Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Chasing the Lids

Not quite right, the brass was too soft and the chasing was too aggressive.  The edges deformed and the marks were too deep and thus didn't resemble the originals very well.  Off to start again
The next step was to make many blanks that would become the masters for the casting and do the chasing on the lids.  This wasn't as easy as we wanted, the brass that shapeways casts is softer than the hardware brass so the tool marks are deeper.

We reviewed the existing photos for all the inkwells I have seen in caskets and discussed what was common to them and what versions were rare.  We decided to go with some of the common patterns and tool marks.  This includes a rocking chasing mark that looks like a V.

The first set weren't going to work as they were too deep and even deformed the blank some.  So several more blanks were ordered.  Each time that happens, it is about a month or more to get!  And they are pricy as well since their are so many steps with the 3D printing of the wax, lost wax castings, polishing, etc.

The second time the chasing looked much more the depth of the originals and we thought it was worth sending them on to England to have the first batch of 10 pairs cast.  We needed to run through the assembly process with the batch braising and see how that worked and get good numbers on labor to assemble.
Much better the second time around.  

No edge deformation.  The piece isn't assembled yet as we needed them to be the blanks for the castings.
I can't tell you how excited I was to get a set of them - in tin coating and non-coated brass last week and slip them into the casket for the first time!  I left my casket open for a week to admire them!

Final versions, here a brass set (in a tin./silver casket).
Tinned version of the inkwells.  Looks fabolous!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Casting using Additive Manufacturing

So now off to get them made in brass.  We sent the CAD models to Shapeways and paid some expedited shipping to get them faster.  School was soon to start again!

First brass parts made using the CAD drawings.  First Shapeways 3D printed them in wax and then sent them to be cast via the lost wax process.  Each part goes through additional handling to remove any spouts and and overall brushing.  Later parts would be polished but not at first.
They fit!!  
It was an exciting day when the first parts arrived.  There were many things we needed to 'test' with these early prototypes.  First, would the pegs go through the holes!  Could we tap/smash the pin for the lids to keep them together and keep them rotating.  A big one was if the stopper peg could be bent over without breaking. That was a 90 degree bend and brass can embrittle (I won't elaborate on the metallurgy speak - but there were lots of discussions on this at home and with the brass foundry).  And the big thing - could we braise them together.

So now we get into 'David, your mom is weird and I like her'....David and I had to find some local braising help.  So let's jump into the car and go to an industrial welding supply place and learn things.  They found us funny.  David wandered the isles with huge eyes and begged for acetylene torches for his upcoming birthday while I discussed the intricacies of braising flux with the guys.   No, you can't have a huge torch as the other kids will play with your toys in the basement!!  And you can't have that in your dorm.  So instead we took off for a place my kids graduated to after the LEGO store - a place called You Do It Electronics.  This is a fantastic spot - like what Radio Shack was in the 50's I bet and the same guys still work there.  ha ha.  Of course they would have small hand held butane torches and the flux and
solder we were looking for.  Good enough for our tests and the torch was something that I gave him strict instructions to hide from the younger robot team which is full of 'fiddlers'.  (What's this?? Phoof!).

Give a teen boy a flame and they are happy.  So we spent a day in the basement trying against luck to put these pieces together.  In the end, it was ugly but they were together and we bent over the stopper without it breaking after different experiments heating things up.

Make-shift stand while we are trying to solder this inkwell together
Heating the pin.  This discolors the brass and may have been unnecessary as the cast brass was softer than rolled brass/

Bending the stopper pin over.
Ok, the first result.  Kinda ugly but we learned a great deal.  Not ready for prime time but a step in the journey.

So we had to do some modifications to the pieces, the walls of the bottom were just too thick and unnecessary and would drive up the cost.  So there was thinning of the model and trying to make the pegs still work.  We got on the phone with the brass guys and we all agreed that the round peg bent over just didn't look good at all if you knew what the originals should look like.  It just wasn't right.   So David had to go back and see if he could make a rectangular peg work.

Another round of CAD drawings, 3D prints at home, sending them off to Shapeways and weeks later a set comes back with some of our improvements.  This time I also remembered to have David make a version of the lid for the pounce pot too. Because of how 3D printing works, we were worried that the half dome wouldn't print well as it was unsupported as it prints but it was just shallow enough and small enough to work (we held our breath for the sample coming out of the bag).

Round 2 of 3D prints turned into brasses.  Note the rectangular pin now and you can't see the the base walls are thinner and thus takes less brass to make.

The pounce lid - it worked!!  If you look close, you might see the faint ridges around the rim that are the signs of 3D printing

So now it is a few weeks into school and David's roommate comes to see our place and the basement of wonderful toys.  David had lucked into the best roommate ever!  Someone who likes to tinker as much as he does and they were coming to squirrel away lots of tools and goodies from our stuff.  We actually have to search them when they leave and often while working on the robot and can't find stuff - we blame them and text.  "Yes... I took the soldering iron" (how did I miss that in the backpack!?).

So I had these pieces and asked the roomie if he knew about braising brass?  It wasn't long and they were both downstairs happier than pigs in s*it doing my work testing out the next set of prototypes.  These went much better and I was ready to start ordering blanks that were polished for the next test... engraving.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Picking up the Inkwells Again

So fast forward a few years and the landscape had changed a bit, there are more technologies in the hands of engineers and home-based makers to make things.  So by this time I had spoken with the person who makes my hardware and he was willing to make the brass bits but we couldn't quite get off the ground as he needed to make a prototype to use as a master for molding.

One of the early CAD models and a discussion of the
folded over stopper
During this time frame, my house was converted from Lego robot central to a metal robot place.  That meant skills were being learned by all the kids and equipment was moving in to our makeshift labs in the basement.  In 2012 when I had tabled the inkwells to the side, I had just bought my 12 year old son the first 3-D printer kit available.  By 2018 he was an expert and headed to college in mechanical engineering, had built and designed four 3-D printers, and made them operate at perfections that were beyond their original specs.  To do this, one of the things he had to learn was computer aided design.  And to help kids learn, and thus be partial to their software later in their professional careers, the big CAD companies were providing student licenses to FIRST teams.  So we now had a CAD system in the house and a bunch of kids running around learning how to use it as well as multiple computer aided manufacturing tools.

Also developing during this time frame was the services available to people with CAD or 3-D printers.  If your printer wasn't good enough or you didn't have one, you could send your design to a company called Shapeways and they would print it.  This is the beginning of a revolution in 'additive manufacturing' or 'desktop manufacturing'.  If you look at the Shapeways site, you can see that they innovated 3-D printing in wax.  And once you have a high resolution wax, you can use lost wax casting and make metal parts!  So jewelry makers are now using CAD and 3-D printing to make rings and other complex jewelry that would have been hard to make before.

Later when you see the bottle story, you will realize the ah-ha moment.  A moment when I needed to make changes and instead of going back to the professional company I had originally worked with, I realized I could do them here.  And it was that point that I did the huge head slap and realized I could unstick the inkwells in my own basement!

Printing the first model
It was December 2018 and my son was returning from a first semester in London and he was stir crazy.  It had been a very stressful first semester (the academic program had fallen apart and took intervention from the US university, making it really chaotic for the kids) and he had no things to 'make' with him.  As embroiderers, we can understand that need to tinker and create to release stress.  So as soon as he arrived home, I proposed the inkwell project as a way to give him a goal to make something.

He dove in, and of course by this time it was child's play for him.  But never the less, he was excited to work on something - anything... So we got out all the pictures of historic pieces, he measured stuff, looked at proportions, and started making me CAD models of the inkwells.  Once models were made, he started 3-D printing them with his best printer (after he fixed it, tuned it, and generally walked around complaining about all of us neophytes who messed it up while he was in Europe!).  So from my conversations with the brass boundary, the assembly of these little inkwells in the way they were made in the 17th century posed problems.  We would need to make three tiny pins, two of which looked like nails.  One would go through the rotating lid and be smashed on the back to form the hand on the lid.  The second would go through both the sliding lid and the square lid and be smashed to allow them to connect and swing.  The third was rectangular and was soldered in place, bent over.   That was a lot of fiddly work.

The first finished model of the inkwell.  note the extra piece and that the lid with hole had a peg coming out of it.


So after playing with the 3-D printing objects, we had started down the road of integrating some of the pieces into each other, since I was considering casting the pieces and not cutting them out of brass sheet stock.  This was doable, make the handle of the lid part of the lid and maybe make the pin that had to be smashed to hold the lid for the pivot part of the square lid.  You see that thought process in the blue 3-D print.
A printed 3x version of the inkwell in the
new manufacturing idea

But the bent rectangle piece was still going to be a pain.  That is when David came up with a great
idea.  What if he made the pegs come out of the square bottom and we get rid of the irregular pewter piece.  We could put holes in the square lid and the pegs would serve as a way to orient all the pieces before the brass-to-brass soldering (actually called brazing) happened.  This was a brilliant idea!  Oven brazing of dozens of brass parts can be done at once, it is a known process and can be outsourced.  The pegs would keep the parts in place and then we would just need to tap smash the one pin and bend the other over.

Now that we had an interesting manufacturing process idea, would it work??  Needless to say, we spent days of the Christmas vacation working on it.  First was making a new set of CAD models and printing them at a larger scale to work on the peg system.  David was concerned the the resolution of the holes would be a problem on his machine.


So now that it was big scale, we needed a small scale brass version to test with.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Brass Bits

The cuts of the shears can be seen on the edges of the pieces
(Private Colleciton)
The rest of the inkwell was a bit more complicated.  Looking at them, it was pretty clear that rolled brass sheet was being cut by massive metal working shears.  Often the cuts were a bit rough and not always straight.  This showed up even more clearly in the little rotating cap.  Many were truly cut with the same lack of precision as any cheep items that would go into this box.  It does tell you quite a bit about the perspective these boxes held in the period.

Looking at the engraving, it was a common rocking engraving with a sharp tool that was pivoted (rocked) as the person hit the end and made the V grove with the extra divot at the bottom of the V where the rocking happened.  The engravers didn't take a lot of care as noted by the overlapping of the lines in many places.

I went out and talked to several engravers until I found someone willing to discuss the project.  I was thinking of using him to engrave a set of brass blanks that could be used for casting masters.  One problem I had was that the pieces just couldn't be cut out with shears like before.  They would have to be laser cut, stamped out or cast.  Which way to go???

Rough edges of the slip cast pewter being filled by the
solder that was used too connect the tin-plated brass top
And how would I put them together?  Looking at originals, it was pretty obvious that the slip cast pewter pieces often were rough at the top; requiring quite a bit of solder to fill the gaps and often they weren't filled.  I was also concerned that any process would use a low enough temperature solder to keep from heat treating the brass and thus discoloring it during the making as it was very thin.  A solder for brass to pewter isn't something known about so I tabled the project for awhile as I was also working on the cap to the bottles - which was also pewter.  And of course, the casket project courses were now in full swing and I was both busy and we didn't have a final number of caskets of the type that needed inkwells.  I already knew that the pewter bottoms would have to be cast in numbers of 500 at Danforth Pewter.  So knowing the final number was important.  Therefore, I had some years before I would need to pick this up again.

Friday, November 22, 2019

What are the Inkwells

Inkwell from a 17th century casket. The center hole allowed
the quill to be dipped into the ink (Private Collection)
In the 17th century there were three general box types; the valuables cabinet, the toilet box (jewelry and makeup), and the writing cabinet.  The embroidered caskets for girls seemed to be a mix of all these functions, including a tray for writing needs and bottles for makeup/scent as well as areas specifically for holding rings.

In at least two collections (the V&A and a private collection), there are quills that have been decoratively wrapped with filament silk in patterns which fit into the writing tray.  These wrappings are similar to what some kids do today with embroidery floss on pencils to help their grip.

Pounce pot with the half sphere depression and shaker holes
(Private Collection)
There are two metal pots that are put into the embroidered cabinets.  One is a cube with a lid that has an open hole in it, closed by a swinging lid.  This would have held ink for dipping the quill into it.  The second was the pounce pot.  Paper at this period was rough and had not been prepared smooth for gliding the quill over the surface, so a fine powder usually made from cuttlefish bone would be sprinkled over the paper and rubbed.  This powder was then at that point or after the writing, poured or tapped off the paper back into the depression on the pounce pot and shaken into the pot.

Taking very accurate measurements off of over a dozen
inkwells in private and public collections.  This is a
special tool where the measurements show up well
in reflected light under microscopes.  (Private Collection)
There are several characteristics of these little pots. The bottom is an open cube which has been soldered to the lid with a hole or shaker in it.  There is a swinging round lid with a stopper that is caught by a bent over piece of metal.  A pin that is smashed connects the two lids and a second pin goes through the swinging lid to make the handle.

In other words, these are tiny but complicated when you are thinking of reproducing them.  There are six pieces per pot.

I had spent a great deal of time measuring these little pieces and we chose a set that was a good representative size and whose cube bottom would make a good size for our double casket proportions.

The next task would be to figure out what all the pieces were made from and the processes that were used so we could start thinking about re-engineering them.

Looking through the hole in an ink well at the inside of the cube
The layers and bubbles in the metal were clues that told us
these were pewter that were slip cast.
There were pieces that were silver colored, yet dull and ones that were brass but the bottom was still a dull silver color.

Reasoning said that the tops were brass sheet and the bottoms appeared like pewter, which was a common metal in use at the time.  Showing detailed photos to Judy Danforth (of Danforth Pewter based in Vermont), she confirmed that the bases were slip cast pewter in a sand mold.  The excess pewter would be poured out as it solidified against the sides of the mold, leaving the characteristic ripples we saw in the bottom of the cubes.
Another piece, looking through the hole
with a microscope to see the technique of
construction. 

This is something that Danforth could do, but they weren't sure about how to make or connect the rest of the lids/pins.  They had never had experience soldering brass and pewter together.

So while I had a willing partner for the bottom part of the inkwell, I needed to go off and find solutions for the top.

More about those parts tomorrow (We are up to 2012 now...)




Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Jewelry of the Caskets

One of the most fabulous things of an embroidered casket is its 'jewelry', that is the little bits that
Casket in the MET collection (64.101.1335). Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  You can see the
two bottles and the inkwell and pounce pot in the front of the interior.  
make it so authentic and truthfully make you squeal in the way you do when you see little details in a dollhouse.  It's the ornate hardware, the little bottles for toilet water, and the inkwell and pounce pot.

I have had the opportunity to see so many historic pieces in public and private collections and it is one of the first things I oooh and ahhhh about - when a piece has its original bottles and inkwells.  Over time, Richard and I realized that the interior dimensions of all the dividers were based around these little items.  The depth and width of other areas were dependent on knowing what the size of the bottle would be.  So that leads to us understanding that this 17th century effort was something more coordinated as the exterior sizes of the embroidered pieces were driven by knowing things made by other artisans.
A highly decorated pounce pout in an interior tray from a
casket in the MET collection (64.101.1335).
Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 

We HAVE to have these frosting pieces for our elaborately decorated cakes!  Even before the first box was built, I have been 'on it' as part of the items that have to be reproduced to finish the project off.  I know many people ask me over and over when they will be ready or done and I am pretty close to the vest as engineering and reproduction can take many twists and turns.  At the beginning I did enough work to get to the 'we can do it' point and then have slowly worked on it until the group was ready.  Some things have to be made in larger batches and it didn't make sense for me to provide the inkwells before you knew what casket you were buying.

Richard and I have decided on four casket types, based on the versions we have cataloged from the 17th century boxes.  Two are more simple and only require 1-2 bottles and no inkwells.  Not all caskets in the 17th century had inkwells, but almost all had bottles.  The inkwells require a tiny tray to be built to house them and every time you cut lots of small parts and construct them, you vastly increase the cost of the final box.  So now, just like then, we have made only the double casket and flat casket with doors to have spots to put inkwells inside.

Many might look at the little tray and wonder what goes there in the super small less than 1" square spot - well the inkwells do.  This series of blogs starts the 'how the inkwells were made'.  And for those who have been waiting...

Yes... they are ready.

The empty large compartments in purple on left and right are to hold bottles.  The super small purple squares are for the inkwell and pounce pot.
 

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.