Re-embroidering Blackwork: unpicking heritage through material, digital and process-based art practice
16th March 2021: Simply Looking & Drawing
A return to Blyth House today. My last opportunity to look at most of the objects before the archive closes. I decided on this first (of three) final visits that I would look at the first three objects of my research, the sampler, the coif and the cap. The sampler and the coif I have good scans of, and I have already done quite a bit of work with these.
With the sampler, I made some initial experiments in drawing and diagrams, looking at ways of mapping stitch paths and documenting patterns in a standard way. I think the making of these sparked my thinking around drawing as a method of close looking. More importantly, the mapping diagrams quickly revealed one of my initial assumptions of this research, that I might be able to emulate the embroideries by copying the stitch paths, to be essentially futile. However, I was struck by the similarity of this object with a sampler I made over 10 years ago when I first discovered Blackwork. This got me thinking about resonances between myself and the past embroiderers, how there is a connection through the act of stitching. The making of embroidered objects, samplers and test pieces positions me in a lineage of embroidery practice. While we may not be able to recreate the hand traces of the original makers, there is something more fundamental happening in my attempts to ‘copy’ from these objects, something in the gesture of stitching, the feel of the materials and tools in my hands that feels like a whispered conversation with a past maker THROUGH the object…
In order to explore this idea further, I am planning on a full reconstruction of the coif (T12-1948), recording and reflecting on the process of [re]making.
I wanted, today, to get a final look at these objects. SN took some thread samples from the sampler – I want to get a firm date on this to see if, as we suspect, it is a later example of Blackwork (even though a lot of the patterns are worked in colour). If it is a later piece, it might support my theory that the pattern fading technique is a later development, one possibly inspired by the already decaying state of the 16th/17th century embroideries. I also wanted to check the thread count of the linen on all the objects – especially the coif. Even though I am not attempting to make a ‘authentic’ replica, I am trying to capture the experience of its making and so want the materials to be as close in scale to the original as possible.
I spent most of today drawing. I spent a lot of time working with the cap (T308 – 1902) during my last visit. I’ve been thinking a lot about creating digital objects with a physical presence and want to experiment with projection mapping. I plan for the cap to be the first of these digital experiments. I’m hoping to create an animated drawing of the motif that will then be projected onto a blank copy of the cap form. I’m thinking about the ‘digital object’ as a multi-layered artefact, one that is able to express different stages in the ‘life cycle’ of the embroidery – as it exists now, how it might exist in future and how it may have existed in the past. During my last visit, I really struggled to ‘plot’ the motif accurately, I couldn’t seem to translate the design from the curved 3D surface of the cap to a 2D flat. I tried all sorts of measuring techniques, took hundreds of photos but I’ve been unable to get a design that isn’t distorted.
Today I tried a different approach.
I sat for almost an hour just looking at the cap, turning it occasionally to view a different side or a slightly different angle, slowly taking in the details, trying to get the ‘feel’ of it. I then tried writing a simple description of what I’d observed, but that just didn’t seem right, trying to use words for something so MATERIAL (and it didn’t end up making much sense anyway). What I realised in my looking is that attempting to accurately ‘plot’ the motif was a futile exercise and somehow didn’t resonate with the sprit of the thing. It is handmade, the motif was drawn by hand (not to mention the distortions that occurred through use), the thing is organic – the motif on each side is intended to be the same, but each is slightly different. This did make me wonder if trying to create a digital version of the object is the ‘right’ thing to do, you could run the risk of creating something too clean, too perfect – a proper simulacrum. But perhaps this will give me the chance to explore the ‘digitally handmade’…
Anyway, having realised that trying to ‘plot’ the motif was impractical and probably not worthwhile, I decided to simply draw the design ‘by eye’. Each of the cap’s four sides has a basically identical design (though with variations), so I thought I would try to draw a basic ‘master’ version of the motif, getting the placement and proportions of each element by observing the composition on each side and combining them.
The drawing itself, done with a mechanical pencil (the only kind allowed in the archive), took many hours and is not quite right or finished. But it was pleasant to draw free hand, positioning the lines in relation to each other, working and reworking the curves. It’s a different experience drawing this way, feeling your way around the lines you are looking at. Tricky too, trying to draw a curved surface flat – all your views are distorted so you must vary the position of your eyes to get a ‘composite’ view, keep adjusting your lines, rub out and re-draw. Indeed, the whole process of making this ‘master’ design was a composite – it’s not one specific panel of the cap, rather a mixture of all four sides.
7th March 2021: Sunday morning ramblings… An Artist Walks into an Archive…
I’m having trouble focusing. The thing is just too big – I’m trying to think about what the core of this research is. I keep coming back to the same thought – it reads like the start of a bad joke:
An artist walks into an archive…
And then what?
Just what the hell is this about? Think about the title: RE-EMBROIDERING BLACKWORK – what am I doing? I think the thing might be that I AM an artist – is this actually about what an artist does in this situation? How our approach differs from other types of research? (What are these?)
Lets start there (for lack of anywhere else to begin).
What am I doin when I study these objects? My primary thing is very close look – taking photos & making drawings & diagrams. These are my way or studying -drawing is close, detailed looking. I’m interested in the visual, decorative nature of the object. But I’m also looking at technical things – technique, how the embroidery has been made, the types of stitches….
There are my study notes, & I use the term deliberately. These are not the kind of observational drawing where you are trying to capture an exact likeness (photos do this better anyway) but they are accurate, observational sketch-notes – an attempt to record technical & aesthetic details for reference later. (Technical drawings as art? Anni Albers?)
OK. Then what? What are you doing once you’ve gathered this material? Well, I suppose you are thinking – can I make something, new with this? What does it inspire in me? Can I take the stitches & patterns & motifs & ‘style’ (this term needs clarification) and use it in a new way? There is certainly ONE thing I have discovered so far: HISTORICAL BLACKWORK IS MORE COMPLEX THAN THE CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTION OF THE TECHNIQUE. So, there is something I have found & something I want to express in my work – an expanded Blackwork technique for contemporary embroidery.
Tied to this is the EVOLUTION OF BLACKWORK. It’s not a fixed technique but one that went through dramatic changes. This is something I observed in the objects – notable differences in style & technique. The problem is that there are no exact dates for the objects – so how to know if this is a stylistic evolution & not just different style of Blackwork that were used concurrently?
There is a sort of accepted idea that the style DID change from the geometric infills to the later speckle stitch (SN has a theory about it reacting to changes in print) but nothing detailed. So, alongside looking at the objects, I began looking at portraits. Hundreds of them – scrolling through digital image archives & saving copies of any that looked like they might show Blackwork. I wonder it there is a term for this type of visual dynamite fishing?! – Is this actually a research method? There’s nothing particularly systematic about how I went about it – I just looked at as many painting as I could through online searches… but I gathered enough images & begin to see similarities in style & application that corresponded to the dates of the paintings – meaning I could see that a particular style/application was used & fashionable at a particular time. Not only that, I noticed that when I placed the portraits chronologically, I didn’t just see different styles but how these changes were adaptations of the previous one, often responding, to changes in the garments to which Blackwork was applied.
This method of visually comparing many portraits allowed me to get a clear idea of how Blackwork evolved. And comparing them to the objects gives some indication of their possible dates.
This is all interesting & does tell us something about the history of Blackwork – but what does it mean for my research as an ARTIST?
Well, I find it fascinating in itself because I find Blackwork fascinating.
But that’s not really an answer – what am I going to do with this or is this a piece of artist research itself? I suppose, in one sense, knowing how Blackwork changed, shifting in style & application, further ‘enriches’ the technique… I’m not expressing, that right – a more historically informed ‘palette’ of stitches, motifs and styles? I suppose I * could * argue that my reading of the paintings was one informed by a familiarity with the Blackwork technique -as a practicing embroiderer & one who has closely studied the objects? (This speaks to a point I want to make in more detail at some point about the tricky, tangled nature of artist research – its a triple-folded thing: it’s the skills & knowledge you bring, it’s your way of doin the research, AND it’s the outcomes of that research)
I think there is a method here -visual comparison? visual reading? Its about looking for echos – seeing how things are similar & how they are different – inflections & assonances & resonances but in sight instead of sound… (a duck is a duck until its a rabbit – where the hell did that come from?! I’ve been rambling too long, I should probably do something else…)
Stitching what is missing
15th December 2020: Making a cap copy
I ran into real difficulties trying to copy the pattern of the cap. I thought today I might try making up a copy of it in calico using the rough measurements I made at the archive. I can then ‘plot’ the motif onto it directly and unpick it to create a flat for more detailed drawing.
I’m working from some very approximate measurements, drawing the shape directly onto the cloth. I’m aware that, as I work on trying to copy these objects, I find myself emulating the original ways of making.
However, once I made my copy up, it was clearly the wrong shape. Have I gone wrong in my measurements somewhere? Or are my curves different? This is SO FRUSTRATING!
20th October 2020: Problems with patterns (again)
A return to the archive! Met with SN yesterday, we discussed some possible outcomes for the PhD and which objects I want to focus on now that time is limited. I have been pondering the question of how to create a digital object with a physical presence – I think projecting onto plain physical copies of the objects might be an interesting approach. Having only done some very basic projection mapping in the past, I thought I might start with a simple 3D object in order to develop the technique and then move onto the more complex form of the Falkland Waistcoat.
So, I thought I would spend a few days drawing out a cap (T.308-1902) as a flat pattern and then plot the outline of the embroidery motif. Two days I’ve been trying to get the shape right – it’s infuriating!
I have copied garments before, but usually if I’m copying a pattern from an existing garment I lay each section out as flat as possible, pin it down and trace it off. Obviously, I can’t do this here – the cap (and eventually the waistcoat) cannot be laid flat, nor can I pin and trace. The cap is technically a very simple shape consisting of four arched slopes and a brim strip (embroidered on the reverse side & tuned up), which I thought I could copy without much difficulty using a few basic measurements. The problem is, all the measurements are slightly different and don’t line up when plotted flat. The cap has probably distorted over time, plus, from looking at some other examples which were never made up, the basic pattern shapes seem to be quite roughly drawn. This tells me something about the simplicity of the garment, but it makes it very difficult to create an accurate copy. The need for accuracy is important here as the embroidery motif has to be placed in relation to the shape.
18th October 2020: Kimonos and responses
Finally got to go to a museum! It has been far too long. Managed to get in to see the Kimono exhibition at the V&A. I had been anticipating this show for months and was afraid I wouldn’t get to see it before it closes. I have a deep love of kimono, the simplicity of the form allows the surface decoration to take centre stage – they are moving canvas that display the beauty of the textiles.
I have a large collection of books, drawings and photographs of kimono but there is something about being in front of one in real life. This is a thought I keep returning to – what is about a things physical presence? I don’t even necessarily think it’s about some vague idea of ‘authenticity’ – I experienced the same kind of feeling at the Tudor reconstruction sites I visited last year. I think what it might be, and this is the conclusion I was edging towards after those research trips, is the PHYSICALITY of a material object. You cannot get the same sense of a thing from a photo, it’s too detached. It’s about being in front of a physical, material object, being able to step back, get in close, walk around it, let your eyes wander….
Interestingly, I stumbled on an artists installation in the temporary exhibition space at the V&A. ‘Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined’ is a response by artist Darren Waterson to Whistler’s Peacock Room. A full scale reconstruction of the space, but one in which the room has become decayed; smashed pots, broken shelves almost falling down, surfaces bloating and mottled like they are rotting, the golden peacocks painted on the walls fighting each other. It is intended to reflect the toxic relationship between Whistler and Wayland (who commissioned the room), and the decadence of the Aesthetic movement. What I found most powerful was the sheer physicality of the space. Again, the question about physical presence keeps reoccurring and I was left ponding a question – how can a digital object have a physical presence?