Thursday 24 August 2023

Machine lace Schiffli designs


These lovely lace designs come from a catalogue produced by the Christian Stoll company of Plauen from the late nineteenth century. These laces would have been made using a Schiffli embroidery machine. This machine could embroider on to a machine net background to imitate handmade lace or could produce guipure lace by embroidering onto a ground fabric that was later destroyed to leave only the lace behind.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were several methods for disposing of the backing fabric including treating the ground fabric with dilute acid before embroidering it then putting it in a hot room where the ground threads deteriorated. Alternatively the thread could be treated with an alkali such as ammonia then the embroidered fabric could be place in an acid bath to remove the ground. A cellulose base could also be used which could be removed by heating or acid treatment after embroidering. The number of patents relating to the disposal of background fabrics at the end of the nineteenth century shows how keen inventors were to find the ideal method. If these guipure techniques were used, the designer had to ensure that all parts of the lace were attached to other areas or include bars of thread joining the separate elements of the design so the lace remained in one piece once the background had been removed, alternatively the lace could be applied to a net background to keep the elements of the pattern in place. The Schiffli lace machine was invented in the 1860s in Switzerland and ‘Swiss’ lace became very popular throughout Europe at the end of the century for curtains and clothing.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Variations in one needlelace pattern

This lace is a lovely mixture of bobbin and needle lace and the way it’s made suggests that it was worked in separate parts by several lacemakers and then combined into the final piece. This practice was common in the nineteenth century as several people working on one piece ensured it was worked more quickly and it also allowed lacemakers to specialise in one type of lace or even one motif.


Concentrating on one detailed part of the design shows how different lacemakers interpreted the same pattern. This area of the lace is a needlelace surround to an area of needlelace ground which holds in place a detailed bobbin lace motif. 

You can see how the two small circular motifs have been worked in a variety of ways. In the upper image they have both been filled with a circle of couronnes, which would probably have been made off the pillow round a pointed former and then added to the work. Making these little circles could also have been delegated to beginners so there was a stock of them to be used when required. 

In other examples, the circles have been worked on the pillow with a series of blanket stitches to form circular shapes. The filling stitches have also been worked differently. In two cases they form a hexagonal shape with picots along the length of the sides and in two other examples the filling stitches are made up of tiny couronnes, embellished with picots, joined together by a pair of twisted threads. 

The final example is completely different from the others. The large circular area has been divided up into quadrants by a cross of bars, each enclosing a little couronne, and the smaller circle has been almost filled with concentric circles of needlelace. The filling stitches are also unique and are made up of a series of triangular woven areas with extended picots. Finding all these different variations in one pattern, in just one piece of lace, highlights the working practices of the lacemakers who worked as a group to make one piece of lace and suggests that these skilled lacemakers were allocated patterns and allowed to interpret them in the way they thought best.

Friday 11 August 2023

Japanese aesthetics of recycling exhibition at Brunei Gallery, SOAS


This exhibition on Japanese recycling focused on textiles and paper although there were some examples of kintsugi repaired pottery. I particularly enjoyed the mended and patched Boro textiles that are shown on the press release in the image. The term Boro comes from boroboro which means something tattered or repaired and many of these pieces have numerous layers and a variety of stitches holding the fabric together. Although these clothes reflect the poverty of those who originally owned them they are beautiful items and are often a record of several members of the same family. There were also several examples of washi paper which had been recycled by layering them together to make wrapping cloths or cut into fine strips and twisted to make paper thread. One example of the use of paper thread was a type of undergarment called an asehajiki, also known as a sweat repeller, made in a lace ground of alternate four thread plaits and two thread twists, so it resembles a strig vest. A replica is being reproduced by Sian Bowen as part of a residency at Kew Gardens, which was also exhibited. There were also two examples of this type of lace in garments from the permanent collection, both worked in the same way but with just one twist between the plaits, forming a denser fabric. Unfortunately photography was not allowed. I’ve never seen examples of this type of lace in Japan before and it was not worked with any type of bobbins or thread holders – although the tangle of threads suggested it would have been easier with some!

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Threads exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

This textile exhibition, co-curated by Alice Kettle and Arnolfini, brings together the work of 21 international artists and makers to ‘breathe life into materials’ and celebrate the power of textiles to tell stories. Some narratives are personal others explore wider global events but they all make connections between people and places, memory and cultures. Public engagement is much to the fore and on the day I visited dancers were moving among the audience, there was a live commentary in the gallery and the audience was encouraged to join in, sit on cushions and watch, or sew and draw. There were also workshops taking place on the upper floors of the gallery all of which added to the lively ambience of the exhibition.

There were so many interesting exhibits that it is impossible to mention them so I’ll just talk about a few of my favourites. The image here is of Ground by Alice Kettle, a huge embroidery which is part of a series called Thread bearing witness which incorporates images drawn by refugees in the Calais refugee camps reflecting on stories of migration. 

Esna Su’s series of vessels The Burden II ‘My trousseau’ (image at the top) captivated me, initially because of its lace-like quality and also its theme of textile as part of a bride’s trousseau. Each vessel is tied like a fabric bag and includes a small crochet doily or piece of lace (detail above), suggesting the bundle of clothes and domestic fabrics a refugee or bride might carry with them to a new home. These wearable sculptures that fit the shape of a human body are a poignant reminder of the domestic upheaval faced by refugees.

I also found Mounira Al Sohl’s work Mina El Shourouk ila Al Fahmah very moving. This Lebanese artist uses a large, red, tent-like structure to bring together women’s stories of struggle and loss with quotes from the women, embroidered images and song and in this way uses storytelling to bring their memories to life. 

A series of pieces by Anya Paintsil also covered interesting themes relating to her Welsh and Ghanaian heritage. In particular Cwympo ni’n dau, wel dyna I chi dric (We both fall over that’s the trick) a title taken from a Welsh nursery rhyme. This work depicts Rhiannon, a character from Welsh mythology falsely accused of murdering and eating her newborn son who was sentenced to carry strangers on her back for 7 years. Here the artist links that story to the themes of burden and blame that are often place on women in society. 

Celia Pym’s series of Mended paper bags were also an interesting development of her mending and repair series of darned clothes. She produced the bags during the Covid pandemic as a response to the amount of packaging building up in her home. I also enjoyed seeing the stitched cubes of Richard McVetis with their tiny black stitches measuring time. Olga de Amaral’s Viento II also reflects on time with its incorporation of Japanese paper and gold leaf. 

Ifeoma U Anyaeji also considers materials in her installation, Ezuhu ezu [In (complete)] produced as part of a residency at Arnolfini. She uses discarded plastic bottles and bags and by transforming them, using a hair braiding technique from her homeland in Nigeria, asks us to consider the value we place on discarded objects. As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and would encourage you to visit if you are in the Bristol area as I’ve only covered a few of the exhibits here. It runs until 1 October and the Arnolfini also has an excellent bookshop and cafĂ©!