In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

Sewing Projects and Stumpwork

 - Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The Maison Sajou is a haberdashery shop in the rue du Caire, the historical haberdashery centre of Paris, and what an Aladdin’s cave it seems to be. Scissors, needles, silks, ribbons, with everything packaged in that uniquely French way—even a packet of pins is a perfection of 19th century graphic design and illustration. The Maison Sajou Sewing Book contains twenty sewing projects, of varying degrees of difficulty, ranging from pencil rolls to cot sheets, tray cloths and pincushions and lamp shades, all desirable, and clearly explained. Illustrations have been used for the directions (always easier to follow than photographs), with step by step directions. There’s a glossary of embroidery stitches and techniques, materials, templates drawn on grids, and lots of appealing 'mood boards’ which show all the sources of inspiration. The real draw cards of the book are the photographs of all the sewing notions from the shop, and the delightful settings all the needlework is placed in. While the book is reasonably priced, the goods from Maison Sajou look fairly pricey, and sadly for my bank account, just a click away online.
From the sublime, to the exquisite, my eye is currently being charmed by Jane Nicholas' incredible embroidery book, The Stumpwork and Surface Embroidery Beetle Collection. With over 400 pages, this book shows a serious commitment to a rather obscure, but wonderful, style of embroidery. Stumpwork is a type of embroidery that creates and  detaches a shape, using wired  edges and padding, a perfect way to create beetles and bugs on fabric. In the introduction the author explains her fascination with beetles, and gives a brief but descriptive natural history of same. She then details the really fascinating history of beetles being used in design—scarabs were of course a well known theme in ancient Egypt, but it wasn't until the 19th century that beetles and bugs were depicted widely in a way that wasn't just for symbolic reasons. There are some fabulous examples of jewellery, beading and that weirdest of all decoration, beetle wing embroidery, another ancient, exotic art that was taken up by the Victorians with enthusiasm.
After all that history and detail, we are lead into the real purpose of the book—how to recreate all those wonderful creatures of the insect kingdom. Every imaginable insect is shown in a 'Beetle Specimen Box', with in depth-directions. Jewel Beetles and Metallic Woodboring Beetles require beading and metallic thread, and scarabs need scraps of suede and leather. There are weevils and Click Beetles, snails and fungus beetles—the list goes on. There are larger (but not difficult) projects like drawstring bags and notebook covers, as well as more ambitious projects like evening bags. All the directions are very clear and detailed (the author is an experienced teacher), and the lists of  materials required for each beetle are precise and accessible (embroidery threads are all available online, embroidery shops being now rare as hen's teeth (although very rewarding to actually visit). There are excellent lists of equipment and a really good stitch glossary, with clear black and white illustrations. This is a major book for such an arcane aspect of the decorative arts, but its rich history, and undoubted visual appeal more than warrants such a comprehensive study. I suspect it will take me a while to absorb all the detail, and I may eventually only stitch a ladybird on a handkerchief, but it will be a small and perfectly formed specimen (if I follow the instructions!) - Louise Pfanner