Wednesday, 13 October 2010

How I made the Gold Acorn

From tiny acorns, mighty oaks (+long posts) grow…!!!

(Continuing on from last time…)

Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m (dare I say) proud at having worked out exactly how they made these acorn structures on the historic swetebag. 

As you’re aware, I didn’t have any books to assist me, and I’ve explained before, modern Stump Work books don’t cover these earlier, much more complex ‘trade secrets’, from what I can tell. 

It wasn’t easy, at first and I thought for a long time I would never fathom it out, but I regard The Bag as a kind of  tough Sudoku puzzle (which I love) and as you can tell from the pictures below, I got there by trial and error and not by making the theory fit the experiment. 

This proved to be a very satisfying endeavour as I also found out along the way, that the process the Elizabethans used to make the acorns is very old and in fact a Viking technique for metalwork chains!

Now you might not be very excited at that revelation but, for now, I just want to say that I can’t help but notice that the Acorns, the Turks Head Knots and Plaited Braid Stitch, all start exactly the same way….with a ‘pretzel’ formation of loops…(more about that later). 

OK, so before I launch into my storyboard-how-to I just wanted to say that I’m no longer going to call this stitch ‘Ceylon stitch’ because I think that in this context its a misnomer, as it definitely had a different name in Elizabethan times.  (We don’t know what it was called back then, but there’s plenty of room for more research...)

The other thing we have to remind ourselves of is that London is a 2000-year-old city and that its goldsmiths – who later formed Guilds and the Guilds have a long history of the cross-pollination of ideas - have operated from exactly the same location since Saxon times.  Their furnaces, underground vaults and mysterious traditions were passed down from generation to generation, without a break.   

So for the purposes of this blog I’m going to give this stitch its correct Viking name which is: Osenstitch (otherwise referred to as a looped mesh and not to be confused with Naalbinding or Mammen stitch). 

Osenstitch is also referred to as ‘Viking Knit’ and ‘Trichinopoly chainwork’ and is very similar in construction  to Vandyke stitch.  (I hope to post my research links next time.)   

Ok, so here goes:

If you recall I said I needed to work out how to:

  1. make ‘Ceylon stitch’ keep its shape to produce unstuffed cylindrical shapes
  2. that are closed at the top and
  3. widen out once, near the bottom and
  4. work up very small and neatly.

This is my first (rather squashed) attempt.  From it you can see its all wrong and its cotton and I was panicking (but undeterred all the same!). 

First attempt

You might think I should have used metal thread from the outset but if I can explain, I can see about 10 different views of these cylindrical structures on The Bag and each of them tells me something different.  From this I made a composite picture in my mind of what you could, and couldn’t do with this formation.

Looking at this section of the Museum image for the first time, I was struck by how regular the stitches were.  They are indeed very tiny and consistently perfect added to which, each acorn is exactly the same as the next. 

From this I inferred that they were probably self-supporting stitches in themselves, or dimensional, and that the acorns, in all probability, were not stuffed.  I was also obsessed with replicating the neatness and scale.  I convinced myself that working that small was going to give me eye-strain.  But I’m pleased to say, the result was nothing of the sort and I reiterate: they are easy to make! 

Foundation Stitches

The base line stitches used this time is a simple backstitch.

All the acorns are started in the same way and I could see that the tiny backstitches had been pulled somewhat out of shape and stretched in the process of constructing the acorn, as you will see later.


Open first row of Osenstitches

For the first row of Osenstitches I’ve kept the stitches fanned outwards.  I found I had to do this otherwise the shape goes in on itself.  It also helped for the 2 into 1 increases I had to do next.

This was the only row of increases I had to make, as the rest is worked straight up.

Below you can see I’m using my index finger as a support.  This method was working well for a while and I was reasonably pleased at this stage, however, my finger became cramped and my stitches started to become irregular.  I concluded they did not use this method as the results were inconsistent.


Below I'm pulling it to one side to compare the look of the thing, to the image.  I was pleased at the way things were progressing but I was still unhappy about bending my hand round to work the circular rows around a finger that was aching and had become just too awkward. 


Below you can see, I continued working a few more rows and the shape suddenly started to behave itself and form into a tiny (very neat) cup.  I knew then that the shape I was aiming for was not deliberately shaped by complex increases or decreases but merely grows upwards.  Also that the thick, inner rows of the reverse side of the stitching help greatly to maintain its shape.  


After that I decided to do the same in gold thread.  you can see it works OK but, believe me when I tell you at that stage it was still very untidy compared to the historic bag. 

However, I was content with the look, of the now elongated foundation stitches.  You can see below that the base line of backstitches have indeed stretched quite a lot, just like on the real thing.  However, this feature doesn’t detract from the overall impression of an organic cup kind of bursting out of the background fabric.


Below I’m taking the next stitch and notice how this method of working means ‘Ceylon stitch’ is actually upside down and by so doing you can pull it up in a very smooth way to tighten the stitches and thereby achieve neat very compact neat columns of stitching.  I also found out you can get a really good grip on your work if its upside down like this, unlike the directions in modern diagrams.  


By this time I decided my finger had had enough and I would simply have to find something else to work against as the work was narrowing and becoming too tight to continue with. 

However, when I took my finger out I was very encouraged by how the little stitches were looking and I could see that I was probably going along the right path, together with the fact that I could tell very clearly where to insert my needle each time and thereby picked up more speed.


So then I decided to have a little rummage in my workbox and found something much better suited to supporting the work than a (red index) finger, which was the *plastic handle of my seam ripper…

Below I’m making one complete stitch in 3 stages and you can see how easy it is to tell where to put your needle next time, as the firm support beneath pushes the proud crossed arms of each stitch out to make each column much more prominent.   





I think I mentioned before, because there are 10 examples of this structure on The Bag, I kind of worked out that they had to be made at a reasonable pace and could not have been too fiddly to execute.  More importantly, that the method of construction could be relied upon to produce consistent results.

See how tiny you can make Osenstitch in this way.  

Historical Context

Let me interrupt at this stage by including some historical background.  The Vikings made silverwork cords with this stitch by using just the end of the wire, no needle. 

They had many uses for these silver or gold cords and examples have been found where it is used as embellishments on  seams of clothes and jewellery. 

To support the work they would use a metal rod in exactly the same way as I used above.  The jewellery made from this type of chainwork was taken one stage further.  Once they decided how long they wanted the chain to be, they would then fasten it off and  pull the entire length of cord through a small hole in a wooden frame.  The holes in the wood were of varying sizes.  In this way they could produce very fine and yet strong silver wire.  They would also cut lengths of chain into sections to trade for goods, as a form of currency. 

Apart from its practical uses, the fact that the Vikings brought to England their solutions for lifting hitherto 2-d concepts of interlaced design into 3-d form is very significant…(more later).  

I’ve since researched a little further and found out that the concept of (metal) cylinders made in this way are probably an idea the Vikings picked up from their trade with the Byzantine world.  In fact the Byzantines often worked their form of  ‘Osenstitch’ more openly, whereby they could produce tiny ‘cages’ or hollow pendants into which they would ‘secrete’ precious items and display them on necklaces and earings.


Closing the cylinder

To close the top is also really easy.  For this you simply whip into all the stitches that make up the last row and pull the top closed as you would a miniature drawstring. 


One more observation

Below you can see that when its finished and pulled to one side, you get a bright crescent shaped highlight at the tip.  This is just as it appears on the historic Bag.  I spent a long time wondering if that highlight was in fact a spangle attached to the fabric but I’ve proved to myself, it is in fact the light catching the top of the whipped stitch closure. 


Finishing off ready to start the next acorn

To finish it off, you just take the thread back down through the centre of the acorn to bury it in the fabric and emerge where you want the next one to spring up. 


See how tiny you can make Osenstitch (Ceylon stitch) this way (fingernail size)... Its my guess there are possibly hundreds of (wickedly cute) things you can make with this idea….(o-oh, there I go again…)

*  I’ve decided I won’t use my plastic seam-ripper next time as its now covered in tiny scratches.  Instead, I plan to dig out some kind of small metal rod alternative from my DIY toolbox


Well, we returned from Florence a while ago but went away again, this time to wonderfully wild Celtic Cornwall.  With all its truly amazing ancient, early Christian wheel-head  crosses, holly wells, stone circles and hill forts.  Naturally we took the A303 to pass the awesome Stonehenge – can you believe that they actually considered knocking it down during the war for reasons of national safety…

Florence was great but they confiscated my scissors before the flight and I (had to) sit next to a (very nice) chatterbox… And yes, I was frog-marched through the Uffizi Gallery (of all places) and consequently missed the iconic Botticelli (!).  However – I did manage to see some amazing Renaissance vestments off the main building of the Duomo, (up lots of stairs), in Sienna and some beautiful medieval wedding celebration embroidery at the Jewish Museum…(more next time).



  1. Thank you so much for sharing your insight - the acorns are beautiful! This looks an awfully lot like a tassel I have an image of (well, it looks like I remember it in my head, lol) so I am hoping I'll be able to find my source material.

  2. Thanks Gina, mmm, sounds very interesting, would love more details of that tassel....

  3. que bordado tan bonito, sera que me podria explicar un poco mas, cual es la puntada madre, el mismo cordoncillo. mi correo es soy de colombia. gracias

  4. Hola chica de Colombia!

    Me allegro que te hayas gustado este punto y piensas que sera utile para vuestra puntada.

    Voy a enviar te mas explicaciones de la punta en tu correo, pero por ahora te dire que después de este trabajo, yo hice un video que explica muy claramente come se haces. Dime si usted lo encuentra fácil?

    El Punto en Ingles se llama 'Ceylon Stitch'. Pero en tiempos antiguos lo hacían boca bajo.

    Hasta luego

  5. Beth Lea,
    I would like to use this technique in a piece, but I don't like to do that without the historical context to back up that it's appropriate to Eliz. embroidery. Can you give me the museum and acc# for the acorns? It's probably in an older post, but I can't find it.


  6. Hi Kimberly

    Sorry it has taken me so long to find the link to 'The Bag'. This is the image I paid for but have recently learnt that it is available for all to see.
    You should hit 'Fullscreen' for macro detail of several of these cylindrical shapes. They also used this method for butterflies bodies. Its explained in Sweet Bags by Carey but I worked it out before I received the book *flutters eyelashes*

    Here is the link: