new space – it’s big and open and very cold and people walk through it – everybody seems nice enough but they aren’t familiar and I don’t know anyone’s name. I feel like I’ve invaded, piled in all my things, created clutter and radio noise in a space that seems cold and quiet and a little bleak.
I needed to ground myself, begin to make it familiar.
All of this may seem irrelevant but I believe the spaces you inhabit are an extension of yourself – a studio space in not simply a place to work, it’s the externalisation of your practice – so if the studio space doesn’t feel familiar then I’m a stranger to myself. My practice is slow, detailed and methodical, it’s almost meditative. Disruption and discomfort are NOT part of what I do. The studio space for me must be comfortable and familiar, a space I don’t need to focus on or be distracted by so I can focus on my work.
So today I pottered (where does that word come from?*). I organised my notebooks, put my sketches on the wall, printed out a calendar and some photos of the sketchbook I started over Christmas (which I will write about tomorrow). I ate lunch. I found a coffee shop nearby that sells wonderful carrot cake and as I sat in my armchair with a mug of tea, eating cake, for the first moment I felt relaxed.
1: Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.
1.1: [with adverbial of direction] Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.
An act or period of occupying oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.
Mid 17th century (in the sense ‘poke repeatedly’): frequentative of dialect pote ‘to push, kick, or poke’ of unknown origin.
[A quick note to self: In developing the method of mapping the stitch path, I was struck by the similarity to the sampler/sampler system I developed with Sean Cottrill, I wonder if this could be modified and used as a starting point for the reconstruction system?]
I felt this first research trip was as more about working out possible study methods so I wanted to try a few different approaches with the coif patterns. While the stitch path drawings contain a low of useful information for me to work with, I wanted to try and capture something of the materiality of the object.
I began by drawing the pattern to ‘thread count’ scale and as a repeat.
When I draw out my own patterns, I often draw the pattern elements ‘breaking down’ – this serves two purposes. First, to work out how these might be used for shading and fading (a modern blackwork technique)
Second, in drawing pattern elements systematically you get an idea of how the might be most efficiently stitched. In modern blackwork the patterns are often worked as component parts in rows of diagonals, i.e.
So if I was sketching this pattern my drawing might look like this:
And from the process of sketching the pattern I discover a more efficient way to work it:
After the pattern sketches, I decided to try and draw the plait stitch. Plait stitches are complex braided stitches used here to form the vine stems – it is not a type of stitch I am familiar with!
I tried to draw the stitch using a more naturalistic style to try and work out how the threads are braided. I found this extremely challenging, working on the drawing from observations through a magnifying lens – it was tricky to switch between two different scales of working and trying to capture something of the texture of the threads (I might try this drawing again from a photo). I also clearly need to try embroidering some plait stitches – they are obviously complex and I need to get a feel for how they are worked.
My final exercise in observation was a physical stitch sample. Experiencing the act of stitching threw up some useful embodied observations.
First, the embroidery thread I use was too thick, so I had to switch to a machine thread (I must get myself some different types of embroidery floss to experiment with).
Second, the fabric I was working on was much coarser – so the pattern came out larger.
Thirdly, this particular pattern seems to be more efficiently stitched in it’s pattern units (as opposed to the broken pattern method I discussed earlier).
And fourthly, my hand REALLY started to hurt – you end up working with one hand when using a hoop (the other hand supports the hoop) – lots of small close stitching puts a real strain on your fingers. I began to wonder about the embroiderer who made the coif. I wondered if her hand hurt, I wondered if she worked on a frame – a frame allows you to use both hands to stitch – or did she work without stretching the cloth at all – something I haven’t tried before.
As you sit and stitch, your mind does start to wander. It suddenly occured to me that I had made a pattern sampler very much like the 19th century one when I first began to practice blackwork – it’s even a similar size cloth. I began to think about the resonances between the embroidereies, the 16th century coif, the 19th century sampler and my 21st century sampler – the similarities in pattern and the three embroidreres seperated by hundreds of years but sharing a similar experience through the act of stitching. I looked at the back of the pattern I’d just stitched and the back of the pattern I’d emulated – without thinking I’d stitched a similar path.
Having selected the objects, I then had to consider how I would begin to document and study them.
I started by photographing the pieces, front and back overall and the focusing in on each individual pattern – my aim was to get as much detail as possible so that I could carry on back in the studio. Photography allowed me to gather a lots of information quickly and catalogue the patterns systematically. However, I did encounter two problems. Firstly, the quality of the close up photos isn’t particularly good – I didn’t have a macro lens and I was attempting to photograph with the camera in my hand, leading to a lot of fuzzy and blurry photos. This is a problem that should be simple enough to fix, I have been offered the use of a DinoLite digital microscope on my next visit and I can request photos be taken by the V&A (though this will take time). Having said that, the photos I have managed to take should give me enough detail to work with for now.
The second problem is a little more personal – I don’t feel photography engenders ‘close’ looking – perhaps this is something that will fade once I look back on the photos and start studying from them but I felt a certain ‘distance’ from the objects when looking at them through a lens.
My next approach was to try and draw the objects – or more specifically particular patterns. I decided to document the pattern as I would if I were working it out for my own embroidery, using grid/dot paper.
I began by drawing the pattern ‘thread count’ scale – each dot representing a gap in the weave – this is a useful way to get the scale of the pattern (in the case of the first pattern on the sampler the pattern is worked in threes).
The second drawing was scaled down to one to get a sense of the pattern repeat.
I noticed during the making of the first two drawings (are these drawings or diagrams?) that the sampler pattern had a mistake – so I decided to draw the full pattern out as it had been stitched.
In the process of making this drawing I realised I could also include information about how the stitches are layered – and so begin to track the stitch path.
I also realised I could apply the same method to the reverse of the pattern and in doing so create a double-layered ‘map’ of the stitch path. (Now I am back in the studio I want to copy these onto tracing paper so it’s easier to see both ‘maps’ at the same time.)
From the 4th to 7th December 2018 I visited the V&A archive at Blythe House for my first research trip. I was so caught up in trying to work out my approaches to the objects (and a little overwhelmed by the whole experience of being in a new working environment) that I neglected to keep any notes on my thoughts while I was there, so I will attempt to do so now.
For this visit I concentrated on two small objects – one an unpicked coif (T.12-1948) that is in relatively good condition and the other a small sampler (T.230-1929) that was spotted by chance by one of my V&A advisers when it was out for another appointment.
This sampler is unusual as it appears to be a much later example of the blackwork technique, possibly 19th century. It makes use of 2 additional thread colours along with black – a pink/red and a pale green (of course these colours may well have faded) – which my adviser said that she had not seen used in earlier pieces. I was struck by two things that support the later date of this object. Firstly, two of the patterns appear to employ a shading effect through the use of different thread weights – a common technique in modern blackwork but one I have not yet seen in the earlier examples.
Secondly, the formal way these patterns are worked and the fact that it is a sampler of JUST patterns – I have not seen an earlier example that has no overall motif. Of course, it may simply be that no early samplers of abstract patterns have survived – testing stitches on scraps of fabric is a common practice among embroiderers and there is no reason to assume that it is a recent one.
Regardless of its date, the sampler does present a possibly key point of reference for my research. One of the concerns I have about this project and the making of the reconstructions is the manner in which the embroidery is worked – or the ‘stitch path’ – is a vital element of retaining something of the essence of the original objects.
A stitched surface is NOT a flat pattern but a network of paths above and behind the surface of the cloth – a network in a space. To my mind, the underside of the embroidery is as important as its right side – there are multiple ways to work a piece of embroidery and its on the underside that the instinct and skill of the embroiderer is most visible.
So trying to record these undersides I feel is important. However, having now looked in closer detail at some of the 16th century pieces it has become apparent that tracing these thread paths is going to be difficult, in part due to the colour of the threads (black thread is tricky to see) and a certain amount of ‘matting’ that has occurred over time making the individual threads merge into a fuzzy mass but also because some of the earlier pieces are much more ‘free-form’ in the way the patterns are worked.
What this later sampler offers is a reference point, it’s lighter colour and relatively good condition of the threads along with the more structured working of the patterns give me something I can base the development of a ‘stitch path’ on. I don’t want to rely on just my own technique, so I’m treating this particular object (along with any other suitable examples I find) as a ‘codex’ on which to start building my reconstructions.
The second object is an unpicked coif. A coif is a type of head cloth or small close fitting cap, of which there are several examples in the V&A collection. Many have been unpicked and laid out flat (it is assumed so they could be used as decorative pieces in later periods). This particular piece is in fairly good condition and is small enough to be studied closely. The main motif is worked in split stitch and plait stitch, with infills of pattern worked in (rather free form) running stitches.