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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Up close and personal with parts of the Plimoth Jacket project

*** Update: Tricia finally posted about this presentation, and I was surprised to see my own face in her post. I'm the one with the glasses on top of my head! ***

This past Tuesday, March 9, the exhibition of the Plimoth Jacket opened at Winterthur Museum. This past Friday, Tricia Wilson Nguyen visited RIT (my alma mater) to give a lecture about the project. I had the very great pleasure of attending the lecture.

There were three parts to Tricia's presentation. The first part was an overview of what it took to create the ensemble (jacket, coif, and forehead cloth). This included the recreation of several threads (such as Gilt Sylke Twist) and the participation of nearly 300 people - stitchers, spanglers, lacemakers, and textile manufacturers. The embroidery and assembly took 3700 hours to complete!

Next was a discussion of how the data gathered from this project has helped reinterpret how embroidered garments were made in the past. Historians have often assumed that a jacket such as this was the work of only one person. While experienced embroiderers can often look at samples of stitching and quickly discern the differences in tension resulting from various hands, Tricia has actually devised a way to mathematically prove this.

It's accomplished by analyzing the stitch regularity (any extra or missed stitches, as well as tension inconsistencies) and frequency (stitch size) of patches of detached buttonhole. It turns out that detached buttonhole can be mathematically analyzed in ways similar to nanocrystalline structures! The result is that while a patch of stitches isn't distinctive enough to pinpoint exactly who stitched it, we can certainly identify various levels of stitching experience.

The benefit is that existing examples of embroidery from the seventeenth century can now be analyzed to determine approximately how many hands were involved. Tricia warns that it's not exact, but that we can definitively say things like "at least 6 different people worked on this".  There's a lot more work left to do to analyze all of the detached buttonhole patches on the jacket ensemble (through close-up photographs) to see what else can be discovered about the past.

The last part of the presentation was perhaps of less interest to the stitchers in the audience, but was fascinating to the technical folks. (Being an engineer and stitcher, I appreciated the whole thing!) Tricia talked about her other business, Fabric Works, which is a consulting firm specializing in electronic textiles. The really neat thing is that Tricia actually uses traditional needlework techniques to prototype some of these e-textiles. For example, because production braiding machines waste so much material simply to get the machines threaded and ready to make braid and because the materials being used are very expensive, she used traditional Japanese braiding techniques for kumihimo to make prototype lengths of braid. In other instances, she's used the Japanese embroidery method of hand-twisting threads to create prototype threads that contain metal. Only somebody with thorough knowledge of traditional textile methods as well as a scientific background could manage this!

While I really enjoyed the presentation, perhaps the best part of the evening was at the end. Remember how I said that the jacket project also involved a forehead cloth and coif? Well, right now only the jacket is on display at Winterthur. The other pieces are still in Tricia's possession. Hooray! Yes, I had the opportunity to examine them without a piece of glass getting in the way. They truly are works of art.

Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my "real" camera, and had to make do with my cell phone. Here's the coif:


A close-up of a bird on the coif. To get an idea of the scale of this, the bird is about 2-1/2 inches long.

The forehead cloth:
I admit these pictures aren't the best. Here's a much better picture of the forehead cloth on Tricia's site.

Thanks again, Tricia, for a thoroughly enjoyable evening!

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