Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Want to Contribute to Historical Research?

I am looking for 60-100 people to volunteer to do some experimental stitching for me, about 1-hour worth.  Because sending standard kits to that many people would be expensive, I am going to recruit from the group of people who participate in the Frostings 6 Club this month - The kit will be included in the shipped product to those interested.  As there are usually 250 people - I hope enough will take me up on this.  So much more on this - the why and how below.

I have told people over and over that my work in embroidery is one great big research project.  A bunch of experimental archeology with some anthropology thrown in with you, the stitcher, a big contributor to the work.  As the Cabinet of Curiosities is winding down, the data and knowledge I have been taking in is really leading to some interesting conclusions and new methodologies that I am applying to embroidery of the 17th century.

During the last six months, I have used zoom to collaborate more fully with some colleagues I have always wanted to work with across the globe and this is proving to be a very fruitful set of work.  While we are embarking on proposals, papers, and in-depth examination of objects both now and in the next several months; one of the big things we need to do is establish metrics that can be used to evaluate embroideries.  

You and I have a good feel of how long it takes to embroider something and maybe how much thread.  But the decorative arts and academic community focused on history has no idea.  One of the most common questions I get from a curator is 'how long did this take?'.  That is a loaded question as it assumes a particular way of working with one person doing the work.  As you start to look at larger and more complex works, often a small army of people worked the pieces.  So there are many questions of how long, how many people, how much materials, and therefore how much did this cost?  My collaborators and I are aiming to produce methods and metrics that will allow some of these questions to be answered and thus illuminate much about how large embroideries were produced.  

So starting with labor, you could measure the time it takes to do hundreds of stitches or to be more efficient, you might break stitches into component moves and measure the time it takes to do a component move.  All stitches are made up of only four moves, which I call needle operations.

They are the stab up and down of the needle, passing the needle under thread on the surface, or wrapping the thread under/around a needle.  My collaborators and I have spent time looking at 17th century embroideries to look at how they stitched and have come up with two samples that can be stitched and timed to understand how many seconds each of these needle moves takes.  One sample, a centimeter square tent stitch sample averages over 512 needle moves of the stab up and down type.  The second sample, a 1-inch square worked in detached buttonhole has the time data dominated by the two other moves.  

Experimental sample of detached buttonhole

What we want to do is ask groups of people of different experience levels (Apprentice, Experienced, and Professional) to work the samples and time themselves with a set of materials we send out and under a particular set of stitch diagrams and fabric set-up.  This way the times for each needle move type is averaged over a large number of individuals and not the work of just one person (me).  Giving us a range of labor per move that we can then use to predict the labor for stitches of different types and scales.  

Experimental samples of diagonal stitches for timing trials.  Tent Stitch is the sample for this experiment.  Chosen afterexamining many 17th century pieces from the back to see that this is the stitch used in this period

I have now done this experiment myself and the data is exciting.  I won't reveal the numbers right now as I don't want anyone to think there is a goal to try to reach.  What we do want is for the stitching to be done in a frame such that you can use one hand above the linen and one hand below the linen.  This can be done in a slate frame or a roller bar frame or q-snap that somehow is balanced or secured so you can use both hands at once to stitch.  This is how the 17th century worker was working so that the needle was passed to the hand under when it went through the fabric.  It also makes working the detached buttonhole under the same conditions for each person.  Most of the objects we are studying were worked in a frame and not in the hand or on a needlelace pillow.  If the results of this first experiment are great, we may expand the concept to collect data for different working conditions with new experiments to see how speed changes.  

Complete instructions will be with each experiment kit and how to return the timed data.  Only two square patches are to be stitched - about 1 hour of stitching.  One in tent stitch over one thread and one in detached buttonhole with return (over two thread scale).  The linen is the 40ct. Restoration linen, cut 12"x12" which should allow for most frames to be used.  The experimental kit will contain pre-cut soie paris and soie perlee for the two experiments along with instructions/form to fill out for times and a survey about your experience level with the two types of stitches to help us place you into one of the three categories for data analysis.

This research is not yet funded (we are writing proposals as I write) but as I shoe-string and piggy back on  other things like the Frostings Box, I need to acknowledge special people in the embroidery community who have made the idea of doing large scale experiments possible.  

Sallie Pate passed away this year and had been a long time embroiderer who participated in my courses and loved historic embroidery.  Her husband asked me if I had use for the threads that Sallie had in her stash and we both felt that using them to enable experiments that would seriously contribute to the historical understanding of the embroideries she loved would be a fitting tribute to her because of her life and work.  The lives of our band of wonderful stitchers are always varied and complex and I so enjoy knowing you all.  I loved Jeff's obituary of his beloved wife and so want to share it here as a tribute to what we will all start together in her memory:

On 28 December, 2020, in Nassau Bay, Texas, the life of the most wonderful, caring, funny, intelligent, creative and beautiful person ever to walk the earth came to an end after 72 years of improving the world. If you had the privilege of knowing
, your world was enhanced and it may never recover from her loss.

She was born Sallie Ann Biggs on 24 May, 1948, to Robert Henry Biggs and Joleen Ruth Hunter Biggs in Enid, Oklahoma. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Phillips University and a Masters of Fine Arts from Texas Christian University.

After college she worked as an actress at Casa Ma├▒ana Playhouse in Ft Worth, Texas. A year later, she moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, where she taught acting, creative dramatics, children's theatre, and costume design and construction at the University of South Dakota. She also directed numerous productions along with designing and building costumes. In 1979, Sallie moved to the University of Houston Clear Lake City where she continued to teach, direct and costume. When she retired, she took up designing and constructing quilts, starting her own company, Sallie Pate Designs. She was very much in demand as a teacher of quilting and other fabric arts. When quilting became too easy, she switched to embroidery, earning a Master Craftsman award, as well as continuing to utilize her formidable skills as a teacher and designer.

Sallie was incredibly generous with her knowledge of stitching. For years she planned and taught more than half of the programs for her small embroidery group.  She usually supplied the materials as well as designs and instructions.  She encouraged all of them to design and to study the history of embroidery. Sallie's library was an inspiration to all of them and she was always happy to lend books. She collected old needlework books as well as the newest research books on stitches. The more detailed the stitch diagrams, the better. 

In 1972, she gave Jeff Pate the honor of becoming her husband. They lived happily ever after for 48 years.
In 2019, she broke all the rules and survived pancreatic cancer, ultimately though, her amazing spirit could not overcome her deteriorating body.


  1. Such a lovely tribute to Sallie, while I have never met the lady, I certainly knew of her lovely designs. <3
    It would be awesome to assist with the research project of Labor. May I ask how do we apply?

  2. I did not know Sallie, from her husbands touching obituary, the stitching community has lost a valuable member. Clearly, you have lost a dear friend, may I offer my condolences.

    I would like to participate in this research, how do we apply?

  3. I would like to volunteer for your stitching research.

  4. I'd like to volunteer, this is just up my street in terms of interests! I'm just completing my masters dissertation in Classical Studies where I'm looking at the textile related resource implications (labour and fleece) of supplying the Roman occupying army in the frontier zone of northern England and Southern Scotland. Jill Mc

  5. I would like to volunteer for this project.
    LInda Connors in Texas

  6. Sorry it posted three times. Don’t know why. My apologies. Looks like I am very eager to help!

  7. Oh my, I’d certainly like to volunteer!! Right up my research alley. I’d be at the apprentice level.

  8. Not part of your Frostings group, but I'd love to volunteer. You can see my work at http://string-or-nothing.com I'd probably fit into your Experienced category. And if you are still in the local area, I live in Arlington.

  9. You’ve got another volunteer here!

  10. I'll volunteer also

  11. I didn't recall Sallie's name, but I definitely remember her stained glass quilt designs. I'm glad her needlework supplies will be put to good use for research.

    If for some reason you don't get enough Frostings members volunteering, I'd be happy to. I'd be in the Apprentice-Experienced range, and never stitched on 40 count.

  12. Happy to volunteer as I love research- as well as stitching and weaving.

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