Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More Readers' Questions Answered

I apologize for taking so long to answer questions from your e-mails and our conversations at shows. I'll try to catch up on some of them now.

Why is it called Spanish blackwork? (See Basic Blackwork, Part I, Oct. 6,2013.)
Because it became really popular in Spain and spread from there to much of Western Europe. The patterns and techniques were introduced into Spain by the Moors, who invaded Spain from Morocco in the year 711 AD and ruled parts of it for nearly 800 years. The Moorish embroidery was done on wool with silk, gold, and silver threads. The style gained greatly in popularity when it began to be done on cheaper and more readily available linen. There is a widespread story that blackwork was brought to England by Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish first wife of King Henry VIII, but this is not accurate. Chaucer describes blackwork in his Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, so it was well established long before her arrival in 1509. Nevertheless, there's little doubt her marriage to the king made it even more popular. It was widely used for the clothing and linens of royalty and nobility throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth I -- and beyond. This type of embroidery was popular in Renaissance Italy, as well as in Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries, although each area had its individual style. Altogether, this was the period of the most lavish costumes in human history. There's a lot of history to be found in needlework!

redwork embroidery detail
Redwork embroidery (antique Lithuanian tablecloth)
Is blackwork always done in black?
No, although it is usually done in a single color. Even when its popularity while done in black was at its height, it was rivaled by redwork. This was done in deep red with embellishment in gold and silver thread. When the Muslim religion began to have an influence on the Byzantine Empire (330 to 1453 AD), a style of redwork spread from Constantinople northward into Bulgaria, Romania, the Caucasus and Russia, reaching as far north as Finland. (Lots of geography in needlework, too.) It remained very popular in Russia throughout the centuries. A lady who recently visited Russia assures me that it is still abundantly available in gift shops there today. The Finnish work, done in a deep purplish-red (called “Turkey Red” in my youth) is still very similar to that done in the Byzantine Empire a thousand years ago.

Drawn-and-pulled-thread whitework
A sample of drawn/pulled thread whitework
“Blackwork” can also be done in white. You would think this could legitimately be called “whitework”, wouldn't you? However, this would dismay many of our Scandinavian friends, for whom “whitework” is a specialty. They will tell you it isn't “whitework” unless it is used in combination with drawn-thread work or pulled-thread work.

owl embroidery
Owls, done in a modern version of Holbein embroidery
Finally, there is a version of this stitchery which is done in multicolor and is quite attractive. This is called Holbein embroidery, in honor of Hans Holbein the Younger, a German painter who was court portrait painter for King Henry VIII. Many of his works show amazing examples of embroidered clothing and accessories. (see the portrait of Jane Seymour above). Holbein embroidery will be the subject of a future blog.

unicorn embroidery white on checked gingham
Unicorn (in progress) in white floss - NOT "whitework"
Why are the blackwork patterns called diaper  patterns?
The word “diaper” came into English from the French language, indicating a fabric with a distinct repeating pattern. Used originally for a rich silk fabric, it came to be associated with soft white linen or cotton fabrics used for tablecloths and towels. (Don't tell me you've never grabbed up a dishtowel for the baby in an emergency!) Finally, the term was applied to any all-over fabric pattern made up of small repeated motifs or units of design (often geometric figures) connected with each other by straight or curved lines. Now the word is used here in the USA primarily for baby bottom coverings -- most of which contain no fabric at all. Just for fun, I traced the word from French to Latin and finally back to an old Greek word, diaspeirein. It is the root of both “diaspora” and “dispersion”, and originally meant to sow seeds. Eventually it came to mean “to scatter “ -- whether seeds, patterns, or people. If you are collecting diaper patterns, you might want to check this page on In the meantime, I'm still inventing and adapting patterns of my own and will have some for you to download on a future blog.

katana cat
Her Highness is NOT amused!
I know a “katana” is a Japanese sword; why did you name your cat Katana?
Katana is also a form of calligraphy in which the characters end in curved points like cat's claws. The cat got her name because when she was a kitten she thought she was a ninja. Sneak attacks were her specialty. The first time she met J.D., she flew through the air, snatched the doughnut he was eating out of his hand, and disappeared with it. The look on his face was priceless. If only I had had a video camera running! She will be twelve in June, so she is too old and fat for ninja antics now. But she can still race up the stairs and across the back of the couch at a pretty good speed. Her “official” name is Princess Katana, but we don't use her title in her presence. She's already vain enough.

crocheted tree Feliz Navidad
"Feliz Navidad," a one-of-a-kind crocheted tree
Love the [crocheted] trees! Do you sell the pattern?
No, I'm sorry, I don't. Each one is really a unique yarn “sculpture”:  there isn't a single pattern. So much depends on the weight and texture of the yarns, the size of the dowel I'm mounting the tree on, the height of the tree, the color combination I'm trying to emphasize, the weight and number of ornaments I may be adding, the type of finial for the top, etc. You can probably see at least 3 basic tree shapes in the photos on the November 21, 2013 blog post. There are several more that aren't illustrated. The trees are crocheted in independent layers, and the number of layers varies from tree to tree. I modify the layers as I go along to get the effect I want. Sometimes I start at the bottom and work upwards. At other times, I start in the middle and work both ways. I may use 6 or 7 different hooks in one project. Sorry I couldn't be of more help, but I'm delighted you liked the trees!

There were also several questions about the puppets, which I will answer in the next Q and A blog. There will also be a puppet pattern to download.

Keep the questions coming!


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Back to Bargello

Hello, again! Happy 2014! May it be a good year for all of us.

Annake's Garden icon bargello
Original bargello that we use as the Annake's Garden icon
In a weak moment, I promised J.D. and some of the other “Gardeners” that I would take a two week “stay-cation” after all the end-of-the-year activities. You know:  stay at home and rest, read, work puzzles, play mahjongg online, give the cat a lot of lap time. I have now had about all the relaxation I can stand (although I did manage to make two needlepoint pillow tops and a small afghan when no one was looking), and I'm ready to work. J.D., who keeps track of such things, tells me that a great many of you have viewed last year's “Bravo Bargello” blog (May 1, 2013). I was delighted to hear that, since bargello is one of my favorite things, and I want to discuss it again. You may want to reread that blog post for general information before we begin.

Wave pattern bargello pillow top
"Wave" pattern bargello pillow top
If you are not a purist (you already know I'm not one), the term “bargello” can encompass much more than traditional large-scale patterns like the varieties of flame stitch. These were originally designed for upholstery, draperies, bed canopies, even wall coverings. It need not even be restricted to sweeping, all-over patterns like the evergreens and aspen trees you saw in the former blog or this new ocean wave pattern. It can include any small, repeated needlepoint pattern generally worked in upright stitches over carefully counted numbers of canvas threads. I say generally, because horizontal and diagonal stitches may be incorporated into some designs.

I don't know if you've paid much attention to the “A” icon I use in the "About Me" section of this blog (as well as a lot of other places, like in our favicon). The “A” stands for Annake, of course, and the repeated design in the background represents the daisies and white cosmos in our backyard garden. It is an easy, but versatile, design that can be used for many articles --- large and small. Such items could include coasters, picture frames, desk sets, album covers, handbags, footstools and pillows. The “flowers” may be any color that you choose or can be done in a rainbow of different colors (a good way to use up odds and ends of yarn). I decided to make a 16-inch square pillow cover.

Closeup of daisy bargello pattern stitches
"Daisy" pattern bargello stiches, close up

I pressed and cut my canvas, allowing an extra margin of unworked canvas on all sides. I then used 3/4-inch masking tape on both sides of the cut edges of the canvas. This makes the canvas easier to hold and prevents the edges of the canvas from fraying. I chose to begin the work at one edge of the square and work across it in parallel rows. I could have begun in the center and worked in both directions toward the ends, but I think that is harder for a beginner to do.

Aspen pattern bargello lashed to frame
"Aspen" pattern bargello lashed to wooden picture frame
Now is a good time to say a few words about supports. As you can see, when I did the “Aspen” motif I worked on a square wooden frame. This is a simple 14-inch picture frame that I found at a thrift shop. I lace all my 14-inch canvases, whether pictures or pillow tops, to this frame and pull them taut. Another technique is to roll your finished work onto one roller while unrolling the unworked canvas from another roller. There are all sorts of commercial frames for these purposes, but they are expensive. For small projects I use a homemade device featuring two 1/2-inch dowels, a couple of links of chain and a sturdy rubber or elastic band. While working on the “Daisy” piece, I simply rolled the canvas into a tube as I completed each section and secured the ends with a pair of plastic clips or clothespins.

homemade roller needlework support
Simple, homemade roller needlework support
Like many bargello patterns, the “Daisy” design is based on stitches worked vertically over 4 threads. That is, you bring the point of your needle up in a canvas square, skip over 4 canvas threads, and take the point of your needle down in the next canvas square. Once you try this, some of you will say,”Aha! You skip over 3 squares of canvas. That's easier, so I'll do that.” True, and that thinking would probably not get you into trouble on this pattern. But you will soon encounter patterns (“Aspen”, for example) where there are very important places where the count is not over 4 threads. Please get into the good habit of counting threads, not squares. Then you won't have a bad habit to overcome later.

Daisy pattern bargello with straightedge
Checking the "Daisy" pattern bargello with a straightedge
Each row of stitches begins in the same canvas squares where the row below them ended. It is a good idea to check a completed row with a straight edge to make sure all stitches end where they should. If you find a mistake, correct it immediately or it will multiply in future rows. There will be places at the two ends where there is not enough room to complete some of the pattern stitches. Just do as much of each stitch as you can. Below is a diagram of the stitches in this pattern. Please note that I have used pink to indicate the stitches that are white on the actual bargello.

Stitch chart for "Daisy" bargello pattern
Stitch chart for "Daisy" bargello pattern

Some of the blog topics coming in 2014:

Counted cross-stitch and Spanish blackwork on monks' cloth and aida
Nordic stitch and more bargello basics
Holbein embroidery and Assisi work
Folk embroidery
Fabulous four-way bargello
More questions and answers
More interviews
More patterns to download
Some nostalgia pieces

Please let me know if you have a specific area of art needlework you would like me to address.

So happy to be back,


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