Sunday, 5 December 2010

‘Sweet Bags’ by Jacqui Carey – an amazing book

(Warning: long post! – try as I might to make them shorter…)

After I worked out how to make the acorn, but before I made the video, I received a copy of this wonderful book published last year by a textile scholar here in the UK.

The author is a braid maker ‘by trade’ and is actually an expert on Japanese braids.  Well, it turns out that because she was eager to work out how the Elizabethans had made their braids, she also had to study the embroidery on them in very intricate detail.  In so doing, she has handled many extant Sweet Bags stored in various museums around the UK. 

The book is her ‘file’ of discoveries and it contains revolutionary ideas.  She adds that she has compiled further evidence that she may yet publish at some future date.  (I sincerely hope she does.)

The book is wonderfully thick, full of incredible detail and very comprehensive diagrams, oh, and its also paperback ! 

Just to recap a little…

If you recall, I mentioned I felt I needed to have a copy of ‘Twixt Art & Nature’, if for no other reason than to really try and understand the types of metal threads they had back then.  Because of that, I hung on for 6 months to obtain it from an internet bookseller (NOT amazon), who eventually informed me that the Bard Centre were unfortunately not going to print any further copies.  Well from that day, to the day I received Ms Carey’s book, I was a walking heap. 

Now (thankfully) I am certain that whatever is in the ‘Twixt’ book, it cannot possibly contain the same level of ground-breaking, authoritative dissection of minutiae that Ms Carey has put into this major contribution to our understanding of how differently the Elizabethans did things back then.

If I may add, because she is a braid-maker, braid teacher and braid scholar, she has this incredible clarity of purpose with the very technical conundrum of ‘what goes where’ in terms of thread direction, in these closely worked miniature items.  She cuts through all the confusion, in my opinion, by carefully explaining how to read the ‘entrance’, ‘exit’ and ‘orientation’ of the working thread for each stitch. 

Her approach has been as one who is new to the world of embroidery, and in turn her perspective remains open-minded and thus, unencumbered at all times.  Her aim has been to work out ‘what goes where and why’ and to illustrate firm evidence of what their construction methods must have been.     

Cylindrical Ceylon Stitch

Alas, from the book, I also discover that I was not the first to work out Cylindrical Ceylon Stitch in this context, the author refers to it as ‘Tubular Ceylon”.

The corroboration of ideas is consolation indeed.  I am certainly very pleased that its being brought to wide public notice that this was one of the ways worm and butterfly bodies on Sweet Bags were constructed.

Purely English Version of Trellis Stitch

The other major (heart-pounding) moment for me while I flicked through the book for the first time, was the incredible realisation that this lady has seen, worked out and tried and tested an ‘Elizabethan’ working of Trellis stitch and concluded it was NOT knotted !

I have placed a notice on my YouTube videos about this discovery and I look forward very much to ‘having a go’ at this new or rather very old English way of working the stitch. 

This of course got me thinking….if it was not actually a ‘knotted’ stitch, then that means it CAN be made out of metal and in fact when I read this, I immediately pulled out all my books and notes and rummaged (very calmly you understand..) until I found the best illustration I have of Queen Elizabeth I embroidered book binding that she stitched herself for her step-mother, Katherine Parr, and was reminded that SHE had in fact stitched ‘English’ Trellis, IN METAL on the cover of that book! 

In another source I found reference to (English) Trellis (that’s how I shall refer to it from hereon in) ‘resembling Hollie Stitch’, and somewhere else I have noted that ‘Hollie Stitch is said to be a purely English needlelace stitch’, in other words, not imported from Italy!  All of this raises so many questions…

…..more about that later.

Plaited Braid Stitch (PBS)

However, the very first chapter that grabbed my attention was the one concerning Plaited Braid Stitch. 

It contains 4 extremely clear diagrams of how to work the stitch and interestingly shows us how to stitch it vertically, but working from the bottom up. 

On top of that this lady has discovered that there are 2 further ‘variations’ of the stitch, 0f which she has photographic evidence.  This means that their structure has more interlaced ‘overs & unders’ than standard PBS, in the sense of ‘interlacing’ technicalities or put it another way; the appearance of more threads.     

For newbies - This means we now have 3 ways of working PBS:

  • Grace Christie’s version 1920 – very difficult to work, not suited to metal and constructed vertically but from the top down.  Looks different to historical pieces.  Incorrect number of ‘unders & overs’ compared to historical items.   
  • Leon Conrad’s version c.2003 – worked sideways, does look like historical examples and suited to metal.  Correct number of ‘overs & unders’ compared to historical items.  Danger of little legs poking out. 
  • Jacqui Carey’s version 2009 – worked vertically, from the bottom up, suited to metal and looks exactly the same as historical examples.  (In my view, no fiddly bits).  Correct number of ‘overs & unders’ compared to historical items.  No danger of little legs poking out. 

Because of the clarity of her diagrams and her careful explanation that ‘modern’ Plaited Braid (Mrs Christie’s version) is unlike Elizabethan PBS, for the simple reason that the modern version does not have the requisite number of ‘overs & unders’. 

She goes on to prove that the Elizabethans must have worked the stitch in the opposite direction.  She includes stunningly clear high definition digital photography of historic examples and you can see instantly that they are exactly the same as the stitching she reproduces to make her own sweetbag through the book.  The book however, is not primarily about her sweetbag but about the historic bags she has studied.  In fact there is only one close-up of her own sweetbag!  The book is really about deciphering historical stitches!

PBS re-cap

Well, with that I went over to my stash and set to work, because her findings had really got me thinking

Now, I don’t know about you, but it has always bothered me how long it takes to stitch PBS.  I seem to sit there, all tense, shoulders hunched, thinking: ‘oh dear, here we go, its PBS time’.  Perhaps, more than anything else, because there was one bit of it that always seemed rather ‘fiddly’ (and awkward) to me. 

So, the instant I realised that Ms Carey’s diagrams blew away any personal residual cobwebs I harboured about how to do the stitch, off I went to try it, noticing immediately that my stitching felt smoother. 

I think it helps me a lot to stitch it vertically, as I can really see what I need to do next and by watching the thread being pulled through, the right way up, I can tell more readily when to stop pulling or put it another way, one part ‘fits round’ the preceding section more readily.  There is also no danger oftiny legs’ appearing when worked this way.

This is my first attempt...


Above you can see the blue PBS I made last year which is ostensibly quite square-looking. 

Then, next to it, is the little patch of gold I made after following Ms Carey’s diagrams.  This section took me 10 minutes to stitch and I had not stitched PBS for about a year.  Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Here’s a another patch of PBS that took me less than 3 minutes to complete whilst also chatting...


Same example below but upside down2

And here sideways


In these two horizontal views I think you can see that the overall effect is very balanced e.g. you could draw a line down the middle and both sides would, methinks, look the same. 

Personally, I think this is a very important aim when we talk about striving for ‘neat’ PBS.  Previously my PBS was not balanced and the left hand side always looked more ‘squashed’ or rather the stitches lay at a slightly different angle than the other side.  I have since investigated why this used happen and I’ll talk about that next time.


My conclusion is that the Elizabethan stitcher had to have worked PBS at quite a fast pace and probably chatted while she did so because it was usual for them to stitch in groups. 

Embroidered Ring – stage 2

So, as I explained, these amazing diagrams have helped me to relax with the stitch, so much so that I decided to include PBS it in the design of the Embroidered Ring that I spoke about a few weeks ago.

First I thought the ring would be silver and light blue but no matter what I did with it, it just didn’t really ever get off the ground.  Then I discussed it further with the intended recipient and we agreed she would prefer emerald green and silver…now I’m excited !!

This ring is a little difficult to work out because unusually I know what I want the ‘last part’ to look like, as opposed to just embellishing to my heart’s content.

Here is a picture of the non-starter:


I know where I went wrong with this thing, when I was at the Ashmolean recently, the last thing I looked at was the display case of very gorgeous, but utterly sentimental, Victorian rings.  Bad idea, as you can see, this proto-type has too many petals and is basically not what I am aiming for at all.  I’m aiming for something Celtic-looking.   

The only thing that really worked was that I managed to keep it very small, as I have been flatly told NOT to make a ‘tarantula’ of a finger-ring !!!

The Bag

Because the ‘Sweet Bags’  book puts forward overwhelming results of virtually scientific scrutiny, that the Elizabethans had their own, uniquely ‘English’ way of working their stitches, irrespective of the mountain of received opinion we have from modern books about how to produce those stitches, I have started to test out some of these ideas for myself. 

This means that the background of the repro bag will not be slanted encroaching Gobelin Stitch afterall, but what Ms Carey calls ‘Elizabethan Ground Stitch’.  I am very happy so far with my experiments on this subject and here is a wee taster worked in Smooth Passing number 4, non-tarnish.  A nice thread to work with!


Big News

I’ll talk more about this incredible book and the aesthetics of PBS next time, but for now I wanted to give you a bit of advance notice about something I am leading up to.

Because of a particular idea put forward in this book and because of the need to complete the embroidered ring very soon, I have been catapulted into making  a truly serendipitous discovery regarding PBS…(in short, if you’ll permit me to say: get your goose-bumps ready, because you are going to need them!!!)

cya !


  1. 'Twixt Art and Nature is a great book from a historical design point of view, but it does not go into detail about stitches or materials (it has a few closeups of some random parts of embroideries, but not much analysis). It's not aimed at embroiderers, but at people interested in embroidery history--so not really trying to do the same thing Sweet Bags does. (Which is a pity as far as I'm concerned--some of the stitches on some of the pieces in the exhibit were really interesting and I would LOVE an analysis of how they work.)

    I think--although I only got a brief look at Sweet Bags--that Carey's plaited braid is the same or extremely close to the one used by the Plimoth Plantation folks, which works up very quickly and easily and looks identical to the period stitch once you get the tension down. They started from Conrad's directions, but modified them extensively after examining period pieces.

  2. Thanks for that Mel.

    I agree, Carey + Conrad technically make the same stitch e.g. overs & unders, but Conrad's I'm finding works up 'slightly' wider and unlike Carey; the action for both sides of the 'pretzel' shape is not 'mirrored'.

    I will explain further on why I think this 'could' be quite significant and possibly speeds us up in terms of tension...

  3. I have enjoyed reading about your discoveries and have taken great delight in your enthusiasm!
    I look forward to future posts!

  4. I have not been able to find a copy of the Sweet Bag book, much to my chagrin, and would be very interested in seeing exactly what she puts forth as steps in the PBS. Of course I am keenly interested in seeing how it differs from my own technique, because I am set to start working on my coif here shortly. I put up some pictures over on my blog of my final design, as well as the materials I am going to use. I don't think I showed the gold thread, but I will be using what I exclusively use, which is the #4 passing braid on silk from Golden Threads.

    Thanks for keeping us updated on your progress! I wish I had more time for the deep explorations you are on.

  5. Hi Kimberley

    I bought 'Sweet Bags' directly from Jacqui Carey's website:

    (oops, I should have mentioned that)

    I'm heading over to your blog now.