Monday, November 23, 2009

Unity, Harmony, and Contrast in Blackwork

Figure 1
line drawings of a woman, a pomegrante, and a fish.

In design theory the concept of unity is the almighty peg on which the rest of the principles turn. Unity in design is the resting place of art. It is where all good art stands and is revealed. Almost all artists have an innate knowledge of unity and how it is created within a work of art. Indeed, that may be one of the mainstays of an artist. But sometimes unity is a hard thing to understand and to visualize. Unity is the coming together of all the various parts to create a coherent whole. In figure 1 there are three objects, a fish, a woman, and a pomegranate. Though there is some similarity between them (they are all line drawings in black and white; they are all depictions of living things), there is no real unity among them. But look at figure 2. It is also a line drawing in black and white. This drawing has unity: unity in the series of circles and ovals that make up the majority of the lines; the unity of similar objects, the apples, being featured in the depiction, and the leaves; and last, the black line drawn all the way around it bringing borders to the work.

Figure 2
line drawing of a plate of apples

Contrast and harmony play a big role in the development of unity in a piece of art. Contrast is the differences among the elements in the piece. And harmony is the similarities between them. A piece of all contrast and very few, if any, harmonies is not a good piece of art. That we see in figure 1. In both figures we have the contrast of the black ink and the white page. In figure 1 we have many contrasts and few harmonies.

Harmony within a work helps the feeling of unity. In the case of figure 2, the harmonies are the circles, the harmony of the idea of a plate of fruit with no other distractions, the harmony of the simplicity of it. But in Figure 1 there are fewer harmonies. No one shape takes precedence over other shapes. The objects are as far apart on the page as they can be leading more to disharmony. There is really nothing similar among them.

But beware! A piece with too many harmonies seems dull and lifeless--nothing catches the eye and the brain of the beholder. Contrast must work with harmony to achieve harmony. Contrast is the spice in the pie.

Blackwork comes with built-in harmonies and contrasts. Blackwork is stitching of a particular type using very few variants of stitches. This is an automatic harmony. But just this alone will not give overall unity to the piece. Take a look at Earl Grey, a blackwork that has unity, harmony, and contrast. See if you can pick out instances of each of these within its borders.

Earl Grey
Blackwork with a pulled work background in white.
10" X 10" black silk on white linen

Clouds on the Platte
or Nebraska
by Ann Erdmann
blackwork in colors

Ann Erdmann has finally sent me a picture of her finished work, Clouds over the Platte. It is hard for me to believe that this is only her third piece of blackwork she has done, but I know it is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Leaf with leaf filling from Intense Pattern II sampler;
Post-classic style--a simple shape filled completely with a counted pattern;
this pattern could be done reversibly.
(Ignore the arrow, the word OVERLAYS, and the little two-color pattern--
this is a modern blackwork technique.)

Blackwork was originally done mostly in black silk on white linen, though there is some blue, red and green blackwork also from the Tudor and classic periods. There was also some brown, but I assume that the brown was either originally red or black oxidized over the centuries. Incidentally, the classic period was during the reign of Elizabeth I. Her colors were black and white and so she wore a lot of blackwork. Browsing though Arnold’s Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, the 1600 inventory of the queen’s closet and an exegesis of it, we can see how much blackwork/Spanish work she wore.

The evolution of blackwork I have divided into seven periods: early (before 1494) for which I know of no extant clothing, but there is a reference for in Chaucer; Spanish work, 1494 (circa) through the demise of Queen Katherine of Aragon, around 1530; Tudor, the end of Henry VIII’s reign through the reigns of Mary I and Edward 6; classic or Elizabethan, during the reign of that queen; Stewart, through the reign of James I when the technique dies out. It was revived at the founding of the Embroiderers’ Guild in England from 1910 to 1920 and is called post-classic at that point. In the 1960s, the English started the modern period of blackwork. Modern and post-classic continue together up to this day done around the globe.

Post-classic work is what most people now learn as blackwork. It is certainly the easiest of the various ways to do blackwork. A simple shape is filled completely with one pattern. See the leaf illustration.

Blackwork: Compleat andUnabridged
Sunbonnet Sue in the lower right is post-classic;
this sampler has motifs six of the seven periods of blackwork worked on it.

There is a misapprehension about blackwork and its reversibility. Some national and international teachers are teaching that it has to be done entirely reversibly. This is not true according to classic Elizabethan technique. The various blackwork portraits by Holbein and others are cited as evidence that it was always done reversibly. In point of fact, not every blackwork pattern and especially ones from the Tudor periods and ones seen in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe cannot be reversed and make any sense. Just because there is an embroidered sleeve fall in a portrait that could have been the same front and back, does not mean that it was a single piece of cloth embroidered reversibly. A sleeve could easily be two pieces sewn together with the same embroidery on each side of it. The Mermaid Napkin in the V & A that I believe in late classic is not reversible. It cannot be. Most classic blackwork patterns were done in short, straight stitches, backstitch, or even tiny chain stitch.

My sampler called Blackwork: Compleat and Unabridged has examples of six of the seven periods of blackwork on it. My sampler Intense Pattern is mostly all modern blackwork with some examples of post-classic.

Intense Pattern I
This sampler is about modern blackwork.

Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. W.S. Maney: Leeds, England, 1988.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Swirling Patterns

From the sampler for Intense Pattern:
two borders and corners
(plus pieces of vine and leaf);
part of patterning theory we will be learning.

Flowers and elephants in translation;
also from the sampler,

Borders and an overlay from the sampler;
from the top: a Celtic-style border; a line of rabbits in three configurations;
teapots and tea cups;
a non-repeating border called Excission from the title of a book by that name;
and to the left an overlay in two colors.

From a blackwork called Bittersweet, a void study

From the sampler Japanese Ribbons, "reeds reflected in water"
from an old kimono pattern.

From Japanese Ribbons, a pattern of bats done in half drop.

From The Crazed Sampler, a study in reverse images.

From The Crazed Sampler, study in scope/size.

From The Crazed Sampler, an overlay in black and gray with a diamond border to the left.

The Crazed Sampler, a tesselation--Escher's birds.

I think the reason that blackwork is so popular is that it is like a puzzle. How do those patterns fit together? How can I get the patterns to seem to revolve and evolve? The brain is immediately engaged in its exploration of the wendings and windings of a complex pattern and the puzzle it represents.
How can we achieve that complex blackwork look? By the study of patterning theory as it has to do with blackwork. That is what the class, Intense Pattern, is all about. Patterning theory is a little known and little studied part of design theory. Design theory is a huge category of study that encompasses everything from how to make films for cinema, to how to make Windsor chairs, how to design repeating wallpaper to how to make baskets, etc., etc., etc. It also includes how to compose pictures for art, color theory, and how to make blackwork patterns that whirl and convolute. A person could study design theory for a life's work and still have more to do.
But like everything else, design theory and patterning theory can be learned one step at a time. As we will do it in Intense Pattern. There are "rules" to patterning that are fairly easy to learn and then to manipulate. This where the fun is--to study those rules and then make them work for us. Design theory, color theory, and patterning theory are just another language to learn--a lot easier than English or Mandarin or even French and Spanish, and a lot more accessible than FORTRAN or PL1. With even learning just a small part of the language of design, we can begin to use it and create with it.
The pilot class for Intense Pattern is full, but the real class to be held in Louisville, KY in July of 2010 is not full. If these words and these illustrations fascinate you, please consider coming with me to Louisville and entering this world of black and white, pattern and repeats.
Next time, some more on patterning theory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Easy Peasy

Deerfield Crewel
(done in violets instead of blue)
with typical New England stitches
from a class I took while I lived in NJ.

"Pillowcase" embroidery
My word for the easy embroidery that a lot of kids during my era learned from.
I did this under my grandmother's tutelage one hot summer when I was about eight.

American non-traditional Hardanger
I did this for my Mastercraftsman in Color.

Blackwork Collage
This is the cover for my class, Intense Pattern
Blackwork only looks hard

Happy Moon and Bright Stars
My first attempt at blackwork. It must have been all right, because it
passed muster for my Counted Thread EGA Teacher Certification.
Note that I didn't put the whole alphabet on. Well, I actually did.
I didn't re-embroider those letters that were in the title.

from the top left clockwise: Silk and Goldwork, Silk Work, & Goldwork
from a class I took in NJ all those years ago

Silkwork from Pages of History, a GCC.
Satin stitch, stem/outline, and French knots.

I was asked the other day what I consider the easiest technique in embroidery. This is really a hard question for me. In the first place I am not a typical woman who picks up embroidery to pass the time. I am dyslexic and it is getting worse as get older--or at least I notice it more. So the easiest technique that most people would consider would be counted cross-stitch. One cross-stitch is fine. I can do one cross-stitch. I can even do a short row of cross-stitches. Two rows? Forget it. I can’t stitch and read a pattern of cross-stitching--even if I make the pattern myself. It drives me crazy. I just finished a tartan done all in cross-stitch. I am SO glad it is done. No, I do not consider cross-stitch, as a technique, easy at all.

Basic blackwork is easy--as easy as anything. It consists mostly of backstitches. I like blackwork. I don’t need a pattern. I can just sit down and do it. A lot of people are afraid of blackwork and consider it hard to do. I think it looks hard but is in essence easy.

Basic Hardanger is easy too. It has an easy count--five satin stitches over four threads. Easy peasy. Even its graphs are easy to read because of the klosters--clusters of stitches peculiar to the technique. It gets a little harder with the fillings. The first Hardanger I ever did was a simple window curtain. I had no graph, I just made klosters, and then I cut the required fabric threads away. That was it. No fillings. It was great. The curtain was lacy and quite peek-a-boo. I guess that was my first foray into American non-traditional Hardanger back in the very early 80s. Now when I stitch Hardanger all I do is American non-traditional. No graphs. No guides to look at. I just start. That’s easy.

What is hard to do? I think advanced pulled work is very hard. With dyslexia it is very hard for me to follow diagonals correctly. I can do pulled work very well horizontally or vertically, but diagonally can be a nightmare. I have a dirty little secret about pulled work--just keep this quiet, please. I had to drop out of Mastercraftsman Counted Work (and counted work in all its forms is supposed to be my specialty) because I could not do a decent pulled work sampler meeting the requirements of that Step. I still have three of the started pulled work samplers (on second thought--I do not have them anymore--I pitched them some time ago). I can do the basic pulled stitches and even some of the diagonal ones with effort. But I cannot do the compound stitches with pulling going both horizontally and diagonally. I am not sure it is even possible for anyone in their right minds--no matter how many people have passed that Step. So I had to settle for Mastercraftsman in Color.

What is also easy? Pillowcase embroidery. The easy stuff on printed pillowcases. It is technically called surface work. You can do it with a vocabulary of about five stitches--stem/outline, French knots, chain, satin, and long stitch.

Needlepoint is harder than it looks. Crewel needs a lot of practice to get it just right. Goldwork? Did someone mention goldwork? Very hard to do. You need a lot of instruction and a lot of practice. Silkwork--the fraternal twin of goldwork--is also difficult to get just right. Working satin stitch in silk is the most sumptuous thing going, but it needs to be perfect to look good.

And is this all there is to needlework? Is this a full catalog of technique?--not at all. Needlework is vast, and as someone pointed out at the last stitch-in I went to, no one can know it all, let alone have the time to learn it all. The work I mention here is just that work that I do and that my friends do most of the time. I have left out most of whitework, ethnic embroidery, the needle laces, and work that is neither weaving nor embroidery, but both, just to name a few.

Rita intimated that I need to illustrate my words as much as I can. So I will do that. Thanks, Rita, for the comment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Old Teachers and Crewel

My first teacher in embroidery was an anonymous instructor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, CO. Well, she probably was not anonymous to her self, but I cannot remember anything about her except that she was a she. I was put into the class as a substitute for another class I had enrolled in that didn’t make the numbers. The class was a revelation to me and opened up to me the rest of my life. It was a needlepoint class that lasted six or eight weeks. We were to make a tote bag out of the embroidered canvas after we were done. Mine never got that far. As I remember it, we stitched on a rectangle of canvas--it must have been 13 count--that was about 20” X 12”. It had ten panels on it for the various stitches. Mine was in reds and blues. I was thrilled with it. And I was very good at it. Unfortunately that piece was used by a cat as a scratching post. The cat was Genghis Poosey, intrepid hunter, bon vivant, and seasoned traveler. That was in 1976.

The next year we moved to New Jersey. But in the meantime I started designing my own work and had done a couple of small canvases and a rug, plus I had taken my first step into blackwork. In New Jersey I had the great good luck to find the Embroiderers’ Guild in the Creative Needlework Chapter. We met evenings once a month in a church basement in Collingswood. In NJ right there, all the towns are contiguous with only the name change of the main roads to tell you which one you were in. I doubt that Collingswood was twenty minutes on a bad traffic day from my house in Cherry Hill. It was a newer chapter--they all were back then--with young women as eager as I to learn everything we could. The chapter members taught me a lot, were very encouraging, and made me want to stretch to gain their respect.

One of the first teachers I had whose name I remember was Betsy Lieper. She was an itinerant crewel teacher from New Hampshire. Every month she got in her VW Microbus and made a two week teaching circuit with Merchantville, NJ as her most southern stop. I had never done crewel and in fact had only dabbled at surface work; as I said, needlepoint, a counted work, was my forte. She had us all work on a large piece of twill with what I now know was a Jacobean-inspired design. We worked in Elsa Williams wool yarn. I was surprised at how good I was at it. So was everyone else, surprised, I mean. I was especially good at French knots and satin stitch. She taught us about a dozen different stitches, including long and short and shading. I knew crewel wasn’t for me, but I was glad to learn to do it. The way I learned it and the design I learned it on were way too staid and old-fashioned for me. I love crewel and its fascinating stitches, but to this day it is not something I do in its classic form.

Why am I remembering this and telling it now? Tomorrow is a stitch-in for Sandia Mountains Chapter and I have been asked by a member to show her how to do crewel. I am more than happy to do that and to pass on what Betsy so lovingly gave to me those thirty-odd years ago--a passion for the stitch.