Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fabulous Finishes!!

It is so exciting these days to be looking at the private chat room for the Cabinet of Curiosities and all the other courses I teach as students are starting to post their finished caskets or almost finished pieces at a much more rapid rate.  Seeing the shear variety and the amazing workmanship is just so exciting and it is making this adventure so worthwhile.

So I asked if I could share a few of them with the general public!  The first is an original design inspired by 17th century florals by Elizabeth Ballard.  She has finished the inside of her casket and three panels and decided that they would be safest on the casket - allowing her to see them all the time (and likely give her the inspiration to get the next set done.  She also shared with me a tidbit about the process saying that her first try at the leaves were too small so she redid them a bit later much larger and really preferred them that way (agreed!).  I loved the symmetry of the design and her sides continue the same theme.  Can't wait to see the rest!
Elizabeth Ballard's original casket design showing the back installed

The next finish is our very first Harmony with Nature Stitch Along student!  Jane McIvor lives in New Zealand and what a terrific job she has done!  She was nipping at my heels the entire time I was stitching, finishing panels it seemed as fast as I was publishing them.  It is always such a relief as a teacher to see not only a successful finish but such a well done piece - you never know what mistakes you may have made and those first brave souls verify everything for you!

Jane also made  few color tweaks to the design if you look closely at the top you will see that Harmony's dress is in purples and blues and not reds and yellows.  I really like her combination and I think I might use it on a future project!  Of course after we all finish drooling about her casket, one much ask about the amazing hardanger below it!

Jane McIvor's Harmony with Nature Casket


Notice how Jane changed the colors on Harmony - down to her shoes and the cape has a different stitch.  I just love it when students take my design and make it theirs


A spectacular unicorn on Jane's casket!
And then for something completely different, we have the final finish of a casket we have all been waiting to see for quite some time with anticipation!  Rachael Kinnison had previously delighted us all with videos of the inside of her flat casket with its amazing commissioned music box and faux floor for it as well as her embroidered interior. We just had to know what was going to go on the outside with such an amazing interior!

Rachael emailed me in a slight panic two weeks ago as she had the panels mounted but when she trialed her planned trim on it and compared it to a small cut of the gold trim I made, she decided to go for the bling and had to wait for the slow postal service to deliver enough of it from here to there.  How excruciating!  But the bling is well worth it.  Once it was all on and she filmed it in candle light, the box and the beads just sparkle like diamonds.  I had been planning on making a beaded box where the beads are flat against the surface but not anymore!  I will tell you all to go to her blog where she has posted videos (you can hear the music box) and see much more of the embroidery and the background story.

Rachael Kinnison's beaded casket "Precious"




Just a bit of the inside of Racheal's Casket "Precious"

The side of Rachael's casket, the swans have individual feathers out of beads!

Obviously I am just proud as punch of everyone!!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Cheers to Rita Smith and her UFO

There are days you read a great story that is a counterpoint to the hate spewing these days.  So since it is regarding embroidery - I have to pass it on!

The story is about a stitcher who is a 'finisher' - she likes to finish all her projects lest she go to self described 'project purgatory' after she dies.  So she also feels strongly about some unfinished embroidery projects she finds in yard sales.

Can you believe it?  Often she buys others UFOs to finish!  So she came upon a beautiful embroidery of the USA and its state flowers that was finished and bought it for nothing.  Then in the next rooms was a bin with the squares for a planned quilt of embroidered states and she cried.

She bought it and has now organized 100 people to finish the quit for Rita, who died recently at 99, so she can rest in peace.

Read the full story - its a good one!

View image on Twitter

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thank You Prof. Flowers

Professor Woodie Flowers
One man can make an enormous difference if
he dreams big.
I want to tell you all about a good man who made a difference in the lives of millions of people over decades.  That seems like an overstatement, but it isn't.  Just yesterday at a reunion of college buddies multiple generations were sharing personal stories of this man and his creations with great enjoyment and laughter.  At the time, we didn't know it was likely his spirit rocketing around the world touching everyone he had touched one last time on his way to heaven.

Almost on cue, my snapchat alert went off with messages to me from my older robot team - telling me he had just suddenly passed away and how sad they all were.  Messages rang out around the world at light speed.  Not on the news networks, but on the highly interconnected network of kids, parents, students, and engineers whose lives were somehow touched by Prof. Woodie Flowers.

Woodie Flowers was a professor of mechanical engineering who was tasked with teaching the MIT course "Introduction to Design and Manufacturing" in 1974.  Known at that time as 2.70 (the number system to name courses), he injected his desire for hands on learning into the course by introducing a robotic design competition with a new challenge each year that was the culmination of the students learning.  By the time I was a student at MIT between 1986-1990, it had become legendary and the biggest sporting event of the year.  An elimination tournament in a lecture hall that was packed beyond fire code with hundreds of students cheering and broadcast on closed circuit across campus.  In 1990, it started being broadcast on PBS and he was asked to host Scientific American Frontiers on PBS - bringing his fun demeanor to a large audience.  Soon after he joined forces with Dean Kamen to form the FIRST robotics competitions using the concepts from his 2.70 invention to inspire kids to enter technical fields and gain skills not normally taught in school.

We almost never saw him without his
signature shirts - he walked around
with a set of sharpies so kids could
autograph him at events. He didn't
want to give autographs - he wanted
theirs as they were the stars.
I think you know why he has touched millions - at this writing, a half a million children from 6 to 18 years old around the world are registered and working as teams in this year's competition.  This year will be the first year that we don't see Woodie at the World Championship.  He has attended every one since its founding.  It will be profoundly sad.  Woodie would wear a new shirt to each visit and the kids would autograph it for him - he must have had closets of button-down shirts with the signatures of thousands of kids who revered him.  It would be a fitting tribute to him to display them all together.

The only time he wasn't in his signature shirts was the last day of the competition - when he would change into a tuxedo to give a speech about something he really cared about - Gracious Professionalism.  He insisted that FIRST teach and incorporate good citizenship, fair play and honest
work into the competition.  I think he knew that high stakes can make people take ethical short cuts and he felt that while he might not be able to stamp it out, vocalizing it and making it central would speak to the better in us all and inspire us to try hard to make the right choices.  I have seen many, many examples of these values and have seen how the constant drumming of good ethics have influenced the decision making of a group of children.  He gave a framework that allowed us coaches to make it central to our own teaching.  It made me tell my kids that no matter what, they were to keep their 'noses clean', be helpful, be respectful, and if they won to be humble.  Woodie understood that the community of people who get engineering degrees is actually very small and their paths would cross; be a good citizen when they first meet you and somehow that would come back to you later.

Woodie in his tux, talking to thousands of high school students about
being ethical in everything they do
Today, as I drove back from that reunion of my MIT friends, I got a text from my son super sad to hear of Woodie's passing.  He was sitting in the passenger seat next to the former captain of another Massachusetts FTC team that we competed against for four years.  They had become good friends after going to college and had gone hiking for the weekend.  That wasn't the only relationship to have grown out of living the values that Woody espoused, my son had been toured around many universities by former competitors and had done the same for others when they needed it for his university.  Once when I took a few of the kids around the University of Michigan and they had their shirts on, engineering students stopped us - they had watched us on YouTube or seen us in former years.  They wished us well for the Worlds that year to the shock of my kids.  That was GP in action.  I know for sure that in the future business deals will happen, hiring will occur, and all the other things that happen from good relationships will for these kids.  Thank you Woodie for installing GP in FIRST so these kids could be friends instead of enemies.

Moments before we won the
World Championship I had the chance to
thank him.
Woodie was wearing his signature tux when he stood next to me and our other robot parents rooting on The Brainstormers to win the 2018 World Championship.  We took the opportunity to thank him for going beyond his MIT teaching and doing the exhausting work of turning his concept into a world-wide competition for children.  I am glad we did.

Prof Flowers with the current captain
of The Brainstormers back in 2017 on a
flight back to Boston after an exhausting two
weeks of being super famous
Of course, Woodie lived near us.  The year before as we trekked through the airport in St. Louis I got a text and heard kids yelling that "Woodie is at the gate!!".  He was riding our plane back to Boston.  He saw our kids with their 2nd place throphy and they asked him to sign it and he gladly did so.  As an adult I could see he was exhausted.  This was the second week long World Championship and he must have been about ready to fall over.  So it was to my surprise that as we got on this Southwest flight that the last two seats were one next to Woodie and one next to another FIRST person I knew.  I placed my youngest son next to him and whispered to leave him alone because he must be exhausted.   But instead, Woodie engaged my son, a very decorated First Lego League guy, on the trip home and insisted on a selfie on my son's phone.  Inspiring kids with the last bit of energy he had to give...

With all my talk about robotics and the good it did my kids, I received a message from one of the casketeers a few years ago.  She said she was on a cruise to Antartica and met one 'Mr. Flowers' with his large camera and told him about this needlework teacher and her robot team.  He got around!

Woodie was known to ride his
unicycle - here inside the main
hall of MIT.
Now back to his early days and that story that delighted us all who remembered his early days and made several of our current robot kids fall on the floor with laughter - it must have been his spirit coming through the room to make us all remember this moment.

I wish I had the picture - if my friend finds it, I will post it.  It goes back to 1987 and my friend Todd was a beloved aero-astro TA as a junior.  He was goaded by my husband and more friends to take 2.70 - because of course those Aero Astros should be able to do just as well as those mechanical engineers!

So it came time for the challenge to be released.  It would be a tug of war between two robots with a rope tied between them.  Each student was given a cardboard box full of rubber bands, small motors and a few other things.  The rules - you can use everything in the box, including the box.  Creativity in strategy was highly encouraged.  Think outside of the box!  (Sound familiar?)  They were given five weeks to come up with and build their robot.

So my friend decided he would build a forklift and quickly drive out and pick up the competitor and drive him back to his side, dragging the rope with him to win each match.  Unfortunately there were only two motors (part of the devious nature of this competition) and he would need both to drive the wheels and be able to turn.  So the suggestion was made to Todd to build a transmission.  We all pointed at each other in the retelling yesterday, accusing each other of being the one with the 'bright idea'.  Of course none of them were Mech-E's.  They were all computer scientists.  Ha ha.  So Todd spent weeks trying to build a transmission out of rubber bands and cardboard and managed to make a robot that couldn't even move.  It was dead the day of the competition and would be a huge embarrassment to him as all his recitation sections would be in the stands watching him fail.

So he, being a funny guy, struck on inspiration and showed up with a paper bag on his head, safety glasses and a tiny paper bag on the robot.  As he said this all my current robot kids fell on the floor, peeing their pants laughing as he described standing there to boos and his robot slowly being dragged across the competition field with its little bag of shame on it.  I am sure Woodie had a great laugh at this.  There is a picture - I think it ended up in the MIT newspaper.  Todd says he has it.  (This video was that year, I am in the first third of the audience... not knowing that I am viewing the nucleus of something that will take over the life of the young man sitting next to me and myself thirty years later.  Todd is working on his cursed robot at 3 min 40 sec in).



Of course my son composed himself and said 'Uncle Todd, you were disqualified - the bag wasn't in the box'.  Again screams of laughter across the room.  Now you have to understand that 'Uncle Todd' is the main 'driver of spaceships' for JPL and the voice of its mission control during launches - on TV all the time.  The kids know that he recently was tasked with keeping Voyager alive - human kind's only spaceship outside the solar system - yet in college he couldn't make his 2.70 robot move!!  Endlessly hilarious and very human.  I like to think that Woodie's spirit was with us in this moment, a famous 50-something NASA engineer telling a funny story about Woodie's course to a group of 14-year olds (who had brought their current robot to the get-away to work on!) who were spending all their time working on his biggest legacy.  Connections across generations - all because of a good man who had dreams and the audacity to act upon them for the benefit of students around the world.

Thank you for everything Prof. Flowers - your legacy of creativity, hard work and gracious professionalism will live on inside millions.


Monday, October 7, 2019

The Difference between Embroiderers Yesterday and Today

Five Senses casket in Tent Stitch.  Linen
is currently not made anymore so can't
sell this design with a casket.
The caskets in progress by my students and my Harmony casket have been attracting a lot of attention lately, so of course I am getting quite a bit of email.  Most want the tent stitch casket that I can not provide at this point (There is a tent stitch Trinket box still available) because the linen for it has been used up.  (I still have enough remnants to make about 40 of the Silken Trinket boxes).

When I suggest that the stumpwork casket is open for registration - I always get back this answer:
"I am afraid that it will be too much for me to do stumpwork"
It was shocking this weekend as I got that response from no less than a half dozen people who I am sure weren't sharing emails.  

So here we go - a bit of my stitching philosophy which is wrapped up in my life story.  The sentence I keep getting is part of a pattern of comments I get often that really get me going.  As you well know, I am not a well behaved woman... so I keep making some history.

Small Silken Trinket Box in Tent Stitch - 
I grew up in negative town, USA.  A place that told kids they didn't have anywhere to go and weren't good enough.  That had double effect for me as I was dyslexic and wasn't remediated (meaning no one sat me down and painstaking taught me phonics for years to rewire my brain).  If you hadn't mastered reading, you weren't good for other stuff.  Somehow between my parents and my own stupidity I stopped listening to them somewhere around 4th grade.  I did the unthinkable - I tried things that people told me I couldn't do or that I wasn't good enough to do.  As time went on, those who told me I couldn't or wasn't good enough kept at it but I started proving them wrong.  I developed a pretty healthy distain for formal education - which is hilarious as I went on to get a doctorate.  But actually the engineering fields are a place to thrive if you ignore the standard wisdom of "can't or not good enough".   I don't have a lot of love for "the right way to do it" - what I do have is respect for is "If you want this effect, this technique may get the best result".  That doesn't stamp out innovation and creativity.

So the mantra became "I'll try it" vs. "I need to learn it (usually from someone else who is an expert)".  I became largely self taught - often by examining the embroideries up close myself with a magnifier.  I don't have Royal School Credentials, I am not a Master Craftsman, no City and Guilds...  I will admit that I had some mentors who pushed me hard in Japanese embroidery but I never finished beyond a few levels.  I took the lessons and said "I'll try it".   I bought books.  Lots of them - mainly for the pictures as reading is still hard.

Looking at the historic embroideries very carefully taught me some VERY important truths.

Most historic embroiderers sucked.  Really.  They did a poor job at it.  They violate every RULE that a 21th century embroiderer is taught.  Why?  Because most of them were middle schoolers.  Know a middle schooler who is an expert at anything or follows the rules????  Nope.  It was her class project - a badly paper-matched volcano and her parents loved it.  But those elementary and middle school girls stitched with gusto and it shows in the raw creativity behind it.  But today we look at their samplers and their caskets (almost always as a tiny picture in a book) and we swoon and since we never get up close to them - we IMAGINE how perfect they must be.

"They were experts"

Nope, they just TRIED IT.  And often pretty badly to be honest.

So we get to my massive problem with 20th century embroidery.  I am going to say some things here that will ruffle some feathers - please don't take it as a direct criticism of an organization - I have no problem with what several organizations are doing and applaud them highly for their outreach and continuation of the craft.  What I have a problem with is the fall-out that is unintended by what they are doing and I just wish they would realize that and do a little to mitigate the fall out.  They don't intend it, it is the naysayers that create the problem and often the demons are inside us all.  I am talking about the dominance of our formal embroidery teaching institutions (there are several) such as the Royal School of Needlework, Lesage, Hand and Lock, and the Japanese Embroidery Center in our collective psyche.

These institutions are very, very important commercial embroidery houses - and that says everything.  They have moved into the hobby embroidery market for several reasons, obviously because they care about the teaching and extension of the craft but also in order to make up the shortfall in the need for custom embroidery by church, custom orders, and couture and thus stay afloat by making money from the hobby embroidery market.

The problem comes in that the style of embroidery taught comes direct from their mission - to teach a group of people to a skill level where their embroidery is indistinguishable from one another.  That is their bread and butter.  There is only one way to do anything in Japanese embroidery because otherwise you could tell how many people stitched that Obi or Kimono.  The Royal School wouldn't be the Royal School if Kate Middleton's wedding dress had a mis-mash of skills all over it - it must be uniform.   The same with Hand and Lock and Lesage for Haute Couture work.  It is all about commercial production of big pieces by many hands in a way that no one knows how many did it.

And that is the problem with how the average stitcher interprets it - they don't know that the real background story is commercial embroidery commissions.  Their stuff looks perfect because it has to so others will pay thousands for it.  Instead stitchers think that it is "THE RIGHT WAY".  And unless you have decided to ignore the "You aren't good enough" thoughts and outright comments, you look at things and decide that "it will be too much for me".   What that is really saying is "I don't think I can live up to that level of stitching perfection because I haven't been studying for years".  This has also rubbed off from all the City and Guilds, and Master Craftsmen programs, and classes by the Japanese Embroidery center and Hand and Lock (and it goes on) where it is a single minded pursuit of PERFECT.  For some of those programs that is the point, to become a master at it.  Sure, I don't have a problem with that - what I do have a problem with is the thousands of women who think they can't because they can't live up to that level.

I can not tell you how often I get an email from someone who wants to take a class and they actually give me a run down of their 'credentials'.  Such and such class from such and such organization.  I kid you not.  I almost want to hug the lady and say that it will be ok - I don't have any of them myself.  That she can reform...it isn't too late to realize that she 'can'.   I can help her with a 12-step program and soon she too will be carefree trying new threads and techniques and inventing some herself - and enjoying herself with new creativity.  I couldn't care less about what credentials she has - all I care about is that she wants to try it.  Ok - it does help if you can thread a needle.  But that is my highest bar because that is pretty hard for me to demonstrate from here.

Screw perfect.  If I had waited to be perfect I would be dead.  My brain is not wired to be perfect - it is in fact very imperfect.  I will never read well.  Period.  I am over that and I use other skills to get through the day.  I will also need an editor badly for formal books. Again, not perfect and that won't hold me back from teaching and writing.  I am often scared and put things off because of it, you bet I do.  But then after a day or so of that, I resolve to pull on 'my big girl undies' and go out there and TRY.  I do things that scare me (ok, I did back off that clift climb this summer - that was just crazy crud).

The other thing that I think of when I get that phrase in an email is - geez, they must think I am a horrible teacher that they need to come knowing how.  I am not sure what drink those 17th century girls did that magically turned them into stumpwork doers.  It was their first stumpwork project (and if you could use a magnifier you can tell!  My advice - do the back first.  ha ha).  Yes, this will be your first stumpwork project and yes in places you can tell or you can use a drawer in it to place the leaf you screwed up or the petal that didn't work out, and then move on to version two of that which will be so much better.  I can't take my teaching projects online and publish them into a book because I use too many pictures to show how something was done - too expensive to publish.  I also often include the whoops stuff - often because it shows how to fix it, what not to do, and that I (the expert) am human and am trying too.

One grade-A dog butt that has nothing to do with the presentation topic.
Good lordy...
Recently I had the opportunity to show two videos of my robot team the night before the first competition when they were nine to a new coach who was lamenting the progress of her new team of 9-year olds.  She was thinking it would be a one time thing as they just weren't making great progress.  By the time she had watched the kids spend 5 minutes practicing a 2.5 minute robot run, falling down on the floor, grabbing the robot and breaking it, standing monotone giving a presentation, giving each other rabbit ears, realizing that one boy had stuck a picture of a dog butt in the presentation and hearing my plaintive instructions in the background being totally ignored - she was absolutely crying on the floor laughing.  That is when I turned to her and said - nine years later that hot mess was the World Champions.  They went from sucked to something because they wouldn't stop trying.  I never choose my team kids for skill - I only choose them for heart.

And really, if I can turn a bunch of fart-joke boys into World Champion roboticists - why can't I teach you to do stumpwork?  :-)

In the awesome words of Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille - "Anyone can Cook"

...if they try.



Saturday, September 28, 2019

When 2916 became 235

I have alluded to this story before - how from the outside, the dye lots of threads seem to wander or change over time and what is behind it.  So after over a year of work, color 2916 is now 235.  What does that mean?

Back of a 17th century stumpwork picture and one 'draft' of a color palette
Go back to around 2011.  I am working again on the color palette for the original course, Cabinet of Curiosities.  This is the work that will define all thread making going forward, a set of around 40 colors that will replicate the color families on the back of 17th century stumpwork.  By this time I have 'inventoried' the colors from the works, counted about how many shades in a color family were used and looked at motifs and thought about what would be the minimum number of shades in a family to effectively embroider these motifs.  That was then combined with our knowledge of natural dyes and many samples of wools or other threads dyed in natural dyes and compared to the back of the embroideries.

Pre-2014 Au Ver a Soie color card.  Everything is in order
by number.  1033 looks a little out of order there!
So out came the color card for Au Ver a Soie.  What no one understands is that color cards are a snapshot in time.  They are really hard and expensive to make with little pieces of cardboard wrapped with a few inches of every color in existence.  But there are several colors introduced every year, custom dyed for companies like Hermes for their needs and the excess of the order are added to the line to sell it out.  They will be one-time colors.  Sometimes they are on the color cards - only if they were in existence when the card with made.  Some colors are gone.  When you got the color card stock of them existed but doesn't any more and they will not be remade.  Why?  Well, perhaps it was not a 'barn burner'.  Meaning that it was made 15 years ago and it took that long for that color to sell through one manufacturing run.  Not a profitable thing.

So if any of you have seen the old Au Ver a Soie color card, you will know that the colors are in numerical order.  Sometimes that corresponds to a color family.  Sometimes it doesn't.  The color numbers have been assigned over 200 years.  So yes, there are some things that just don't make sense as they have been assigned by so many people who had different reasons for choosing that number.  So putting color families together is a bit of a challenge.  You might find three in a row that look well shaded but you want a darker version and it doesn't have one or you know that in natural dying the undercast color shifts towards something as it gets darker or lighter and the color family in these synthetic dyes don't capture that nuance.

So I started grabbing things from other parts of the color card and in the other silk thread families.  The colors used for soie perlee, soie d'alger, soie paris, etc. are different.  There are a handful of colors that are used in each (the heavy sellers) but in some, such as soie paris, the colors are defined by the distributors or companies that special order that thread.  You are getting it not because it was defined as a thread for the hobby hand embroidery market but as it was a need for finishing scarves or making buttonholes and the colors have built up over time to be a product line based on their custom orders.

As an aside, Soie Paris was a thread developed because Access Commodities asked for it.  Lamora knew that a need in the American market was a stranded filament silk thread which was the same weight as the soie d' alger series.  Once Au Ver a Soie agreed to make it, she picked the colors that the largest buyer of silk threads at that time used in their sampler designs - Shepard's Bush.  So a group of about 10 thread colors they used were dyed in this new Soie Paris thread.  That was the entire line.  As designers tried it, Access would order new colors to be dyed to fulfill credible requests.  And slowly the line grew.  Each time the cones were emptied, a decision had to be made.  If Access request it to be dyed, they have to buy the entire batch.  If Au Ver a Soie sends a dye pot list for February that they are dying in X, if the thread type is compatible, you can throw in a kilogram of your thread type to be dyed and only have to buy that smaller amount.  So colors can slowly grow that way or never happen again.  It's business.  Not some bible of colors that must exist.  
So I grabbed things like 2645, 945, and 2916, 2914, 2012, and 1011 to make a red family.  We dug into those colors on the shelf and sometimes found that there were cones which had a brighter or duller cast to them.  We had little spools marked 'old 2914' and 'current 2914' on them.   These were all slight differences in dying over a decade.  Some of those minor changes were due to changes in environmental laws about water use and discharge.  If you have ever seen any lecture on natural dying (I just did at the MET), the water use is enormous and dirty.  I was shown a lecture about how an entire village picked up and moved to another region because an earthquake shifted the ground water to a seam that released more iron into their water and thus their natural dyes didn't take the same way.  So they moved the village!

So I would embroider on the white, cream and neutral backgrounds that my students would work on.
Trying the red family out on fabric with multiple types of thread
One of the things I had learned over the years was that med-pink is a big wild-card in embroidery.  A pink that looks amazing on the spool and you swear will look wonderful on the fabric will take on the cast of the fabric and change its looks.  Almost always it shifts to barbie doll pink.  So undertones of brown in a pink will make it look more madder in look when it is stitched on our neutral sampler backgrounds.  So I was extra careful with the pinks.  That is why 2914 became 741.  Lamora and I determined that we needed to use the 'old 2914' in the color family and not the new 2914.  So the first packages contained the last of those identified 'old 2914' cones on the shelf while we commissioned a dye bath of it - with strict instructions to match the old 2914 and not the new one.  So of course, it needed a new number because we couldn't call it 'old 2914'.  It was assigned "741".  I have no idea why that is the number - don't ask me.  Now if you were to run around the warehouse for Access Commodities, you would sometimes find little sticky notes on cones that say 'Tricia's cone' or "Don't fulfill Tricia's orders with this'.  I have to just hug the lovely ladies who fill orders for all their care in identifying these little details on when we have a shift in color happening and which cones are 'approved COC' ones.  It does get a little exhausting for all of us to remember many of these things.

Ok - so I am set.  I have a color line and we are speeding along with it, sending soie ovale to others to get other threads made to match, etc.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Paris they have their own initiative underway regarding the silk colors.  The business has been shifting from custom runs for fashion companies and increasing for hand embroiderers.  Hand embroiderers love shading.  People making buttonholes on high end fashion don't need that.  So there was a move to reorient the color cards into shaded families so embroiderers, stores, designers, etc could more easily choose colors and in that process some 'fixing' would go on.  That means that the families might have a color jump in it. Two colors that were too close together so they were a bit indistinguishable or too big of a difference in between.  Those places were identified over many years before the new color card was to be launched and they were fixed by shifting the next dying to the right place in the gradation.  
The 'old' 2916 seen on the old AVS color card

OHHHHHHH - I hear many of you understanding why such and such color is not 'the same dye lot'.  You are starting to see why over a period of 20 years, no color is set in stone.  There are so many forces on them.  People like me, the way business goes, the length of time it takes to get the manufacturing run sold, how long it has been in that drawer at the store or on the shelf at the distributor, needs to shift colors to satisfy current businesses, etc.  

So 2211 was the next victim.  It had been a darker color and now became a lighter version of itself.  I happened upon this when I put the Goldwork course out again.  That was a 2007 course and yes, 2211 was now not what it once was.  So I ended up with about a hundred tubes of something too light.  And I needed to follow up replacing it with 2212.  So I had a batch dyed... 

And then came 2916.  The original 2916 was a lovely bright pink that came after 945 in the series.  But the new color card had it shifted to be almost 945 in its own family that needed a darker version to make the family
The new 2916 in its color family on the new AVS color cards
The new color card organizes of the families instead of in
numerical order.  So much easier to figure out what
threads you want to get for shading.
correct.  See the old color card and the new color card here.  
 So now they were almost indistinguishable and there was a big leap between 2916 and the 741 color.  (You may ask, why didn't I use the 2915 that was already in the 2910 family?  Well look hard at it in the picture of all the threads on the pink silk above.  You will see a skein of 2915 laying near the top on the right.  It's undertones are blue.  Not a natural madder/cochineal look.  These undertones are something that we really pay attention to.)

So when Lamora and I traveled to Paris last October, this was one of the things on our list to get fixed.  I needed a 2916 that was like the old one.

This is when I got to see 'the drawers'.  I had brought my new stitch samples and a tube of what I wanted it to be.  Mark pulled out the historic 2916 color family drawer.  That is a drawer of the last 200 years of samples from dye batches that happened.  Wow.

It was exciting to see and to figure out which one was exactly what I wanted.

Some of the 2916 family of threads the master samples
Working on the new 2916 color - see my stitch sample at the bottom with the old and new 2916 stitched into it like a cross
So we finally decided upon the change and the spool was set aside and the decision was made that the 2916 in the new color card would stay and the new 'Tricia's 2916' would be dyed in all the threads again and given a new number :  235

So now you know.  There is quite a lot of hand wringing behind every color.  On that piece of linen in the picture above is another issue - 703 and 710 are too close together.  There is a brown issue we are working on.  2125 and 2126 have need of attention.  It goes on.  All about making and keeping a big color palette that can be used to do 17th century embroidery.  

Now knowing all of this background, you might realize that before this Cabinet of Curiosities effort, there was no way to switch between threads like Soie Paris to Soie Gobelin in the same colors.  You couldn't all of a sudden decide to pick out a figure and use Soie Perlee instead of Soie Ovale.  It wasn't built into the Au Ver a Soie line because that isn't how the line has developed.  Lamora and I sometimes sit back and marvel about the achievement of having a full color line that has portability across soie trame, soie paris, soie perlee, soie gobelin, soie ovale, 100/3, silk gimp, three silk purl sizes, silk scallop, crinkle silk, silk soutache, silk lacet, Soie de Tresse 1/6, and so on (Have I forgotten one?).  

That is an achievement in itself outside of the caskets.  It makes creative embroidery more fun.  



Sunday, September 22, 2019

Why is the Answer No?

You likely got to this blog post because you clicked the link next to the 'please don't ask me to sell parts of this kit to you'.  Of course I woke up to yet another one of those emails today asking me to sell only part of the Harmony with Nature course and so I have written this blog.  If you are new to my courses, there are very well thought out reasons why the Harmony with Nature class or any other class on my website are packaged as they are and pieces/parts of the experience are not sold separately and will not be sold separately any more.  It is not a lark on my part or an interest in gouging anyone.  It is a part of the natural wrap up of a massive effort to bring embroidered cabinets back for a short time period.

If you are new to Thistle Threads, you will not have the storyline and thus not understand why things can't be broken up and may be tempted to ask.  Don't.  Please don't.  

Let me tell you the story - it is too long for a blog and even the brief outline of the story is too long...

I am a materials engineer and an embroidery historian.  Through my work in product engineering for decades I have had the opportunity to visit many production facilities and deal with getting products to market.  I know this aspect of business well.  So for me engineering of a new heated jacket and remote control in China is exactly the same as getting new threads to market.  It's all technical specs, prototyping, quality control, supply chain, packaging, etc.  So when I was working in my off time on a set of embroidery projects for teaching that required threads I couldn't find in stores and started visiting the suppliers of linens, threads, gold threads, silk, needles, etc for our embroidery hobby - I freaked out.  I could look at a business and see it through the lens of a production engineer and I knew exactly what I was seeing.

I was seeing an industry that had been contracting for 100 years.  Businesses were getting smaller and smaller every decade and less of them.  The owners would often boast of how they now had 'all the equipment', meaning that everyone else had gone out of business and they bought all the machines as they did.  So they had everything.  The world's supply of that type of machine.  Sometimes they had the archives of all the businesses for the last 200 years - the samples of everything that had been made and some notes on the making.  Where would it go if they closed???

Concerns that used to make gold threads had shrunk to the point where we were down to two experts in the world who could remember 'the old days' and how to make most of the threads from the 18th-19th century.  These were the only people on earth left would could possibly have the knowledge to figure out how to make the threads I wanted - those from the 17th century.  And they were past US retirement age already.

I saw businesses where the equipment was 18th century with a computer added to the side in a Frankenstein hacked together way.  Or old Victorian iron and had their labels on them proudly proclaiming that they were made in 1850.  There were no dials, computers or anything to tell an operator what settings it was at.  I asked many questions.  I would find out that 'Herb' was the expert at that process because he knew where to put the brick on the lever to make the rollers the perfect distance to make that thread.  He knew which of the dozens of scratches on that lever was the right one.

For many of you visiting such places, you might wax romantically about how they 'do it the old way'.  But as a production engineer - I had a complete emotional meltdown.  I mean it changed my life.  A complete meltdown.   I often cried when I left.  The list of what I 'saw' was:

- The companies were too small to weather ups and downs of production volume.  Too few orders or too many and they would be stressed to the point of breaking.
- Everyone working was over 55
- Everything was based on artisan knowledge
- No parameters for a piece of equipment were written down for a product
-The knowledge wasn't being passed down to anyone else
-The equipment had no process controls that would allow you to go back to exact conditions time after time (think your oven temperature controls)
-There were no replacement parts for production equipment
- Apprenticing would mean years of working with someone who didn't have years left

 and I could go on and on...

I was standing there in my mid-30s wanting to embroider the most difficult and interesting historic embroideries for another 45 years and I was seeing in front of me that there might be at best 10 years of most of the knowledge left before it was gone forever.  I was witnessing extinction of rare species.  I spent some time getting to know everyone and discussing this with a few others in the business who were long-term knowledgeable to see if that was the estimation they had as well.  Everyone felt the same - we were at the brink of never being able to make current things or remake things I wanted to embroider with.

The most common thing people say upon this realization is 'Someone should do something'.  I knew that there was no 'someone' out there.  If I wanted threads for myself, and to achieve my lifetime goal of making an embroidered casket, I would have to be that 'someone'.   All my life I have done a little exercise every 5 years.  I write everything I can think of that I want to do on little post its and then organize them into goals.  It makes decisions easier.  Making a casket was a big one.  I had also just recovered from an arm injury that almost took the use of my right hand away.  My stitching hand.  So unlike most people, I was acutely aware at a young age that everything I stitched could be my last and I had to get rid of 'cute projects' and do the stuff that I really cared about.  A stitching bucket list.

So I put together a huge 15 year plan.  I was already maybe 5 or more years into the research and looking for my own cabinet maker willing to make me just one cabinet.  I had been talking to many well known historic furniture makers and was compiling a list of issues I had to solve so they could even consider the project.  I had by that time realized that to get the ONE casket I wanted the way I wanted it - I would have to teach it as a project as that was the only way to get the locks.  The locks to make the boxes so they could have secret drawers required locks that don't exist today.   I had to make almost 1000 boxes to get locks made.  That was a HUGE thing.  I mean HUGE.  Now I would have to add thread making to the list as I had just found out I couldn't just 'order it'.

I should have given up at that point.  Really.  But I didn't.  That means I am crazy.  Who would do that?

I often think of one of my favorite scenes from National Treasure where they are talking about the protection of the Declaraion of Independence and how they would need to steal it to protect it:

Ben:  We don't need someone crazy.  But one step short of crazy, what do you get?
Riley:  Obsessed.
Ben:  Passionate.

Yes, so I am crazy, obsessed, passionate.  I would bite off putting together a supply chain to allow 1000 caskets to be made again with all the bells and whistles, bottles and inkwells, hundreds of amazing threads that didn't exist on the market.  I would put all the profits for 10 years into it to make it happen.  I would document the thread companies, the processes, reinvent the supply chain, and it goes on and on.

All so I could have one myself.

I could list out the 15 year plan but it took me about 900 pages of pictures and text in the course Cabinet of Curiosities to explain the process to figure out how the cabinets were made, figure out the hardware and locks, redesign them, remake them, how were the embroideries applied, make the papers again, design the glue...

And test.  That means prototype so you can have a successful project.  What happens when the complicated expensive box gets thrown around the FedEx facility?  Design packaging boxes with a packaging company and ship several test $3000 boxes around the country and back.  What happens to the box when a student lives in Florida in super high humidity or the New Mexico desert?  Yes, we made caskets take a bath and take an oven bake.  Extreme testing resulted in changes.

The glue, the locks, the tapes, the papers... Now start on the threads.  Video the makers making the threads to preserve the process as best as I can.  Make small machines based on their machines in my home and prototype threads so I can explain what I want - the companies are too small to take time to research themselves.  They can't be making threads to make money for their salary that way.  Fly to Europe over and over.  Solve supply chain issues for the companies - find them the supply of colored silks they need - smooth over business relationships.

Find the experts and convince them to join my journey of madness into the rabbit hole.  When working as an engineer I got a backhanded compliment once from a vice-president of the company.  He was shaking his head and said that I could sweet talk anyone to jump off a cliff with me.  Well, if the gain was enough and the vision is big enough... yes, someone will want to come along for the adventure.

Experts aren't usually 20 years old.  They are usually 50+ years old.  They have a lifetime of learning and experience and study to give you.  And unfortunately today, the market for many of the things I need have gotten smaller and smaller so there aren't budding experts behind them.  When you add to that how the hand skills of the younger generations haven't developed - there really isn't anybody to fill in once the expert retires.

So I went and found my experts and they were in the last phase of their careers by definition.  That is of course why they were interested in my adventure.  It interested them and they wanted to be part of something else.  They believed in it - so they agreed to put a significant amount of their time and expertise to support the project.  We gave it a time frame that coincided with their needs to retire or go on to some last opus project of their own before they retired.  And what I was asking was a really, really big ask.  Imagine someone who only makes individual custom art furniture agreeing to make 900 boxes over 10 years that are exactly the same and don't even have beautify grain of wood on them.  That is like telling you that you can't embroider with thread and yet you have to make 1000 of the same sampler.  But they all believed in the project.

So we are at the end of that time.  The end of the Cabinet of Curiosities.  I can't guarantee that the materials, threads, finishing materials, etc will be there in a few years or even next year so I can't any longer sell patterns, boxes or materials separately.  I know that the boxes have to have their finishing materials to work properly.  I have gone out on risk and had over a half a million dollars of stuff made so the last of the boxes can be done as projects.  Why would I take out a part?   I can't replace it.

So please don't ask me to take a piece out of the kit.  It actually hurts me to get those emails, they are painful.  I am sorry that you didn't hear about the project when I started it and you could have gotten in on the easy ground floor.  I am sorry that it wasn't the right time in your life.  I am sorry that you didn't believe me when I said that this was for a limited time every time I gave an interview, wrote an article, gave a lecture, made a mailing, or placed an advertisement.  I said over and over that it was a 10-year ride at best before everything started to collapse.

And that goes for threads too.  Yes, there are threads that you have seen someone have and no, they aren't available in that color anymore.  I get questions of 'when will you be getting that back in stock?'.   I don't know and I am starting to put up on my site if things are now permanently gone.  It isn't because I don't want them - it is because for some manufacturers we are actually working on a priorietized last list of what they make before they disappear - and they are already retired.  Some we ask what they want to make and they tell us what they don't want to make anymore - it is no longer the situation where everyone gets a purchase order and makes that.  If you are 75, you come home from a vacation with your wife and you call us and say that you have a few days to make threads - how about X in Y color.  And we say YES!!  We will take whatever you are willing to still make.  Someone will want it.  This summer I had one of my summer interns inventory vast amounts of my stash and remove threads from inventory - making me a list of the things I need to take off the market for my own use for the next 30 years.  I haven't taken enough I know, and I will be sorry too.

And since I did all this work to develop them, yes, I have first rights to sell them when they are made.  So you can decide I must be bluffing and go off and call a dozen shops... good luck.  I am sorry that the casket costs more than you want it to cost.  That is how much it costs.

So the invitation is to join the adventure and get on the rocket ship with the rest of us - the ride has been so amazing and it is hard to put it all in words.  It is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity.  But please don't email me and ask me for just part of the adventure.  I will have to wait for the next astronaut willing to go all the way to the moon.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Harmony with Nature Casket Course - Open for Registration

I have mentioned before that my cabinet maker is retiring from this project in a year.  During that time, we will have finished 250 short flat caskets and 65 double caskets that have not been purchased previously by the Cabinet of Curiosities students.  In addition, the entire 'infrastructure' for Cabinet of Curiosities - the caskets - is coming to an end.  Everyone was around 55-65 when I started this originally about 12 years ago.  And guess what - they have gotten older.  There are many things that have already been discontinued or the last runs have been made or planned.

Therefore I decided to use these last two sets of caskets to run two project courses which would come with everything in the project class so I would be ensured that everyone would have what they needed to make the casket successfully.  This also allows me to open it back up and allow people who have been watching on the sidelines into the fun and to make a casket.  I really hope as many as possible take me up on it as these will be the 'last chances'.

I opened the registration this week and already 25 students have signed up in 24 hours.  But I have also gotten the many predictable questions from stitchers who are new to the Thistle Threads universe  - they usually center around costs, shipping questions, fears about 'keeping up' or skills that might be needed.  I thought it would be helpful for those thinking about the course to hear from stitchers who have taken a casket course - to hear from their perspective on what it has meant to them as it is hard for me to express all the facets.  As one student told me - it's not just a project, its everything in my stitching life... as you read below - I couldn't have said it better.

If you love the look of 17th century embroidery and have the opportunity to create and own a replica, it's a no brainer. Why wouldn't you do it? I don't think it matters what your skill set is. No one who started out on these courses could possibly have had all the skills needed. Besides, some of them are quite surprising and in any case learning new skills and working things out for yourself adds more layers of understanding, appreciation and obsession. I was expecting the cost to be hideous, but when you consider the research that has gone into every element - the high quality, artisan-made materials, the distances they've travelled and the fact that you can name the person who made them, not to mention the skills of each person involved in the myriad processes - it represents realistic value for money. As for the time involved - I'd say just start, join in.  - Simona

 I had this conversation with a few people while my casket was on display.  It's amazing but cost, or but not confident in my skills or but can it really be worth the money.  I mentioned all the work that went into the caskets themselves but mostly I talked about the class experience and how much I learned from it.  What it really boils down to is that CoC is something entirely unique - a deep dive into this particular kind of object and the embroidery that went with it - and it is an opportunity that will not come again once it's done.  Too much went into this class, all the research, producing locks and hardware for the casket, the specially woven tape for the exterior, the specialty threads, etc etc.  The combination of knowledge, research, and production necessary to produce this was really a one time thing.  The stars aligned for us to have this great opportunity to learn and to make, and when it's gone, it's gone.  As for skills, when I started this class I hadn't done any needlelace, or goldwork, or really much of anything besides pottering around with some floss and a hoop and I am now coming up on a finished casket.  The class teaches you everything you need to know, and it's not like the originals were made by experts.  They were made by girls who were learning themselves.  - Katie

I would especially recommend this course to people who live in far flung areas around the world. It is a simply wonderful way not only to improve your skills, but to feel part of a community without any borders! The Ning site gives you the opportunity to communicate with people who all share a common interest. Sharing your successes and your questions with like minded people really gives you a sense of community. Even if you live in a large center, how often do you see people's eyes "glaze over" when you mention that you are passionate about embroidery, just prior to them asking you what are you "knitting" now
The lessons are a wonderful way to learn new skills, and to increase your own creativity. There is no pressure to produce an item in a specified time. Being able to work at your own pace takes away all the stress that can come from more formal tuition. And what can I say about the actual content of the courses except that everything has been so well researched. The instructions for all parts of embroidery, from framing up to new stitches are so clear that whatever your skill level is, you will just grow in confidence as you progress. And the kits themselves are superb. You will not find better quality and attention to detail anywhere else. - Leslie-Ann

If you’ve always admired historical caskets in museums and wanted to have one, this is your opportunity. The techniques and reproduction materials are as close to authentic as we’re going to get in modern times. This course is accessible to both novice and expert, whether you want to stitch it as designed or tweak it to make your own (I love the unicorn and would have to move him to the front). There are no deadlines or evaluations, you can work at your own pace and dive as deeply as you like into the historical research provided. Prior to taking this course, my only needlework experience was many years of cross stitch and a single gold work project. Now I’m closely examining 17th century works online and in museums, able to identify threads and stitch techniques and enjoying every moment of creating my own museum quality casket.  - Sheetal

Well - - - firstly, to deal with the cost.  Yes the classes are costly -  but the thoughtful way that this has been managed is to use the payment plans - which I've now been doing for years and I LOVE the idea!  It allows me to plan - and to see the progress of the payments in my monthly Paypal statements.  Payment plans for classes have allowed me to be a CoC member - and I think that this is the same for many of the community.
Also - when this CoC eras is done, it's over and it's not going to come back!  If anyone is thinking that they can wait for a couple of years until they retire and "have more time" - then frankly they will miss out.  Back once again to the lovely payment plans - - use the payment plan now - joing Ning for the community - and have Harmony sitting on your own kitchen table ready to go when the time becomes available!  - Wendy
I've admired the caskets in British museums for years.  So when I heard about the course, I immediately went on the website.  I nearly had a heart attack when I converted the cost the course and a double casket from US$ to Canadian $.  Then I took a break and thought about the annual embroidery or bobbin lace convention that I went to every year and calculated what I was paying for air fare, hotels, meals, registration and kits. After dividing that into the cost of the course, I knew how many years I'd have to skip the conventions and signed up. I'm now about 6 months away from completing my casket and I haven't regretted that decision for 1 minute.  - Margot
For me, the most amazing thing has been the sense of community, when I first joined COC 1 way back in the beginning, I thought why not, it may be interesting, but then I realized I was not alone.  In my local group of stitching friends we have 3 casketeers, 2 of whom are way more advanced on their projects than I; then the circle widened to people I met at Koala Conventions, with conversations along the lines “I know your name....you are in COC, lovely to put a face to a name”; and finally out into the worldwide stitching community where I realized I knew far more about things than I had thought. It has all been so much FUN Tricia, thank you so much.  As to the cost.....I’m not adding it up, when I could afford I did, when I could not it waited.  But now I grab everything as I don’t want to miss out for 1 minute. – Mary-Anne 
In looking at this class, the cost needs to be broken down into comparisons to daily activities: 1) The full cost is less than in-state tuition for 6 credits at a state university. Six credits would be one or two classes for 3 months. This class is done over 2 years rather than just 3 months and the learning opportunity is far greater than one or two college classes. 2) The cost per month is less than $5 per day. An average beverage at most coffee shops is about that much. Could one give up a fancy cup of coffee daily for 2 years in exchange for a beautiful treasure and all the knowledge that is needed to produce it?  3) All of this class is done at home. Consider the costs of going to a class out of town - travel expenses, hotel costs, eating out at restaurants, as well as the cost of 12-15 hours of instruction from a very qualified teacher. The costs for that and this are quite similar but that project is much smaller, less intense, and the teacher is no longer available after you go home again. With this course, the instructor is available for two years, (occasionally with a small delay if she is traveling out of town, but even those delays are never that long :)).  In regards to skill level, caskets were stitched by young girls without the benefit of good lighting or quality tools, and to demonstrate what they learned when taught how to stitch. They were beginners. That should mean that anyone with the ability to thread a needle and follow instructions will be able to complete this project if they want to. It will take time and hours of study and stitching, but it can be accomplished. It is not an ornament that takes a few hours but instead 5 or more stitched pictures that are then mounted on a quality wooden product.  I was in the first CofC class. I didn't keep up due to a very busy work schedule. In retirement, I am going about it at a very slow rate, stitching other items as well and enjoying the time I now have to work on it. While I didn't have the experience of sharing with others while everyone was learning the same thing, I have enjoyed going through the materials now that I have time to concentrate on them. I never received a scolding about not keeping up, was never kicked out of class due to not having examples to share, and believe that the same would be true if someone were to take the class and not succeed in keeping up to a monthly schedule.  - Karen

I was also hesitant to take the original casket class because of the cost...until I changed my mindset about the nature of the class. This wasn't a "one-time" deal. It was the time equivalent of getting a Master's degree in 17th century needlework, at a fraction of the cost of a Master's degree. All the wonderful stitching materials, instructions and historical information were included in that cost. Unlike a true Master's degree, I could do the work at my own pace, with no tests, papers or other assignments. Plus, the "homework" was stitching! -Carol