The end of Excavations

I mentioned a while ago that I’d had to rethink the way I was going to attach the pages of this mixed media book, since they are all 8″ square and so don’t have any kind of gutter or margin along the bound edge. There are a few ways of fixing this, one of which is to simply leave all the pages loose, and keep them together in some sort of wallet-type-thing. I decided, however, that I did want the pages to turn, so I added a strip of denim layered with a strip of felt between each pair of pages:

You can see the pen marks that show where they’ll be sewn together. The easiest way of marking where the binding stitches will go is to use a strip of masking tape, with holes punched along its length for a pen to poke through. The tape can then be easily removed and repositioned for all the signatures. The layer of felt is to add bulk in the binding margin so that the spine isn’t so tight that the pages fan out.

Once I’d stitched through the marks with some strong linen thread, it was pretty much finished. I thought about making some wrapped cords to tie the whole outer case together, but then I found a strip of openweave that was already exactly the right width and length, so I went with the serendipity and used that.

The thing holding it all together is a brooch pin blank, wrapped in thread, with beads suspended through the three holes in the brooch pin.

And there it is, finished. I started this project in April, so it’s been around four months in the making. Most of that time was spent thinking, and this is probably true of most art forms: most works of art (and I mean art in all its forms, like writing, music, drama, visual art, sculpture, textiles, etc) are probably something like 80% thinking and 20% doing.

Now I’m going to be thinking about the second (and third) mixed media books in this series, which will be based on the textile fragments found in the Oseberg ship burial. Endings and beginnings; so often part of the same thing.

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Nearly a wrap

Just now working on the outer cover for Excavations, my interpretation of found fragments of Viking textiles.

It’s basically just strips of fabric and couched yarns on a base of hand-dyed calico. It’s a good way of using up those short lengths and narrow widths that you find in your scraps collection. I decided on this wrap-around cover to further emphasise the ‘uncovering’ element that inspired this collection. Whereas you would just open a book, with this arrangement you have to flip out the right-hand wrap and then open the cover on the left. It will all become much clearer when the pages are in position.

It always amazes me how very simple stitches used as mark-making can be so expressive, and I now find that I only want to use really simple, irregular stitches rather than very neat, even rows of proficient stitching.

Next week I hope this will be finished, and that the pages can finally be stitched into the cover.

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End papers (2)

And the inside back cover:

Again, the base is dark green Aida (thank you again, Mo), stitched very simply into an unmeasured nine-patch formation – a few straight stitches over a narrow ribbon yarn, with little scraps of treasure stitched into each space. I’m thinking ‘finds’ for this little sample, arranging small-scale mystery objects on a background. The outline you can see marked with tacking thread is the eight-inch square boundary where it will be matched up with the outer cover, when I get round to dealing with that.

It’s at times like these that I feel very pleased with myself for having kept 1″ square bits of linen and lace 🙂

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End papers (1)

Inner front cover:

It’s not based on anything at all, really. It’s meant to be an exploration of how it might feel to uncover layers of ancient textile and finding treasure that has been buried for a long time.

I started with a piece of black Aida (thank you, Mo), which makes a good base for this kind of layering because it’s quite firm and yet is easy to stitch on. I added a bit of very ornate black lace fabric that is studded all over with little gold globules of something – I’m not sure what, exactly. It’s quite opulent, and a little goes a long way. Nothing subtle about it! Over that I layered a bit of denim from the knee of my husband’s discarded Levis, which already conveniently had a large hole in it. Goodness knows how he does that to jeans, especially given that stitching Levis denim by hand is a lot like stitching cardboard. Tough fabric. Anyway, I layered another narrow strip of the ornate lace diagonally across the square and covered the whole thing with a piece of hand-dyed silk organza.

I also layered a piece of very sheer chiffon over the hole in the denim, again to slightly knock back the in-your-faceness of the gold-patterned lace, and also to suggest the uncovering of something precious. I added some bits of metallic viscose chainette under the corners of the organza and fixed these in place by scattering some seeding stitches around the edges.

I really like the combination of these very different fabrics – the tough/strong denim and Aida somehow seem to work quite well with the sheerness and fragility of the chiffon and organza. I’ve begun work on the inner back cover, which I hope to post next week.

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More Oseberg embroidery

When I first came across this design, taken from embroidery found in the Oseberg ship burial, I thought of couched lines and fly stitch.

First, of course, I had to transcribe it and somehow get it onto fabric. Easier said than done. I tried copying the drawing – several times – each attempt so epic a fail that I didn’t take time to photograph the efforts. Viking design is often extremely complex, and this one particularly so. In the end I resorted to squaring it up and transferring the lines one square at a time:

Still not that easy! I traced the basic design onto tissue paper, then pinned that over cotton fabric stretched in an embroidery hoop. I found that if you go over the traced lines with a permanent marker pen, the ink soaks straight through the tissue and appears on the fabric. Since I knew that the whole surface would eventually be covered by stitch, it didn’t matter that there were ugly black lines all over the fabric. Goodness knows how the Vikings did it.

Eventually, and after a reasonable amount of effort and concentration, it was ready to stitch. I used mostly space-dyed cotton embroidery threads for the spiral, with spun silk thread in the chain-stitched leaf motif, and 4-ply cotton yarn for the terracotta background couching.

Once the stitching was complete, I could cut the design area out (to help it look more like a fragment of found embroidery) and stitch it to a paper background.

I confess I was glad when this final page in this first series was finished. Now I’m thinking about how to put it all together. 

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I noted in my working sketchbook that currently around five excavation sites have yielded fragments of Viking-age embroidery.

This one, from Gokstad, seems to be worked in something like chain stitch. I’m not sure what size it would have been. My reworking of it is about 2″ or so in diameter.

The page is 8″ square, like all the others in this series. The embroidery is worked in space-dyed cotton thread on Pima cotton fabric, which is very crisp with a tight weave. The fragment is attached to the layered paper background with the little brads you can get for card-making, and reinforced by a few overcast and running stitches.

I didn’t intend the background to look a bit like a map, but I quite like the effect.

I think there’s only one more page to complete after this one, and then it will be ready to assemble into book form. When you embark on a cloth book project, you need to think about how you’re going to put it all together before you start. This is so that you can plan for a wider margin on the side that pages will be bound, or so you can at least plan where the holes will be when you stitch the pages together. I was going to just tie the pages together through holes on the left-hand side, with loose 8″ square covers front and back. Now I’m thinking of a slightly different way, which will involve a bit of a re-think. Should have had a Plan B from the start!

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Ragged embroidery

The Oseberg ship burial is the best source found so far for showing what we know about Viking textiles, and in the future I plan to make two entire mixed media books based purely on the finds from Oseberg. For this collection, though, loosely titled ‘excavations’, this little fragment is perfect. As usual, I collected prints of the source material in my sketchbook:

It’s very beautiful in itself, and I really wanted to preserve that fragile delicacy of stitch.

I first painted and layered some papers to form a background. That very light, lacy paper is ideal. I worked the little bits of embroidery on some lightweight linen covered with hand-dyed cotton scrim, and then stretched it on an embroidery frame. I drew the embroidery motifs onto very fine tissue paper and pinned it over the layered fabric. Of course, I should have taken pictures of this bit, but got so engrossed that I forgot. Next time I use this technique I’ll try to remember 🙂

The stitches are satin stitch and chain stitch, worked over the tissue paper drawing, then the tissue paper was torn away (with very fine tweezers) after the stitching was complete. I used a hand-dyed silk noil thread for the stitching. Once all the motifs were worked over separate areas of the layered fabric, I cut away the linen from the underside, leaving more scrim around the edges than linen. You can probably see the edge of the linen through the scrim if you zoom or enlarge. I could then stitch the scrim to the paper backing.

And the finished page, 8″ square:

                                                                                         Possibly my favourite so far.

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Still on the subject of Mammen, one of the other discoveries there was a pair of decorated bands. They appear to be a combination of embroidery, appliqué and tablet weaving, and would probably have been used to embellish a garment of some sort.

You can see from my notes that I initially intended the central filled area to be some kind of needle weaving, rendered in something like ceylon stitch, which is what it looks like to me. That seemed like a sensible idea in theory. In practice, I realised that the stitches would have to be really tiny in order to maintain the right sense of scale, and that I would have to spend much more time on it than I was prepared to set aside. In the end I decided to interpret it slightly more simply, as a collection of couched threads and ribbons.

While it’s not quite as beautiful or delicate as the Viking version, I’ve tried to preserve some of the main features. The vertical threads are couched onto a piece of very fine silk muslin, with silk sari yarn couched along the edges. 

This panel is then stitched onto a piece of distressed linen (I scratched it with the point of some sharp scissors, wincing and apologising profusely throughout) and then stitched that onto some open weave cotton fabric with a small buttonhole stitch. The backing is textured handmade paper.

I applied a piece of tablet woven braid along the bottom of the sample – one of my very early attempts, using 2-ply wool yarn – and a piece of vintage lingerie strapping, to represent the original horizontal bands.

The samples for this first book are deliberately being worked fairly quickly and intuitively because I intend them to look – on the surface, at least – incomplete. The idea of digging up something from the past is one that I find particularly intriguing, and I’m really interested in what time does to tangible objects and to intangible memories. Remembering past experiences often illuminates that same kind of incompleteness, where the visual memory of the experience itself is somewhat ragged around the edges, but the feeling that comes with it is often powerful enough to produce a very real physical effect.

It’s never just stitches on cloth, is it?

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Half a Creature

In Mammen, Denmark, a Viking burial was unearthed by a farmer in 1868. The burial dated to around 970 and featured a man dressed in an elaborately embroidered tunic. The textiles in the grave showed evidence of fine needlework and a very strong sense of design. I collected some copies of the designs in my sketch book:

 I found the fragment of creature – I presume it’s some kind of leopard – particularly fascinating. You can see that I had a rudimentary go at reconstructing it. Actually, on reflection, I preferred the incomplete version. This current project is mostly about collecting and re-imagining fragments, so half a creature seemed more fitting somehow.

This is the same size as the other pages so far (8″ square) and is made by layering medium weight linen fabric, open weave cotton and handmade paper on a paper base. I stained the paper with some ink and watercolour to knock back the whiteness of the paper. The creature is worked in the same stitch used on the Mammen fragment, which is either stem stitch or outline stitch, depending on the direction of the line.  I used stranded cotton embroidery threads for this one and followed the colours of the original. I see that the belly stripe on my creature is rather thicker than on the drawing, but I’m not too bothered about that. I’m not trying to copy appearances exactly here, but rather to get the feeling of the thing.

I really like the way dress net works in these situations. You can layer a single ragged strip over something and it creates a very slightly darker tone that suggests something like a shadow, a bit like a watercolour wash:



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Viking appliqué 

A textile fragment was found in Lund that appears to consist of narrow strips of fabric stitched onto a ground of red silk:

It measures approximately 13 cm x 5 cm and is widely (and incorrectly, as far as I can tell) referred to as ’embroidery’. The thin strips of golden yellow appear to be actually turned edge appliqué, and the fragment is believed to have been part of a garment.

It’s a relatively easy thing to reproduce, and an interesting exercise in surface decoration.

The background is a modern dupion silk woven with fine stripes; the applied strips are taken from a fragment of very old silk that I was once lucky enough to find on that well-known online auction site. The antique silk dates to (I believe) the late 18th century, and you can still see evidence of a gold thread that runs through it. Despite its age, it’s robust enough to use, and of course it was perfect for this exercise.

Although I’ve chosen to reproduce the colours as they appear to be, I’m not necessarily convinced that the strips would originally have been yellow. Time and environment work on fabric dyes in a peculiar way. I know that the Vikings would have had to dye twice to get green – they would dye the fabric yellow first, then over-dye with blue. My feeling is that these strips could have been green, and that the second dye has worn away to reveal the original dye beneath. I know it hasn’t been exposed to light during its approximate millennium in the earth, but the acids and chemicals in soil might well have some effect on dye structures. Not that I have any kind of chemical knowledge or expertise, but it strikes me that this is possible. I’m thinking in terms of perfume, with its top notes and base notes, and I feel that colour perhaps works in a similar way.

I’ve nestled the little appliqué fragment on a layered ground of hand-dyed silk gauze, silk chiffon, and cotton open weave fabric. The tacking stitches you can see around the edges are a first tentative step in trying a couple of pages back to back, to see how they will look when I bind them into a cloth book at the end.

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