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The Needlework Diaries

Welcome to the Needlework Dairies!

Follow along as I journey through the 19th century book: Encyclopedia of Needlework by Thérèse de Dillmont.

Encyclopedia of Needlework - LOGO - shad

Ch. 1 - Plain Sewing: Introduction

The book opens with this question:

“What is the use of all this information about hand-sewing now that machine-stitching has so nearly superseded work done by hand?” (Good question-even now!)

It proceeds to offer up some answers:

1. Plain sewing is the foundation for all needlecraft. And being well trained in plain sewing will help later when executing more difficult techniques

2. Being able to sew well will always be useful- in the appreciation of other’s work and in creating “strong and durable work”.

Then before going into techniques, the book spends some time going over work space, tools and my favorite: “attitude” - which in this context is about body posture relative to your work.

Here are some best practices: (let’s see how I measure up!)

  • “Hold your work so that you can sit upright with your head only slightly bent”. - FAIL - I have an “awkward attitude”, in the form of hunching over or bending my neck too much.

  • “Never fasten your work to your knee.” - CHECK – while I’ve never committed this particular sewing sin or heard of it for that matter, I have pinned my needles into my clothing or sofa when I didn’t have a pin cushion handy. What does it say about my “attitude” when I’ve used myself as a human pin cushion. Poor indeed.

  • Never sewing with a bent needle. – GUILTY

  • To preserve needles from rust (and to keep damp fingers dry) – use a little asbestos powderWOW and NO!!! Do NOT do this…I checked another version of the book and it calls instead for alum which is much better . (Both are older copies - I plan to do a separate post on the history of the book and different versions).

  • Scissors – 2 pair – one large (with one blunt and one sharp point)- the sharp point should be oriented downwards when cutting. One small pair (with two sharp points) -CHECK (I have ‘slightly’ more than two pair and by slightly I mean, way more – but who’s counting.

  • Thimbles – Steel is best. Bone is brittle. Silver is not always deeply pitted enough. – I don’t use thimbles much. I have a leather thimble that I use for select projects where I need to put more pressure on the needle (for ex: going through many layers of fabric). But I know people who do hand sewing and find thimbles to be indispensable. So maybe I need to step up my thimble game. There is more to thimbles than I currently know – so more on this another time.

  • “Except for tacking, a needleful of thread should never be more than 18-20 inches long.”AGREED, though in the past I have pushed the boundaries of respectable thread length and my work suffered. I have since repented. A good tip I learned was to hold the thread in your thumb and forefinger (pinch it) and measure down to your elbow. It’s quick and roughly 18 inches give or take.

  • Cut your (cotton) thread, don’t break it!AGREED

  • “When the thread becomes inconveniently short, and you do not want to take a fresh needleful, it may be knotted into the eye of the needle.” – (see Fig. 1 below) – Love the phrase ‘fresh needleful’! –I have never tried this method and will going forward.

  • Finally: “The method of threading a needle is not as simple a matter as might be supposed, for the end broken from the reel should be the one passed through the eye. If the other end is threaded it is apt to split and unravel and to lose its gloss.”I have never considered this and will give this a go when I practice my stitches.

Stay tuned….in the next post I will put my new attitude to the test and practice some basic hand sewing and hemming...

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Updated: Oct 9, 2020

The idea for the project came about a few months ago. I was working on a needlelace project and needed stitch references. I started looking through my textile reference books and I could not find much on needlelace. Then I remembered my copy of the Encyclopedia of Needlework and checked it, and there was a chapter on needlelace.

As I picked up that book, I was transported back to one of my earliest memories of it, about 10 years ago when I had acquired it and remember the excitement about having the book. Coming back to the present, I was consumed by pangs of regret of barely using it in 10 years. It’s amazing how you can time travel by handling an object that’s steeped in memory.

The shutdown brought challenges for me, but it also brought time, more time that I have had in a very long time, especially for my studio practice. In the early days of the shutdown, I found myself meditating on my art practice and what I wanted it to be. Not specific projects per say, but the nature of my practice, and more specifically, time as a theme kept emerging. I thought about time as a framework for my practice. Time is what has felt constraining over the years, it’s what has frustrated me the most. I started to reorganize my practice around time. I realized that I needed projects that paced at different times.

Many of my mixed media projects take months to complete, which has led to some from frustration on my part of things taking so long. To mitigate, I have started paintings that are completed in a much shorter time frame. And finally, I am starting this project: open-ended and long term, and something I have never attempted before.

So here I begin, not sure how long it will take and where exactly it will take me, but I feel excited and light after a long a time. Hope you will join me along the way…

My copy of the Encyclopedia of Needlework

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