Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A Bonanza of New Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Peabody Essex Museum - Empresses of China Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Twixt Art and Nature eBook

Image 1One of our casketeers just let us know that the AMAZING book from the 2008 MET exhibition at the Bard on 17th century embroidery - Twixt Art and Nature is now available for free as a PDF download.  If you do not own a paper copy of this book (I own two), you NEED it.  There are several fantastic essays in it and then high resolution incredible pictures of embroidery.

Here is the link and then put it into your cart and you won't be charged, just sent the pdf download link.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

Fashioned from Nature - The Victoria and Albert Museum

While I was in London last week, I took the opportunity to see the Fashioned with Nature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Watch the slick trailer below.  If you have a chance to see it, there are more reasons than you think to see it!

The exhibition is on two floors in the fashion galleries and concerns the use of materials from nature (including oil) and the impact on the planet.  A good set of message as textile waste is actually the biggest waste stream in the world and has become a huge issue in fashion/textile engineering (I just gave a talk at a wonderful MFA Boston symposium regarding textile industry that was a mix of history, fashion and high tech all in the same room.  We all said the conference should have been recorded as it was terrific!)

But there is an entire case of 17th century embroidered objects on the first floor - and inside it was a big surprise:  the prototype for the Plimoth Jacket!!  It has only been in storage for years.   So if you would like to see it live - it is on display until January 27th, 2019.  There is a nightcap, glove, and purse, jacket arm, several bed covers as well as a few other objects in the case.  Well worth a look as there are so many yummies in the British Galleries as well!

I couldn't resist taking a selfie with Ms. 1359-1900.  When I came into the exhibit - I said "oh hello miss, I haven't seen you in awhile, so lovely to see you again".  Brings back sweet memories of the start of this huge adventure.

While I was there, I picked up some prizes for an upcoming contest as well.... hmmmm.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

New Classes in Planning Stages

I have been fielding a few worried email from folks who are interested in some of the upcoming
One of the yummy things to be investigated in the course
classes and thought that they may have missed the sign up time.  You haven't yet!  Time frames have slipped a bit between lots of different things - getting stuff manufactured, availability of the graphic artist, and just life stuff.

But there is rapid progress on many fronts - just not all visible to everyone.  I expect the whitework course to be available for sign ups around January 1st (here's crossing our fingers!).  The sweet bag course wasn't planned until late 2019-2020 so it is in various stages of planning and material 'getting'.

Getting ready for a course has many angles.  Since mine are more history/workshop based and not a single project, there is quite a bit of background info that needs to be put together and other people's schedules impact it greatly.  I have decided to use Pintrest to provide the extra images of historic pieces that are weblinks to try to solve the problem of museums changing their sites and thus links going inactive.  That has been hard to keep up with.  Pintrest at least keeps a permanent copy of the picture so if the link goes dead, you can at least see what was discussed.

I have now three large boards built for the Whitework course - on 'secret settings' at the moment.  And I have been to a few museums in the last few months to see specific pieces to answer some questions.  Of course then there were a few samplers that came on sale and I got them - changing some of my plans.  And then there are the diagrams and the 'math' and the few course projects.  And very important - working on the material supply.  When you need 200-300 spools of a particular thread (multiplied by X threads), you fast find out that a few of them don't have enough on the cone.  So there are piles of thread spooled all over the place and the ones that are not complete are competing with slots in the dyeing schedule.  This is the most often need for delay with six months being the most often next spot open in the pots.

In Lyon at a Passamentary Factory discussing
how some things are made
All of September was spent honing down the list of threads needed for the Sweet Bag and Flemish Casket courses and getting really specific and making prototypes as I was headed to Europe to visit factories.  That was well worth it and I can't fully go into the mind explosion that trip was - so much was accomplished.  I visited four companies and samples and prototypes and schedules and technical problems to solve all are on the deck.  Nothing is as fast as you and I would want, but it is always worth waiting for something really yummy!  And on top of it, I had the chance to visit many of the sweet bags I wanted to be inspired from and take notes and pictures of issues I had identified.  As one colleague says:  "chance happens for a prepared mind"  This certainly was the case as capabilities that wouldn't have been noted at some facilities were noted on this round as I was in the midst of trying to solve certain 'I want that material' problems.  And you can see many historic pieces, but when you are really active in making - you need to go back and see them again to figure out how they handled certain issues, your mind wasn't prepared the first time!

Then a big time sink I didn't know about was the talks I would be giving in Sept/Oct and the time they would take up.  Giving a talk at a conference, depending on its length, can take about a week full time preparing.  I had four since Sept 1 - all new and on different subjects.  The exciting thing is that I will be able to share the one for tomorrow on NING with those who have been in my classes - look for it in about a week.  It concerns how reproduction materials are made and I think will be of great interest to everyone as - in a not planned moment - the week before I needed to build the talk, I was in Europe and could film exactly what I needed.

Meanwhile, I finished the tent stitch casket (need to film putting it together) and am getting close to the end of the Harmony casket.  But that takes precedence to the samples for the Whitework course.  Going to Europe, being out of the country much of the summer and having my son go to England for college - well that took about eight weeks out of my schedule when I was planning on when the Whitework course would be ready to take students.  That part is life....