Eleonora stockings – progress!

By | June 26th, 2016|cochineal, dyes, knitting, madder, Renaissance, silk, wool|

My latest attempt at the Eleonora stockings!

This is actually my third go at these stockings. Between my first attempt and this one, a lot more information had come out about them, the best being the images in the Medici archive.

The first time I tackled the stockings was from a pattern I downloaded from the internet, and knit with commercially-dyed red wool fingering. I stopped knitting & discarded this test as soon as I realized that the pattern was for a stocking with a present-day shape, only using the surface patterns from the originals, and that the gauge was way too big – more of a sport sock than an elegant lady’s stocking. The pattern doesn’t seem to be on the internet any more.

The second test was from the pattern by Anne DesMoines published on Ravelry. This one I knit with a silk yarn finer than the wool of the first test. Initially, the silk was white, and I dyed it with cochineal. It had some issues – the dye insisted on being a fuchsia pink instead of red, and the gauge was still too big, with fewer pattern panels than the originals. Also, I found the silk very unpleasant to knit with, and abandoned the attempt.

knittngWidgetClosedFor the current stocking I bought white laceweight wool yarn. This time I dyed it with madder overdyed with cochineal, and got a very satisfying brick red.

This yarn knits up at a finer, more period gauge – approximately 14 stitches to the inch on 1mm needles. None of the documentation I’ve seen to date gives the gauge of the actual Eleonora stockings. However, because of the number of stitches in the pattern panels and the number of repeats, it must be very fine.

As far as I can tell from the available images, this edition of the stockings has same number of patterned panels as the originals, and the stitch count is very close.

I changed a few details – I didn’t like the second zigzag and the eyelets in the cuff or the “ladder” effect of the double garter stitch in one of the panels, so I eliminated the zigzag, and substituted a purl square for the eyelets and a chequerboard pattern for the “ladder” effect, all of which are consistent with late 16th century knitting techniques. Cuff of stocking inspired by Eleanora of Toledo's

Since I plan to wear the stockings, I changed the shaping. The original Eleonora stockings are baggy in the calf and foot – the decreases for the calf are far too low on the leg to fit me and the feet are too thick. Perhaps, after at least eleven pregnancies, Eleonora’s feet and ankles were somewhat the worse for wear.

Instead of designing the foot following the the Medici archive images, I used the foot shaping for 16th century stockings shown in Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting.  The soles of the originals are mostly moss stitch or seed stitch; instead, I picked up and continued the band pattern just for the fun of it.


One stocking is done and the second is in progress. With luck & a following wind, it’ll be done by Pennsic!

(The little *blip* at the back of the heel is historically accurate. I’ve been assured that it wears in fast and is comfortable..)

I’ve just been reminded of another change that I forgot about – and this one’s a biggie! Virgin Mary knitting in the roundThe Eleonora stockings were knitted flat and sewn up the back; mine are knitted in the round. I couldn’t bring myself to knit them flat. The technique was known by Eleonora’s time – Bertram von Minden’s Knitting Madonna, painted ca 1400-1410, is knitting in the round!



















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Japanese indigo finally sprouts!

By | June 20th, 2016|dyes, fibers, hemp, indigo, wisteria|

After many weeks, and on the third attempt, my Japanese indigo has finally sprouted!

Now that I’ve managed to make a textile sample out of the wisteria vine that’s trying to eat my house, I’m on to a more ambitious project: a wisteria-fibre & hemp furoshiki (wrapping cloth), block-resist dyed with indigo.

Since I’ve got a limited amount of wisteria to work with, I’m planning to use commercial hemp thread as the warp.

And, to explore Japanese dyeing techniques, I’m working on growing Japanese indigo – Polygonum tinctorium.

It’s a cousin of Japanese Knotweed – which I’ve been battling for years – and I was dubious about letting it into my garden, but it looks like I needn’t have worried; it’s amazingly slow to germinate! Or at least, amazingly slow to germinate here in Toronto.

To start with, the seed is hard to find. My usual sources – Richter’s and Humber Nurseries – don’t have it, and most of the few suppliers on the web were out of stock by the time I tried to order it last winter. I finally found some on Etsy.

My first attempt to start the seeds was a dismal failure; nothing happened. It needs to be “evenly moist”, and after three weeks or so of nothing happening, I got less careful with the watering.

The second attempt was scuttled by squirrels. They decided the nice, well-tilled raised bed I used was the perfect place to dig.

Finally, I filled a big, self-watering pot with fresh organic soil mix, sprinkled the rest of the seeds on top (they need light to germinate), tied bird netting over the top, and kept a careful eye on the moisture level.

Nothing kept happening. For at least three weeks. Maybe four – I’ve lost track. Finally yesterday, long after I had pretty much give up hope, a bunch of tiny sprouts popped up.


Now I have a big flower pot studded with pairs of  baby leaves. Maybe now it’ll pick up speed and behave more like a knotweed – I’m not sure whether to cheer or worry!

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Dye tests – calibrating the PH meter

By | February 8th, 2016|dyes, equipment, ph testing|

PH is important to dye results – particularly with reds – and I never did get the hang of reading PH test strips that I’d just dipped in a dyebath,

As far as I can see, the strips turn the colour of the dye, which isn’t much help in figuring out the PH. Also, they come in packages of 100 or more, and are good for about a year from the time the package is open. I don’t do dye runs often enough to use the test strips up by their best before date, so I’d have to toss most of them and order new each year, which is a pain.

So I bit the bullet & ordered a PH meter on Amazon.

It needed to be calibrated; though the directions were in instructionese, they were reasonably idiot proof. The meter came with two little packets of powder and a tiny screwdriver. The powders, plus distilled water, provided the required acid & alkaline test solutions and the tiny screwdriver fit an equally tiny screw that let me adjust readings up or down.

So, now I’ve got scoured fabrics & yarns, and a working PH meter – preparing the sample swatches is next!

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Dye tests – scouring linen

By | February 3rd, 2016|dyes, fibers, linen, scouring, silk, wool|

This linen will be red. What shades of red, I don’t know yet – a series of tests with madder, cochineal and brazilwood is my current dye project.

Playing with the colours is fun&exciting, but much as I’d like to get right into weighing out the madder and grinding up the cochineals, I first need to scour the fabrics & yarns. Less entertaining, but necessary – before the colour goes in, whatever is inhabiting the fibre has to come out, and there’s a surprising amount of gunk on even the newest, cleanest, whitest textile!

Of the three fibres I scoured – silk, wool, and linen – the most dramatic was the linen. Though the yardage was new and clean and very white, the water turned this dirty yellow from the waxes and pectins from the linen, plus whatever was added in the processing.

In this case, I suspect there were optical brighteners – the fabric started out bright white. Now it’s still white, but with a more “natural” tone.

The PH meter I ordered just arrived in the mail! Now to calibrate it…


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got a great new knitting widget

By | November 6th, 2015|equipment, knitting|

A friend told me about these a while ago and I finally went out and bought a set. They’re a beautifully simple idea that keeps super-fine knitting needles from getting bent, folded, spindled or mutilated – and keeps the work from falling off the needles.

Just slip the needles & work into the tube


knittngWidgetOpenthen push & turn the tubes until the needles & working edge are safely enclosed:


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Knitted silk stockings, first attempt

By | December 3rd, 2014|costume, dyes, knitting, silk|

Raspberry-mousse coloured knit silk stockings - first attempt

My first attempt at knitting the Eleonora stockings in silk was an education! (My first-first attempt was in wool, which I’ve had lots of experience with – and the gauge was way too big, so I abandoned it.)

To get back to the silk: I wanted to dye the yarn a true red with cochineal.

Since cochineal is sensitive to ph – an acidic dyebath pushes it toward red and a basic one towards purple – I used neutral ph distilled water for the dyebath and added vinegar in an attempt to shift the colour towards red.

Though I’ve gotten bright reds with cochineal & vinegar on wool, for some reason the yarn refused to become red no matter how much vinegar I added.

It settled to a raspberry mousse shade and refused to budge, so I worked with that.

When I started to knit the cuff, I discovered that it knit up to significantly fewer rows per vertical inch than the swatch I’d made. This squashed the detail so badly that I could hardly see it, which surprised and puzzled me.

I asked a friend who had knitted in the round with silk, and apparently this was due to the fact that, unlike wool, silk has no “memory”. Wool springs back to its original size; silk stays stretched.

To make the pattern look right, I knit each pattern row twice. This made the pattern a little longer, but that was better than squashed.

For the swatch, I just knit on the needle part of a circular needle, back&forth with very little pulling, so it didn’t stretch. Working in the round on the stocking, I was pulling the piece around the whole needle, so it did stretch.

The other disappointment was that the surface of the yarn scuffed, spawning little balls of purple fluff. If this happened during the knitting, the finished stockings would probably get scuffed & covered with purple fluff when worn, obscuring the pattern.

Which would make knitting so much complicated detail kind of pointless.

So my next attempt will either be in wool or a wool/silk blend, depending on budget & availability, and if it comes out on the purple end of the scale when I dye it, I’ll try overdying it with madder to get a true red.









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Mining the stash part 2

By | November 6th, 2014|costume, cotton, fur, Italy, SCA, silk, the stash, travel|

LiviaDaPortoThiene&Daughter4webTurns out my Mining the stash project is going to be delayed. For the best of reasons: I’m going to Italy with my sister next spring – and the dates are just too close to do both justice.

Much as I enjoy the annual SCA* Arts & Science comptetition, it’s no contest – I’m off to Italy!

A great opportunity to look at lots of art and at any historical textiles I can find.

With luck, I’ll be able to see stuff I’ve never met before and gather lots of information on colour, details and those visual elements that translate poorly at a resolution of 72dpi, or even in book-size photos.

In the meantime, I’ve gone through the stash & chosen the main fabrics for the gown and coat and the fur for the lining and the zibellino (the furpiece the countess is holding over her arm).

fabrics & furs for the Livia di Porto Thiene outfit project


  • The coat fabric is a grey/taupe cotton velveteen – apparently cotton velveteen is closer to what Renaissance velvets were than 21st century velvets. I’m hoping to be able to check this out while in Italy!
  • The gown fabric is dark green silk damask – to show the detail, I’ve made the scale bigger in the sketch than it is in real life
  • The fur lining will come from an tawny mink coat a friend found when clearing out his mother’s estate
  • The zibellino is a red fox fur I bought in a second-hand shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tempting as it is to get started making the outfit, this is as far as I’m going to go with the project until I come back from Italy!

Actually, that not quite true –  I’ve made the zibellino and am working on a detail that doesn’t show: stockings. As the countess is dressed for winter, she’s almost certainly wearing stockings.

I’ve used my imagination and am making a pair of knit red silk stockings in the style of the pair found in the tomb of Eleanora of Toledo. I dyed the yarn with cochineal and am waiting for it to dry. It looks like it’s going to be more towards purple than the red I was aiming for, so it’s going back in the dyepot tomorrow.

Stay tuned

* SCA – Society for Creative Anachronism


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Adding to the stash

By | October 21st, 2014|cotton, silk, Textile Museum of Canada, the stash|

Regardless of overstuffed storage space, the stash grows.

The Textile Museum of Canada Volunteers’For Love of Cloth” sale last weekend tested my resolve – and it crumbled a bit.

A pair of sample panels in this huge, gorgeous stylized carnation pattern that looks like it’s inspired by Ottoman ikats bushwhacked my resolve. They’re gorgeous; no idea what I’m going to do with them. They’re from Pierre Frey in Paris, and I discovered that one of the colourways is still available – one more yard would be enough to make a spectacular vest. However, when I found out that the fabric is $600/yard + tax + shipping, I gave that idea up. Maybe something parti-coloured!

My mission for going to the sale actually was to find a fabric to make the shell of a mink-lined vest. A couple of years ago I found a vintage mink vest with a the label of Simpson’s, a long-gone department store I used to shop at, and I bought it out of nostalgia.

The vest fits but it’s showing its age – bald spots around the arm holes and a couple of divots from moth-munches – so I decided to turn it into a vest lining.

I wanted a shell fabric that was lightweight and interesting, and lucked out with a sample panel of a toile de Jouy-like  cotton/silk damask.

Green and blue sample panel of cotton/silk damask in a toile de Jouy-like pattern










Now all I need to decide is whether I want to use the blue version or the green version…


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Mining the stash

By | May 4th, 2014|costume, fur, medieval, museums, SCA, the stash|

I’m mining my fabric stash for next spring’s Ontario Society for Creative Anachronism Arts & Science competition. The plan is to use mostly what I have on hand, only buying new materials when there just isn’t anything in the stash that’s suitable.

A bit of background: the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is an international organization dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th century arts and skills, and the Arts & Science (A&S) competitions include all of those except the martial arts.

A&S costuming competition gets into some pretty extreme authenticity, using only natural materials like silk, linen and wool. Which can be financially challenging – hence the mining of the stash. Luckily, over the years I’ve run into some irresistible bargains that I figured would come in useful “someday”.

Well, “someday” is here!

I’m basing my entry on this 1552 Veronese portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene which is now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland:

1552 Veronese portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene currently in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
It’s not going to be an exact copy; for one thing, the colours that suit the Countess look dreadful on me, and for another, my local second-hand stores don’t run to sable, which is what the fur draped over her arm is. Or lynx, the lining in her coat.

So the excavation begins!

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The raccoon coat

By | February 5th, 2014|fur, Kensington Market|

Sometime in the 1990s I picked up a slightly-too-small raccoon coat at Goodwill. It spent most of its time in the closet because it didn’t fit well and because it was … fur.

Helena in her racoon coat on a snowy day.But seven years ago I traded that coat in on one that was actually big enough, which I started to wear whenever the weather got really cold.

I was concerned that my fur coat would draw negative reactions – though not concerned enough to not wear it!

Lots of people have commented on the coat. But to my surprise, except for the rather dim co-worker who raked me down for wearing “exotic fur” *, the comments have been 100% positive!

They’re mostly variations on “That looks warm” or “That’s a nice jacket”. (Language drift seems to be in action here – even though the coat is ankle-length people almost always call it a “jacket”. Fascinating!)

So I’ve met minimal hostility to fur out there. Which is a good thing – in really cold weather, fur or sheepskin are the only things I’ve worn that actually kept me warm.

And I strongly suspect that the “wonderful synthetic alternatives” we’re encouraged to wear have a big ecological cost. They are, after all, oil that’s been heavily processed. (But that’s another post!)

In the meantime I’m wearing my raccoon coat and staying warm even when it goes down below -30!

* I’m writing in Toronto, Canada where raccoons are not exotic. They’re vermin. Very successful vermin.

They’ve adapted beautifully to the urban environment and contribute to it by vandalizing garbage cans, tearing up gardens, defecating on roofs, mating noisily under my bedroom window in the middle of the night and occasionally attacking pets and people.

People tell me their raccoon stories when I’m wearing the coat, and so far they’ve all been horror stories.

For example, a gentleman I talked with this morning as we trudged through the snow told me of how he had to get a series of rabies shots because a raccoon bit him. He was sitting in his garden one afternoon when a raccoon jumped up on the bench beside him. He was talking on the phone and thought it was his cat, so he reached down and patted it.


On the whole, I prefer my raccoons as coats.











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