Friday, November 30, 2018

Did Someone Say Robots?

Yes, I never finished the robot story (a big one) over the summer.  When my life and work overwhelm me I can't write and I had finished the story of the Lego season for the younger crew so it was at a good pause point.  When I was at Winterthur quite a few people complained that I hadn't finished my thoughts...

For anyone who didn't remember where we were at - here are the links from the storyline to catch up.

Robots as Life Part I

Robots as Life Part II

Beginning of Robot Year 

Lego Season and Antartica

Robot Revolution taking over the metal robot field - they were jaw set
determined to go to competiton
So when I left off, the younger team had won the Top Performing Robot award at the state championship in late December with a top 5 score in the world and had sent their project to Antartica for testing.

And we didn't win the championship. Or the runner up or the runner up to the runner up.  They were not happy.  I won't go into the details, but we adults learned a bunch of stuff from a FTC coach who was one of the judges and found that we wouldn't likely ever win the championship - a mix of things that happen in these big organizations which are unfair to kids who work this hard.  Some of it centers on how 90% of the adults who judge this stuff have never done it and so either don't understand it or think that no kid could be that good so it must have been done by the adults.  That is so sad.  She had coached the best team in Lego and was the coach of one of our two biggest competitors in the metal division and knew us and knew we coach fair so she had argued to the matt for us.  And was totally overruled by the men as they dismissed her (a MIT engineer).  And was she pissed.  The kids didn't know about this until recently.

But what they did was phenomenal the day after the state championship.  The championship was a few days before Christmas and as I said, they were not happy.  There had been some joking about how they should just join the FTC division of metal robots.  (We adults realized they were done with the Lego division) - and they took it seriously.  As in by Christmas there was a robot frame.  Holy OMG kids are you serious??  Within a week, I knew how serious they were - taking anger and translating it into hard work and working beside The Brainstormers to build their own robot for the challenge.

Now realize - they were starting four months late in a high school competition as 6th-8th graders.  Four months late.  The actual qualifier competitions had started a month earlier and The Brainstormers had already qualified for the state championship - before these kids started a robot.  I emailed the state coordinator and asked if I registered them if they could get a slot at one of the last qualifiers at the end of January.  She said yes.  So they became Robot Revolution FTC team #14106.

Two of the Robot Revolution kid learning to
drive their robot
I didn't know how long the determination would last as we were already pretty tired from the fall or even if all the families would stick to it.  The families didn't have a choice - the kids were here every weekend.  Nothing like feeling things didn't go as they should to motivate them.  So now realize - I now have TWO metal robot teams on my hands at the same time when things would usually be cooling off a little.  We talked with the kids and told them they had to design the robot themselves and were not allowed to use the same design The Brainstormers had - it was so original.  They even had The Brainstormers first prototype robot in the room.  We made them take it apart.  If you are going to do this - you are going to do it from scratch and make sure your reputation is that because it will follow you for the rest of the years.  Don't let others think you had your older siblings do your work.

And they had a working, programmed robot and went to competition with full notebook, CAD designs, and presentation materials in four weeks - something in every catagory.  They worked around the clock.


I mean just WOW.  Many high schools barely make that after five months.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Whitework Course (Update)

I know many of you are waiting to hear about the whitework course and it will be soon!  I am planning on announcing the course and taking reservations before Christmas so any of those husband's looking for an easy gift idea can take advantage of it!

I have been working for easily six months on and off on the course - buying antiques, surveying the existing examples in museums and doing some of the all important figuring of things out.  This one is a bit more complicated at the front end than it might seem on the surface.  What are the issues a teacher should consider when putting a course on 17th century whitework from band samplers together?

One of my new pieces for study.  And wouldn't you know when you spend
enough time starting with them and asking 'why'... you realize that the
all the instructions I have ever seen are for 19th century reproductions.
The 17th century stitches were different.
Well the big one is success.  We all want to be successful when doing a project and unfortunately we aren't 14-year old little girls with their young eyes and focal lengths!!  I am in the middle of the 'first decline' of eyesight and now have to wear glasses for embroidery and so have been personally experiencing the challenge of how I love fine counts and materials and yet my eyes sometimes struggle more than before.

So as I have been working on the math (making sure the bands will all work out and be in the right proportions) I have been sampling materials - linens and threads - that aren't available currently in the USA or generally to embroiderers, searching for what I want.  This takes time and quite a bit of back and forth figuring out what could be available and when!

So if I want everyone to be successful - that means offering different counts of linen for the projects
Notice that the background is not the same color as the
thread!  It makes working and counting the stitches easier for
the borders.
and finding the fabrics that will work and the right colors.  Instead of saying you must use this one fabric that you can't see - what if you could choose and try different counts?  And what would that do to the instructions and all that 'math' - how could I accommodate that?   Scale is an issue that must be considered as well.  I was talking to Access Commodities today and Lamora mentioned that when talking to the linen representative who visited about a particular product he was 'pushing,' she had to let him know that while it was a lovely product, we don't have the scale of thread that is used on it anymore available.  That was a way of thinking he hadn't considered before and something that I work on constantly - what is the scale of the thread that can be used for Montenegrin Stitch on both 55 and 30 count
fabric and look right?  Of the 20 or so linen thread weights, which work for the different stitches on different counts?  Which brands are spun consistently enough to be used for this?  Can we get them??

What needles make the work the easiest to work?  This is cutwork - so how about scissors?  I must have spent hours today just investigating scissors I have picked up across Europe for this purpose over the decade and learning what makes good cutwork scissors by measuring things so I can give guidance.  I hadn't even noticed that in all the decades I have been doing cutwork (I started at 12) I do something with my scissors that is unconventional!  I flip them over so the thinner upper blade is against the satin stitch when I cut the linen.  These are the things that make getting ready for a class take twice as long as it might if you rushed.  I like to ask the question "Why?" as I outline the lessons and then that takes me to talking to scissor manufacturers to figure out why my favorite scissors for this work are actually made for a non-fabric craft!!

And recently I decided after some input to add a historically accurate high count linen to the mix just to make my life harder and satisfy all of us who just love that!  After getting the samples from Europe  I decided to make it eye-friendly I would need to do something radical.  This is what is delaying me from announcing the course particulars and costs tonight.  I want the linen custom yarn-dyed to the antique linen color before weaving and need to send a sample of the color (which I finally found in random piece in my drawer) to them for evaluation.

Even the satin work looks better with a
old linen color.
You say...What???  Well, when you spend tons of time with the antique band samplers, you realize that a significant number of the high count ones have cream linen thread on a colored linen ground fabric!!


I like the effect.  Three of the four I own are like this.  At first you think, well... it is aged linen.  But wait, the linen thread didn't age the same way so there was contrast originally.  And when working with linen thread and fabric that match at high thread count - well, you can't see well enough to count anything.  So off to scrounge in my stash for a dyed 40+ high-count linen and try the stitches on that. Ah - yes, that does the trick and makes the same work much easier to do.  In other words, eye friendly.

So the last question to be answered is can they do it on my time frame and I should know in about a week.  That would be cool, a linen dyed specifically to make a course more eye friendly for those of us who will try to stitch as they did in the 17th century on high count linen.  And don't worry - there will be two lower counts as well!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Janet Brandt's Casket at Winterthur

Janet Brandt, Linda Eaton and Myself with Janet's Casket in the exhibit.  And yes, that is her second one on the table next to it for a short discussion being held during the opening
If you haven't been to Winterthur in the last few weeks after they started exhibiting Janet Brandt's embroidered casket - you need to go!  The entire exhibit is wonderful but the star is Janet's epic casket with all the pieces inside.

They have displayed it in such a lovely way, slightly open to see the embroidery inside as well and a few of the items scattered in the case.  The walls are painted red to highlight the casket.  Pictures of this piece do not justify it in any way.

It will be on exhibit until January 6th as part of Embroidery: The Threads of History.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Quilts of Gee's Bend Documentary

There was a small documentary about the quilters of Gee's Bend in the New York Times a week ago.  If you missed it - nice to see something about the real people behind the famous quilts and their lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rare Chance to See Embroidered Jacket in USA

Embroidered bodice c.1610.  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

There is a new exhibit that just opened on Friday at Jamestown in Virginia called "Tenacity".  It converts the role of women in the Jamestown Settlement and that time frame.

One of the amazing artifacts that they are exhibiting as part of the year long event is one of the nearly two dozen surviving embroidered jackets of the early 1600s!!  It is one that I haven't had the opportunity to see in person yet (you bet I am heading down there!) and is from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  They have a nice blog posting with some very close up views of the embroidery.

This is a rare chance and so if you happen to be near Virginia in the next year - make sure to go see it!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Silk Wrapped Plate

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

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

But the effect is just amazing.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How are Silk Purls Used?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Exhibition at Witney Antiques

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2018

New Sizes of Silk Wrapped Purls and Silk Check

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How are Silk Wrapped Purls Made?

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

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

Illustration from Diderot's Encyclopedie (1751)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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