Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Paisleys, Boxes & The Process

I have always loved paisleys.  Since I was little, something about their exuberant colors and whimsical shape always struck a note with me.   A couple of years ago I started thinking I might do some sort of project with them, so I started collecting images.  I have a huge board of them on Pinterest (   From that I sorted them out into the ones I liked best and now I have a slightly less huge file of them on my computer.  Yes, I confess - I'm a paisley hoarder.  But I knew that someday I would have the moment when that hoard reached critical mass and became some awesome project.  Well, Monday was that day. 

I have this box - well, I should say I have lots of boxes.  I love little boxes, and besides having them on Pinterest, I have real ones stacked on my dresser - artfully stacked, mind you, but there are more than just a few.  There is one particular one that I got at a second hand shop that has a picture frame lid on it.  Once it held two pictures, but, due to some sad accident, the divider came unstuck, and that's what ended it up in the second hand shop.  I put decorative brass corners on it, because I love the look that has and because they actually do protect the corners.  It is a nice size - about 8" x 10" and divided into two compartments inside, which is a good size and layout for a sewing box.  I even took out its original plain glass and got UV archival glass cut for it to protect whatever is going to go into it.  The problem I have with picture frame boxes is that I never have just one idea for them.  So, in the absence of being able to decide, they just become several things, a sequence of things, but I'm never quite satisfied.  The last incarnation for this one was the sampler I did to go with the research paper I wrote on kasuti.  (  Although it did well as a sampler display, I wasn't all that delighted with it in the long term.  And for the past while I've been fiddling with that box and the idea of paisley, but the right AHA! moment hadn't come along - until Monday.  The kicker was wanting a slightly more complex pattern to practice with tambour and work its way into techniques that I want to use to make an embroidered tunic for my siginificant other.   Yes, paisleys and the box lid for a trial piece and then.....

Someone pinned a carved wooden print block, and the image fulfilled all the criteria I had for the paisley idea.  It was a group of them.  It had flowers.  It was a sort of line drawing that I could customize.  It was even a lotus made of paisleys.  I loved the whole idea.  So I have spent a while snatching moments to customize the image to fit on the box lid.  It has come a long way and has yet a way to go before its done, but I am truly pleased with its potential.  It will have a framing Mughal arch.  I have to make up my mind about the major colors.  It will be done in tambour with other stitches added.  So this moment is the celebration of the Great Aha! The light bulb moment when the plan finally came together.  And, yes, the arch is coming together with much greater clarity.

I have some lovely silk thread I've saved for just such an occasion.  And even though all these parts have taken their own sweet time, they have finally arrived at the perfect moment in my stream of artistic consciousness.  I love it when a hoard, a box and a plan finally come together.
Paisley Lotus Box Lid Design (c) 2013 Maya Heath

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tambour Embroidery - Beautiful Hooks

While we're on the subject of tambour / aari embroidery there really should be more mentioned about the hooks involved.  My personal hooks are plain pedestrian things I bought online and at the craft store.  They suit both my interest and skill levels just fine.  But my significant other, Phillip, got grander ideas.  Partly it is because I have been researching palais royale sewing tools, Regency boxes and all the lovely things that go in them.  There are sewing tools out there that make my fingers want to dance for joy.  He is also an artist, and a sculptor, so its only natural that I should share the prime bits of beauty with him when I find them.  I'm sure the intensity and momentum of my sitting night after night obsessing over that peacock piece contributed to the mix.  Then one night he asked me for my spare hook so he could mess with the collet  (the metal fitting on the end with the screw that holds the hook).   I grumbled a little and grudgingly parted with it.  While I ordered a replacement online he vanished into his studio.  By the next morning, there was this .....

Three roses tambour hook by Phillip Montgomery - giraffe bone - 5 inches

Three roses tambour hook (top detail) 

  Only about 5 inches in length with those 3 delicate tiny roses - amazing.  It is made out of giraffe bone because it is extremely hard and will polish up to a brilliant translucency.  It is also wonderfully durable and will stand being used, not just looked at.  He had me order a few more hooks online so he could have the collets.

A few days later he made this one.  It is antique estate ivory - a piece we got from an estate sale years ago that dates from the 1920's so guaranteed not poached.  Voila - Neo-Classical elegance at its finest topped with a fresh water pearl.  And it fits so beautifully in the hand and feels like silk.  Not stopping there, the end unscrews to provide a storage cavity for extra hooks.  No, they are not mine.  One day, when and if I have mastered the skill I will ask him to do one for me.  My plain wooden one is just fine for now.  We will be selling these in our Etsy store for those with the purse and taste for them.  I just had to share the beauty of them.

Neo-classical Tambour Hook by Phillip Montgomery

Neo-classical Tambour Hook by Phillip Montgomery - open lid

Neo-classical Tambour Hook by Phillip Montgomery - open lid detail

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tambour Embroidery - Part 2 - Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More

After the first small sample of tambour, and some very kind encouragement from some online friends, I decided to try my hand at tambour embroidery again.  I found a picture that I like.  Yes, its ambitious, but gorgeous trumps ambitious any day in my book.  So using this as a sort of ideal model I looked around to find a project that was a little more of a stretch than my last project, but not so challenging that it would be a failure in the making.  I had found a line pattern of peacocks and flowers that was originally a free online rangoli pattern that I really liked.  One of those things I tucked away thinking that I will use this for something someday - well the something and the someday had arrived.
Peacock Rangoli Pattern

The next challenge was getting the design transferred.  This was not as great a hurdle as it might be as rangoli patterns are very often given with a series of evenly spaced dots so that they can be transferred to a grid of any size.  But an even greater help was some advice I got from the same online friends who recommended Solvy.  Solvy is a lightweight mesh-like fabric that you can draw on.  If you get the "printable" type you can even put it through your printer (not a special, fancy, expensive printer - a plain old regular inexpensive one).  It has a light adhesive so that, when you get your design on it, you can peal off the backing and stick it onto the fabric.  The adhesive is forgiving enough that, if you don't get it on quite right, you can move it gently until it's lined up.  Once you press it down you can put it into the embroidery hoop or frame and it won't shift.  It is a light sort of mesh fabric, very similar to the stabilizer fabric that you see on the back of machine embroideries and, as I worked, I found that it did stabilize the weave of the light cotton muslin I was using.  AND - for its crowning glory - when you are done with your piece, you cut off the big chunks on the edges and rinse it in warm water and it vanishes.  Not just gets soft so you can struggle and fight with it - I mean literally vanishes with barely a trace.  A quick gentle machine wash and it was like it was never there.  Yes, I am definitely in love with this stuff. 

So moving on.  I printed my pattern onto the Solvy, afixed it to the fabric and put it in the lap standing frame as tightly as I could without distorting the image.  That was about a month ago.  I can truly say that this project was a real learning experience.  Doing an image with a repetitive pattern helped me do something not only until I got it right, but until I was reasonably comfortable with doing it.  Doing a larger sized image helped me get comfortable with the tools in general - the feeling of the hook and the thread, the tension of the fabric, what the colors will and will not do.  I even added a few sequins and beads to make the eyes in the tail feathers.  On the down side of this project was that the problem I had finding the right colors of thread.  Thread this gauge doesn't come in all the colors regular thread comes in.  Tatting thread helped, but there is still a limited palette available.  When I do this again I will have to keep that in mind as I plan what I'm going to do.

My final impression is that I am not completely at ease with this technique, yet.  My tension is better but far from ideal.  I still have to focus and concentrate not to split and ravel the thread.  Sometimes I struggle and have to take the stitching out and redo a section.  And, now that I've taken it out of the stretcher and its been washed, I've noticed how bunched and crowded it it - especially the stitching on the birds' bodies and the orange fruit.  This reminds me of a kutch work project I recently did in which the stitching on the interweave looked too sparse and spread out until I took it out of the frame.  Then it drew together and looked perfect.  I think something like that has happened here.  When I stitched the elements, I made sure the rows were very close so that the color would be solid and no background would show through.   It is the nature of tambour work to have the pieces stretched as tight as the drum its named for.  When the piece was in the frame it measured about 5 inches on a side.  Once I got it out and even before I washed it, it measured a solid 4.5 inches - a contraction of almost .5".  I can see now that the natural contracting of the work once its released from the stretcher frame contracted the stitching together, leaving it looking crowded looking.  I will have to take this into account with my next project.
Peacock Rangoli Tambour Embroidery 4.5" x 4.5" cotton on cotton muslin - finished 9 Sept 2013
I may never be as relaxed with this as I am with picking up my needle and floss.  I think that one key element of a finished piece is that it should look effortless.  Your focus should be on the pattern and color and the effect of the workmanship - like the Persian medallion above or wonderful Regency / Empire white work.  My technique is definitely far from effortless.  That will come with "practice, practice, and more practice" just like my friends said.  But all-in-all I'm pleased with how it turned out, and it is definitely a good addition to my skill set that I may need in the future.  Now, I just have to figure out what I will do with it.  A piece doesn't feel finished until it becomes a "something".  Right now its just an exercise.  But I know that idea will come in its own time.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Side Trips - Tambour Embroidery

Larger concerns in my life have forced me to put aside work on the box for a while.  So I naturally turn back to embroidery.  In my life, I've probably done yards and yards of  blackwork / counted work / petit point / cross stitch by now.  You could even say I'm something of an expert of OCD coloring inside the lines and thinking inside any number of historically acurate boxes.  So this year I decided it was high time to try some very new things and revisit things I've tinkered with ages ago.  I need something new and interesting to occupy my imagination and expand my horizons.  I need to get outside my comfort zone and cultivate some new skills.  For a while I've been looking at tambour embroidery.  Its done in various forms in many parts of the world - from vibrant colors on felt in Persia (resht / rashti) to wall hangings in Uzbekistan (suzani) to white thread on shear white cotton gauze in 19th century Europe.  It is used in haute coutour to put glorious beads on transparent georgette and lay goldwork and jewels on fabulous gowns (zardosi).  It is done on leather (mochi barat).  It can go from miraculously delicate to incredibly sturdy.  It has about a dozen names.  In India it is sort of generally known as aari.  So I really need to try this.

Tambour Hook - closeup
As usual new crafts need different tools, and isn't part of the fun getting all these new tools to play with. It requires a different kind of frame - one that holds tension on the fabric very very tightly (it is called tambour after all, like the drum) and does not slip, and one that supports itself so you can hold the hook in one had and the thread in the other without bearing the weight on your hand.  I could have gotten a slate frame, but I've never used one of those either and I figure I just need one mountain at a time to climb.  Besides, I bought a frame like that at the quilt show a couple of years ago because I had an inking this was coming.  It needs a special hook.  Tambour hooks look like tiny crochet hooks except they are sharpened to a wicked point.  So I ordered one of those too.  It requires special thread - tightly wound, polished, mercerized thread such as sewing thread works well.  So does tatting thread and button hole twist.  It doesn't come in as many shades and colors as I'd like but I will make do.

Having my frame and tools firmly in hand I read the instructions.  There are several good tutorials online and even a few video ones on YouTube.   It's a deceptively simple process in which you stick the hook through the fabric, twist it around to grab the thread (making sure you get the whole thread not just part of it).  Then you draw it up back through the fabric pulling a loop of the thread up.  Then you do this again.  A few more times and you can see it makes a chain stitch.  Sounds simple right?  Well - not so much really.  The real trick is to hook the whole thread, not snag just part of it, and to draw it cleanly up without snagging the fabric weave.  This is not as easy as the tutorials and videos make it appear.  The other thing that some friends told me is "practice, practice, and then practice some more" - better advice was never given.

I tightened the fabric onto the frame, sketched a curvy line and bravely dug in.  What you see here is the result of several hours work - snagging the thread, taking it out, starting over, snagging it again, starting over again, and again and again.  The wonderful feeling of triumph when a few stitches in a row went in right - then the aggravation of snagging it again.  Using a hook like this is like learning how to hand sew for the first time.  It is a completely unfamiliar tool that is attached to completely strange tactile sensations.  I felt like a 5-year-old with my first ball of yard.  Awkward, unsure, frustrated.  But I finally managed a whole thing.  Round 1 - It did not defeat me.  My personal critique tells me that my tension leaves a great deal to be desired.  Mainly it is too tight - certainly it is not consistent.  The lines filling the flower are too far apart or far too close together depending on where you look, and they don't lay cleanly side by side.  But this is not a failed attempt.  In fact, that outside border was rather a nice touch.  I put in a row of dark blue and then zig-zagged over it with light blue.  So life could be worse, right? And with that in mind I will try this again (when I've caught my breath).  Maybe something a little more complex.  After all "practice, practice, and then practice some more".

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Box Project 4 - Cleaning off that Old Veneer

The first step in redoing the box is to get it down to a clean surface that I can work with which brings me to removing the veneer.  I got the greater part of the old veneer off with just my fingers.  But there was the rest of it that was clinging on for dear life. 
I could tell by the brown crystals I could see in the wood grain that the original veneer had been put on with hide glue - the real stuff cooks out of animal tendons and hooves and such.  It is still used today particularly on things like musical instruments.  The reason for this is that it has the excellent property of holding things like iron while dry and letting go when it is heated with steam.  That way a guitar or violin that has been assembled with it can be disassembled for repair without damaging the wood.  I wrote a small book on this a while back.  (Heath, Maya, A Practical Guide to Medieval Adhesives, Issue 134 of The Compleat Anachronist, Society for Creative Anachronism, 2007.) I did a lot of research and experimentation with various kinds of pre-industrial glue for this. What made me cautious was the delicate under surface of the carcasse wood and the less than robust condition of the box as a whole.  I didn't want to have to do a lot of digging and prying to get it to let go.  All the blogs and videos on the internet I could find deal with flat surfaces.  Getting steam and heat to this compound curve were going to be a challenge. 
I took an old wash rag and got it wet just a little drier than dripping, folded is in thirds and laid it on the veneer I wanted to remove.  I took an iron and heated it up to maximum, then laid it on the wash rag. 
I didn't leave it on there long - maybe 10 seconds while I picked up the camera and took a couple of pictures.  There wasn't much danger of the rag burning as it was hissing and chortling steam like crazy.  Then I lifted it off.
Using an old cake spatula I began to try lifting the edges - GENTLY.  You don't want to be digging at the wood, just letting the heat and steam do its work.  The edges began to lift up.  I had to apply the rag and iron a couple of more times before it lifted away altogether.  The key here is that you have to work with the glue and veneer are still really warm to the touch.  Once it cools, its set again. 

It took a bit of patience working one area at a time.  It didn't always come off in convenience large pieces, but eventually it did all come off. 
Now it needs to sit a while drying out.  I didn't get it damp to the touch, but all that steam forces itself into the wood grain.  So it needs a few days peace and quiet before I hand it over to Phillip to glue back together.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Box Project 3 - Researching Finishes

A large part of any project seems to be the research that goes into the processes and techniques needed to achieve it.  Now that I've decided to paint the box, my next step was to find out how to do that and get a really authentic look to it.  The history of Chinese and Japanese lacquerware (urushiol-based lacquer)
is a long and impressive one.  When done right, the result is not only beautiful, but the lacquer itself cures through oxidation and polymerization to form a a kind of natural plastic that is extremely robust and can last over a thousand years.  The process of applying it is long and arduous and includes lots of noxious and toxic vapors even if you can find the authentic ingredients and complete step-by-step instructions.  Not to mention that, if you don't know what you're doing, getting it on your skin can result in "urusiol-induced contact dermatitis".  And having read enough about exotic tree resins from sou-east Asia I decided that there had to be a better way that I personally could achieve good results. 

There are all kinds of commercial lacquers out there both acryllic based and nitrocellulose.  But the first thing their labels mention is about how to paint a car.  Somehow I don't think this is what I have in mind.  There are water-based lacquers too.  But the general consensus is that the finish they produce is relatively fragile.  If I am going to put all this effort into something I want it to last.  So moving on......

Then I came to "Japanning".  Oriental lacquerware was quite popular in the late 17th and 18th centuries.  Due to the high cost of importing both the goods and the materials, Europeans developed imitations of their own that were effectively a different technique of lacquering based on shellac.    I finally located a plain-spoken practical source on how to do this.  The Handbook on Japanning: 2nd Edition by William Norman Brown,  D. van Nostrand, New York, 1913.  Although most of the book is about applying japanning to metal as an enameling technique, the fir 11 pages are all about applying it to wood.  From the first step of preparing the surface, to priming and then application, it leaves out nothing.  Complete with exact recipes not only for the varnish itself but for exactly how to put which pigments in it to achieve the color you like.  The language is stilted and pedantic and I will have to take some time taking it from antique book to studio notes, but with a little effort all the information is laid out one step at a time.  I have painted icons before and am familiar with this technique of sizing and gesso-priming a surface.  It will take patience and care, but I think it's well within my scope to be able to turn out a creditable outcome. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Box Project 2 - Bits and Beginnings

My first step with the box is to get it to the point that it can be glued.  Right now its covered in pealing shards of veneer.  some of it has come off with the slightest touch; some of it needed a little help from fingernails and a palette knife.  The rest is proving to be stubborn.  I can tell from the brown/amber crystals here and there when the pieces pop off that it was all originally put on with hide glue.  This may prove to be a blessing in disguise because I know from the research I did for the glue book that hide glue will let go with steam.  So probably tomorrow I will address the issue with hot damp towels and a steam iron.  The Phillip can glue the very loose pieces back together. 

That being said, I've turned my attention to how I will eventually decorate it.  Neither Phillip nor I have the time, patience or (probably) skill to redo the veneer entirely.  But in my researches I have found that many of the boxes like this were decorated with paint in a technique called "penwork". 
It comes in two varieties, polychrome and monochrome. Often it is decoration in gold or color on black.  Sometimes it is similar decoration on gold or ocher and sometimes a combination of the two with side panels in a decorative motif in monochrome with a figural panel on the top in polychrome or vice versa. 

 But as you can see, it isn't limited to that either.  There is also red backgrounds and verdigris green.  Unlike Medieval and Renaissance boxes referred to as "polychromed wood", these boxes seem to be done in a process more akin to Russian Palek boxes.  A box is covered first with a primer, then several layers of black lacquer.  Then the design is put on in metallic paint and painted over with colors.  The whole thing is then covered with several layers or clear lacquer.  ( This is a lot more robust and durable than regular polychroming which is paint over layers of gesso.  I think I can make a decent stab at pretty design work that, while it may not be up to Palek box standards, may be nicely done nonetheless.  Time to dig out my air brush and see if it will suit the lacquer.

And while we're on the subject, how about those brass hairy paw feet.  I know I can do them as I already made feet like that for another box and I still have all the molds.  All-in-all this may take what seems like forever, but if I'm careful and do it right it could turn out splendidly.  Be that as it may, I still have to be about the very tedious business of removing that veneer.  But its dreams like this that keep me going.

Box Project 1 - A New Project - A Regency Box

I see by the dates its been nearly a year since I posted here.  Maybe its something about summer and being shut in the house with the air conditioning droning on and on.  And maybe its summer that makes me think in terms of embarking on long-term projects.  No, I always think in terms of really big projects. LOL  This time the idea was sparked by members of an embroidery list I belong to.  One of the members has been posting pictures of gorgeous Palais Royale sewing boxes.  Richly glowing exotic veneer coffers laden with exquisitely carved mother-of-pearl sewing tools such as would have been used by Marie Antoinette and her court ladies.  Understandably, there has been lots of cooing and twittering about how really delicious these boxes are. 
Then another member had this brilliant suggestion - why don't we each make such a precious box.  Embroidered interior, lovely exterior, a home for our best tools and treasures.  Of course, there were a certain number of us who instantly rose to the bait.  I'll admit it, I love beautiful sewing tools and I am a total sucker for precious beautiful boxes.   Once Phillip referred to me as the "Container Queen".   Guilty as charged.  I have a few carved and painted ones - even a couple I've done myself.  But Palais Royale ?!?....  So I shared all this with Phillip knowing that he'd be amused at the tempest in the embroidery teapot.  And then he asked me "So are you going to use The Box?"

Yes, there's a back story here.  In the world of antique restoration, Phillip's father was a recognized genius when it came to finding and bringing old things back to life.  Living around his shop was like being present at an ever-revolving museum show.  Every time he opened his truck it was a new Cave of Wonders.  Then when the pieces left to make their debut at another show, they were glowing with renewed life.  Sometimes he bought whole job lots of things that included things he didn't really want or never got around to dealing with.  Mostly small things.  He passed away last year after a lingering illness and his shop of 40+ years got gradually cleaned out.   One afternoon Phillip came in with a box he'd found under a pile of trash and sawdust.  Filthy, pealing its veneer at every touch, threatening any minute to disassemble itself to splinters - but underneath all that, voluptuously curved and elegantly domed.  The poor ruin of what was once a lovely Regency box - perhaps for stationary, perhaps for sewing.

He knew I would like to see it even in its present tragic state and, of course, I couldn't let him just toss it out.  So, it has lived on a shelf in my work room ever since - waiting...  Because I don't have the skills to do the re-gluing of its compound surfaces. Last night, at his suggestion, we looked at it again and he judged that, with the right skill set, it could be reglued and begin its journey to a new life.  He promised to put it back together so I can do the rest.  I certainly have no Palais Royale tools, but I do have some lovely bone ones that Phillip has carved.  But it is far from having a padded tray full of lovely tools.  Just for now, it will be enough to get the rotten veneer off the frame and get it glued together.  I am thinking that it will not have any veneer replaced.  Rather, I will cover it with muslin and gesso and polychrome it like the ones they call "Chinoisserie".  That will stabilize the box and maintain a period look to it.  We will see what comes.  Right now the fun is having a head full of ideas and a project of Great Potential.