Friday, April 12, 2013

Encounter With a Handkerchief

You run into antique knitting in the darnedest places. At least, I do.

This morning I had a bit of an adventure. One of my friends here in Chicago teaches theatrical costume design, and was in need of a male fitting model for a class on pattern making. Would I be interested in the position, in exchange for the chance to audit the class?

This friend knows I have Sewing Envy, you see, and that pattern making is a skill I covet but don't possess. After a check of my travel schedule, I sent back an eager YES, PLEASE. So this morning, with notebook and pencils, I headed to the first meeting.

The costume shop was exactly what I expected it would be. Crowded. The arts never get enough space. Nor was it pretty in the conventional sense. Workrooms, except workrooms staged for display in craft magazines, seldom are.

Most of the floor was crammed with the requisite tables: high for cutting and pressing, lower for sitting and sewing. At the far end, costume sketches for the next production covered most of the wall. The other walls were stacked with supply bins: BRAID, BONE TAPE, HORSEHAIR, SNAPS. Two female forms, decked in day dresses in the style of the late Edwardian era, stood right and left like sentinels.

Again, not a conventionally pretty room. But if, like me, you love the possibility inherent in thread and snaps; and if, like me, you love to see the how behind beautiful things; it would be difficult to come up with a more fascinating space. I was so fascinated, in fact, that I forgot professional irons in a setting like this are usually a) always on and b) very hot. So I set my notebook on fire. But only a little bit. I don't think anybody noticed.

My friend is a top-notch teacher. The students had already been at work on their first pattern drafts (a female bodice, a skirt, a pair of women's trousers) and for the first hour of the class I watched him talk through each draft, making helpful suggestions and gentle, but firm, corrections.

It was difficult not to turn green with envy. They're all so young, these students. They have it all in front of them. They have so much opportunity, and so little responsibility. I had to battle a phalanx of If only... and Why didn't I? thoughts to keep my mind on the lesson.

Still, better late than never. Halfway through the second skirt draft I had my lightbulb moment. I've tried to teach myself pattern drafting many times without success. Suddenly–ZAP!–the measurements connected to the drafting instructions connected to the lines on the paper. I was so happy I wanted to dance. But you can't dance in a room crowded with cutting tables unless you get up on one of the cutting tables, and as this was my first visit I was trying to play it cool.

Not long after, I noticed (over the teacher's shoulder, at the far end of the room) a piece of fabric framed under glass. And even at thirty feet I recognized it as a handkerchief edged with knitted lace.

When we took a break, I made a beeline for it. Here are a few quick photographs made with my phone.

handk-01

The framing job is, to be diplomatic, unfortunate. The handkerchief has been folded in four places to make it fit the frame, which is too small. There are neither spacers nor matte to give the textile room to breathe. The backing paper is probably not acid free, and neither is the label smashed between the glass and the edging. The acid in paper can, will, and does discolor fabric it touches. Also, I very much doubt the glass is treated to block out UV rays, which do nasty, nasty things to fiber–especially delicate fiber.

In other words, if you have such a treasure in your possession and you wish to frame it, this is an object lesson in what not to do. In other words, if you have such a treasure in your possession and you frame it like this, I will kick you in the nuts.

But enough griping. It was there, and it was gorgeous, and here's some more about it.

The work is super-fine. The fiber looks like cotton and is the weight of very fine sewing thread–closer to embroidery floss than, say, buttonhole twist. And the gauge is minute. I would venture to guess that the needles used would have been in the 000000 (that's six aughts) family.

The edge of the woven center was prepared with a rolled edge (in itself a feat of fine sewing) and the edging was then attached with tiny whip stitches in the same thread used for knitting. I can't help wondering whether the knitter made the center first and knit the edging to fit; or knit and blocked the edging and then sewed a center to fit. My guess is the latter, unless she was a masochist.

I also need to look at this again, closely and with more time, to try to find the start/end point. I tried for about three minutes, and couldn't. It might be buried under one of the folds. For a moment I wondered whether it might have been knit from the center outwards, but it's clear from the grain of the fabric (mostly easiy visible in the plain garter stitch passages) that it was knit sideways, across the short width of the fabric.

One of the fascinating design choices is the corner treatments. Corners, as I always say in my Lace Edgings classes, can be tricky and deserve special attention. Usually, the trick is in making the continuous pattern swing attractively around the angle. Here, the knitter altered the pattern to suit the corners.

handk-02

And while I don't love the sight of an acidic label snuggling a precious piece of knitting, I do love that there is, in fact, a label. Here's what it tells us, verbatim.

 HANDKERCHIEF WAS MADE BY MRS. CONRAD PERRY, RIVERSIDE, TEXAS, AT THE AGE OF 76 YEARS, IN 1834. NUMBER 300 THREAD KNITTED ON SMALL STEEL NEEDLES, AND GIVEN TO THE WOODLAWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY ON AUGUST 20, 1941 BY MRS. LETTIE MC CLARY, FORMERLY OF 6328 KENWOOD AVENUE, NOW A GUEST IN THE EASTERN STAR HOME, ROCKFORD, ILL.

I raise my eyebrows at that date. But Mrs. Perry, I salute you. Your work humbles me. And Mrs. McClary, I thank you for preserving this for us to see. I pray your days at the Eastern Star Home were pleasant, and ended peacefully.

Speaking of Lace Edgings...


My first online class for Craftsy, "Heirloom Lace Edgings," will launch early next week. It's an action-packed course: we play with lace edgings that are sewn on, lace edgings that are knitted on, and lace edgings that are knit at the same time as the center they decorate. So many possibilities...

Watch this space (or my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds) for the announcement. I had an absolutely ball working with the Craftsy crew and staff to make it happen, and I hope you'll enjoy taking it as much as I enjoyed making it. Here's an Official Photo of me on the set, looking all kinds of serious...with my beloved grandmother watching over my shoulder. She hated knitting, but I hope she'd be proud.

craftsy-on-set

55 comments:

Ted said...

I hope I can see well enough to work size 300 thread at age 76.

Liz said...

Oh, that poor beautiful hankie... What lovely work...

Michelle Zahn said...

Franklin, I do enjoy reading your carefully crafted words. Thank you for sharing this story!

Anonymous said...

Any hope of rescuing it? A proper frame and preservation? It's so very, very lovely. . .

Teri said...

It may not be conventionally pretty room, but it sounds gorgeous to me. You've transported me back to my costuming days in just a few paragraphs.

And to have such an amazing find while you were there. Superb!

Renee Anne said...

I hope my hands still work at 76 to knit at all.....

Pretty Knitty said...

I am SURE your grandmother is proud of you. That handkerchief is soooo pretty...I have several that my own grandmothers edged in crochet (none of the work as fine as the knitting you have photographed here), and I cherish them. Such beautiful work...the lace handkercheif is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that is kinda sad... =/

Nat said...

Not only am I blown away by the lace knitting, I am excited to learn there was a Woodlawn Historical Society! Time to do some research! Is there any chance someone can be convinced to properly frame the hankie?

FiberQat said...

What a treasure! Please say you're going back to have that piece remounted so that it will be preserved.

I'm looking forward to your Craftsy class. Is there homework?

Julie said...

What a beautiful piece of art, and thank you for sharing. I have a set of crocheted antimacassars that my grandmother made in the 30s and I love to look at them.

PS Franklin, you are so dashing in the Craftsy still!

Patti said...

so sad to see that lovely hankie folded like that and smushed in the frame, but so wonderful that it was preserved. Congratulations on the Craftsy class!!!

marjorie said...

I love your story. It's hard to believe that something that old is still in such excellent shape. It definitely needs to be reframed properly though, to preserve it for future generations. I have my great-great grandmother's needlework sampler which she did when she was twelve, in 1840. It's framed and hanging in my house where the sun can't fade it. Whether it's been framed properly I don't know. I don know that if you look closely, there are some places where tiny areas of the stitching are missing.

Kat said...

A quick search of Ancestry.com indicates her name may have been Alice. Such a beautiful piece of work.

esmerel said...

Wow, how COOL. I'm surprised you didn't snap it up and offer to reframe it.;)

Also, you look superbly dashing in your picture there :)

mk said...

Though not conventionally pretty, those rooms are designed for function. I've spent my share of days in them. Thanks for taking me back and thanks for the great steeks and zippers class. :)

Anonymous said...

Love the bow tie and vest combination.

Anonymous said...

How ironic to read your article. My granddaughter, who will be graduating from college next weekend, had a teacher in elementary school who, with her ex-husband who had a degree in costume design, wrote plays called "fractured fairytales", (Cinderella, etc.) that 5th/6th graders performed in - a new play every year. They were adorably funny and the costumes were to die for - all designed and sewn by Mr. H. Sad to say, Mrs. H. died this week. But her creative spirit will live on in the lives of the many children she touched. God bless Mrs. H.

Jen Anderson said...

Holy crap, that is a badass piece of knitting.

Kayten said...

You're just wonderful.

Angi said...

Your Sainted Grandmother would indeed be proud! The grandson she loves is living his dream!

Brenda said...

I took your class on Lace edgings at Madrona last year ( or was it VKLive? ) I think i'd love to take the Craftsy class too!

bittenbyknittin said...

I just inherited an antique handkerchief with lace edging and plan to frame it. Thanks for the info on how best to do that!

Dragonstar said...

A great story, and excellent advice on how to preserve such heirlooms - I have no wish to be kicked by you in any area at all!

Diana said...

Yay! Craftsy!

Julie said...

Oh wow! I have something similar to that! I have no idea how old it is. It feels VERY soft and delicate. The lace is amazing--knitted with what looks like sewing thread knitted on sewing needles...very fine.

Gwyn said...

OH, such a beautiful piece of handwork! And you look like an arch Alistair Cooke. "Today on "Making Your Own Masterpiece Theatre"...."

Anonymous said...

Re the class: I'm in. (Given enough lead time.)

Anonymous said...

Can't believe you didn't steal the handkerchief. What self control! And what a find. Do love the Craftsy pic, complete with your beloved Grandmother. How wonderful.

Evelyn said...

May I suggest, dear panopticon, that you go back and offer them $50 or $100 and rescue that piece of knitting? Turn it into an article for Piecework. You know you want to!

Liz said...

I suppose it's better to leave the handkerchief as it is, but what a pity! As for the class, I'm totally envious; historical dress is fascinating, and to learn how to replicate it is wonderful. Will these students actually be able to make a living at this?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure she'd be proud. We are too.

Anonymous said...

Back in the days when "hankies" were common, I think folding like this was common. I remember seeing them folded like this in stores for sale, and had to iron them like that when it was on my list of chores.

Terri said...

That is a beautifully fine piece of knitting. It is amazing how many wardrobe departments have gems like that hidden away, and they should be preserved properly!

Judy in Indiana said...

I believe your grandmother would not hate knitting, if she saw the art that you create. I believe that many people who claim to "hate" something have never seen a good or true version of it in which they could fall in love.

Anonymous said...

I love the handkerchief. I am the proud inheritor of some Irish linen embroidered dresser scarves from my maternal (the french side of the family) grandmother's trousseau. I got them because since it was made long before her wedding, so had her first name initial - and I was her only namesake. Why yes, they are in an acid free box that is stored next to my negs and my backup dvds,and the most easily picked up artwork from my mom.This way I can easily visit them. And if the house burns down I'll grab them all on my way out the door. unfortunately none of my handwork is worth adding to the collection yet.

Denise said...

I agree with what Evelyn said. What a fabulous piece of knitting and how fortunate for us that you spied it! Size 300 thread. Wow. Just wow.

Naycha said...

I was so amazed to see the words "Riverside, TX" in this post. I grew up in this town from age 5 to age 18. and my folks still live there. The town now has a population of about 425 and it amazes me that a piece of knitting this intricate came out of such a tiny rural East Texas town and ended up so far from it's origins. Now I must see if I can find any information about Mrs. Perry.

Ysolda said...

Is it joined in the bottom left corner, I can't really see it clearly enough except that it looks different from the others.

Gail said...

Dapper dresser, sir.

Poor hankie. Hope you were able to convince someone to (gently) take it out of its frame.

But here is to hoping that one day I can take your lace edging class in person!

Anonymous said...

Does this school have a "human ecology" (pc for home ec) department? They should be asked to intervene on behalf of the hankie. It needs to be preserved properly. I have a couple, similar, in silk. I wonder where they are?

Beth V. said...

Wow, Franklin, I too am envious--but of you and the opportunity to take that class! It must be amazing. My first sewing teacher earned her living in Russia doing black market couture knock-offs, came to this country & was once the head of DeLaRenta's beading dept. If only I had spent more time learning from her! Alas... As for the lace hankie, maybe you and your friend could organize a little "midnight mission" to correct the abysmal framing?

Anonymous said...

76 and knitting like a mofo...God bless that lady, wherever she lies today.
NiCaam

Jennifer Court said...

Would you have any interest in photographs of antique lace edgings, or are you swimming in such things with no need for more? I've just inherited a box of lace edgings and doilies made by several of the women in my family. The scanty and second-hand information I have suggests that at least some were original patterns, and that they would have been made mostly in the 1910s and 1920s, though I cannot in good conscience absolutely swear that they may not hail from 20 years to either side of that range. If you would find photographs useful, amusing, or an reasonable excuse to avoid doing something unappealing, please feel free to contact me on Ravelry. I'll be the ravatar answering to JenberC.

Congratulations on your Craftsy class!

Best,

Jenn

nosenabook said...

yes. Dashing is the word for your Craftsy photo. Looking forward to it.

Karen said...

I agree with Ysolda - the lower left corner in the first photograph looks different(specifically the join between corner and the "south" side of the hankie), and that would be a very sensible place to put the join. It may well have been joined with something like herringbone stitch to mimic faggoting.

Cat said...

On a different topic, Franklin, a friend has passed along a big stack of her grandma's McCall's Needlework magazines from the 1950s and '60s. I know these aren't as old as your usual material, but there are four that have Elizabeth Zimmermann patterns in them; she mentions them in "The Opinionated Knitter." Any interest? I have a small house and just can't keep all these.

Cat
catkittrell@hotmail.com

anne marie in philly said...

aren't you just the handsomest thing! you age well, like a fine wine, dear. smooches!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that hankie is one incredible amazing feat. Although for Mrs. Perry it may have been a piece of cake. At 76! I doubt I will ever be able to create such a work of art - I'm far, far from 76 and I had problems getting beads onto stitches yesterday.

Got an email from Craftsy re: your class. Congratulations!

Thanks for the story of your design class visit. Took me back to some fond memories, I could almost smell the room (oh, and your burnt book). :)

Anonymous said...

Being from Rockford... I have to keep my eyes appealed for more specimens at the local museums...

LisaB said...

I'm going to bet you are the first person to give that handkerchief the attention it deserves in a long time. I'm very careful about things I hang on my wall because I know they will eventually just exist as part of my life's background and I never notice them until they are gone. Please tell me you are going to either speak with your friend or send him a nicely worded note about how the handkerchief could use some tender loving care and maybe a new frame? And that maybe somebody who knows what they are doing with antique knitting/fabrics could do the reframing? Perhaps you've already done this.

Tish said...

Even though I don't personally possess a set of nuts, I hereby promise never to abuse any piece of textile work (fine or otherwise) by slipshod framing, and vow that I have not done so in the past. Perhaps your friend would allow you to do a closeup examination if you helped to reframe or oversee the reframing of the piece. (Since it is guaranteed to be an expensive endeavour, I'd make sure to get the $$ up front!)

cobaltcanarycherry said...

I'm so excited to see this on the first visit to your site. As a current member of the OES, it is very typical for us to carry the most whimsical and beautiful handkerchiefs even now, for the "floor work" of our Order.

If the donor retired to the OES home, and received the handkerchief as a gift, it's likely the creator was a Star as well, and that this beautiful piece was carried during initiations and other ritual work of the chapter, perhaps even to Grand Chapter.

The lace work is breathtaking, and with the provenance, this piece seems an old friend.

Anonymous said...

I am thinking of taking this class, but it says it should assume i can read charts, which i can not at the moment.


Junie

mimakelly said...

I have taken your class on craftsy......LOVE YOU DUDE!!!!!
You hv a unique ability to teach. I would LOVE to tk more classes frm you on lace knitting. Just finished second shawlette. i'm a newbee to lace and have fallen hook line and sincker...lol
Ill keep ckng in to see if you've made another class availeable.
Just love you!!!
oh and good job on the class tutorial, excellent instruction,

carolinelarnach said...

Oh dear. Franklin, I fear that I may also have committed sacrilege with antique lace, too. Looking at that, I'm really worried that something I sewed with was a little more precious than I first thought. Would you mind taking a look and identifying the lace? There's a small set (3) of the pieces. Much appreciated! http://carolinelarnach.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/5-tips-for-sewing-with-vintage-lace/