Thursday, 5 May 2011

Sweetbag Flower 2 decoded & My Own Design for A Knitted Rose using Short Rows with Wraps

(This is a very, erm, long post….)

This long post sets out in 3 stages, how I solved the particularly difficult problem of shaping Sweetbag Flower 2 (Main Project).   

Flower 2

To say this next motif gave me a lot of headaches is an understatement.  In fact, my first efforts were so disappointing I dared not share them.  Its clear to me now why that was the case.  Its construction utilises a technique that I had not considered within this context before,  because it is very straightforward and normally applied to clothes.

Mysterious Technique

Let’s remind ourselves firstly, that still,  so little is  actually understood about how these incredibly complex high-relief embroidered motifs were constructed.

In fact, if you visit the Ashmolean’s textile gallery, you can see a super-enlarged image of the top half of a complex Stumpwork bird that has been x-rayed in various ways in an effort to decode its construction methods. 

What’s especially noteworthy about Elizabethan ‘flying needlelace’ is not only that its 3-d and embroidered in mid-air but most importantly from the perspective of technique, that they did NOT use the European method of working within a Cordonet.

Construction without Cordonet

I mentioned before, a Cordonet not only supports the work, but it also provides a way to disguise uneven shapes because at the end of the needlelacing you pack close-buttonholing round the edge of the shape and that way force them to be ‘better behaved’..

The Elizabethans did not do that.  They edged their shapes with Lizardine metal thread, afterwards, as a decoration – which also happens to  add support, especially if you stretch it out a bit. 

On historical pieces where the Lizardine has come away, you can clearly see the edge of the work did not include a Cordonet or buttonholing.

So how did they do it?  Well, from all the books I have, we are told they worked a base line of chain stitch/reversed chain  /backstitch into the fabric and then worked up from there.  And that is how I made the Blue Flower.

Then Jacquie Carey’s book Sweetbags came along and offered us new and revolutionary ideas based on extremely close examination of artefacts.  In contrast, she suggests that the 3-d elements were constructed ‘away from the embroidery surface and applied separately’. 

She actually proves this by showing us a picture of a bag where a flower has dropped off.  You can clearly see that the section of linen ground underneath  was totally un-worked.

When I read this, I was kind of thrown out-of-kilter because as they did not use a Cordonet, how did they hinge and move everything across easily afterwards, because chain stitches are fixed down? 

I suppose I just needed time to absorb this new evidence.  Needless to say, after much toiling, I totally agree with Carey’s view, after my own experiments with trying to get the shape right.

If you recall when I made the Blue Flower, although in the end I said it looked a lot like the one on the actual bag, there were problems, e.g.   

a.  It took a very long time to achieve the correct shape and curl

b.  Maybe this was because I had to be very careful not to pull the fabric too much and my hands were restricted by working in such a small area?

Little did I know then that there was another, fundamental difference in construction which makes shaping curly organic forms much much easier…

However, I concluded at the time, that historical Sweetbags were so plentiful (some people had about 20) they had to have known faster methods of working…

Thoughts on adding extra dimension to flat knitted fabric

So my journey here is in 3 stages, but the theme running throughout is ‘Shaping woven fabric to create extra dimension and curl’. 

Well, you know I was supposed to knit the Royal family figures and I bought the Royal Air Force blue wool for Prince William’s jacket (you can always source the exact colour and shade within the large range of Tapestry wools) and was going to make a start (the night before the Wedding!!) but alas I could not (not such a bad thing because he wore a completely different uniform and colour on his Big Day) because I found my favourite pair of No.11 knitting needles had this W.I.P. hanging from it.

Miniature Dungarees

These shorts are a little unusual because they include 2 cool concepts, one is Short Rows with Wraps and the other is mid-row, cast on, Gussets. 

The pattern is from a really cool book of luxury knitting patterns for teddies and perfecting my ‘invisible’ Short Rows was my quest.  (If you knit you probably agree with me in that, if Short Rows are causing you problems, its mainly due to not slipping the stitches correctly.  If you slip them the correct way before you turn the work e.g. knit to knit, purl to purl, blah - then you don’t end up with holes.)

Small Teddy Dungarees

Short Row with Wrap

Teddy Shorts with Gussets

So, considering I had put so much time into these shorts and the pattern was the best I had encountered, I decided to make William wait (more than 30 seconds!) and finished off the knitting and confronted the task of weaving in my loose ends.  Well, as you can see, I have a fair bit of work to do in that department…

Weaving in Threads

Moving swiftly on…

Knitted Rose made with Short Rows with Wrap

All of that led me to think again, but this time with restored heath (TG), about knitted roses…

For a long time I have toyed with the idea of improving the shaping of a classic rose pattern with ‘Short Rows & Wraps’ because that way you can make ready-made little cupped shapes.

My knitted flower session was in limbo after all, because I was still hunting for a near-perfect rose pattern.

Then most fortuitously, a set of notes and diagrams I had made a couple of years back of a dissection I carried out on the innards of a real rose, fell out of my ‘Knitting Answers’ book and set me thinking.

I always wanted to either knit or crochet a rose made from diagrams of botanically accurate petal shapes and I was pleased that I could translate my detailed little drawings into knitted petals.

So here is my own knitted rose design… (when its finished I hope to sell it on Etsy as a pdf download).


As you can see, Short Rows are a neat way of creating exaggerated ‘curl’ and adding dimension to otherwise flat knitting.  The technique is mainly used for sock heels and busts.  


Then I knitted a small Stockinet square to stuff the central cone.  


Next I got to work sewing everything up in the same way a real rose spirals out, with overlapping petals. 

I wanted my sewing to be as invisible as possible so tried hard not to split the yarn..



Below you can see how the base forms into a neat triangular shape.  This is how a rose in nature actually grows and interestingly when you see abstract rose designs, say for shoe decorations, they often use a shorthand triangular design to suggest the essence of the form.   


Well, I need to make some more petals, I tried some larger ones but that didn’t work and in so doing, decided to discreetly sew each petal in position to maintain the overall design especially if I attach it to a bag.  The central cone is maybe a bit large but we will see what happens in the next stage.  I have to do the calyx, i-cord stem and a few leaves next.  I might make the calyx with DBH, 4 DPNs or Crochet?,  I haven’t decided about that yet.

Pink Knitted Rose


Then I made a ‘biggish connection’ with what I had created and what I had read. 

I suppose, actually working with the problem of ‘gathering’ fabric in my own hands made me think more clearly…

Sweetbag Flower 2 – how did the Elizabethans attach their DBH 3-d elements to a separate piece of ground fabric?

One thing remains certain, the base line is the only point at which most of the elements are anchored to the fabric.

So, taking this idea I began to think that the only way this could work is if the base line were a moveable feast, e.g. a single couched horizontal thread. 

We are told in books to make sure our first row of DBH is always a regular row of buttonholing.  I decided against that and also corded the first row.  Don’t ask me why, I just had a kind of vague notion that the two threads needed to be working together, somehow?

So whilst working,  I was simultaneously observing how to improve the design and only for the last part did I finally solve the mystery…

Flower 2

First thing was to make a DBH circle-type shape.  (Not wonderful I know, but I was in a galloping rush)  Please disregard the colours for now. 


First Mini Petal

As you can see, I made the sand coloured petals on a separate piece of fabric, by couching the base line then removing it and applying it with a few tiny stitches. 

It felt much easier to work in this way as I had more space to work and see clearly, unhindered by any concerns of pulling underlying work out of shape. 


Then after I made two such petals I noticed that the line from which they sprung was too straight.  I thought that I needed to make it more curved ‘somehow’ next time, by bringing it down a bit, say?

Anyone that has worked with Vector diagrams will know that to achieve a naturalistic curve, you will be there forever trying to make point-to-point connections appear smooth.  Its much easier if you simply use the ‘Curve’ tool.  So I suppose I was looking for a ‘curve tool’ idea that could be brought into embroidery…

That’s when I realised that the whole line of petals should be made on  the same horizontal thread and that what I really needed was to use the contra action of the first row of cording in conjunction with this base line to create a ‘draw-string’ device to ‘gather’ the line of petals and that simple solution would solve two problems: it would exaggerate the curl by further compacting the stitches and create a naturally curved base line to apply to the work.     

Fresh Thinking

This is what I made next: two threads for the anchoring and couching were applied in a way that I could detach them easily and yet provide enough tension.  After this, I laid down the first row of cording and attached it to the fabric loosely at one end in the same way. 


Here is the completed next line of larger petals.  There are 3 or 4 straight rows, before you make each individual petal.  I was working away from myself, outwards and supporting each section with my fingers as I went along.


Here I am detaching the new length of DBH fabric away from the ground.


Below you can see how it looked after I pulled the draw-strings and created a lovely delicate kind of ruffle…how ingenious, don’t you think?


Then I remembered I had one more single petal to do and decided to finish it the correct way by leaving its threads attached…


Here it is free from the fabric and about to be gathered up.  You can clearly see this effect would work much better if there were more petals on the line. 


Finally, you can see 2 layers of petals being applied.  This can be done quite invisibly because you peg down the draw-strings with evenly spaced vertical stitches…


As you can see, working in this way means you can cram many more stitches into a given area than any linen count could possibly accommodate.  This is the main reason why the ratio of linen count to stitches always threw me..


And here it is the right way up, looking virtually the same as the one in the image from the museum.  It needs 5 larger petals, again I am going to make them together on a draw-string and then 5 more tent stitched petals…and of course, oodles of gold and silver. 



cya !



  1. Goodness, what a treasure hunt you have been on. I'm a new reader of your blog and I've been on the hunt for medieval embroidery techniques. I make Crazy quilts myself and the next one is going to be medieval themed and I want to use the actual techniques as I embellish it. So, thanks so much and I'll continue reading!

  2. Thank you so much for that much appreciated praise!

    Yes, I agree with you, this technique opens up a whole new chapter of exciting possibilities with flower construction. I'm really looking forward to the next phase. I don't mind struggling through the puzzle that is this bag and would rather hang back and really unravel its secrets than make ham-fisted wild guesses.

    The image is good enough for me to be able to count most of the individual tiny stitches but the the nature of the very thin silver thread is unclear.

    It's micro-detective work, for sure. I don't know, I guess for some things I have a lot of patience but for others I am surprisingly impatient...e.g. other cars..

    One thing is for sure though, when I first started looking at this I was convinced the influences were Italian e.g. Reticella but now I have come to realise that it really is the product of the gradual progression of very insular English ideas and methods.

  3. Beth,
    Fascinating as always! I think this totally works and should create lots of curl easily. On my reticello sampler (making detached pieces as you describe with a couched outline totally surrounding the pieces), I could get a little curl just by stretching the DBH fabric and layering the individual petals. . .but to get more, I agree gathering of some kind would be needed. (I believe I did a tiny bit of gathering when I stitched the individual petals on.) Would it have been possible to thread the gathering thread AFTER the DBH piece was worked? Seems like your idea would be easier. . .

    And for the multi-petal single pieces, I think working flat and straight like you do here would be much easier than working off of a round couched anchoring thread.

    A couple of quick questions...on your large piece, you're working 3-4 rows straight across then doing the indivudal petals "in aria", right? On those petals, are you decreasing by moving inwards from the outside margins or by working 2 stitches together like you do in knitting (and if so, is there a pattern as to where you place the "two together" stitches?)? (Just FYI, if you're working with a couched outline around the entire outside, the "drop a stitch" at the end of the row creates a much prettier effect than decreasing mid-row.) And when you reach the top of the petal, are you whip stitching the working thread back down to start the next petal?

    I would think the working in of a "drawstring" techinque might work well for some DBH clothing pieces too . . . skirts for example. You could just stitch the DBH fabric pieces and the scrunch them together as you stitch them down, but your technique is much more like how you would make a gather when sewing, and would be less fiddley, I'd think. Something to think about....

  4. Thanks a lot for the words of encouragement.

    No, definitely not using a couched thread all the way round, only on horizontal base, as per bag image.

    You've anticipated the next phase of major study into the pattern of their decreasing and increasing and especially, exactly how they slung the corded row round to produce such fine neat edges.

    The method I used previously, I come to realise is totally incorrect, as it produces tiny knots and the knots merge to form unsightly bumps, especially on very small petals. They did not work like that. I can see that their treatment of this detail very much mimics the smooth edges of woven fabric. (more later...)

    I am going to make a careful diagram of the stitch formation of a large petal on this present motif and work from there.

    I see your point about miniature Stumpwork clothes. I don't know about those as I have not had a chance to study them in close detail but for sure, a gather made with any single thread running through the base line is going to be easier, by far, than manual pleating, I would have thought.

    Interestingly, on that subject, a recent episode of Antiques Roadshow featured a Stuart doll, about 10 inches tall. She was in remarkably good condition and what struck me in a totally jaw-dropping moment was how she looked exactly the same as the tiny Stumpwork female figures I had seen. From the hair, weird wooden hands, classic facial expression and most especially the treatment of the eyes.

    So maybe Stumpwork styles of human figures were based on their actual taste and style of dolls? Needless to say that doll is very rare and the owners virtually walked off dialing their insurers...