Ok, maybe I was doing too much embroidery last week with Judy and got a little punchy thinking up titles! One of the big reasons we had waited on the birds was uncertainty about the tail and wing stitches. It was very hard to tell from the photos that Susan had sent me if the black outline was reverse chain or something else. Then there was the fill in each of the outlined areas. It seemed as if there was knot stitch, plaited braid, something akin to fly stitch, heavy chain, and reverse chain. And there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason between the different birds to what stitch was used for which fiber. There seemed to be a blue and pink silk along with silver and silver-gilt used.
I closely photographed the birds when I visited the jacket. The outline stitch was stem stitch in black. In the areas where the black wasn’t flanked on either side by other thread, it had broken away leaving needle holes. After outlining the feathers on our jacket, I set about looking at all the pictures in detail and charting out on a piece of paper the patterns that showed up.
What I noted was that there are four regions to the wing/tail. Closest to the breast is the vertical segment. Always done in silver-gilt or silver. Could be done in plaited braid or heavy chain. Next segment of the wing is done in alternating blue silk and silver-gilt. The stitches there could be plaited braid, heavy chain, ceylon stitch or fly. The next segment was the tip of the wing and was worked in pink and silver using again plaited braid, heavy chain, ceylon or fly. The tail could have one or two segments and was always ended in a blue feather with silver-gilt. But again, a mixture of stitches between birds.
This perplexed me until I was looking more closely at our outlined spaces on two birds and was trying to choose among their stitches for each outlined feather and realized what had been going on. Depending on the tracing and the stem stitch outline, some segments were bigger or smaller than others. When using a set thread, some stitches such as heavy chain are defined in their width and can’t get much bigger. So the top segment of a pink wing might be narrow and would fit a heavy chain width, the lower pink segment might be wider and so something else would have to be worked there to fill it properly. There, fly or ceylon might fit the bill. Duh. They did what worked. Yet again that is the lesson we have learned over and over. We keep getting fooled by the seeming regularity to the order of stitch choice and working direction, when in reality the stitchers just needed to get it done however they could.
Their mantra: ‘Get it Done, Save Silk, Skimp on Gold, Whatever Works’
When we apply that to any perplexing problem looking at historic embroidery – the answer becomes clear. I find this project fantastic because while these points might be ‘Duh’ moments to those engaged in the craft, they are not to historians of textiles and costume. Often they get wrapped up in the possibilities of layers of meaning in these objects and forget that the craftspeople working on them were not always ‘Artists’ in the esoteric sense but tradespeople who needed to make money to eat or amateurs who wanted to make something pretty for a gift. And often the mixed possibilities inherent in “Get it Done” are lost on historians. Buying premade parts, using leftovers, farming out your piece to others to finish, buying kits, etc. This project has put together a wealth of data to show that the thought process of the craft was the same 400 years ago as today.