On Friday I got an email from DHL saying that they would finally deliver the next volume in the monograph series on the Imperial Vestments the next day. And they did! Probably due to the worldwide paper crisis, this book has been on pre-order for more than a year. The third, and last volume, is still on pre-order and is said to be released before the end of the year. Since there are three books on the topic, all written in German, it can be a little difficult to determine which ones to order. Read on for my review of the second volume: Die Bamberger Kaisergewänder unter der Lupe - Methoden und Ergebnisse der aktuelle Forschungen (The Imperial Vestments under scrutiny - methods and results of the current research project).
When I pre-ordered all three volumes in the series, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from each of them. Reading through the introduction of this second volume, I now understand that this volume was intended as the catalogue for the recent exhibition in the Diocesan Museum Bamberg. This means that the first part of the book (p. 14-97) is the catalogue entries for the exhibits. In essence, this is a summary of the first volume: Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszenierung which I reviewed a while back. Whilst this part contains some new pictures not seen in the first volume, these mainly depict written sources.
A tiny part of the book, pages 101-115, describes the art-technological and material science research conducted on the Imperial Vestments. I assume this is a summary of the third and last volume that hopefully gets published before the end of the year. Personally, this is the volume I am looking forward to the most as it promises to hold a lot of technical information important to us as embroiderers. The "summary" on pages 101-115 does whet my appetite but is not meaty enough to satisfy my appetite.
The second half of the book (p. 119-209) contains papers on the papal visit in AD 1020 and the consecration of the St Stephan Church in Bamberg.
Should you buy this book? Only if you like to have a complete set on your shelves. Whilst the first volume contains a lot of information and beautiful detailed pictures of the Imperial Vestments that are useful to us as embroiderers, this second volume is clearly only intended as a summary for the general public. If I had known what was the content of each volume exactely before buying, I would probably not have bought this second volume. This second volume can be ordered from the publisher Schnell & Steiner. You can also pre-order the third volume!
Jung, N. & H. Kempkens (eds), 2021. Die Bamberger Kaisergewänder unter der Lupe. Methoden und Ergebnisse der aktuellen Forschungen, Schnell & Steiner: Regensburg.
By now, I have written a couple of blogs about the gold-embroidered garments held at the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg. These embroideries are about a thousand years old and are associated with Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and his wife Kunigund. For the past five years, the vestments were part of an interdisciplinary research project. The results are now being published in three volumes. Although these vestments are unique, with very few parallels elsewhere in the world, these volumes are unfortunately being published in German. Just like the Dutch thought it a brilliant idea to publish their unique collection of late-medieval vestments in Dutch in 2015 and the Italians cleverly published a monograph on the unique orphreys designed by Pollaiuolo in Italian in 2019. How about making it mandatory to publish in English for all scholars in the world? Enough of a rant. Let me review the first of the three volumes (the other two are not yet published). It is a beautiful book, even if you are condemned to only admiring the many detailed pictures.
This first volume "Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszenierung. Rekonstruktion der tausendjährigen Veränderungsgeschichte" (Changing imperial garments - staging of the past in goldembroidery. Reconstruction of a 1000-years of change) came out in 2020 and is written by Dr Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai. The book is very well structured with a detailed chapter each for the six garments that make up the Kaisergewänder. Additional detailed information on a very specific aspect of a particular garment is published in an "Exkurs" or sub-chapter. There are a whopping 10 of these. There is also an introductory chapter and a concluding chapter.
Tanja is an art historian who has specialised in epigraphy (the science of letters). This specialisation comes in handy as there are many embroidered texts on some of these garments. Using her expertise, Tanja found parallels in other textiles and manuscripts which meant that she could narrow down where a particular garment was likely made or designed or by whom. She also carefully studied all the available historical documents on these garments. Church accounts document the many instances when these garments were being repaired. Revealing who did the work (women were often involved) and how much it cost and how long it took.
Luckily, Tanja also reveals a lot of the details a typical stitcher with an interest in goldwork embroidery wants to know. Goldthreads, fabric, silken embroidery threads and stitches are described in detail. And although there will be a separate volume dedicated to the subject, there is already a lot of information woven into the narrative of this volume. And then there are the many detailed close-up pictures of the embroidery. Quite a few have been taken through a high-resolution microscope. Four folded-up A3-ish maps of three of the garments are tucked in two pouches on the inside of the cover. These are absolutely brilliant. They show a picture of the garment with a simple outline drawing of the whole design and a description of each scene. This makes talking about a particular part of a garment so much easier.
No negatives? Oh yes, it is written in German. And although I am a near-native speaker, I had to look up some words. Written German is somewhat different from spoken German. Scholarly written German is a whole lot different from spoken German. Additionally, when Latin is cited, it is not always translated. After all, Tanja writes for a scholarly German audience. Latin is mandatory for them (the fact that I hold a doctorate, but never had a Latin lesson in my life, is quite incomprehensible to German colleagues).
Personally, I do not like the way sources are cited. Only the last name of the author without the year of publishing is stated. This bugs me. I like to know who wrote what when. This shows me in an instant if a particular scholar could have known the source cited.
As I know Tanja personally, I do know that she can embroider and do other forms of needlework and sewing. However, I feel that the research project would have benefited greatly by adding professional goldwork embroiderers to the team. Replicating small parts of each of these garments with materials that come close to the originals would probably greatly enhance our understanding of the embroidery. Being able to repair or conserve historical needlework is not the same as being able to make a replica. It would also have given us a better idea of what the original embroidery once looked like. After all, the colourful silken threads that were used to couch down the near-pure goldthreads have faded considerably or are completely gone. This means that the intricate couching patterns are nearly invisible. These patterns would have dominated the fresh embroidery and would have given it a completely different look.
Kohwagner-Nikolai, T., 2020. Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszeb´nierung. Rekonstruktion der tausendjährigen Veränderungsgeschichte. Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg. The book is available directly from the publisher and costs €69 + shipping.
Today I am going to review a lovely little book most of you would probably never have come across: Traditional Icelandic Embroidery by Elsa E. Gudjonsson written in 2006. In only 96 pages, Elsa gives an overview of Icelandic embroidery made during the past 500 years in English (!). Being a rather barren island where almost everything needs to be imported, the embroidery is of a special nature too. Whilst mainland Europe uses silks both for the threads and for the fabrics, Icelanders used wool on wool or linen. Both for ecclesiastical embroidery and for embroidery on folk dress and household items. The use of metal threads is rare.
The book consists of two parts: History & Techniques and 23 pages of original patterns. The later have all been transcribed as cross-stitch patterns with a key for DMC stranded cotton. The book describes several techniques which are characteristic of Icelandic embroidery: Refilsaumur (laid and couched work), Glitsaumur & Skakkaglit (straight darning and pattern darning), Gamli krosssaumurinn (long-armed cross-stitch), Augnsaumur (eyelets), Pellsaumur (Florentine stitch or bargello), Sprang (darned net and drawn thread work) and Blomstursaumur Skattering (floral embroidery). Each technique is explained with stitch diagrams and pictures of historical pieces. I was especially surprised to find whole embroideries worked in long-armed cross-stitch after AD 1550. They remind me of the much earlier embroidered vestments now in St. Paul im Lavanttal, Austria. Interestingly, the name "Gamli krosssaumurinn" means old cross-stitch. Krosssaumur is the modern Icelandic name for cross-stitch embroidery. As for Continental Europe, modern cross-stitch does not feature in medieval embroidery.
Unfortunately, very little is known about Icelandic embroidery in the Middle Ages due to a lack of surviving pieces and an absence in the written sources. Especially the latter is remarkable as there are plenty of sources describing textiles. However, the few sources that exist indicate that women were the embroiderers. There are no instances of men being named as embroiderers. Especially upper-class women and nuns were involved in the production of high-end embroideries for the church. This tradition continued after Iceland became Lutheran in AD 1550.
One particularly saucy embroidery story involves Helga Sigurdardottir. She was the wife (yup, they did things a little differently in Iceland) of the last Catholic bishop of the see of Holar, Jon Arason. In AD 1526 they drew up a contract in which was stipulated that Helga would make embroideries for the church of Holar as long as she was able. She became a set income per year for her service. Helga's work must have been outstanding as she is named in a poem of AD 1594 as one of the most skilful needlework women of her day. Helga probably trained up her grand-daughter Pora Tumasdottir who became a famous church needlework woman herself. And what happened to bishop Jon? He was killed by the troops of the Danish king in AD 1550 when he revolted and refused to accept the reformation of his church.
Where to find this book? I bought my copy directly from the National Museum of Iceland for about €23 + shipping. They also have a second book that might interest you: a facsimile of Icelandic pattern books from the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-centuries. However, that one is quite pricey at €180. Pictures of several pages of these original pattern books are included in the embroidery book by Elsa. I know that these books can probably be had from Amazon and the like. But please consider ordering from the National Museum directly. Museums are hit hard by the pandemic due to closure or greatly reduced numbers of visitors due to the absence of tourists. The Museum shipped my book immediately and it was here within two weeks. The ordering process is easy with a credit card and completely in English.
P.S. Virginia Sullivan won last week's giveaway and has been contacted. The cross-stitch charts are on their way to her. A thank you to all who participated!
The German publishing house Schnell & Steiner has a number of interesting books on medieval vestments in their programme. Discounts are applying until the 23rd of December. So if you are thinking of adding books to your library, this is a good time! However, it is a German publishing house and the books are in German. And one, in particular, might look like a good idea, but maybe isn't. That's the one I am going to review here. Don't get me wrong, it is a great book! But as it is the result of a multi-disciplinary conference with theologians, philosophers, art-historians, Germanists, archaeologists, anthropologists and philologists, it isn't for everyone.
Paramente in Bewegung (paraments in movement) is an edited volume of 17 papers published in 2019. These papers have one thing in common: they are all theoretical. Only one author started out with a practical apprenticeship in tailoring. All others are academics through and through and they write for an academic audience with German as their native language. Although I am fluent in German, I had to look up many words in the theological and philosophical papers. And even then I was often left wondering what the author was saying ... However, a couple of papers helped me to better understand the context the embroidery I admire so much functioned in. So, from the point of view of an academic researcher into medieval embroidery, this book is a must-have on your shelves.
Jürgen Bärsch writes about the liturgy and the church building in the late medieval period. Even those who have attended a modern Catholic mass will soon realise that late medieval mass was quite different. Taking communion was rare and instead the elevation of the host was the pinnacle of each mass. Believers would hasten through the church building to attend multiple elevations as masses were not only held at the main altar but also at the many altars belonging to wealthy families, brotherhoods or guilds in the aisles. And as Stefanie Seeberg explains in her paper, the paraments used during these sacred performances all stood in relation to each other and to the building they were functioning in. Similar scenes were repeated on the vestments as seen in the architectural decoration of the church building (wall paintings, leaded windows, sculpture). Most people couldn't read nor understand the Latin the priest was using. But by constantly seeing the same images, the Christian message was understood by all. Additionally, an interesting observation was made. As the priest becomes part of the whole scene, he as a person is no longer important. However, as we nowadays see these splendid vestments in isolation, we often draw the opposite conclusion: the wearer must have stood out.
For the two papers on the theological and historical explanation of vestments (Rudolf Suntrup and Dina Bijelic), there is a better alternative available in English: Clothing the Clergy by Maureen Miller. I've reviewed this book a while ago.
The papers by Britta-Juliane Kruse and Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai explore paraments in the reformed convents of Lower Saxony. They are commonly called Heideklöster as they are located on the Lüneburg Heath. They escaped the dissolution but changed from Catholicism to Lutheranism. They are famous for the large medieval embroidered tapestries stitched entirely in Klosterstich (Bayeux stitch). The papers attest to the high level of education in these convents. The daughters of the nobility were able to decode the complex stories on the paraments. They had read the classical literature and knew how these motives related to the Christian faith. Studying the actual embroideries also reveals that the ladies themselves stitched and designed these tapestries. And they were proud of their excellent work: later pieces are signed.
Stefan Michel and Evelin Wetter write interesting papers on the perception and use of vestments after the Reformation. Whilst the more radical Calvinists objected to the continued use of the Catholic vestments, Luther actually saw nothing amiss with the practice. As long as people did not worship the depictions. The special clothing was only there to support the sacredness of the mass. We now often think that all depictions were radically removed from every church that became reformed. This is true for most churches in the Netherlands, Scotland and Switzerland as they followed the teachings of Calvin. However, large tracts of the Germanic lands followed the teachings of Luther. And they often continued using, repairing and replacing their splendid medieval vestments.
Imke Lüders' paper on the use of images of skulls and bones on burial vestments makes for an interesting read too. And Klaus Raschzok's paper on the re-discovery of paraments in the Lutheran churches shows that this movement was particularly influenced by the 19th-century Gothic revival in the Catholic church. This movement had started in England with the influential publication by August Welby Northmore Pugin: "Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume". You can download this publication for free and marvel at the beautifully hand-coloured designs in the second half. En passant, the paper goes into the question of who should make fitting paraments for the reformed church. One movement wanted to go the professional route by educating deaconesses both in theological design and in the needle arts. The other movement emphasised that each godly woman should help make paraments for the church instead of using her needlework skills to frivolously decorate her own home ... Don't you love it when men discuss how we should use our skills?
I hope the above book review helps you to decide if this book is for you or not. Very soon, three volumes will be published on the medieval gold-embroidered vestments from Bamberg by the same publishing house. As soon as they arrive, I will review these too. They look very promising!
Röper, U. & H. J. Scheuer (eds), 2019. Paramente in Bewegung. Bildwelten liturgischer Textilien (12. bis 21. Jahrhundert), Schnell & Steiner: Regensburg. ISBN: 978-3-7954-3338-3.
P.S. In an attempt to do my bit to break the data monopoly of Google and Facebook, I have transferred all my videos to the video platform Vimeo. Please give me a follow! And in order to have more time for embroidery and researching embroidery, I have decided to close my Instagram and Pinterest accounts. No wonder I have suddenly time to read whole books and a newspaper :).
If you are after a book with lots of pretty pictures of medieval embroidery on vestments, this is not it. Yes, there are some pretty pictures in there, but it is not what the book is all about. Why do I still think it is worth your time? It has a very interesting chapter on the role of women in making vestments and donating them. As the author places their making into the wider context of church reform during the Middle Ages, it explains a lot about the position of women today in the Western world.
From the late 12th-century onwards, increased urbanisation leads to a dominance of the textile trades by men. Especially the 'higher end' of the market is dominated by them. That's why I have written in several blog posts that certain vestments I saw in museums were most likely made by men. The written data for the Late medieval period and beyond from the Netherlands does, for instance, not mention one female embroiderer. But this had not always been the case. The author, Maureen Miller, writes that when we know the name of the maker of earlier vestments, it is always a woman. And here the labour is divided up too: slaves for the 'hard labour' of growing, spinning, weaving, dying etc. and elite women for the fashioning of the vestment. For the more elaborate vestments, male religious would assist with the designing.
Why would women spend time and money on creating (and maintaining) these elaborate vestments? Maureen Miller comes up with several explanations. Firstly, from the ninth century, ecclesiastical legislation prohibited women from entering the church sanctuary or come near the altar. By providing vestments, these women were present at the altar. Secondly, by cultivating such a relationship with clergy, these women could exercise some influence for themselves, but most likely for their families. Maureen Miller thus rightly asks how freely were these gifts really given?
In addition, these relationships between elite women and clergy were always viewed with suspicion. On the one side, elaborate stories about the piety of the women who worked these vestments were drawn up (reciting scripture or singing psalms whilst working). On the other hand, there were plenty of stories in which the 'lewdness of the female maker' transferred through the vestments onto the wearer. These poor clergy felt mightily uneasy when it came to women making and maintaining their intimate clothing.
At the same time, there is a wider reform going on in the church. In order to claim status and visualise hierarchy, an ornate style of vestments started to emerge in the 9th century in Anglo-Saxon England and Francia (modern-day Normandy and parts of Belgium). By the 11th-century it had spread throughout Europe. The makers of this new ornate style were women. They (unwittingly?) provided part of the means with which the Gregorian reforms could be implemented (most notably clerical celibacy). These were particularly bad for the position of European women as they emphasised extreme notions of purity. These ideas live on in particular in the Catholic church till today.
And those poor holy men? They were relieved when they could order their splendid vestments from men in urban centres. They no longer needed to foster close relationships with women to obtain and maintain their vestments. For the visualisation of their status, they no longer depended on women. Women lost a way to exercise their influence. But they lost so much more. Till today, in many Christian traditions, women are not seen as pure enough to serve at the altar. Argue in the other direction and time might have come to strip these holy men of their fancy clothes in order to restore some much-needed balance between the sexes!
Miller, M.C. (2014): Clothing the clercy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200. Cornell University Press.
Today I am possibly going to spent your money :). I bought my copy of Alison Cole's latest book 'The Goldwork Masterclass: adventures in metal thread embroidery' a couple of weeks ago. As with her other book 'The Stumpwork Masterclass', which I wrote about here, this is another splendid addition to your needlework library.
The book starts with a brief history of goldwork embroidery. Nothing in-depth, but enough to give you a bit of a background. Illustrated with pictures of historical pieces, sometimes from Alison's own collection. This chapter is followed by a chapter on basic requirements (answering questions on which fabrics to use), one on transferring and framing up (a proper slate frame is best for most projects) and a chapter on all the different forms of padding (slight differences with how I learned at the RSN, will definitely try to see what actual difference it makes).
After these introductory chapters, the real deal starts with a detailed chapter on all the different forms of couching gold threads. Including instructions on how to do double-sided brick stitch petals (I must SO try this one day!). Alison not only looked at English-style goldwork embroidery, but also remarks on goldwork embroidery from China, India, Spain, France and Turkey.
The next chapter describes my favourite goldwork technique, or nue, in great detail. This is basically a form of needle painting over pairs of goldwork couching threads such as passing thread. As I have studied this technique in-depth myself, I do not agree with everything Alison says. For instance, the hey-day of or nue lasted well into the 16th century in the Low Countries and long-and-short stitch in silk is indeed worked over the goldthreads for the hands of the saintly figures on these particular orphreys.
The chapter on or nue is followed by similar in-depth chapters on other couching threads, pearl purl and plate, purl and other traditional materials. Oh, the possibilities! The two chapters that follow these are centred around the techniques used in a particular historical period: Opus Anglicanum and Elizabethan & Stuart goldwork (packed full with braided stitches I SO must try one day!). The final chapters cover techniques and design elements such as fillings, creative materials taken further, combining goldwork with other embroidery techniques, ceremonial goldwork and other golden goodies (making your own braids). The whole book is packed full with beautiful and detailed pictures of antique goldwork embroideries from Alison's own collection, modern pieces by Alison or from collections around the world. Very inspirational indeed!
This book is not your average project book. Each chapter comes with a sampler showcasing all the techniques described in the text. This is really cleverly done. You work a small design in a particular technique to just master this particular part of goldwork embroidery. A masterclass, indeed!
I really love this book and I think you should definitely have this on your shelf when you are interested in goldwork embroidery. Compared to all the other famous goldwork embroidery books I own, this one is the most complete. It even contains techniques I wasn't familiar with. This is absolute bliss and unfortunately happens less and less when you reach a certain level in your embroidery practice. But, as with all of the other famous goldwork embroidery books I own, this book is also essentially written from an English perspective. What do I mean by this? Some of Alison's pertinent remarks regarding the availability of certain types of threads (particularly different sizes of plate, whipped plate and shaped folien) or how they are used are simply not true when you have access to German and Dutch sources (in the broadest sense of the word). It reminded me that language can be such a barrier. And I am sure I would have been guilty of the same as I find it hard to decipher the romano languages, let allone Greek or Russian ...
Where to find this fantastic book? I've bought mine directly from Alison. With the shipping to Germany it came to about €57. Perfectly good value for a book packed full with so much information. And it worked out about €3 more expensive than when I had bought from a European source. As Alison probably earns the most from books bought directly from here, the price difference of a cappuccino should be worth it, I think :).
This might not come as a surprise to you: I love books on embroidery! Not only the so-called project books or books on a particular technique, but also museum catalogues and research papers. Whilst the first are usually promoted by and within the embroidery community, the later are a little harder to find. Second-hand bookshops are a good place to look for them. Since the topic is such a specific one, the people in the bookshop can often tell you in an instant if they carry some. Recently I rediscovered one such book in my extensive library. It is a Dutch doctoral thesis from 1948 written by Dr. Beatrice Jansen (1914-2008). The title of the thesis defended at the University of Utrecht is: Laat gotisch borduurwerk in Nederland (Late Gothic embroideries from the Netherlands). I bought the book years ago as I liked the technical and design drawings, but I had never actually read it ... Until now. And it actually is a gem! Let's explore together ...
The first chapter concerns itself with the embroidery techniques used. Dr. Jansen was probably not an embroiderer, but certainly a true art-historian. Back in the late 1940s, art-historians used French and German sources for their research. Dr. Jansen copied the French names of embroidery techniques from 'La broderie du XIe siecle jusqu' a nos jours' from L. de Farcy printed in Paris, 1892. You can find an online digitised copy of the catalogue and all the black-and-white photographs here. Although these are truly lovely, I would rather have had a digital copy of the chapter with the embroidery techniques explained. It is quite difficult to understand what Dr. Jansen is talking about.
The other source used is a German one: 'Künstlerische Entwicklung der Weberei und Stickerei' by M. Dreger written in 1904. This book can also be viewed online. However, this is only the text. They didn't digitize the plates ...
Both books are still around and can be purchased from book dealers. However, they sell for hundreds (till thousands!) of euros. So I probably go to the library in Munich :).
That said; when Dr. Jansen really dives into the embroidery seen on the Dutch liturgical vestments, she does present a lot of rather lovely technical drawings. And that's the true merit of this book.
The next chapter is a lovely one too! Dr. Jansen presents all the historical sources concerning medieval embroiderers or acupictores as they were called. The female form, acupictrix was rare and only used as 'wife-of'. Indeed, professional embroidery was a male occupation and females only seemed to have contributed in the ateliers of their husbands (and maybe fathers). What is also interesting, the embroiderers did not have a guild of their own. They were usually part of the guild of the painters as they were seen as 'painters with thread'. The embroiderers did not only stitch new vestments; they are explicitly required to mend existing ones as well. And, this doesn't really come as a surprise: the job wasn't well paid and did not have the same standing as that of artisans working in the 'high arts' like painters and sculptures. Discrimination against textile art certainly has deep roots!
The next two chapters try to divide the gothic vestments into a group made in the Northern Netherlands (roughly present-day Netherlands) and a Southern group (roughly present-day Belgium). These chapters are pure art-historian. Due to the fact that this book is so old, not all pieces talked about are represented by a black-and-white photograph in the catalogue. But lo-and-behold, I own a modern catalogue from the exhibition in the Catharijne Convent in 2015! So I wrote the modern catalogue number and, if applicable, the inventory number into the margins for quicker reference.
Even before the publication of Dr. Jansen, art-historians have tried to name the artists who made the design for these vestments. Successful matches could be made with paintings, woodcuts and sculptures of which the names of the artists have survived. It becomes evident that prints circulated in the embroidery ateliers after which the embroidery was executed. Clients would have had very specific ideas about what they wanted on their vestments and in which style.
Chapter V tries to further categorize the vestments by looking at the embroidered architecture. When you start looking at these vestments, you soon realize that certain elements of the architecture are very similar between different pieces. This chapter is richly illustrated with line drawings of all the different architectural styles found on the orphreys of the vestments.
Chapter VI high-lights that these kind of embroideries were made at least a century earlier than the pieces that have survived in modern-day museum collections. The oldest painting depicting this type of embroidery is the Ghent Altarpiece made by Hubert and Jan van Eyck between 1427 and 1432. This chapter lists nearly 60 other paintings depicting this type of embroidery. The thesis concludes with a sammery in Dutch and English.
I also found a rather embarrassing remark in the margin made by a previous owner. It reads 'Hier had ik nu eens graag gehoord, welke mof dit woord invoerde en welke hollander dit germanisme' (I would have loved to hear which mof (= Nazi) introduced this word and which Dutchman came up with this germanism). Remember, this book was published only three years after the end of the Second World War ...
Since this book was published so long ago, you can only find it in libraries (all over the world as it is a doctoral thesis!) or second-hand. Unfortunately, only more modern theses are available online from the University of Utrecht. And since the author died only 11 years ago, it will take another 59 years before the book can be digitised by me and put into the public domain :). I can probably just manage that before turning 100!
P.S. I am taking a blogging-break during July. I'll be back in August with lots of information on my first solo-exhibition!
Book review: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China
I was given this lovely book about ethnic embroidery from China by the lady who organised my teaching trip to China last year. This book on an interesting topic has a rather special and highly pleasing visual concept as well. Although it is not your classic project book, the step-by-step photographs and descriptions mean you can easily recreate particular stitches and patterns. Especially for those of you who are already adept at wielding a needle, there is a lot of 'new stuff' in this book which will make your hands itch.
The book is written by Dr. Tomoko Torimaru, a Japanese woman who studied Chinese textiles at the University of Shanghai, China. She is the daughter and research-associate of her mother Dr. Sadae Torimaru. Together they have studied the textile traditions of the Miao and related ethnic groups for many decades. They are both well-known and respected textile researchers and deserve to be more widely known among Western embroiderers as well. Full details of the book: Torimaru, T., 2008: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China, University of Hawai'i Art Gallery, ISBN: 978-1-60702-173-5.
And this is what a typical two-spread from the book looks like. Many detailed pictures with explanatory text. In this particular case, the darning stitch is worked from the back in order to protect the finished embroidery. One needs great skill to not make a mistake when carrying threads or otherwise the pattern on the front will show a mistake. There are several embroidery techniques detailed in the book where the embroideress works from the back to avoid soiling the finished embroidery.
Throughout the book, you will learn about the myriad ways of pattern design and transfer. I am blown away by the fact that some paper-template cutters are so skilled that they do not need to make an outline drawing prior to cutting ... There are also many 'recipes' in the book for making starch and thread conditioner from local plants. You'll be amazed at how often the silk threads for embroidery are conditioned to behave during embroidery. I am always quite reluctant to use thread heaven or the like on my silk threads. I usually talk them into submission (with various degrees of success, I must admit).
Another thing I was reminded by when reading the book from cover to cover, is how ingenious people are. We can be one heck of a clever naked ape! For the Miao, embroidering their folk costumes is typically done in between other tasks. When waiting or tending the family, for instance. There's often no ergonomic position to be had or good lighting. Slate frames or hoops for perfect tension? How about using your knees and thighs instead? And it is almost always an activity you'll share with other females. Knowledge transferred from mother to daughter. Underlining and taking pride in one's ethnic identity one peaceful stitch at a time!
As most of you will have noticed (my social media channels were full of birthday wishes from all over the world; thank you very much!), I turned 40 recently. And as it goes: birthdays and presents go hand in hand. So when I visited Munich with my parents, we found an unusual embroidery book for my library. Before I'll show you what it is, let me tell you briefly where we found it.
Personally, up to that recent visit, I didn't like Munich one bit. As it is a very wealthy city, I always felt out of place. Although I do like shopping, I avoid big fashion names as I have found my style long ago and want to stick to it; not change every 3 months :). Anyway. This time we ended up in a whole different part of Munich as I wanted to visit a Zero Waste shop aptly named 'Ohne' (without) and my father wanted to visit some antiquaries in search of Feldpost from WWI. Both, and much more, concentrate around the Schellingstraße in the Maxvorstadt. The name Schellingstraße might ring a bell with art, literature and/or history buffs: apart from being Hitler's home turf, Bertold Brecht, Wassily Kandinsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Lenin, Thomas Mann, Frank Wedekind, Joachim Ringelnatz, Stefan George, Franz Marc and Paul Klee frequented the establishments here in their time. Nowadays, the area is characterised by cosy and hip eateries catering for the whole world, antiquarians and unusual little shops well worth exploring. So, if you ever visit Munich and you are not much impressed by its main shopping streets, head out to the Schellingstraße!
At one of the antiquaries, I found a book named: Stickerei aus Palästina, traditioneller 'Fallahi' Kreuzstich written by Widad Kamel Kawar and Tania Tamari Nasir in 1992. The ISBN of the German version is: 3-927270-03-2 and that of the English version: 3-927270-04-0 (Palestinian embroidery, traditional 'Fallahi' cross-stitch). Unfortunately, the book is now only available second-hand and prices asked for it range between €75 and €281 !!! My mum paid €22 :). A pretty good deal indeed.
So what's this book all about? Fallahi embroidery is a form of cross-stitch embroidery traditionally practiced by Palestinian peasant women (Fallaha) in their villages. The book shows a collection of traditional patterns from the 19th and early 20th century not yet influenced by later Western styles. The collection is subdivided into Palestinian regions: Ramallah, Jaffa, Hebron, Gaza, Beersheba and the Sinai. At first glance, you might think that these are 'just' geometric motives with no further meaning. The book shows you that not only are certain motives characteristic of a particular region, it also tells you their name. For instance, there are date palms from Ramallah, amulets from Jaffa, the Pasha's tent from Hebron, pendants from Gaza and different forms of cypresses can be found in embroidery patterns from all the regions. Once your eye has been sharpened for this, they are no longer 'just' geometric patterns.
What items were decorated with this type of traditional embroidery? The embroidery can be found on the traditional Palestinian female dress: the thob. Depending on the region and the status of the wearer, parts of the front, parts of the back, the sides and the sleeves are covered with embroidery. Furthermore, the bridal trousseau would sport the same kind of embroidery.
What materials do the Palestinian embroiderers use? Traditionally, the embroidery was executed on local hand-woven linen (actually a mix of linen and cotton) or a form of loosely woven cotton. Famous weaving regions were: Majdal, Gaza, Ramallah, Nazareth, Hebron and Nablus. Until around 1930, they would use plant-dyed silk thread for the embroidery made in Syria. Traditional colours would be indigo blue, reds made from roots or insects and ochre for yellow. By far the most popular colour would have been red. Even the shade of red used would point to the origin of the wearer with wine red being from Ramallah and Jaffa, burnt Sienna from Hebron, magenta from Gaza and scarlet- and fuchsia red from Beersheba.
The main part of the book consists of full-page pictures of the stitched patterns (78 in total!). Each pattern has been stitched with European yarn (both DMC stranded cotton and perle were used after the 1930s) onto traditional Ramallah linen. I find this a very nice way of presenting the different patterns. So much more 'lively' than our traditional grid diagrams. And a much more original way of transferring pattern knowledge. Besides the beautiful pattern pictures there are also pictures of women wearing the traditional garments. This part of the book is a real feast for the eyes and your hands start to twitch as you probably can't wait to dive into reproducing a pattern yourself! I've written to the Palestinian Heritage Fund to ask if they know of an online source selling the traditional Ramallah linen. If anyone knows of such a source, please leave a comment!
The book was originally written to present and preserve the original Palestinian village patterns. Due to the Palestinian Diaspora after 1948, traditional village life changed dramatically. And so did the traditional patterns. Thus, in a way, the book also documents the influences world politics has on a traditional form of embroidery.
If you love cross-stitch and traditional forms of embroidery than this book should go onto your watch-list. With its hard-cover, detailed and clear pictures and 144 pages, it might not quite be worth €225, but around €50 would still be a good buy.
On a different note: my Instagram account has been hacked last Thursday. Since Instagram and Facebook have so far not reacted to my requests for help, I went to the police today to officially report the issue. As my hacked Instagram account is linked to my Facebook business page, it is possible that you will see posts that I have not made via both accounts. I am very sorry for that! Until this whole hacking has been sorted out, I won't use my social media. If you would like to stay up to date with my work, please sign up for my newsletter using the button at the top of the right-hand column.
Some of you might have already read Mary Corbet's review of this stunning book on embroidering cat portraits. I did! And since I had seen pictures of Hiroko's work on Pinterest, I really (REALLY) wanted this book. Hiroko shipped it super-fast from Japan; so here is my review.
Hiroko's cat (and dog) portraits are mainly stitched on items of clothing. Cat pops out of shirt pocket is probably the image most of us have seen before. Besides good quality natural fibre clothing as her canvas, Hiroko uses one strand of good quality stranded cotton (DMC, Anchor or the Japanese Olympus/Cosmo).
The stitching technique used by Hiroko is a form of thread painting. But it is not the same technique as is taught at the Royal School of Needlework and with which I am most familiar. The main difference? Hiroko does not use long stitches which she subsequently splits in order to get the required shading, instead she layers her stitches. And those of you who are familiar with the RSN-way of silk shading will have heard the phrase that it 'shouldn't be called long-and-short-stitch but long-and-longer-stitch'. Well, Hiroko uses tiny, tiny stitches to get the desired effect. Fascinating, I must say!
Hiroko's book is not a project book and it certainly isn't a book for silk shading virgins. Although Hiroko shows her order of work in step-by-step pictures for six cat portraits and one dog portrait, it isn't a step-by-step instruction book. This may sound a bit contradictory, so let me explain. The first cat up in the book is a black-and-white puss called Sora. According to Hiroko they are the easiest to do as they have a relatively simple fur pattern and a limited colour palette. The project is broken down in 40 pictures. Now, that sounds like a lot. But it really isn't if you think of the many different directions cat fur flows in. And then there are the tricky areas like nose, ears and eyes...
That said, if you are a regular silk-shader/thread painter, you will marvel at her technique! The step by step pictures with their explanatory texts are delightful. Hiroko has great wit and I laughed out loud several times. And I agree with Mary Corbet that although the pictures are too small to see each stitch clearly, a small magnifier solves this problem. I used my Mighty Bright Light and had no problem to follow Hiroko's projects. And at the back of her book there are the original cat pictures too. This enables you even better to understand how Hiroko tackles each cat. Throughout the book, Hiroko dispenses sound advice on how to become a good (cat portrait) embroiderer. It all boils down to observing the original thoroughly, diligence and self-critique in order to improve your work. And it becomes very clear from the book that these magnificently stitched cats do not appear as by magic; Hiroko works hard to make them happen. I think that's very honest and good to keep in mind.
So, where to get this latest addition to your ever-growing embroidery library? Straight from Hiroko through her Etsy store! The book is self-published and entirely written in English. A big round of applause for that! Including shipping (Japan-Germany took about a week) it cost me €37. In my opinion, very good value for your money!
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