The Great Printed Fabric Experiment

School has sort of eaten my life. And the wrist took longer to heal than I had expected, as far as using it to make art goes. I’m still a little shaky on some very fine motor skills, but I’ll get there. Projects that aren’t necessarily *my art* seemed like a good idea. Still get to make stuff, but not stuff that I’ll want to compare to old work and  despair that I’ll ever be good at anything again. (Shush, you. That’s a totally reasonable fear.) I’ve been learning a lot about the arts of various tribes from the Iranian steppes – Sarmatian, Sassanian, Sogdian, etc. Our new queen wanted to go Sarmatian, and my household was doing coronation costuming, so we learned some new stuff. I fell in love with these motifs, and they work beautifully for Persian silks that might have been cut into strips for Scandinavian clothing. I won’t say designs are timeless, but they don’t shift trends as quickly as they do now. The deer pair on the left is from the 10-11th c. and the one on the right is from the 6-7th century. Same border of pearls, same triangle deer scarf, similar body decoration. Weaving this is so not happening, but carving printing blocks isn’t that hard, and printed fabric is relatively easy to do. It’s definitely a historical practice, though I haven’t been able to pin down how old it is. Quite old in the near east and Egypt, and there are instructions for it in Il Libro Del’Arte later in the middle ages, so it’s a versatile thing to have in your toolkit and closet. Mid-period tile designs would make great repeating motifs and are pretty simple.

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Look at this sassy Sassanian sheep from the 8th century. LOOK AT HIM. Little sheep strut and his jaunty sheep scarf, looking like he’s going to rough some sheep up in a bar fight and meet some sheep ladies who will no doubt admire his lovely sheep necklace. Weaving this would be a nightmare. But in a few television-filled hours, you too can have his sassy self carved into a block and ready to go on your clothes. I’m trying to figure out what befits him and his majesty before I commit a garment. Also, I screwed up his block because I was using a clear lino block that turned out to be a weird carving texture. I’ll redo him in something better and maybe modify his fancy little frame so that it’s symmetrical enough for printing. (EEEEEE! HIS SHEEPY EYEBROWS!)

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So far, I’ve carved a few blocks in different sizes. I’m not doing a tutorial on the actual carving itself – there are lots out there already, and it’s good to watch a few and get some different techniques before you start. The motifs I’ve done are very similar over a stretch of a few hundred years, all from people groups within the Persian area. Works for royal costuming. Works for Norse stuff. The hardest part was picking designs. But then! I had a brilliant idea – carve them all on different block materials FOR SCIENCE. I’ve been doing that with mixed success. I think I’ll do a class on it, because it’s really fun and you don’t have to be a super skilled artist to carve a great block. All you need is:

  • blocks for carving – I like the easy to cut varieties of lino cut blocks the best, by far, but wood is period and best but less friendly to beginners. Not all block materials play nicely with all kinds of paint, so do your research – however, blocks are inexpensive so mistakes or a block you don’t like means losing a couple of dollars and some time
  • carving tools – lino carving tools come in a little pack for about $12-15 before you use a coupon and they have replaceable blades; wood carving tools cost considerably more
  • band aids – the tools are sharp, and even with good safety practices, it’s easy to nick yourself
  • a pencil, a fine permanent pen – to get the design on the block, it’s easiest to cover the back of your design with pencil graphite, place it on the block, trace over it to leave a light pencil outline on the block, then trace that with a permanent pen or paint because your hands will rub the pencil design off easily
  • cheap acrylic paint – a thin wash of this over your design makes carving MUCH easier to see, and you can still see the sharpie through it
  • paint for your fabric – I’ve gotten the best results with screen printing ink and a brayer, but people successfully use acrylic paint, latex and oil house paints, etc.
  • fabric – generally, the smoother your weave, the nicer your results…most definitely test print, and know that really pressing the block into the fabric is necessary for good transfer: Indian sari fabric printers hammer their blocks, I’ve seen people stand on wood ones – get physical with it before you decide if it’s a good fabric or not.Top left is wool twill, then poly satin, and linen on the bottom. The fine details of the round motif get totally lost on linen, and didn’t do much better on the satin. These blocks still had clean up carving to do (the lines in what should be empty space around the designs), but notice how much better you can see the details in the larger deer set than the smaller set. Part of that is scale and getting paint trapped in weensy grooves. Part of that is that the bigger one is on an easy cut block, which is softer and mashes into the fabric well while giving a crisp ink transfer, while the smaller deer are on a cheap gray lino block that was a little dried out. Detail was hard to carve, and the fine things were lost on every fabric I tried.

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Things to avoid: dull tools, the clear lino carving blocks (too elastic = very hard to cut neatly or with predictable control), old lino blocks because old blocks are hard and crumbly blocks, overly complex or small designs, shallow cuts that won’t transfer the design cleanly

Here are my deer, all cleaned up. The ink distribution could be a little bit more even, but this was a first impression from the first inking. The residual ink from you printing during a session helps with even printing in subsequent prints. This is on a cotton flour sack dishtowel and was printed with screen printing ink. The towel is a nice, fine surface that took detail beautifully. I didn’t heat set it to see what happened with washing – the ink stayed, but it is a lighter pink, like a cranberry juice stain, instead of a sort of cochineal red. 14724436_10209214095083238_530115933278988733_n

From here, I moved on to trying them on the russet poly satin, but there wasn’t enough contrast. I haven’t been able to manage getting a color other than white or black to be opaque on fabric that dark, so I opted to use something else for my project. I’m using a different poly satin that’s much nicer and very heavy and not too shiny. These are way big, so you can see what’s going on. The top set of deer went pretty badly: I got too much paint on my brayer, which meant too much was on the stamp, and the transfer wasn’t very good. I did this on a hard surface instead of a lightly padded one, which made it even more difficult to get a crisp transfer. I folded a heavy old cotton curtain over a couple of times to make four smooth layers without a ton of give, and that made a much better base. It was also really tough to register the pattern well and match things up – even with a ruler. Going off of the original woven design wasn’t good enough for symmetry in printing. I learned that I need to transfer my design to drafting or graph paper if it’s going to repeat like this, so that I can be really sure that the elements line up correctly. I started to lose heart at this point and was worried that I’d wasted a lot of time making something awful.

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Then, I decided to wash everything off and try some more with the other deer stamp. It had looked the best on all three of my original test fabrics. It was big enough (about 3×3″) to not lose the details and textures if the paint was a little bit too heavy, and there weren’t any parts of the design that touched or had to register perfectly. I drew lines with a big quilting ruler and chalk, spacing them based on lazy ruler measurements. That means they’re a bit further apart horizontally than they are vertically. If I want to, I can always turn a little square stamp on the diagonal and put in the corner motif as a separate element. I think that’s the best way to go on future projects. This went much more smoothly. I stopped to wash off the brayer and glass inking plate a few times as I stamped so that I could keep things as even as possible. Some of the places where a little got on the corner during printing could be cleaned up with warm water and q-tips, but it wasn’t perfect. When the printing was done and dry, I followed the instructions on the screen printing ink for heat setting with an iron, washed the fabric on delicate and cold, then laid it over the back of a chair to dry. It’s destined to trim out a a reproduction of the coat from Birka grave 944 that I’m doing for a friend.

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Posaments!

For the uninitiated, posaments are these fantastic metal bits of ornament that were applied to clothing in Birka, Sweden during the Viking Age. There are braids and continuous knotwork strands that are made in the hand and carefully tightened to form beautiful knots. If I am interpreting the archaeological finds correctly, they’re rare enough in graves that not everyone had them (status symbol, no doubt). There are enough posaments that reenactors have a number of designs and applications to choose from, should they wish to incorporate them. The fantastic Silberknoten site has beautiful examples she’s recreating from various graves. Eithni is also recreating them grave by grave. Her project at Gulf A&S was truly fantastic, and her tutorials have been very helpful. You can look at the originals and work out how to do the knots yourself, but I need a tutorial.

If you want to slap some fancy metal on some fabric, Birka is not the only contemporary settlement that has really cool metal ornaments on clothing – there are others in Sweden, Finland has some great stuff, there’s wire weaving, and there are woven bands of varying complexity from various Viking world locations that have metal brocaded through them (a project on my list!). Many of these other projects require less expensive materials or have the ability to substitute something much less expensive, like very fine brass jewelry wire for gold.

The originals were made primarily with straight gold wire, and some with very fine tin/silver alloy wire that’s coiled around a silk core. This is called tenntråd, and you can order it on Etsy or from Sweden. It’s not cheap (~$3/m), particularly since you are using 2-4 strands at a time to make the patterns. There’s a little piece below (about 8″/20cm) that I’ve put on a smokkr panel, and it’s about $10 worth of material. Making little rows of it to go down the bands of silk across a man’s chest on his tunic could easily cost $50 for small and uncomplicated posaments. Because of that, I looked for viable alternatives and tried them out.

Cheap braided mylar cord stuff from the ribbon section of the craft store. Worth a try for a buck.
Cheap braided mylar cord stuff from the ribbon section of the craft store. Worth a try for a buck. I could potentially run a very fine wire down the center and try it again since the lack of structure a wire would give made it hard for the knots to keep a distinct shape or look crisp.

 

Craft wire I had around, grabbed when I could not find my small jewelry wire. This was too thick, and nearly impossible to tighten up. SO. BAD.
Craft wire I had around, grabbed when I could not find my small jewelry wire. This was too thick, and nearly impossible to tighten up. SO. BAD.

And then there was Gulf. Violet was asking random vendors about whether or not they carried tenntråd. I thought it was for her. Then we met some fantastic OOK Viking Laurels from An Tir, and one of them casually mentioned that she had enough for a handful of people if anyone wanted to learn to make them. I barely refrained from shouting, “TAKE MY MONEY!” And that’s how I got a tiny purple bag of magical tenntråd. Because it’s coiled, it’s forgiving of being made to curve this way and that. Because of the silk core, it doesn’t behave like wire. It’s seriously worth the money if you want to try to make posaments because it gives perfect results (once you figure out how to make the knots). There are a few things I’ve found where I struggle and struggle, then try the historical material or tool, and the heavens open for the angels to sing. A well-cut quill. Rectangular construction. Tenntråd.

My first knot with the tenntråd! It's the same knot I was doing in the first two pictures.
My first knot with the tenntråd! It’s the same knot I was doing in the first two pictures. Only in soft focus, so that you know my practice knot is artisinally-made with craftsmanship for Instagram.

 

My first string of knots, done in the car on the way home from Gulf. You might notice some of them are backwards...they're not supposed to be.
My first string of knots, done in the car on the way home from Gulf. You might notice some of them are backwards…they’re not supposed to be. Notice their size in comparison to the weave on my jeans. Posaments are surprisingly small, for the most part.

 

This is my second string of knots. This time, none of them are backwards, and they're spaced like the original, instead of all spread out. I put the posament on the bottom of a smokkr panel on very fine herringbone wool with strips of silk and a band of linen on linen embroidery.
This is my second string of knots. This time, none of them are backwards, and they’re spaced like the original, instead of all spread out. I put the posament on the bottom of a smokkr panel on very fine herringbone wool with strips of silk and a band of linen on linen embroidery. I used tiny blue silk thread to attach the posament, because I couldn’t figure out how else to get it on.

I’m making a stronger effort to be more authentic in my portrayal, which means being more focused on a time and place instead of being a magpie and popping together shiny things from a more generous swath of time and geography. I’m doing more research, paying closer attention to the most likely interpretation of a find instead of trying to stretch the possibilities to fit what I want. The upside is that research is fun for me, and learning the details impresses me with the cleverness and workmanship of the people whose graves we’ve dug through. The downside is that by the time I have completed a project, I’ve invariably done more research and am now displeased with some aspect of what I made and want to redo it. All of that is to say that while I’m think this smokkr panel I made is beautiful, and people have been fawning over it, the silk strips are too wide, and I shouldn’t have the embroidery on there like that, I don’t think. Or if I do leave it on (which I will, because I did some itty bitty stitches on that silk), I should fill it in with stitching in silk, like the examples they found in Oseberg, which likely came from the British Isles.

Narrow Oseberg Band

With Gulf coming up and our local championship tournament last weekend, I wanted to find a relatively quick project that would upgrade the look and authenticity of my costuming while advancing my skills in one of the areas where I don’t spend as much time as I’d like. Enter: tablet weaving an authentic Norse pattern! Something for me that wasn’t hard on my wrist? Check. A way to get back in the weaving saddle? Check that too. I started digging around in textile research and decided to go with something from the Oseberg ship burial. This particular find is chock full of weaving, both decorative and functional, as well as textiles, tapestries, imported silks, and some of the few examples of embroidery associated with the Viking world. You should most definitely check it out if you’re not familiar with it. My documentation is here, should you like to read a little bit about the burial.

Schmales OsebergbandI made a narrow band (12L 1 is the specific designation) that is part of a “cake” of textiles that are stuck together. It was 0.5 cm across and made of silk with a contrasting plant fiber (linen) that has rotted away, leaving only the silk. The band has a pattern that I’ve seen described as serpentine, and it rather reminds me of Greek key. I used the excellent chart and instructions from Shelagh Lewins to make my band. This is a particularly good resource, as she was able to visit the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo and have first-hand inspection access to a couple of the woven bands, through a professor. Her site also has an excellent array of Dark Ages patterns which are sorted by authenticity level and ease.

Tablet weaving is something I can sort of do. My weaving is pretty even, and I enjoy doing it. But. I don’t have a weaver’s brain. I can’t read patterns well or read what I’m doing to find mistakes and correct them very easily if something gets off. My husband – who is not crafty in the least – can look over and immediately see what’s wrong and why. I’m trying to embrace the idea of having a proofreader instead of being grumpy that I’m not good at something I’d like to be good at. I’ve been overly reliant on patterns that can be done on a modern tablet loom with pegs via the continuous warping method. It’s wonderfully convenient, but it restricts the weaving to patterns that aren’t authentic replications of the patterns used. I’m one of those who strives to be ever more authentic in my portrayal, and taking a couple of hours to flub my way through warping my loom isn’t too terrible – particularly since I learned ways to do it much more quickly next time. And next time I weave, it will be with authentic materials and not Aunt Lydia’s #10 crochet cotton. And I think it will be a missed hole band from Mammen or maybe Birka where the tablets aren’t all turned together…

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This pattern, while simple, taught me some skills I had not learned on other weaving projects, such as flipping the twist of the cards over a few turns so that you can keep turning them forward while reversing the twist instead of having to reverse the whole pattern. This is a fantastic trick! My loom is small, though, so I would up having to do this more frequently than I would like. My flips are roughly every 10″, which would be ok if they were really smooth and therefore less noticeable. This is my first time with that technique, so it took a while for them to improve. The spots where the flips take place are better, but not consistently so. See the difference in the early ones and late ones? I’m still not totally sure if I should flip cards then pass the shuttle of weft thread or pass and then flip. Either way, I still have some crazy floating threads over on the sides…

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Russian Rose Progress

My rose scroll is getting close to completion! I haven’t shown a bunch of pictures, because progress has been slooooooow. I’m in major wrist pain again, and ten minutes of work a day does not make for exciting blog updates.

Here’s where it was last week:

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I took this right before my rapidograph technical pen started leaking  as I drew in the eyes, nose, and mouth, and ruined the face. My beloved rapidographs have itsy bitsy needle tips perfect for outlining. They don’t bite into gouache. The alcohol ink dries nice and dark and clean wherever I put it.The only problem has ever been with them clogging from dried ink, which is a little fussy to fix but not a big deal – and totally worth it since I usually sit down to do all of the outlining in one day, which isn’t enough time to clog. I had no idea they might start dripping, so it took me a second to realize what was happening.

I’ve been working on fixing the face and adding shading and filling in those empty circles this week. To give you an idea of scale, each of those rose roundels around the portrait, including the gold ring, is smaller than a thumb tack. I’ve never painted miniatures, so learning to adjust in these small areas has been an interesting challenge. Less is definitely more…

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The face is mostly fixed. I need to find my bag of cat whiskers and add a little detail on the lips and on the gold temple rings and on the veil band. Yes, cat whiskers. They’re shed naturally, and a couple of friends give me theirs. After that, it’s just calligraphy and framing.

Russian calligraphy is hard for me. Not only are the letterforms foreign to my eye, they’re a bit blocky, so I struggle with feeling like my lettering is graceful. I don’t speak Russian, so I’ll be doing a faux-Cyrillic calligraphy where the alphabet is juggled around to use the characters that look most like our Roman alphabet. Here’s the original from the Yuriev Gospel:

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I took a picture of my screen with my phone and have been looking at it a lot to try to get my eye acclimated to what I want the lettering to look like. This part is going to be an adventure… I have a scroll text that’s mandatory and only 2×3 inches (5cm x 7.5cm) to do it in. When I played around with a faux Russian font to get an idea of how big the letters can be and still fit on the page, it had to be at a 7pt font. SO. TINY.

Silk Embroidery Testing: Progress

The embroidery is going pretty well in that I’m enjoying doing it. It’s progressing quickly, which is also really nice after doing super fine projects that take hundreds of hours. The colors are gorgeous, and I like the subtle variegation.

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But.

I think I need a hands-on lesson on the Bayeaux stitch, or laid and couched work in general. It’s such a straightforward concept to lay all those long stitches in one direction and tack them down with rows of stitches in the opposite direction. Keeping things straight on curved seams is hard, though. I have a lot to learn.

There’s a mix of satin stitch and a sort of but not really Bayeaux stitch. With the way the shapes spiral, I couldn’t figure out how to do a truly consistent Bayeaux. I went with keeping a consistent direction across the widest parts of each third of the design and winging it as things narrowed and spiraled. This makes me think it’s not the right stitch for the job.

I don’t know a lot about how Bayeaux works in applications outside of the Bayeaux Embroidery itself – this may be exactly how to handle the shapes. I don’t know how to fix the weird intersections or angles you can see toward the top, where the arms come together to make a triangle. I could definitely use some instruction on how to refine what I’m doing. It’s a fun, quick fill stitch that I’d like to use more.

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I have learned that there’s not really a difference between outline and split stitch in how the final long, laid stitches look. However, since this thread has a twist, it doesn’t lend itself to split stitch. It’s splendid for outline stitch. I got this great book on the Bayeaux embroidery for Christmas, and it was explaining how the twist works for and against the different stitches used. And when the twist is going in the same direction as the curve, it makes for an incredibly smooth line in outline stitch.

This is the first chance I’ve had to play with that, and it was interesting to see the difference. My stitching isn’t perfect (and this is way blown up with a macro lens), but you can see how the different sides of the curve are smoother and more jagged. Something to keep in mind with winding knotwork…

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Silk Embroidery Testing

My friend, Baroness Jac from Gleann Abhann, is an incredible dyer who works with natural dye materials. She’s spectacularly knowledgeable and talented. We got to hang out at ArtSci Crown, and the lady has a giant bag overflowing with hanks of every color and hue you can imagine – all from the dye workshop in her backyard! We got to dump them out in the grass and play a little. I wish I had a picture – you’d swoon. She sent me home with some samples of silk dyed with indigo and madder to see how they work for embroidery. Most of her customers use the fibers for knitting, crochet, and weaving, but I had to go and ask about embroidery…

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The silk she gave me is similar to perle cotton or Vineyard silk twists for needlepoint. Which is to say, it’s not stranded. I’m using it in a few different ways. Right now, I’m working on deep peacock blue silk dupioni. It’s shot with olive-gold that gives a nice teal finish when it moves. I don’t generally embroider on dupioni – particularly with thread this heavy. I changed to a crewel needle so that there’s a nice, sharp point to help make it through the tight weave.

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I’m doing a circular motif on a band of this silk. This band will be applique’d onto a panel that hangs from the turtle brooches over a Norse apron dress. The panel can be worn with any dress, so it’s an ideal place to put more elaborate, complex, or luxurious embellishments. This is one of my favorites. It’s also an ideal place for little treasures. Since the panel is maybe a foot across, it’s perfect for prized bits of weaving, wire weaving motifs, silk scraps, and the like.

I’ve drawn my motif onto Solvy in white gel pen (super historically accurate). There isn’t a lot of wiggle room to keep the design centered on the band, so there are some anchoring stitches above and below to add stability until the design is partially sewn. They just get pulled out later. To begin, I go over the outline of the shape first in split or outline stitch or some combination. This way, when I lay my long stitches over it, I wind up with a clean, raised shape.

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Norse Applique Tutorial

This past weekend, we went to Castle Wars outside of Atlanta, and had our first big Meridian camping event. We had a wonderful time, met great people, and I got to teach a class about Norse applique. I’m so grateful to the people who came to take it – and I had a great time teaching! Download the tutorial on Norse Applique by Penelope de Bourbon.

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This is one of those things that’s stunning and everyone loves, but they think it’s much harder to do than it actually is. I’ve taught a few people to do it before the class, and I wanted to cover common challenges people have, like translating designs or finding good materials to work with. Because of that, I wound up with a 12 page tutorial that people can download. It covers the basic history, how to do it, design sourcing and translation into the applique medium, sourcing materials, easy dyeing methods, working with challenging fabrics like silk and linen, stitch choices, and more! This is a great thing to do because it makes a huge visual impact and can be done pretty mindlessly in front of the TV once your pieces are cut out.

I hope you all enjoy it. If there’s something you want to see added into it or have any questions, please let me know.