Re-embroidering Blackwork: unpicking heritage through material, digital and process-based art practice
Dilemmas of making replicas…
Dilemmas of making replicas…
Dilemmas of making replicas – copying the pattern fill embroidery gives a different outline while filling the outline results in a different pattern… Hmmmm 🤔
1st July 2020: Dilemmas of making ‘replicas’
Spent a couple of days attempting to replicate a single motif from one of the pillow covers (T81-1924). This is the object I have a high resolution scan of – a massive consideration as I’ve been running into difficulties working with my own low resolution photos of other objects (I’ve been copying a coif (T12-1948) tracing the stitches over a photograph using my iPad and I found myself having to refer to close-ups and macros I had taken as the quality of the larger photograph made it difficult to see the details properly).
The purpose of doing this single ‘replica’ is to look at ways I might approach and present the stitch decay. I chose an area of the original that has extensive decay but just enough of the original pattern to be able to reconstruct it. I also chose a relatively simple pattern to make things a bit easier for myself.
I began by digitally tracing the stitch pattern onto the photo – using a blue lines to draw the existing stitches and then pink lines (on a separate layer) to draw in the missing stitches, using the holes as a guide. I noted that I had to make a decision about the edges of the motif, as the design is outlined in a thick braided stitch which has been applied over the pattern fill. I traced three outlines – the inside and outside of the braid stitch and an estimated middle line between the two which I decided to use as the likeliest edge of the motif drawing. Drawing the patterns up to this imagined middle line (even though the stitches themselves were not visible), I took the decision that those extending from remaining stitches are probably still there – in fact you can just see the ends and edges of some – and so drawn in blue, while those that would have extended from the decayed areas are drawn in pink (even though they are probably still there under the braid).
What I have created here is a multi layered digital diagram – a working guide for myself. By drawing the different elements on separate layers I can view or hide, I’ve made a document that is hugely useful for reference and (I think) clearly shows the observations I have made. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the texture or pliability of the stitches – but that’s not what this is for – it’s a diagram rather than a drawing and there is a whole lot of stuff in the difference and overlaps of drawings and diagrams – this is a limitation of language. But, for my purposes, I refer to a drawing as a diagram when it is made for the purpose of illustrating and describing particular technical things (like stitch patterns), even if it’s not strictly accurate in terms of texture or anomalies or distortions. On the whole, I tend to draw diagrams when I’m wanting a guide for making an embroidery or studying an existing one – it’s a way of describing the way is thing is made.
What I want use this diagram for is experimenting with possible ways to show decay and what remains. So, instead of drawing the motif outline and filling it with the pattern arbitrarily, I decided to copy the stitch pattern fill by counting the stitches as they are drawing in the diagram. I began with a total fill, stitching both the existing and decayed stitches – it should be noted that this complete embroidery is in itself a guide for further experiments as it gives me a stitch scale to work from. Let me explain that better.
I do not know the thread count of the linen of the original embroidery, nor do I have a way of getting that information at present and, even if I did know, it’s unlikely I have a similar fabric (or a way of getting any). So, I have to work with what I have and, at the moment, the finest with fabric in my stash is a 60 TPI calico. This means the scale of my copy is different to the original (even though the stitches are worked at the same thread count of four per stitch) but, by stitching a complete pattern, I can then scale the motif outline accordingly and apply it to further reconstructions.
At least that was the idea.
What has actually happened is the pattern fill I have stitched, matching the stitches of the original at exactly, doesn’t match the motif outline! I can only assume this is due to differences in materials, differences in tension applied by myself and the original embroiderer, or distortions that have occurred over time and through use – perhaps it’s more likely a combination of all three.
What this means is that it is going to be impossible to make an accurate replica that matches the motif outline. It’s not the aim of this research the stitch an exact replica – but it seems really relevant for this particular exercise – I’m trying to explore what is there and what is not. It seems disingenuous to make up or estimate the fill to fit the outline – but I can’t make the motif outline match the pattern fill I have stitched.
It’s a quandary.
I have tried to scaling up and rotating the copy (photo) but it doesn’t line up.
Instead, I have laid an acetate onto the embroidery I have made and drawn the outline, matching the points where the pattern fill goes beneath the braid stitch on the original. The resulting outline is quite different to the original. So I am left with a lot of things to consider.
Accurately copying the pattern fill does not match the motif outline, while stitching a pattern to fit an outline is not likely to result in the same stitch pattern, and by extension, the patterns of decay.
I think, for the purpose of this set of tests, I’m going to ignore the outline and just work with the counted thread patterns as they translate to the scale of my cloth – these are just test pieces.
But this is going to need more thinking about. Perhaps the impossibility of accurate stitching means that drawn and digital reconstructions are the only possible solution?
Playing with AR… this could have potential!
Tracing traditional patterns, having to work backwards (counting the pattern rather than filling an outline) – drawing is ok but #embroidery is better. #blackworkembroidery
21st June 2020: Things coming together
I have to admit, I have been struggling these last few months. It feels like I’ve been treading water, things have been slow – my activities have consisted of some simple stitching, a few drawings and very slowly reading a single book.
But today, while reading Chapter 17 “The texture of Making” (Being Alive, Tim Ingold), I realised a few important things that I’ve been edging towards this entire time.
This is still a bit tangled in my head but I’ll try to write this down as coherently as I can.
Let’s start with the basic premise that this research is about materials and the way they are formed into things. I’m not thinking here about the historic Blackwork artefacts as objects but starting from the point that they are formations created with materials by skilled makers. And in my very simple stitch exercises I’ve been studying the materials and my own way of working with them. I’ve been noting how the threads are guided and supported by the weave of the cloth, the variations in texture, how they tangle up and interlace as the embroidery builds up, paying attention to how my hands affect and are affected by the act of stitching… this is all actual, practical and physical research into the concepts described by Ingold. And it’s through the physical experiments that I’m getting a better understanding of the historic Blackwork – the irregularities in the stitch, the ‘messy’ backs and distorted holes (which I think are formed form a combination of stitch tension and a mismatch of needle/thread thickness and cloth weave). But it’s not just been the stitch tests. I’ve been making detailed tracings and diagrams and have noticed these irregularities in trying to draw them – to say nothing at this stage about the ‘quality’ of the digital photos I have been working on.
This close study and my own tests seem to be real examples of what Ingold describes as wayfaring:
“Practitioners … are wanderers, wayfarers, whose skill lies in their ability to find the grain of the world is becoming and follow its course while bending it to their own evolving purpose.”
And this is what I realise I’m doing when I studied the historic Blackwork. I’m looking at someone else’s path, one that I can understand because I am following a similar practice, but that it would be utterly futile to try and replicate – my materials and my physical skills are not the same – even getting identical materials and tools would yield different results. In really basic terms, the work is counted thread but the slightest variations in materials and skill make exact replication impossible.
I also think this idea of the maker responding to and working with the materials might say something about the making of patterns on cloth. The overall outline is drawn on, and (probably) a choice about stitch and pattern is made in advance – but it is only in the process of making the embroidery that these are decided upon… I’m explaining this badly – perhaps an example.
I draw a motif outline onto the cloth and decide on the pattern fill – this might be one I have drawn or one from the sampler. But I might start stitching the pattern repeat a few weave threads in any direction which would slightly change the overall embroidery. And this also has a bearing on the edges of the design – the drawn outline is often thicker than the cloth weave and doesn’t follow the grid, so a decision is made during the stitching about where to apply the last stitch in the row – it might go into the drawn line or slightly over it or you might decide to do a half stitch (Blackwork patterns on fine weave cloth usually have repeat geometric patterns that are worked over multiple weave threads) so the pattern hits the line without going over the motif edge. Finally, you apply outline stitching and, again, small decisions are made in the process. You might have to deviate slightly from the drawn line to cover the pattern or make a more pleasing line, or you might have to adjust the stitch length to navigate a corner of the motif design. This is what Ingold means by improvisation. Of course, some sort of plan is necessary and this planning is dependent on the makers knowledge of process and materials, but in the act of making there are ‘micro decisions’ made that are usually in response to the behaviour of the materials, tools and, by extension, the body of the maker.
What this means is that my ‘reading’ of the Blackwork is not, initially, as an object but as a record of that improvisation. And I need to articulate that I cannot replicate the object exactly (nor do I want to) but that the making of a new embroidery (same outline and choice of pattern fill and stitches) is the reconstruction of the more fundamental thing – the process of making.
To stay with the materials just a bit more, there is the idea of Ingold’s about the temporality of materials the echoes my own. Time of making, time of use, and time of decay – all this is grounded in the materials.
There is also a key thing here about the materiality of the digital and physical – that the improvisational nature of working with materials can’t be captured digitally (or maybe that’s now ‘sort of‘, I think of the digital drawings I’ve been doing) which means I need to think some more about the use of digital and still believe there is something really important here.
Finally, the whole process of making tentative sketches and embroidery and reading Ingold, has led me to the concept of wayfaring or wandering as a methodology – the whole process of my practice and research has been one of wandering, finding a way through, pursuing dead ends and improvising.
Okay. All that was quite garbled – but I think I’ve got down most of the key ideas I’ve been thinking about these last few months. The thing is, I thought I was lost and just wasting time but in actual fact I think I’ve just been wandering….