Thursday, April 10, 2014

Long-Arm Cross Stitch

Each month I'm presenting a new tutorial on a medieval skill from various types of textile-related crafts. The purpose is two-fold. First, it will allow me to locate, study, and try a variety of new techniques I might otherwise overlook, and second, it's an easy way to get information out there about skills that other people might be looking for or find helpful. This month, I present Long-Arm Cross Stitch.

I'll be teaching a class on Late Medieval German embroidery this month, and have been engrossed in studying some extant pieces a bit closer than I have in the past. One set of items, the Gröss Vestments have really captured my attention, not just because they are impressive pieces, but because of the wonderfully executed counted thread patterns used on several of the pieces.

Image from the Rubens Art Server at ANU

The cope in particular uses a repeating pattern that, at first glance, looked like it may have been produce with satin stitch. When I viewed the image enlarged, however, I realized (quite excitedly) that it was long-arm cross stitch instead. In addition, the level of degradation on the piece not only allows a pattern to be pulled, but also shows the grid upon which the pattern was created. This means that, after a moment of close observation, not only could I determine the motifs used to create the finished pattern, I could also determine the stitch relationships to see how many rows of the cross stitch are needed for a near exact replica. The only thing I'm not able to determine is actual scale, since there are no scale markers on the piece, and I was unable to find the ground linen's thread count.

Long-arm cross stitch is, like it sounds, a variation on the more modern cross stitch most of us are familiar with. Rather than a line of X-shaped stitches, however, the long-arm version creates a texturized look, rather like a series of braids.

Examples of long-arm cross stitch worked in different type types.

While it's easy to explain that producing long-arm cross stitch just means extending one arm of the cross into the next (hence the name), that only barely explains the process. In reality, the stitch can be thought of as a succession of two stitches made together over 6 steps. When you've completed the first set of two, however, you've already completed half of the next set of 2. This diagram might help:

The yellow blocks represent one "cross stitch", as we would think of it in today's embroidery mindset. The blue arrows represent the stitches (on the top of the piece) and the direction in which they are worked. The numbers help identify the order those stitches take. When you reach "6", you begin again at "1", but note that the arrow takes you in the other direction. This is because you are no longer at position "1". You are at position "3" - halfway through the 2-stitch sequence. Note that this process also means that your first stitch on a row is actually worked backward before the row moves forward.

To achieve the best texture overall, rows can be worked in pairs to create a knit-like texture. The first row is working in one direction, then the second is worked backwards so that the two lines mirror each other.

Long-arm cross stitch is a hard one to teach verbally, so I took a video of me stitching the sequence extra large. You'll see in the top corner that I did some stitches at a more typical 3-thread/stitch scale. I doubled that to 6 (you'll see me count that out) to really make it clear. Not my best video, but it should help the visually-inclined. [Please note that there is no sound in the video.]

In the video, you may notice that the direction on my smaller sample changes as the lines turn a corner. This is a distinguishing feature of long-arm cross stitch, and what helps make it identifiable on an extant piece. The row direction changes are visible on the Gröss cope.

Lines indicate the row orientation.
While direction changes should be worked in a manner that's most efficient, there really isn't a method to that. Choosing to change direction when and where you do is really a matter of what seems best at the time.

So that's the "long" and short of it. *snort* I hope that you give long-arm cross stitch a try!

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