Friday 29 July 2016

Fearless Freehand

A few weeks ago I asked a group of sampler stitchers - "how do YOU define freehand embroidery within a counted sampler?"

There were lots of replies and varying definitions but one thing that did come across was that many who normally work within the safety of a counted chart are a little apprehensive about venturing into "uncharted territory".

Hands Across the Sea Samplers will shortly be releasing a chart of a beautiful and unusual Scottish sampler that has small freehand motifs. They do not need to be included as the sampler will stand well without them, they could even be cross stitched. However, we want to take the fear out of freehand and for you to be able to stitch these with confidence and enjoyment.


I have designed a small chart and step-by-step photo trail tutorial for you. Whilst this motif has been made up it incorporates all the actual flowers that are freehand stitched in the Scottish sampler. The tutorial uses the stitches found in the orginal sampler.

When I first started stitching a freehand design I was a little nervous of drawing a shape onto my linen. Tracing a design has issues with dimensions in relation to the linen count. Without a guide line it is easy for the embroidery to "grow" out of proportion.

I prefer, where possible, to tack a loose outline with my needle, sketching out the shape in thread. The lines and placement of a motif are easily changed and refined without leaving the fabric marked.

Screenshot 2016-07-28 12.17.32

This is the method we have used for our reproduction and within the sampler's chart there are guide lines for the freehand motifs laid out in the same manner as above . There are close up photographs of each of the stitched freehand motifs within the chart.


Using the graph above roughly tack out the stems and one flower head. There is no need to count this out exactly - this is freehand. Listen to your needle, she will guide you.


The sampler's flower stems are made up of short satin stitches but stem stitch would work well if you prefer.

We do not recommend sewing tightly packed stitches to start - they are hard to unpick if your shape is not right.

Travel up the stem spacing the stitches out so that you are getting a feel for the shape.


When you get to the top and you are happy with the shape, work your way back down filling in the stem with the desired coverage. Repeat for the next stem.


I want my stems to curve and not bend in hard angles. To curve my outline I use a couching stitch to lift my loosely tacked line.


See how the shape softens.


Keep repeating the process.


Until all the stems are stitched.


Turn over your work.


Your waste knot and some uncovered tack lines will be showing.


Clip out the visible tack lines and remove the waste knot. There is no need to secure it. Be careful not to clip out the flower head !


Turn your work back over and stitch the stamens on the first flower. All you need are two or more straight satin stitches.


Do not worry about counting out your stitches. Your flowers will be individual, think about the shapes you are hoping to achieve and experiment.


For the third flower I tacked out the shape of the petals first.


I then used the same process for the stems to stitch the flower. Make your stitches a little shorter than those on the stem.


Each of the stamens are formed with a single thread with two passes.


The tips on the orginal sampler are over one cross stitches. Stitch them slightly on the loose side.

The next flower is made up of three steps. First stitch the vertical satin stitches. A single thread with two passes.


Then add the three long horizontal satin stitches and finish with the short diagonal stitches to the outer edges.


The final stem has a row of  hanging flowers.


Use a tacking stitch to decide on placement.


Then embroider the flowers with satin stitches.


The last step is to add the leaves. Leave the leaves until last so that they can be shaped to sit well with the flower heads.

Hands Across the Sea Samplers hope that you will stitch this small motif and that it takes the fear out of freehand for you. If you have any questions we are here to help. We would enjoy seeing some photos of your stitched motif.

The Scottish sampler will be released at the end of August and with its autumnal palette will be a perfect project for the Fall.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Indigo Blue

Considered to be the most popular colour worldwide, blue has been revered since the time of the Ancient Egyptians who wove strips of indigo-dyed cloth into the borders of plain linen mummy strips.


Indigo has an unique chemical makeup that allows it to work both as a dye and as a pigment. The Mayans mixed indigo with a clay mineral to produce the color we now call “maya blue”, which they used for paintings on murals, sculptures and ceramics, and which despite the passage of time, still have not faded.


In Mali, the native indigo plants are more than just a textile dye. They are healing plants that are used to treat wounds, repel insects, relieve pain and chase away bad spirits. 

Traditionally, cloth dyed with its fermented leaves holds a place in every life stage. Women wanting to conceive a child wear a skirt dyed with the fermented leaves to increase their fertility, and when they do conceive, lay their babies down to sleep in indigo-dyed sheets to open their young minds.


From the day that her son was born, a mother started putting aside resources to create for him a special indigo-dyed  shawl called a diisa. They were a lot of work and were worth the same as 10 head of cattle.


He would would wear it from the day of his wedding until the day he died when it became 
his shroud. It was believed that the celestial blue of indigo would help him pass from this world to heaven.


Whilst we take the blue in our embroidery threads and our favourite blue jeans for granted but it was once prized throughout the world. The Greeks called this blue pigment ‘indikon’, meaning a product from India, and this word became indigo in English.


The earliest example of indigo from Indigofera probably comes from the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (3300 -1300 BC). There are at least 50 different species of Indigofera growing in India.

Indigo blue stones in a market

In the Northwest region, indigo has been processed into small cakes by peasant producers for many centuries. It was exported through trade routes and reached Europe. Greeks and Romans (300 BC - 400 AD) had small amounts of blue pigment in hard blocks, which they thought was of mineral origin. They considered it a luxury product and used it for paints, medicines and cosmetics.


In the late 1200s Marco Polo returned from his trips through Asia and described how indigo was not a mineral but in fact was extracted from plants. Small quantities of indigo were available in Europe then, but they were very expensive due to the long land journey required and the levy imposed by traders along the route. Locally grown woad was the main blue dye used in Europe at the time.


By the late 15th century Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to China, allowing indigo to be imported directly. Large scale cultivation of indigo started in India and in the 1600s large quantities of indigo were exported to Europe. The cost of indigo dropped considerably and by the end of the 17th century it had virtually replaced woad in Europe. Indigo was often referred to as Blue Gold as it was an ideal trading commodity; high value, compact and long lasting.

By the 19th century, natural indigo production could no longer meet the demands of the clothing industry, and a search for synthetic indigo started. In 1865, Adolf von Baeyer, a German chemist began working on the synthesis of indigo and in 1897 synthetic indigo was launched. In 1905, Baeyer won the Nobel prize in Chemistry for his work on organic dyes including indigo.
At the time synthetic indigo was launched, natural indigo production was 19,000 tonnes, and an area of 7,000 square kilometres (a third of the area of Wales) had been dedicated to growing indigo, mainly in India. The much cheaper synthetic indigo quickly superseded natural indigo for commercial dyeing and by 1914 natural indigo production had declined to 1,000 tonnes.


While indigo traces its roots to India, enslaved Africans carried the knowledge of indigo cultivation to the United States. Colonial planters in the Caribbean grew indigo and transplanted its cultivation when they settled in the colony of South Carolina and North Carolina where people of the Tuscarora confederacy adopted the dying process for head wraps and clothing.


When Eliza Lucas Pinckney and enslaved Africans successfully cultivated new strains near Charleston it became the second most important cash crop in the colony (after rice) before the American Revolution. It comprised more than one-third of all exports in value.and in the 1700s, the profits from indigo outpaced those of sugar and cotton. At the time of the America revolution, the dollar had no strength, and indigo cakes were used as currency.


The original American flag was also made from indigo.

The process of indigo dying is demonstrated in this short video from the the V & A  by the Cheepa family, indigo dyers living and working in Kala Dera, Rajasthan.




Elizabeth (known as Eliza) Lucas was born on December 28, 1722, in Antigua, British West Indies, where she grew up at Poerest, one of her family's three sugarcane plantations on the island. She was the eldest child of Lt. Colonel George Lucas, of Dalzell's Regiment of Foot in the British Army, and his wife Ann.

Eliza was 16 years old when she became responsible for managing Wappoo Plantation and two other Lucas plantations. From Antigua, ELiza's father sent her various types of seeds for trial on the plantations. They and other planters were eager to find crops for the uplands that could supplement their cultivation of rice. First, she "experimented" with ginger, cotton, and alfalfa. Starting in 1739, she began "experimenting" with cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant, for which the expanding textile market created demand for its dye. When Colonel Lucas sent Eliza indigofera seeds in 1740, she expressed her "greater hopes" for them, as she intended to plant them earlier in the season. In experimenting with growing indigo in new climate and soil, Lucas also made use of knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans who had grown indigo in the West Indies and West Africa.

After three years of persistence and many failed attempts, Eliza proved that indigo could be successfully grown and processed in South Carolina. While she had first worked with an indigo processing expert from Montserrat, she was most successful in processing dye with the expertise of an indigo-maker of African descent whom her father hired from the French West Indies.

Eliza used her 1744 crop to make seed and shared it with other planters, leading to an expansion in indigo production. She proved that colonial planters could make a profit in an extremely competitive market. Due to her successes, the volume of indigo dye exported increased dramatically from 5,000 pounds in 1745-46, to 130,000 pounds by 1748. Before the Revolutionary War, indigo accounted for more than one-third of the total value of exports from the colony.

For her contributions to South Carolina's agriculture, Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the first woman to be inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame. President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral at St. Peter's Church, in Philadelphia where she had travelled for treatment.

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Monday 11 July 2016

Monday Morning Musings

Summer is here and the beach in the little cove where I live is starting to get busy. This weekend I spotted someone or rather something that brought memories flooding back from my own childhood - a man chilling in the sunshine wearing a hanky hat. The fashioning of a white handkerchief into headwear by tying knots at the corners became something of a clich├ęd image of the British male at play in sunny weather.


A look much lampooned and certainly best forgotten !

Musing on the "hankie" I started to think of its various different uses. Besides the obvious of blowing one's nose it can be used can be used to hold, wrap and protect.

One evening in 1913 New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob was putting on a sheer silk evening gown as she eagerly got ready for a dinner party. She had one small problem, whalebones were visible beneath the sheer silk fabric and were poking out of her corset. With the help of her French maid she created a brassiere from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. Soon thereafter she started to sell her silk handkerchief brassieres.


Textiles help us in a mutiltide of everyday ways. A piece of cloth has so many different uses. Usually we think of a sari simply as a garment but it does much more than cover the body. The loose end that is draped over the body also serves as a handy piece of fabric that can mop the brow and protect the face from dirt and sun. It can be used as a potholder and the end can be tied to hold money and keys in.


The belted plaid was used not only as a garment, but also as bedding at night, the wearer wrapping himself in it and sleeping directly on the ground.


The Mexican rebozo and the Guatemalan tzute function as shawls or as carriers of everything from babies to firewood.


The uses for a scout's neckerchief are endless.


In the 21st century of the Western world very few of us weave our own cloth and the laborious processes and multiple steps that go into its production are carried out in factories in faraway countries. Textiles play an important role in our lives, they are all around us. We use expressions such as "life hanging by a thread", "moral fibre", "fibre of our being", "cut from the same cloth", "spinning a yarn" and "to cotton on".  The historical meanings and significance behind textiles might have faded into the background but there is a rich and interesting story to be told.


The idea for this post came from seeing a man sporting a hanky hat and coincidentally the word "kerchief"  came from two French words: couvrir, which means “to cover,” and chef, which means “head.”

By the 16th century the kerchief had become known as the handkerchief.

The Romans waved handkerchiefs in the air at public games, and the drop of a hankie would signal the beginning of the chariot races. The medieval knight would tie a lady’s handkerchief to the back of his helmet as a good luck talisman when jousting.

Handkerchiefs appeared in Shakespearian plays – Cymbeline, As You Like It, and most memorably Othello, in which a misunderstanding over a handkerchief caused Othello to kill his wife and then himself.

Handkerchiefs were listed in dowries and  bequeathed in wills. The loss of a handkerchief was found recorded in publications as far back as 1665.

In Persia, they were considered a sign of nobility and were reserved for kings. Aristocrats sitting for their portraits would request that a handkerchief be included in the picture, the more embellished the better, to indicate their status and position.

The nobles of France began sporting handkerchiefs in the 14th century. These handkerchiefs were items of great beauty - made of silk, often heavily embroidered and were found in many shapes, including circles and triangles. Often these handkerchiefs were scented as protection from the smells resulting from a lack of regular baths and working toilets.

Considered a symbol of wealth, handkerchiefs became larger and larger, until, in 1785 Louis XVI issued a decree prohibiting anyone from carrying a handkerchief larger than his.

The handkerchief was used as a way to flirt. It was said that Queen Elizabeth I, who carried handkerchiefs embroidered with gold and silver thread, created a whole vocabulary of hankie gestures for dealing with her staff.


In addition to carrying for practical purposes, handkerchiefs have long been displayed in the top pocket of men's jackets. Used in this way, they are referred to as a pocket handkerchief or pocket square.


As a visible fashion item there are a wide variety of ways to fold a pocket square, ranging from the austere to the flamboyant.


During the depression in the 1930's, a handkerchief was often the only new item a woman could afford enhance her wardrobe. A woman would “change” her outfit by changing her hankie.


Ladies would embroider colorful flowers, monograms or motifs on their hankies.


In WWII, with clothes rationing the hankerchief played an important role in fashion and 
could be seen peeking from breast pockets or draped over a belt as anaccessory. 

Manufacturers like Burmel and Kimball advertised a handkerchief of the month in Vogue magazine. With the perfection of color-fast dyes, a vast array of cheerful colors allowed artists the freedom to depict everything from flowers to animals to cocktail recipes. There were handkerchiefs to celebrate holidays, birthdays, get well greetings, Mother’s Day, and more, often sold in special gift cards.


Several years after the war, once fashion began to revive, Balmain, Dior, Rochas and other designers utilized handkerchiefs as a final touch to their haute couture. Hankies were tied to the wrist, threaded through the top buttonhole of a suit or popped from the side pocket of a handbag.


Handkerchiefs were very popular with the armed forces to give as gifts to mothers and sweethearts.


The production of souvenir handkerchiefs can be traced to the 17th century, with designs including depictions of victories in battle, royal events, performers, maps and unusual events. These designs could help to satisfy patriotic sentiments or signify particular allegiances. By the second half of the 18th century handkerchiefs were among the most common commemorative items produced.

Handkerchiefs were even employed for advertising in political campaigns. One historian claims Martha Washington created a handkerchief to help promote the election of her husband.


Apparently she had “George Washington for President” hankies printed for distribution at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. To this day, handkerchiefs are printed depicting both Republican and Democratic parties, as well as coronation handkerchiefs for royalty. There is even a handkerchief that contains King Edward’s abdication speech.


The birth of tissues sounded the death knell for handkerchiefs. Originally invented in the 1920’s as a face towel to remove cold cream, by the 1930’s Kleenex was touted as the antidote to germs with their slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket.” Busy housewives eagerly embraced the disposable hankie.

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