Jane Morris Blackwork part 2: stitching a portrait

After researching and choosing my Pre-Raphaelite muse, The next job was to find a way of stitching a portrait that would be somewhere between a photograph and a painting – a sort of augmented reality – with shading and textures that added to the picture and did no become jumbled, blocky or busy.

Materials

I chose 36 count Edinburgh linen for the background, knowing that I was going to want to add a lot of fine detail.  It is backed with white cotton, which helps to give a neat overall appearance, and helps to keep fine threads from hiding themselves under the warp and weft of the linen.

Threads being tested for use

I did a lot of research to try to find the threads that would work best for this piece. I started with a large pack of mixed silk for blackwork from Mulberry silks along with Restore Products ultrafyne polyester but the lightest one of the Mulberry silks (marked 200) was still quite dark, and there was a big jump between that and the Ultrafyne.  I discovered the Pipers silks do ultra fine twisted filament silk in 6/20, 4/20 and 2/20 (2/20 being the finest) which was much better for the lighter shades.  There were three shades of black and nearly black that I used in 2/20 and 4/20, and that gave me a lot more control over the lighter areas, and allowed me more subtlety in shading.  Twisted silk is lovely to work with – soft and strong, with excellent definition.  For areas that were almost pure while but where I still wanted to suggest a texture or stop the linen from being too bright, I also had a very fine translucent black polyester monofilament, which is designed to be “invisible” on dark fabrics, but on white linen it is just visible enough to offer the subtlest of shading, and being polyester, will not become brittle over time (unlike nylon invisible thread).  Using broken up stitch patterns and this thread I was able to suggest texture and detail even at the lightest shades.  The drawback with this thread was that it was slightly glossy, and the colour was smoke rather than grey or black, so I used it with restraint.

Vertical darning stitch going in

I chose to use a vertical darning stitch for most of the dress, which allowed me to blend it with variations in the pattern to break up the texture where necessary, but keeping the flow and keeping the look of smooth plain silk.  On the sleeves, I used oblique slav as a variation, which helped me to follow what would have been the grain of the fabric down the sleeves by altering the angle. A lacy stitch pattern (rounded eyelet) was used to suggest the trim on the cuff and button band that is just visible on the photograph.

Interlocking Y pattern (half scale) used on hands

For the skin tones, I needed a pattern that would give a smooth appearance, and that was close textured so that I could obtain a continuous spectrum of shades with it.  I chose the interlocking Y pattern at half scale, and used my finest monofilament and pipers fine twisted silks to get a delicately shaded effect.

half scale long diamond, with variations, was used on the hair.

Janey’s striking head of thick, wavy hair is undoubtedly one of her defining features, so choosing a pattern to do it justice was quite tricky. in the margins I tried out several complex patterns that appeared to suggest curls or waves, but the effect was not what I needed. all patterns have a repeating unit, and the bigger and more complex the pattern, the more obvious the pattern repeats become, giving it a contrived, almost ’tiled’ look.  it was very difficult to find something that shows a natural wave, that can easily be broken up to produce highlights.  I decided to try something very simple – long diamond at half scale.  I thought it would be much too linear and expected to find it better suited to other parts of the design, but I was surprised by how very versatile it was, and how it could be used to suggest natural organic shapes.  I used different weights of thread and blended it with variations: adding and omitting internal vertical or horizontal stitches, or leaving out stitches to form hexagon shapes for the light frizz effect around the edges.  In some areas I repeated the pattern with a half drop, which made a very smooth shaded effect made up of tiny diamond shapes.

Many of the patterns I chose were selected deliberately so that they would flow in to one another.  I was keen to ensure that the shading would look naturalistic rather than blocky.

Eyesight

The first thing everyone asks me when they see Janey is “I bet you needed a magnifying glass to sew that!” To the uninitiated, 36 count linen is intimidatingly fine.  The number 36 refers to the number of warp/weft threads per inch, so the higher the number, the finer the weave.  Strangely enough, I didn’t use a magnifying glass.  I just got used to the weave.  As it happened, my eyesight gradually deteriorated during this project, but I didn’t actually notice until the very end.  I now have varifocal specs that I wear all the time, and now if I try to look at Edinburgh linen without them I realise I cannot focus. But while I was working on Janey, I just adapted to counting threads by touch…  I literally ran my needle over the weave and counted the ‘Ticks’ as it went over a thread!  It is a lot easier now I have spectacles and I can see again.  Looking back, it is something of a miracle that most of Janey was done when I couldn’t actually focus on the weave or the stitches.  But when something deteriorates gradually enough, you learn to accommodate the impairment, I just added it to the list of things I was accommodating!

It took several attempts to get this intense stare right, while my own eyesight required attention!

I surprised myself by really loving this module.  This was partly because of a connection to Janey which grew and developed over the months I spent working on her.  Janey herself was an artist and embroiderer, someone who took an interest in everything; we had interests in common, as well as, who knows? maybe even a shared disability.

I am dedicating this piece to my husband Dr Richard Frith, who is my main source of information about the Pre-Raphaelites, also to my friend and Janey’s namesake, Jayne Beadle.  thank you both for the endless encouragement.

Pomegranate detail

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