Monday, November 19, 2018

Silk Wrapped Plate

I have been wanting this thread forever.  Ever since I saw it used in contrast to silk wrapped purls on trees on a big stumpwork mirror frame in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  In this type of purl, we had a plate made first and then covered it with silk thread.  The plate was then wrapped around a needle and made into this delicious thread.

It is really slow to make.  The thinness of the silk and slow process of wrapping the plate has a full day to wrap enough plate to make seven meters of the purl the next day.  That is TWO DAYS of machine time to make seven meters.  WOW.

But the effect is just amazing.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How are Silk Purls Used?

Short pieces of silk wrapped purl are cut and then a needle is
threaded through with thread to tie them down with a short stitch to make
them loop up.
Silk Purls can be used in many different ways and they make amazing texture on pieces of embroidery.

They can be couched down to give a high contrast to an area or to make a really cool looking tree trunk.

One of the most common ways is to cut short lengths and make them into loops on the fabric and then overlap the to fill shapes.

Jacobean flowers were a common shape that would be filled in this way.

Silk Wrapped Purls couched and using loops to make a flower shape on a mirror frame at MET

The grass under her feet are silk wrapped purls
 in loops that are standing up 
Stuart Silk Purl Flower

I just taught this course in person at Winterthur - Stuart Silk Purl Flower - and it will be an online class after the 1st of the year.  There were extra materials manufactured and I can squeeze out a small course run for those who didn't get into Winterthur - especially those overseas.

If you have never tried the silk wrapped purls and want to know what all the fuss is about and how to use/handle them properly, this is a great small project.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Exhibition at Witney Antiques

There is a new exhibition of needlework at our friends at Witney Antiques.  Rebecca, the daughter of the late owners is carrying on the tradition of having open exhibitions of wonderful things and welcoming us lookers as much as us buyers.

The subject is "Embroidered Lives and Family Threads, Historic Samplers 1600-1900".  It is open from Nov 5th, 2018 - Saturday December 1st, 2018.  Monday - Saturday 10am-5pm.

The exciting thing is always the catalog.  It is available for £15 plus postage.  To USA is £8 and in the UK £2.50. It is available by emailing them at

Friday, November 16, 2018

New Sizes of Silk Wrapped Purls and Silk Check

Silk wrapped purls can come in many sizes and in a few variations.  These are all based on a silk wrapped wire that is then wrapped around a needle or wire as I talked about yesterday.  They can be wrapped around a triangular shaped wire that is rotating to make a check or taken and stretched and run through rollers to make laid down or silk scallop trim.  

The 17th century embroider had access to all these amazing things like the different sizes of silk wrapped purl (we now have 4 sizes!!!).

I have found the silk check in a few places on stump work in the past.  A better picture of it is below.

The ripple in the thread is due to the shape of the rotating needle it is wrapped on, you can get a feeling of that by looking down the center of the purls and see how the shape determines that.  

For me the texture difference and the play of the two are really, really cool.  I wasn't sure it would be able to be made, and when visiting some of the makers recently, I asked if it would be possible.  They still had quite a bit of silk covered wire leftover from many of my orders and so we tried it right there and then!  It worked and so I asked for all the excess wire to be made up and put it in the shop to see if you all liked it.  You did!  So I will be looking to see what makes sense going forward to carry some of this long term.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How are Silk Wrapped Purls Made?

There are a few ways that silk wrapped purls are made.  The two of the three ways were very likely the method in the 17th century as they didn't require electric driven motors or machining of parts.

Denis Diderot published an Encyclopedie in France in 1751 with plates in 1772 showing how many of the materials used in the decorative arts were made.  There were detailed drawings of the machines and set ups - often exploded so you could see the separate parts.  This particular one is the gimp machine, a version of a 'rope walk' to make multi-ply cords.   The core of the gimp is rotated using the wheel with one end tied to a rotating hook.  The covering silk is on spools that are held on a frame on the man's belt (right hand side).  He collected the strands of the silk in his hand and wraps them around a small iron bar that keeps them spread. He connects the ends of the strands to one end of the core and the rotation begins as he walks along it, the silk covering the core.  You can do a few meters this way at a time.

Illustration from Diderot's Encyclopedie (1751)

In the more modern photo, you can see the frame on a leather belt and the iron bar in the hand with the strands of silk wrapped around it to keep them from twisting as they cover the core.

There is a YouTube video of this process happening below.  It is about half way through the video.  The first part of it concerns winding the silk onto the bobbins that will go on the belt and the last part shows him taking the silk gimps he makes and weaving a trim.  This particular business uses the trims as fashion accessories.

Now that your mind is blown that people would still make silk gimps this way - imagine that the belt holds silk covered wire and that it is wrapped around a wire that can be slipped out of the center.  Now you have a silk wrapped purl.  And yes, a person walks all the way along the length of the the "rope walk" as they call it to wrap your silk wrapped purls with that on their belt.  You now see how our #4 purls are made.

Larger purls like the #8 can be made this way or on a spinning wheel.  In the case of the spinning wheel the length is limited to about 12".  Here you can see Dot at Benton and Johnson making a metal bullion by this method.

The most modern way of making silk purls is just a tiny bit more mechanized and uses a electric motor versus her hand cranking and uses a very short needle instead of a long one.  The wraps of the silk wrapped purl fall off the end of the needle into a trough as it is made and can be just over one meter long.  A person can monitor a few of them being made at once - so that is the big advance!  

Now I think you really understand why silk wrapped purls cost what they do and why they are so hard to keep in stock!

(Sorry for a lapse in this story, my extra blogging time was taken up with family stuff.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A Bonanza of New Threads

I have just posted twelve new thread families to my shop website - a bonanza of new threads.  While it looks sudden, this is years in the making!  For those who were recently at a talk I gave at Winterthur or are in my courses (the talk is now live inside of the class chatroom - NING), I gave a video assisted description of how these threads are made.

Let's start today with purls.  This is a thread type that is seen both in 17th century stump work and in old and current passamentary (tassels, fringes, etc).  It is a silk covered wire that is made into a spring.  These springs have wonderful texture and can be used as couched lines to fill in or highlight areas, can be made into trellis patterns to fill big flowers, and can be looped to made tassel bits or fills on stump work.  They are highly versatile and fun to work with as there has been nothing like them for years.

Back when we had just been successful in convincing Bill Barnes of Golden Threads to make Gilt Sylke Twist - I gingerly stuck my toe out and begged for silk purls.  Bill said yes, it was possible to make them, but he would need a silk supply (I got right to work on solving that) and wouldn't the market want something less expensive, like rayon?  This is a problem that comes up over and over where the greater market place has switched to lower cost shiny threads because of the lack of knowledge by the consumer about fibers.  Cost is the biggest thing because they can't recognize the difference.  I insisted over and over as the prototypes came in that no, it had to be silk.  And finally, about a decade ago, we started getting them and in a handful of colors.

Quickly it was apparent that this thread would be a hit.  Gradually I designed projects to expand the
Silk purls on a large tassel
color line until the Cabinet of Curiosities was developed and having shaded families in silk purl was top on my list... those 17th century embroiders had so many in shaded families!  It was a heady time, but making the silk purls for the Cabinet of Curiosities was onerous for Bill.  He made over 25,000 pieces of silk purl just for that one class.  Which meant that making extra for the retail market was tough.

Now one can wonder, well its 'thread', isn't thread made in bulk all the time??  This is what I wanted to show in my talk, that many of these unusual threads use processes that are not high speed and in fact aren't really mechanized much either!  This is hand labor and in some cases far more hand labor than you think.  This is where heading into the workshops (as I won't really call them factories) makes all the difference for me.  Once you understand the process to make a thread, as an engineer I can quickly do the mental math to figure out what the production capacity of a company or person is and then...I freak out.  The capacities are low compared to the demand, and remember, these people are making tons of other threads for us!  So sometimes it is more of a 'here is my list and this is the priority for now'.  In other words, threads for classes come first, then something new for a Frostings Box that I need so I can have the prototype threads to use for making the class model, and THEN excess of something for retail sales.  And often the timeline gets drawn out longer and longer because we are just asking for more than the capacity of the company.

So the natural thing is off-load the threads that others could make and keep the most delicious ones with the most capable makers.  So that was done as well as looking for more companies who can make threads - silk purls being a priority as the demand is just something that far outstrips what is produced.  That has been hard.   VERY HARD.  This is where you have to understand how the industries are organized.  Since these threads are for conservation or the very small slice of the hobby market that cares about gold threads - these companies have been shrinking for years.  We are down to a few who are single operator or just two workers and at retirement age.  There are a very few who make on a larger scale, but they only produce for the professional embroiderer market in the middle east and other places where ethnic clothing is important.  They don't service the hobby market - their minimums are just too large and that is how they have been able to survive.

This one piece of fringe contains silk purl, silk millary,
striped gimp, and facette. 

So then looking at the passamentary industry, we also see that they have consolidated and contracted
quite a bit because the fashion is not for complicated fringes and tassels.  But the equipment and know how is there!  So we started down that track.  But it has been a very hard ride and we are now on the third company and have finally 'hit pay dirt'.  Inherently passamentary wants to be flexible.  They need to offer that fringe or tape in 10 color ways and it might have in it 10 different thread elements that are highly complicated.  So it is all made to order.  And since it is made to order, they might only need 5 yards of the fringe for that furniture project - so they need a way to make only 5-10 yards of that complicated thread!  Get where I am going here?  They have forsaken improvements in mechanization over the last 100 years for the magic of flexibility.  Same is true in gold thread making.  You can have a product line of 100 threads off three pieces of equipment if there is a lot of hand labor involved.  If you want to make in high volume, you need to start specializing the equipment and then that piece of equipment and person needs to be kept busy - so your minimums go up and you look for a market that only wants lots of one thing.

This is actually how silk purls
are made in Passamentary companies
Because of the flexibility, the means to make these threads is positively primitive and is EXACTLY the same as in the 17th century.  Sometimes I look at the equipment and can find the same diagrams from 1590, 1751, or in early 1800s.  Nothing has changed!!!  Except, instead of having an army of people doing it (6000 people in London alone in 1713) we have 5.  So the volume of thread that can be made at a manufacturer is limited inherently.

Because of this, we have gotten started and stopped many times.  My desk is literally littered with pieces of gimps and plates and purls of all types of incredibly amazing combinations.  We get to the point where we agree that they can make it, they have sampled making it with the silk we want, maybe at some point we have gotten even to colors and validating colors to our thread line... it is two years of meetings and samplings and all that and the first big order goes in...

And at that point, the company comes back and informs us that they don't want the business.  Effectively we have put an order in that is too large for them to take.  Yes, that happens and happens far more than you would think.  No one can stop all their regular business to take an order that will use all their labor pool for six months - and then hope that this new customer will come back or that their old customers will.  They play it safe and stick to what they know and keeps them in business. And I hit my head against the door with Lamora and we start again digging and looking for another company hidden in the back woods of some country we haven't found and talked to yet...
New #4 sized silk purl thread in the entire blue family!!

So that is what makes today sooooo EXCITING.  After two years we have a passamentary company joining Golden Threads and Benton and Johnson making silk wrapped purls.  No one company can fulfill the demand for my business and the retail market and other teachers.  We need them all and will continue to buy everything they all make!  But having a third company with their production capability has ended the drought of silk purls.  In fact, now there are purls in additional sizes in the Au Ver a Soie color line I use AND 13 new colors made especially for the retail market - like needlepoint.  And the boxes of purls keep rolling in - a new box just this week.  I can't tell you how excited we are to go from a trickle of purls to a flow for once!

Tomorrow I will talk more about the purls and how they are made at the different places.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Peabody Essex Museum - Empresses of China Exhibition

Empress Cixi's informal robe - she actually
ruled China
Last week I rushed to Salem, Massachusetts and attended a quick tour of the Empresses of China's Forbidden City exhibition that is on until February 10, 2019.

The Peabody Essex is a gem of a museum in a small city.  It is almost of the stature of the Museum of Fine Arts because of its mind boggling collections that came about because of the import/export trade in Salem which was a major maritime power.  It is especially rich in its asian holdings and as such has had a close relationship with museums in China.  This exhibition is rare for two reasons (1) no one does exhibitions on the empresses of China - they are shrouded in secrecy and (2) the Forbidden City doesn't exhibit textiles as it is too polluted and humid there.  So there was a massive amount of original research on specific empresses and they pulled in 38 empresses' robes for the huge exhibition that look like the day they were worn (some as old as the 17th century).  

The reasons I raced there last week when I had too much to
This is from the 1600's!
do was the secret info that the textiles are so fragile and such exquisite condition that China had decided that the textiles would rotate during the show.  That means that in mid November, they are flying another 38 robes from the Forbidden City to Salem to hang and taking these back.  I have never been to an amazing exhibit which will change mid way and you need to see it again!   It will also be traveling to Washington DC afterwards and yet another set of 38 robes will be brought from the Forbidden City to hang in this version of the show.

I will be seeing them all I think as they were so beautiful and there was so much contextual information!  If you are in the area, get out and see it again and then put it on your calendar for after Christmas to see the second set.

The piece is embroidered in one gold - the couching changes the color with red or green couching stitches.
The dark edges are threads made of peacock feathers.
Close up of Cixi's robe - she loved peonies aparently