When things just aren’t working out

We all know we are our own worst critics. But there are times that I feel that an artisan should to take a step back and say ” this is just not working” or ” it’s not right” or “not to my standards”.

Last week I hit that point. Fifty plus hours into the embroidery on the hemd and I knew.
The thread I had ordered was a slightly different shade of white than the first spool but it took about 6 rows of the pattern to really notice it ( and the subsequent stripe).

The neckline ( per my previous posts) was too big. I was going to change the style slightly and run with it.

BUT.. I knew it wasn’t right. While I am doing this project to further my research, it is going to someone else and I want them to love it. ( they would have no matter what because the recipient is too nice to say otherwise. ) Better to stop part way through than put more time into something I would ultimately be disappointed in.

My friend’s reactions, were sympathetic of course, then everyone of them more or less said that if I felt I needed to tear it out then it needed to be: their reason? I have standards that I set for myself. They are high, but they are there so I always challenge myself. Again we are our own worst critics.

So what is the next step? Well if it’s a technique that is not working, I will go back to the drawing board to see what I need to do differently. If it’s a material failure ( or worse) it may be a case of cutting my losses and start it over.

For the shirt it means tearing out all the embroidery done so far, and the pleating. Re-measuring, doing more test pleats and see if it can be salvaged.

This is all a good thing btw. I do thrive on proving to myself I can do it. More to come !!!


A pattern emerges

Figuring out the pattern I wanted to use for the shirt was one of the biggest challenges I had.  There are two ways to do the patterning: the pleats make the design or the threads do. They are essentially reverses of each other.

This handout from my apron class shows an example of using the threads to form the pattern. http://www.pleatworkembroidery.com/articles/apronintwoways

Here http://www.pleatworkembroidery.com/recreating I have a example of an extant shirt fragment and the recreated version.

You have to make sure that you do not use a pattern that carries the threads over too many pleats or the threads will catch on things and sag. 

The other way to look at the pattern is to use the pleats to form the design. http://www.pleatworkembroidery.com/articles/15th%20Century%20Ladies%20Hemd

This is much more stable because the design threads are run through the majority of the pleats and only small stitches pass over the the pleats. I opted to go this route because after looking at shirts and necklines of similar design in the period artwork I decided that it would be closer to what I was seeing in these pictures.

The pattern is charted from an extant Modelbuch by Micholas Bassee. While the book dates from 1568, these patterns were widely used throughout German and Italian embroidery. 

The charted pattern

The charted pattern

The dots are where the thread goes over the pleats, the white spaces are where the thread goes through the pleat:

stitching the pleats

The first row is the hardest because that is laying out your pattern. After that, you can use the stitches in the previous row as a pattern guide. Hint: When doing the stitching, it is easier to pull the needle through multiple pleats as shown in the image above. It keeps the stitches lined up better and the rows even.

the pattern begins

This is the pattern after 10 rows. The pleats are pulled in very tight and the pattern is beginning to emerge.

Pleats, pleats and more pleats

The pleating for the new shirt is done.  Because I always get questions about the pleating process I thought I would spend some time talking about it.

Figuring out the pleats is probably the hardest part of the entire process.  The shirt needs to fit a 19″ neck. This style will fall a bit below a normal “shirt” neck, so I am figuring on the actual size being about a 21-22 inches around. I will be constructing the shirt using four panels of fabric: front, back and 2 sleeves. The linen is about 58″ wide. Using a full width for the back and front and 1/2 a width for each sleeve it adds up to 174 inches minus and inch or so for seams.

The neckline is not ruffed at the top, so rather than finish the edge, I am folding it over the depth of the proposed embroidery. This will give me a finished edge at the top, and will give more body to the neck. If you look at the inspiration shirt and others similar to it, they look very stiff.

Pleating up the fabric: Pleating is easy. It is simply rows of stitches. Each stitch should be approximately the same size and distance apart. Each row should be parallel to the previous row. They do not have to be perfect! If there are slight variations in the size the actual embroidery will even them out. They do not have to be perfectly lined up either. That being said if they are too far out of alignment the pleat will twist. See examples of the gathering rows in the images below.

Test samples: I did about 3 test samples before I even touched the actual shirt. I finally settled on a pleat size of about 1/8 in. The test sample that I liked ended up being about 6 inches of fabric to make  1 inch of pleated fabric.

The ungathered test piece

The ungathered test piece

gathered up

gathered up

Round one:  172 inches on a 6:1 ration puts the  neckline at 28″. Way too wide. I pleated two rows to double check ( I was optimistic it would work). Nope… too big ( time spent 4 hrs)

Round two: Since I had to reduce the neckline by 4-6 inches, it meant I needed to reduce the amount of fabric, or increase the size of the pleats. I didn’t want the neck too thick, so decided to leave the size the same, and reduce the amount of fabric.  I had two choices I could trim a few inches from both the sleeves and the body, or I could rethink the design.

My first pleatwork shirt, from a later period, did not pleat in the sleeves. By following the same design, it would solve all the size problems. But, after studying the portrait I felt that this was the wrong approach. So I reduced the amount of fabric from each side, then again ran two rows of gathering threads around the entire neckline . The neckline was now going to be the right size, but the shirt no longer had the volume of fabric that I wanted or that the portrait indicated. Back to the drawing board ( time spent – 4 to 5 hours).

Round Three: I went back to the original sized panels for the shirt and decided that I would make the pleats a big bigger. I know from doing other pattern-darned projects that I could also tighten up the pleats more than I did in the sample. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Showing the gathering threads

Showing the gathering threads

A couple hours later, I pull up the gathering threads to check the size. I love how the natural curve of the neck is starting to form. The neckline is still too big, but I am going to run with it and see what happens. At the worst I can fudge the size somewhat later.

Neckline is curving

Neckline is curving

Completed pleating: I ran a total of 8 rows of gathering threads, placed about 1/4″ apart. I recommend that you pleat up at least one row more than you need in order to give yourself a good foundation for the embroidery.

Neckline is pleated.

Neckline is pleated.

Final Notes: I am often asked about using pleaters, or dots for doing the pleating. Pleaters are great tools. I have one, I have used it. They produce perfectly even pleats. However, they can be challenging to use, they are expensive, and you can’t adjust the depth of the pleats.

Another method is to iron on dots or use a ruler to “dot” the fabric. You then “pick up” the dots. This also produces even / regular pleats and if you are using a ruler you can adjust the depth of your pleat. I am not a fan of the dots because it is time consuming to mark out the fabric and you are also only running the gathering thread through the top portion of the pleat. This lets the pleats fan out at the back and I find them much less stable to embroider.


The road to a new project is paved with speedbumps and potholes.

So its time for a new major project. I have done some smaller ones over the past few months, but nothing that required a huge amount of research and planning. It’s amazing how an idea sounds good and looks good and you get all excited about it and then the work starts and it hits you: what the heck did I just get myself into. Especially when things start going bumpy.

In my world, for a project to work its got to have The 5 rights of project work:  

  • Right inspiration
  • Right materials
  • Right technique (can I do it)
  • Right design
  • Right time ( or enough time)


This new project is near and dear to my heart. It is a new pleatwork piece, which is what I call period smocking, something I have been researching for over 10 years.

I actually asked a friend if I could make a garment for him, and he graciously said yes. The deal was he supplies the linen and I go have fun. It was delayed a number of times and he was sooo patient but its now time to get it started.  So here we go.

1. The right inspiration: The inspiration for the project is  “Portrait of a Man” by Franciabigio c 1522

File:Franciabigio - Portrait of a Man - WGA08191.jpg

2. The right materials: And we hit our first road bump. My patron, found lovely 2.5 oz linen from District 96 Fabrics . Its a good close weave with reasonably fine thread thickness vs some linens that get the low weight by making it a lower thread count. However its still not fine enough. To get the look in the portrait it needs to be done in a very fine fabric in the weight of a fine batiste, but it is almost impossible to fine a true linen batiste anymore. I have done 3 test pieces and I am still trying to get the tension to work on the pleats. More to come.

3. The right technique:  This will be pattern darned. The exact pattern is not yet picked out.  A bit of a bump, It’s a very easy technique to do. It is a type of counted embroidery in which you draw the fabric either over the pleat or through it. The challenge is the pattern.  So onto the right design.

4. The right design: You can certainly try to chart a pattern if the artwork is clear enough to actually identify the stitches which is very rare. I prefer to use extant patterns such as Nicolas Bassee’s New Modelbuch. This is where the bump comes in. It takes me hours and hours to go over the patterns. You have to look at them, envision how they will look on the pleating, test them out if you have to and then find a new one if it doesnt work out.  And yes, I am still looking. More to come.

5. The Right Time: Ahhh my pot hole. I have a deadline of November 16th. A regional competition. So far I  have put in about 15 hrs into it, and managed sew together the front back and 2 sleeve sections at the top edge (4 inches down from the top). Fold the top edge over and put in a small running stitch hem. And put in 2 rows of pleating stitches on a body and sleeve section 3 times, then tear them out again. Yes, here is my pot hole.

Why am I posting this? Because, I so very often hear from novice artisans that they don’t try things out because t5. hey look at the finished items and are very intimidated. I have explained that they don’t ever see the miss-steps, the hours of trial and error, the piles of ruined materials from the errors and the learning that comes from the journey to the end result.

See you in a few days….

Making it Work

With the words of that most popular fashion guru echoing in my brain I am now trying to put together the gown and I feel that I am watching that clock tick down and the dress won’t be ready for the runway.

Let me back up a few days. THE EMBROIDERY IS DONE!!! many happy dances about that. The relief, the joy, the little pat on the back I ave myself for making the deadline. Then reality set in.
I had to put it together.


The countless hours trying patterns out. The piles of fabric on the family room floor. The careful planning of the project and where am I? Trying to make it work.

Things I have learned:
1. Velveteen (and I am sure other fabrics) pinned on a dress form stretch out and the piece nicely laid out flat on my embroidery frame doesn’t.
2. Embroidered fabric doesn’t give like bare fabric. And it also shrinks the fabric slightly.
3. Having embroidery on only one side makes the dress feel funny ( and fit different) see above issues.
4. New techniques rarely work the first time even if you have tested them out.
5. Sewing takes a long time. ( okay I knew that but I underestimated it) Two weeks to sew is not enough time.
6. It is important not to gain or lose weight while you are working on a big garb project like this or you run the risk of it not fitting.

These are all things we know but rarely think of. And what makes historical reconstruction fun. We don’t know how they made it work. They ran into the same roadblocks we do. They had fabric go wonky. Or had patrons that gained 10 pounds ( or lost it). They patched and pieced and used whatever they had handy to complete the item. They made it work, and so will I.

Period perfect?

Last night I had some great discussions with a few friends about what seemed like a zillion topics. One that stood out was the discussion on perfection, or more aptly: period perfect.

It started with a discussion about extant embroidered item.no shock, the were not perfect. A hanging meant to be viewed 30 feet away did not have neat tiny stitches. The people making it were probably more concerned with getting it done.

We also talked about inventorying stitches: a modern concept. They wouldn’t have commissioned a piece and said “I want you to do it in this stitch”. They would have said ” I want an embroidered hood with gold, pearls ad my heraldry.” The crafts person would then make it in the technique they were trained to do, or what the design called for.

Okay I know, you are going to point out that there are certain techniques that are mentioned in period, but most of the time they refer to a style not a pacific stitch. Archeologists, Victorians, historians put most of the labels on things. If they did embroidery in both cross stitch and long arm cross stitch, does it matter which you use on your project if they may have been used interchangeably?

It’s like cooking with rabbit vs another protein. What did thy have? They I’d not say.. You can only make this if you have venison.

So how does this impact us? I think we are too focused on perfection or “period perfection” and not focused enough on the interpretation, exploration and understanding of period practices.

I read on a list recently that pearl purl ( a type of metal used in goldwork ) was not period, a form called lizardine was more correct. How do we know? One is flat metal wound up the other is round wire wound up. Why would both not have been used? Just because we don’t have extant examples, we don’t have extant examples of many things before the 17th century. It doesn’t meant thy dint exist, they may have just not survived.

We know from primary accounts that precious materials or items were picked off , cut apart, repurposed and were usually part of a household’s inventory. Also most of the items that survived from before the 1600’s were com churches, very wealthy / princely families. And those would have been the best of the best.

Now I am not saying its okay to run amok and start mixing forms, materials and designs and claiming its period. But I am suggesting that we step back a bit and not expect re-created items to be exact.

If they used silk, linen, or wool for an appliqué interchangeably does it matter which you use as long as it makes sense for the item? I am not saying go use silk appliqué on your 10th century Norse wool garment, because that may not make sense for a number of reasons. But for that appliquéd banner, look at what was used regionally and available and have fun.

As far as those perfect stitches. I am all for being judged on my work being museum perfect because let me tell you, they are usually own right sloppy.

Thanks Denise, Joe, Rick and Kandi

Attack of the black fuzzies

As I was getting ready for bed tonight I saw little bits of black scattered on the sheet. I was a bit worried.. The OMG what kind of bugs are invading my bed worried.. But as I got up the nerve to look at them I realized they were tiny tufts of velvet that had come off the gown. I also realize I was covered in them, rather like burrs you can get rid of.

My wonderful hubby, indulges my projects or rather he ignores the pins, threads, bits of gold purl and other assorted embroidery supplies that dominate the couch lately. Do I tell him the velvet attacks?

Anyhow, the fuzz fest was as a result of pulling the back of the gown off the frame to hang up on the dress form.

I promised patterns last week and pictures. So here they are.
To remind everyone. This is what I an making. Or using as my inspiration


These are a few pictures) here are a few from during its making.



Next pictures are trials of the draping process.
Trial number 4 at least. Attempting to work out the pleating.

This one from the side.

Here is a test “front” or back, not sure. The bodice ends up laid out across the grain. from the draping exercises it showed me that it allows the odd shaping around the front of the bust without cutting it into that shape, which didn’t make sense.

Here I have the back on the frame, embroidery in process:

The back completed, on the dress form, sleeved pined on to make sure it looks okay.


Next …..the front..