Went back to the needlework shop for more black thread for the embroidery project, and not too surprisingly, wound up spending an hour in the shop just looking at black thread and white fabric.
One thing that constantly amazes me is what a big difference small differences can make to the “look and feel” of a project. Tighter twisted yarns, a different shade of black, a slightly thicker of thinner yarn can make a big difference to the overall appearance of the finished piece. My original threads were (relatively) loosely spun, on par with most silk embroidery floss, and produced a soft line, with an antique feel. I had switched to newer, “higher-quality” threads from a professional blackwork designer (Leon Conrad’s line), which were more tightly twisted and less inclined to fray. They produced a straighter, cleaner line, but at the price of the softer, “antique” feel.
So there I was, looking through black threads to find a substitute. Not just to be exactly similar (I figure the 32 different patterns will cover up a lot of the thread variations, especially since the squares are all separated from each other), but to find one that would give the right “feel”. After sorting through fifteen varieties of nearly-identical black thread, I finally picked out a new black thread for the thicker lines, and went back to the same one I’d used initially for the thinner lines. Unfortunately, the thinner thread was one I had originally bought in gray and dyed black (it doesn’t come in black), so I had to do the same thing. Which meant not only dyeing it black, but also scouring it–hard–to make sure all the excess dye was out.
Admittedly a lot of work for a piece, but when I started that piece I spent two or three hours in the shop, selecting white fabric, three thicknesses of black thread, and a gold metallic thread. There are dozens of shades of white and not all of them do well with all shades of gold. When I’m working on designing a piece, I like to compare everything that’s available and pick the combination that I think produces the best effect. Whether this is a good approach to life generally, I don’t know (I also tend to spend way too much time ruminating over available choices, even if they’re mostly-identical (batteries, toothbrushes)), but I do think it produces better art pieces.
One of the things that surprises me about embroidery threads is that people think of them as separate from “thread” (as in sewing thread) or “yarn” (as in needlepoint yarn). Silk embroidery thread is really just a six-ply 30/2 commercially spun silk yarn that’s been dyed, cut into short lengths, and sold at truly astronomical prices. The yarn they use–if you buy it for machine knitting–retails for about $200/kg, ($90/lb), and the finished, dyed yarn runs about $4.00/gram, or about $4000/kg. But you *could* buy the yarn, and make your own embroidery floss at a fraction the cost.
So why buy embroidery floss rather than make your own? Well, three things, really.
First and foremost, you’re paying for reproducible results. You can only use your own dyed yarns if you are also making your own pattern; if you want to cross-stitch a designer’s pattern accurately, you must use the threads they specify. Unless you want to go off the beaten path and design your own, you’re better off using standard yarns, even though they’re much more expensive. (But realize you’re *paying* for that level of control.)
Second, you’re paying for choice and control. The average line of embroidery threads has 300-400 colors in its palette, many of them in graduated shades, and unless you’re willing to take the time to make 300-400 colors of your own, you have a better selection available in the commercial palette. The commercial dyers also have better control over their own processes, so they can duplicate colors almost exactly–meaning you can come back and buy more later.
Finally, you’re paying for skill and hassle. Dyeing all those embroidery threads takes skill, and it also takes time. If you are doing a complex cross-stitch pattern with over 300 different shades, it just doesn’t make sense to dye and work out duplicates for all existing patterns; it’s cheaper to fork out the money for the premade threads. For cotton thread, even at full retail, one can get a full set of 300+ shades for about $150, which is a lot cheaper than all the materials, etc. for dyeing.
For those reasons, I don’t really have an issue with sticking with commercial embroidery threads most of the time; they’re a good deal, and for most purposes it’s quicker/easier/better to use commercial threads rather than making your own. However, there are also downsides to commercial threads:
- Limited palette. 600 or 1000 colors (from multiple manufacturers) sounds like a lot, but it really doesn’t even come close to covering all possible colors and variations. Virtually all embroidery is done in plain threads because that’s what the conventional palettes offer–what about threads with metallic bits, mixed cotton/rayon, other exotic blends? Multicolor threads with the exact blend of colors you’re looking for?
Commercial palettes offer a very wide world for exploration–easily wide enough to spend a lifetime exploring in–but they do not offer all experiences. I’ve frequently found myself wishing I had a thread “that just…”
- More expensive. For cotton, the difference in expense doesn’t amount to much. In silk, the cost of threads can be breathtaking–a full silk palette would cost $1200 as opposed to cotton’s $120.
- (a subtle one) a narrowing of one’s world-view. To me this is the biggest issue…and it has nothing to do with using commercial embroidery floss, but everything to do with how one thinks about embroidery floss. It is one thing to use commercial embroidery thread conscious that it is the best available choice most of the time…but I think it is a mistake to think of it as the only available choice. That changes the world from a convenient and comfortable landscape to one surrounded by walls.
This is one of the things I like so much about handspinning; it is very good for reminding one that the walls are artificial; they’re not actually there.
What astonishes me from time to time is how many spinners, while waxing eloquent about the artificial limitations of commercial yarn, nonetheless allow the same “walls” to be built around them in other areas…such as spinning wheels, or tools. Most spinners think of “serious” spinning tools (i.e. anything beyond the CD spindle) as something they buy. So did I, until I went off to Southeast Asia. But watching the Akha people prepare cotton by plucking a bow over and over again, in a heap of ginned cotton, and watching them build a loom out of lengths of freshly-cut bamboo, made me realize how artificial this is. It is certainly easier to buy a spinning wheel, just as it is easier to buy commercial embroidery floss. But the convention is not a wall.
How much you get from remembering this really depends on your lifestyle…it is possible to live an entire life within the walls of convention and still lead a satisfactory life. But I think that life is richer, and full of more possibilities, when one remembers that the walls are illusion–timesaving, useful, there-for-a-reason convention–but not fact.
In my view, there are three steps to problem-solving:
- identify what you want
- Okay…but what is the problem? What kinds of things will solve my problem?
- How do I get to a solution?
So for this blackwork project, it might be:
- I need one skein of black Needlepoint Silk embroidery floss. Hmm…can’t find it.
- Okay, my actual goal is to find a medium-weight black thread to stitch outlines in the chess squares. It should be spun moderately loosely, and be heavy enough to make a bold line without being so heavy it distorts the fabric.Stuff that might work includes
–silk embroidery floss (top choice)
–lightweight cotton perle thread
–lace thread for crocheting doilies (would require dyeing)
–multiple plies of sewing thread twisted together
–really lightweight merino lace yarn
- I could:
–buy Needlepoint Silk
–find an equivalent thread in a different manufacturer
–get 30/2 silk yarn in bulk and dye it black
–spin my own silk yarn
–buy lace yarn from a craft shop
I find that if I frame my thought as generally as possible–“I need a medium weight black thread, with these characteristics,” as opposed to “I need a skein of black Needlepoint Silk”–there are suddenly far more alternatives. And the same for everything else in life.
I think that’s the real secret to “out of the box” thinking–look at what characteristics you need, what will get you towards your goal, and what can be done using the materials at hand–rather than setting one’s heart on a specific object or intermediate goal.
There was more that I wanted to say, but I’m overdue for a cycling workout and for some other errands, so I’ll have to leave it for later…