Embroidery Feed

Weaving and embroidery

My visit to Guatemala was a bit like stepping out of the Tardis into another time zone. 

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The skills of people there is  from a time long past in our Western Culture.   I wondered why it was the women who mainly carried on these skills and kept their traditions?   Our guide explained that the country had gone through a 36 year civil war, fueled by a number of different powers.  The CIA from the USA, Castro from Cuba and local people who saw it as an opportunity to increase their power.  The result of this was that a lot of the Mayan men were killed.  You could be killed for wearing Mayan native dress, so the men stopped wearing it.  That their culture has survived at all is remarkable considering the ethnic cleansing and killing that went on during that time.

But it does continue on and says a lot about the people, especially the women.  Some of the blouses, or hupils, they wear look embroidered but they are actually a hand woven brocade.  This piece that I purchased from a second hand market is an example of a brocade. The joins at the centre is embroidered, the rest of the design is woven.  And, they memorise these patterns.  The counting involved must drive them crazy.  This is how brocade was made before machines.  No wonder it was so expensive and prized and the weavers praised for their skills. 

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These skills were highly prized in Western Culture, starting about Byzantine times (it's use in Mayan culture predates this by thousands of years), and because the textiles were so expensive their distribution and access to the skill was controlled by those in power right up to the 1700,s.  In 1804 Joseph Jacquard invented a machine that could be attached to a power loom and since then hand woven brocade has virtually disappeared from our culture.  I saw one of these machines on display in Lyon, France years ago.

This hupil that I also purchased second hand, is embroidered.  That is, the fabric is woven and then the design added with needle and thread.


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It must have been stitched some time after 1950 because there is quite a bit of lurex thread being used.   Mayan women 'love' glitter.

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Outside one of the churches in Chichicastinango

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I found a woman drawing the designs, free hand, onto fabric for embroiderers to add their threads.

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This video from You Tube details the making of a hupil over 90 days.  It has been filmed in the very places I  have just visited and shows in detail the whole process.  The shop where Manuela buys her threads is the same shop where I bought mine and the Textile Museum is the same one where I watched this young woman warp up her loom.

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If you want to see a more in-depth explanation of weaving and embroidery in Mayan culture there is an excellent documentary called "Century of Color: Maya Weaving & Textiles (English)"  It is nearly an hour in length and is very comprehensive in it's coverage of the topic.                                                                                                                                                                                                         Now it is time to step back into my imaginary time machine.  I need to return to today's world and pick up the threads of my life again.  I wonder if Dr Who and his time travellers felt like I do now?  A bit of regret at leaving, excitement at my return, nostalga about what was.  But now the future calls.




















Spinning and weaving

After viewing an exhibition in Canberra a couple of years ago I was alerted to the range of wonderful weaving from South America.  So, I embarked on this last trip a bit more prepared for what I would be looking at.  What I hadn't prepared for was how all pervasive it is in the lives of some women in the Mayan culture.

By the time a girl from a family who weaves is in her teens she is an accomplished spinner with the hand spindle.  This young girl uses a clay dish to spin the base of the spindle.   The thread she is spinning is fine and even and the process is automatic.  She has done it so often she isn't even thinking about it. 

Traditionally, a baby girl, at about 3 weeks of ago, is taken by the midwife to be bathed in a kind of sweat lodge.  The mother will give the midwife her baby daughter's weaving instruments, all minature in size.  This will include strands of thread,  a tiny loom, scissors, basket and needle.  The mid wife then performs a ceremony in which she opens the infants hands and passes each instrument over them.  She prays that the child will become a very good weaver and maintain the ancient weaving arts that have been passed down her maternal line for thousands of years.  But this work is difficult and time consuming.  It takes 3 months to weave a intricate blouse and many young people do not continue the tradition.  Cheap western clothing from Goodwill shops have flooded the markets and are readily available.

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Two kinds of cotton are grown.  I have never seen this brown variety before.

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However both varieties require a lot of preparation to get them ready for spinning.  All the seeds have to be manually picked out and there are a lot of seeds.  Then the fibre is teased out and spread on the small women mats.  The mats are a bit larger than an A4 piece of paper but not as big as an A 3.  Those mats are beautifully woven. Then the fibre is beaten for about 2 hours to remove any other foreign materials and soften it for spinning.  (I got lost about the removing the seeds stage.  It is so difficult!)

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The next stage is the dying of the yarn.  We spent some time with a women's co-operative and they explained how they dyed their yarn.  They only use natural dyes and the magic ingredient is the chopped up banana leaves which they add to the dye pot to set the dye.   First they boil the leaves for 2 - 3 hours then soak the thread in the liquid to prepare them for dyeing.  The dye doesn't run and even using indigo dyes there is no staining on the hands.  I have my eyes set on my friends banana trees after the next crop is harvested just to see what I can do.

Some of the dyes they obtain are:

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They also used crushed insects to get their purple colour.

Walking around the cop-op I found a whole collection of cushions that had been repurposed from discarded hupils, (blouses.)  Some lovely embroidery ideas here.

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They  call this "Rococco work".   Looks like lots of bullion knots to me!

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And it was every where and there was a hug spread of embroidery skills on display. Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 11.05.46 am
They work their embroidery on a frame.

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There were so many different embroideries and weaving designs that I could never post them all here but I hope to use them as inspiration for some other designs.








I got it bit carried away with the threads

I bought a lot of threads while I was away.  Starting in the USA where I was seduced by the Wonderfil stand at the Houston show.  I like this thread for use on the sewing machine.  My Bernina dealer has a limited range and I normally wait for the quilt shows in Brisbane to stock up.  This stall had the lot including some lovely colour in Perle 8.  After I bought it I realised that it is Sue Sprago's thread.  There is 5 grams on each ball and I don't see it on her web page so it must be new.  I also bought some of the Eleganza thread.

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Then I really got carried away in Guatemala.  Starting with the cotton threads.  It is the colours that did it.

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This thread is just a little thicker than 1 strand of stranded cotton and it has a slightly higher twist. (The white thread is the stranded cotton.)  I have no idea how it will work in an embroidery but if it doesn't suit I can make tons of tassels.

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Then there was the silk threads.  (I did test it to see if it was rayon but no, it was silk.)   Again, wonderful colours, but no twist to the thread.

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I'm not sure how I will use this.

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Then there were a couple of boxes of Perle 8, 5 grams in each spool at about $1 per spool..  And I love these colours.

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My Turkish thread has 8 grams on each spool ($3.50) and DMC  ($8.99) and Anchor ($10)  have 10gs on theirs so the Guatemalan thread was a lot cheaper.

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The other thread I bought is used for weaving Ikats.  It is dyed then ove-rdyed after the pattern is selected.  They place the thread on a frame and then tie one of the about 10 different squences that are used.

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When the ties are removed from the black the pink colour will show through in bands.

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The woven piece will look something like this,

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I have no idea what the result will be if I use it for embroidery.  Lots of adventures ahead here.







Jet lagged

Well I'm home again after my month on the road.  I'm tired and a bit jet-lagged and my mind is full of all the sights, sounds and experiences of the last 4 weeks.  I have to sort through all my notes, organise my photos and get all the information into some sort of order so that I can move on.

So what was the one most outstanding event of the trip?  Well there were so many that it is hard to pick but I personally liked meeting the Embroideress in the markets at Solola, Guatamala.  I saw lots of women who spun and wove but she was one of the few I found who stitched. I saw lots of embroidered garments and there were lots of women buying threads and patterns but she was the only one actually stitching.  Her long hair was wrapped with ribbons and lace and she was beautiful.

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There she was in the market and as an embroiderer I appreciated the skill with which she plied her needle.  All of the hand woven fabrics are produced from back-strap looms.  This means that there really isn't enough width to the fabric to construct a garment.  So traditionally this was overcome by embroidering lengths together.  (The same as you see with faggoting.)

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They use a frame which is about 1" in depth and the tension is balanced by a spring, rather than tightened with a screw in the European way.  The needle is huge by our standard but the fabric they embroiderer on is a lot thicker than what we are used to.  In the past the best garments were embroidered with silk but commercial rayon thread is used a lot today.

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The stitching that she was engaged in was for the traditional skirt.  I bought a second hand fabric length stitched in this same manner.

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Although this piece had been stitched with cotton thread.  The different patterns used today have become somewhat of a fashion statement with the women and all the different groups use different patterns.  When you see the finished pieces on display, like those in the image below, it is easy to forget that a woman, like my embroideress, actually sat and stitched them.

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I found that the quality of the embroidery was far better in the older pieces of work and I fear that as technology and the Western world influences the Mayan culture hand embroidery will be replaced by the machine and people like my embroideress will fade away and no longer be part of this rich culture.


Moving on

This is my last night in Antigua.  Tomorrow I am moving inland to the lakes in the highlands.  It has been an interesting few days filled with new sights, sounds, tastes and emotions.


One old love I have revisited is horse riding.  And boy have I found lots of lost muscles.  The knees have had a work out as well.  We went up to visit a volcano and getting up the mountain involved either walking or riding a horse.  I took the horse.


The getting onto the horse was a bit of a challenge but once on I was able to get on and off without too much trouble.  I just made sure that I was near a rock or a wall.  The other challenge was the saddle, which was wooden.  Actually, the horses name was Carmello and he had a great temperament.  He knew the way and only tried to get away on the way up not the way down.  That was because he got fed at the top and was looking forward to that.  Coming down the mountain the track was narrow and very close to the edge of the precipice.  I just looked ahead and prayed.


The ash field around the volcano was just like the description of Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings.  The dust and smell of sulphur stung the throat but the views were fantastic.


I have not been neglecting my textile study either.  The following images are a selection of the embroidered hupils or blouses that I have been photographing.  They are all hand stitched and the amount of work that goes into each one is amazing.  Like most of South America Guatemala has a strong tradition of backstrap weaving and everywhere you go women are working at the loom.


The above image is really interesting because it depicts the same scenes that are seen in Mayan sculptures.

I think one of my favourite images is of the flower seller.  She has taken flowers from the jungle and is selling them on the streets.


I may not be able to post for a while as I don’t think there is much internet where I am heading but there will be lots of adventures.

Note to self

“Just because you are hungry it doesn’t mean you can eat anything.  The same rules apply.”

As I have found out today.  I must not eat red meat and delicious desserts I don’t have a gall bladder any more and they make me ill.


So, I had a slow start to the day.  Everyone else went off for breakfast whilst I kept close to the loo.  They then went off to photograph some of the highlights whilst I was still languishing in bed.  By the time I had surfaced I wasn’t sure where they were so I got a map and took myself off to the textile Museum.


This is a very old city, like something out of a movie and the main industry is tourism.  Every second doorway is a hotel, the ones in between are either a travel agency or a shop.  Even family homes use their front door as a shop to sell home made sweets or food.  All the roads are cobbled so I am glad of my sandels with the tyre track soles.


In the central square Indians come down from the hills to sell their wares.  Corn, other vegetables they have grown and especially woven cloth.  The other thing I noticed is that most children do not go to school, they work. There are some places I would not walk alone.  One of these was the handicraft market, so I will return to that with the others.  I then returned to the hotel, following my trusty map, and still not feeling the best, to have a short nap and wait for the others to return.

One thing that has surprised me is how small off frame the local Indians are.  I feel like a giant.  The other thing is that all the flowers and plants are the same ones that I grow in my garden.  I thought that I would find more exotics.  Seems I already have them growing.  I took lots of photos.  Here are just a few.


All the embroidery on the clothing is hand stitched, even those birds.  I thought at first they were  machined but no not a machine stitch in any piece.  The designs vary between different groups and are specific to each of these groups.  The women’s clothing is very colourful but I found that the men also have their own ethnic dress, depending on the group or village they come from.


Quilt Show - 2

This is another quilt I liked from the show.  It is reminiscent of Sue Sprago and was developed out of a workshop with Wendy Williams by the maker.  I think this was the original quilt.

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And this is the one in the show.

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There is so much detail here when you look into it and lots of embroidery.  Some of the stitches used are quite novel and I have made a note for future use. For example, this tree.

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And this one also.

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This combination of felt and embroidery.

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The flowers.

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and this great basket of flowers.

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Lots of ideas here.



Time to panic

I had a lovely few days away.  The weather was cool and the company good. The mornings were foggy,

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and the clouds as they rose over the escarpment, memorable.

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In the evenings the skys were the most amazing colours as the sun set over the western downs.

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 I was introduced to another woman who is travelling to Houston for the festival and she said,

"Oh yes, I leave in under two weeks".

  I thought,

"She must be going early." 

Now I have looked at the calendar, it is less than 2 weeks before I leave.   It is all shaping up to be a disaster.  My paper work and tickets have been sent to Boston for Guatamala, (I live in Australia.)   No paper work has arrived for my classes at the festival.  I have an email confirmation which says I have to have the paper work for the classes, the email is not good enough.  But they have deducted the payment for the classes from my account so I am hopeful that this might still work out.  I think I need to make some international phone calls and I am not good on the telephone because I have a hearing problem.  I must transfer money into another account just in case the other credit cards don't work.  (My husband has given me another 3 credit cards on top of the 3 I already have.) Stress, Stress, Stress.

 I need to get the samples finished for next years classes and they are not going well.  The drawing are great, the stitching isn't bad but I have chosen the wrong colours for one piece and will have to start again.  That is the one that needs to be finished in the next couple of weeks.

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 The furniture is still being delivered for the city town house and I need to buy a dining room set and my daughter keeps suggesting very expensive ones.  The washing machine has just broken down and as I have had it for some time I think we will have to get a new one.  No one delivers to the island so that means carriers and stress.

 On the upside I do have a new suitcase and I have got all my clothes organised.  I have cleaned out my wardrobe and the back of my car is loaded with donations for the charity bin.  My new ipad is packed ready and my camera is working well.  (Got to find that passport.)

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I finish a dummy run on the crocheted bunny, very cute.

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Look at that fat tummy, and I love the tail.

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(I still need to make clothes for the girls bunnies.)  I used left over yarn from the shawl.  Lots of adjustments to make and the next ones will be white rabbits.  Of course the only crochet hook I don't have is a size 3, the one I need for this wool.

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I think it is time to make lists and start to find some control in all this mess.


Robyn's House

Robyn asked me not to put her photo up on my blog so you won't find her here.  (TIP:  Look on Facebook)

But I have put together some images that I took when visiting her home.  It was just the most generous gesture to open her door to the public.  Some of the highlights for me were the embroidered books that were scattered around.  A beautiful way to keep memories.

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The little kick-nacks.

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Her order of Australia displayed on a beautiful old embroidered cloth.

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The antique baby bonnets crocheted using silk thread and bullion stitch.

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The dresser with Xylonite pieces.

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The original Gumnut Baby quilt and that collection of post cards that went right around the room.

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Those jelly beans that were in dishes throughout the house.

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Glancing out the window there was a small fish pond complete with gold fish.

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Old quilts and new quilts.  All her quilts are hand pieces and hand quilted.  (The ones on the dinning room table were piled high.) And her huge collection of Xylonite pieces.

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The garden was full of quilts.

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I should have noticed these things as I came in but I did see them as I left.  The big clam shell full of floating camillias.  So old Queensland. (She has over 100 camillia trees in her garden.)

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The bush seed pod wreath on the wall.

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Her Mother's flowers.

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And that bird bath.

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Thank you Robyn.





The children's class is progressing well with still another day to go.  We will see just what they will come up with for the backs of their bags.  But one really nice thing is that one of our past students has joined us to train as a tutor for the classes.  She is now at University and it is great to see another generation coming through.  (This is a warm fuzzy.)

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I am working on designing my Children's Classes for 2018.  At the moment this first design is giving me grief.  I want to use the bundle of Aida fabric that I have in stock but my drawing program only draws between the lines not on them.  I have a horrible feeling that I am going to have to draw this all by hand. 

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