Brinda Gill wrote our latest 'Long Thread' article about the counted thread embroidery of Kim Salazar.
‘I find counted thread embroidery most meditative. I love the logic of the exercise of path planning. I have often lost myself in it and looked up from my work to find that three hours have passed’, says Boston-based embroiderer Kim Brody Salazar, who has been embroidering for almost 60 years. ‘One would think the technique is rigid and cold being worked on a grid. Yet, I find it can inject life into a fabric and create mesmerising patterns like a mandala, that draw you within their lines and forms’.
Kim started embroidering when she was four and remembers going to kindergarten with a small sampler at the age of five. ‘I enjoyed spending time with my grandmother who sewed and embroidered clothes. If she was doing a dress I would do the hem, down at the bottom where no one would see’. Kim pursued embroidery over the years and when she came across early European model books on microfilm, at university research libraries, she fell in love with them. She loved the beauty of the motifs, the fact that one could trace migration of specific designs as they recurred in different early books and on pieces produced in different countries; and the fact that the style embellished so many articles of everyday medieval and Renaissance life from attire to liturgical artefacts.
Image: Detail from the Marian Hanging, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, 1570 – 85, England. Museum no. T.29-1955. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
‘The medieval and Renaissance counted thread embroideries that I studied took me back in time, to between the 1200s and 1700s. Counted thread embroidery is one of the oldest styles of embroidery and has shown remarkable persistence travelling across time, place and culture, and telling us about history, trade, conquest and migration. It requires persistence and patience to practise, however one can get proficient with the technique more easily than techniques such as gold and silver thread embroidery. The recurrence of counted thread motifs with variations in different regions indicates they are children of different mothers but have the same grandmother. It is interesting to see motifs travel across regions and become more and more diluted from their source motif: a graceful angel bearing a flower can appear more like a chubby boy with a clenched fist! And then there are motifs on European embroideries that draw from Islamic calligraphy and appear more like decorative elements than a script’.
Kim slowly found her calling in counted thread embroidery and started visiting museums to study medieval embroideries and artefacts as well as old printed texts that featured the embroidery. She photographs them when possible, takes a magnifying glass and studies them, and then plots patterns on graph paper that she then brings to life as counted thread embroidery. She follows the European tradition of using the regular weave of linen fabric as the ‘graph paper’, counting the threads of the weave to transcribe her drawn patterns back into embroidery. She uses solid colour thread selecting cotton or silk embroidery floss thread and one to four ply thread according to the weave of the fabric and intended use of the finished piece. She uses a round tip rather than a pointed needle. She says the round tip separates the threads of the weave of the ground fabric she is embroidering (unlike a pointed needle that would pierce the fabric) making it easier to get neat, even stitches.
Image: Tatreez embroidery from Pakistan
Motifs on Kim’s embroideries are drawn from and inspired by traditional counted thread embroideries from different parts of the world. Today, the counted thread embroidery style occurs all over the world — from South America and Mexico to Spain, all of Europe and the Middle East, North Africa and Egypt on to Afghanistan, India and further East to Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Kim studies an array of embroideries to understand their motifs, stitches and techniques. Her works feature compositions with medieval and Renaissance motifs like the urn, pelican and harpy as well as mermaid with putti, cornucopia and attendant beasties that she has seen on historical textiles. She uses these motifs to create large samplers of her own, some done as pattern collections, and some sporting playful or anachronistic modern sayings that wander among the historical floral, geometric, or allegorical motifs.
Kim uses a combination of historical stitches, each appropriate to the patterns she selects. These can include double running stitch, long armed cross stitch, double sided Italian cross stitch, pattern darning, cross stitch, Italian hemming, Montenegrin stitch, chain stitch, and plaited Algerian stitch, to name just a few. She typically affixes the fabric in a frame —small works and those using cotton floss or low relief stitches are affixed in a small round frame; and larger works or those using fragile threads or high textures employ a large rectangular frame held in working position by a supporting arm. She embroiders seated in a comfortable Morris chair with light falling from over her left shoulder, and her source pattern either printed out on paper or displayed on her iPad comfortably propped up on the chair’s arm.
Image: Courtesy of Kim Salazar
Motifs and strip patterns done in double running stitch — especially those intended to be viewed from both the front and the reverse sides — are worked using a special logic tailored to the two passes double running stitch takes for completion. Kim identifies a continuous line running the length of the design, from which all of the other elements sprout. She works along this baseline, taking detours as they present, then returning to it, to finish the side sprouts. When all of the side journeys are complete, she returns to the starting point along the baseline, to finish the stitching.
On voided designs that include a solid fill background highlighting an un-worked foreground, she establishes design outlines using double running, back or chain stitch, then fills in the solid stitched parts later. Techniques used for these background fills vary, and can include long armed cross stitch, stepped double running stitch, or double sided Italian cross stitch pulled tightly to achieve both full coverage of the ground cloth and a mesh effect. Some of the designs for voided works are quite complex, but Kim maintains that patience and perseverance make even the most complex design something anyone with moderate skill can achieve.
Image: Example of voided work without counted outlines. Band, 17th century; silk embroidery on linen foundation; H x W: 135 x 16.2 cm (53 1/8 x 6 3/8 in.); 1904-17-4. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt
One aspect of counted motifs is that they can be worked using many different techniques. Kim describes how, ‘The same patterns can be used for embroidery, needle lace, pattern darning, crochet, weaving and knitting. There are really no rules for using these designs. Historical stitchers and artisans used them in any way they wanted as manifest in examples that employ metal threads, sequins, and contrasting outlines, all of which add another dimension to the embroidery’.
Being a self-confessed science fiction nerd as well as an embroidery freak, Kim often includes interesting phrases and motifs in her works. Each embroidery is done with fine, neat and regular stitches recalling her father’s words, ‘Anything worth doing is always worth doing well’. This quotation featured on a poignant work she created in his memory, after he passed away when she was 19. A work for her then university-aged daughter bears the parental advice ‘Do Right Fear No Man’, with an array of motifs of different flowers, and acorns. Hidden among the classical flowers is a tiny skull with crossbones that Kim says her daughter can spot when looking at it during late night study! Another work has the words ‘Don’t Panic’, inspired from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This piece hangs on her office wall, to help inspire confidence among her co-workers during inevitable deadline crises. And for her husband, who is her support as are her daughters, she created a work with the words, ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger,’ taken from The Lord of the Rings. That, she says, hangs in his office, as a subtle hint to his software development team mates!
Image: Kim's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy pattern
Kim loves working samplers. ‘While I have created elaborate works as wedding gifts or as an underskirt, working on just one embroidery is very time consuming. So I prefer samplers where I work one square at a time, the entire process being spontaneous and not pre-planned. So the squares and rectangles are not symmetrical and their balance is off sometimes’. Yet these beautiful samplers —like her creative works — play the crucial role of preserving old and new motifs and patterns that she generously shares with readers of her website and of her book, The New Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Embroidery Patterns from before 1600. Her second book, Ensamplario Atlantio is a collection of counted thread fill patterns, and is available as a free download at her website. She is presently working on her third book, The Second Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Patterns from Historical Sources. Embroiderers, crocheters, knitters and other craftspersons can look forward to another feast of medieval and Renaissance motifs brought forward to the present for their creative pleasure!
Written by Brinda Gill
You can find out more about Kim Salazar, and download her counted thread embroidery patterns on her blog: https://string-or-nothing.com/