Monday, 20 January 2014

Because I am crazy.

Periodically I browse the online collections of the Victoria and Albert museum, looking for pre-1600 textiles that could serve as inspiration for SCA projects. A few months ago I found this handkerchief. I love it. It's beautiful and intricate and completely over-the-top. I decided that someday I'd figure out how to do all the millions of complicated things it required and make a replica.

Fast forward to November. A good friend in the SCA wanted to enter Coronet tournament, but didn't have anyone to fight for. (In the SCA, one person fights for his or her chosen consort, and then the two of them rule for a fixed period of time.) He asked me to be his consort, I agreed, and then he sprung on me the fact that I'd need to make him a favour. Two, in fact - one to wear on his belt while fighting and a fancy one for best.

The fighting token was easy. I put my herald's hat on and made twisted cord in his colours and mine. Took about 5 minutes.

The fancy one left me stumped until I remembered that handkerchief. There wasn't time to make a full-scale one, but a smaller one, on heavier linen with no edging? Surely I could manage that, and it would be excellent practice for making the proper one in the future.

The first task was finding resources to learn how to do all the various bits. The curator's description said, "Handkerchief of fine linen with decoration at the four corners : cutwork with needle lace fillings, and whitework embroidery in detached buttonhole and satin stitches; edged with needle lace." The thread is also linen.

So. Whitework, cutwork, and needle lace on linen.

Whitework is just white-on-white embroidery, so I needed to match my thread to the fabric. As it happened, the only appropriate linen I had was a very pale pink. No worries - pink was considered a manly colour in the Middle Ages, and I'm sure my consort will pull off a pink handkerchief nicely. I didn't have any linen embroidery thread, so I went digging in my stash of DMC embroidery cotton. Colour 225 was a nearly-perfect match.

Cutwork and needle lace were the bits I was feeling nervous about. I've never done either before, and the thought of cutting into my embroidery was a bit nauseating. To calm myself, I went off in search of books. These were what I found:


The two books at the top were ones I already had in my library. The bottom right is an out-of-print book that showed up on every single needle lace bibliography I could find, so I snagged it secondhand from Amazon. The last book is a facsimile of a late 16th-century book of needle lace patterns. No instructions, but since I was designing my lace from scratch, I wanted something to give me a sense of what designs would have been worked into the lace.

Here's my initial design: 

Initial design

The circle-and-diamond are based on my consort's heraldry, and are to be worked as needle lace. The fancy bits around the square are to be done in plain old backstitch, which I've decided to make reversible. Wrong sides of handkerchiefs show!

I was initially having trouble deciding on the dimensions, layout, and margins. Then I remembered that I had a fancy decorative handkerchief from my wedding, so I decided to just use those dimensions. I also decided to draw my design out in the actual size to make it easier to get the motifs in the right place.

Once all the decisions were made, it was time to get stitching. I started applying thread to fabric 10 days ago. The first stage was couching down some heavier thread (crochet cotton in this case) with buttonhole stitch. This forms and stabilizes the border of the square where the needle lace is placed.

Couching the cord

Teeny-tiny stitches
Once the couching was done, I added the curly bits on the corners. Incidentally, it's really difficult to photograph pale pink thread on pale pink fabric in London in January.
Front of fabric

Back of fabric
After getting all the corners done, I decided that I actually liked it better without the extra embellishments in the middles of the edges, so I've left them out.
Finished corners
Once the embroidery was done, it was time to start hemming. And hemming meant cutting! Further proof of my insanity is that I decided not to do a plain hem, but an openwork one. That meant withdrawing two threads around the whole piece. I counted 8 threads below the edge of the embroidery, gave the next two threads a little tug with my needle to allow room for the scissors, and then snipped!

Marking threads to be withdrawn

Withdrawing threads

Once I'd recovered from the shock of cutting into my fabric, I set about hemming and putting in mitred corners. This did not go well, frankly. I should have whipstitched the raw edges of the fabric, as it was unravelling faster than I could sew it into place. As a result, I've got nice straight edges, but I didn't do the decorative hemstitching. Also, as you can see from the next photo, my mitred corners were pretty crappy.
Still. I'm happy with the hemming, even if it isn't as fancy as I'd wanted, and I know that I need to practice sewing corners.

I finished the hemming yesterday (so just over a week to do all the couching, embroidery, and hemming), and started the next phase - removing threads for the needle lace! It thankfully occurred to me before I started cutting that I'd need more of a grid of threads than just the centre.
First threads out

Half done

Finished corner!

I finished taking out the threads for one corner this morning. Still to do:

  • Withdraw threads from remaining three corners
  • Figure out how to stabilize the grid of remaining threads
  • Stabilize the grid in all four corners
  • Work the needle lace in all four corners
  • Iron the finished piece
  • Make smart-assed remarks at my consort about how much he'd better adore me after this.

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