saturday morning ramble, the Maasiek embrodieries and how they changed my life.

Because I got up too early this morning, that’s why.

Gather round children, and I will tell you a story. A very long time ago, well, a little more than twenty years or so, which is a very very long time, as I’m sure you’ll all agree, my re-enactment group made a collective decision to grow up. This meant that things like this…
old crap front
were no longer acceptable. (My stepdad still has the disembowelled remains of my bad early costumes cut up and rearranged onto a tunic for wearing at village fetes – witness the shame, children, witness my dark dark shame. although in my defence I was a teenager when I did it, and we all did very bad things as teenagers, I chose violence against the art of embrodiery)

Anyway, we were doing a lot of viking era stuff back then. I upped my game, started using natural fibres and authentic stitches, and making things like this
emma tabs

Which I’m not ashamed of at all, in fact it still gets compliments whenever I wear it. I started taking things seriously.

Unfortunately there was a lot of “embroidery” in other groups done with four ply nylon knitting wool, skillfully executed with four inch long satin stitches. I don’t have pictures, I will leave these horrors to your imagination. Therefore, with the zeal of youth, I began to preach the gospel of pride in one’s work and the joy of tiny stitches to anyone who would listen, or anyone who simply stood still for long enough, or anyone I could corner in the bar with no viable escape route.

At the time I had a book on historical embroidery with a full page picture of part of the maasiek embroideries, a pre-conquest english piece now held in Belgium.


I would gleefully wave this picture under the nose of anyone with a nose, squealing, “See! See how tiny the stitches are, four millimetres, look!”

Then the Laing art Gallery had an exhibition on Anglo Saxon Northumbria, star of which was the Maasiek fragments, specially borrowed from Belgium, Obviously I went.

And those things blew my little mind.

See, my book had no measurements, I’d thought the photo was roughly life sized, but it was massively magnified. They were tiny. the stitches I had thought were four millimetre long were one millimetre. I stood there for hours until a guard came and told me off for drooling on the glass case.

I don’t think they would have made such an impact if I’d seen the real thing first and known how magnified the picture was, but I think that moment changed my life as an embroiderer. It made me realise that even the most accurately described museum catalogue cannot give you a true impression of the real dimension of an object. It hit me again last weekend at the British museum, where supposedly familiar viking jewels becames things I saw in a whole new light.

~ by opusanglicanum on March 29, 2014.

17 Responses to “saturday morning ramble, the Maasiek embrodieries and how they changed my life.”

  1. So now I am on tenterhooks about what you saw at the Viking exhibition – we are going next month.

    • the ship was fabulous, and I say this as someone who is generally underwhelmed by anything maritime, the metal cradle is set in is a scuplture in its own right, and its another case of true scale being mindblowing.

      I have bm membership, so luckily I was able to go round twice, as 10.30 on a sunday morning was so rammed it was impossible to see anything, so I went back at4 and it was much better. There was some nice jewelery I hadn’t seen in the flesh before where again scale and detail hit home (I’m afriad I did little more than glance at the weaponry, I don’t think theres anyhting can make me interested in scrap iron). I can’t say I was universally impressed with the labelling on the cases, either, it seemed less than thorough.

      however I do have a major bugbear, by which I feel heartily let down by the bm – no proper catalogue. This was a lack made worse by the labelling in the exhibition, since there were many things I’d made a note to look up once I got my hands on the catalogue, but oh look, no properly annotated catalogue to find out about the things that really interest you! I’m sincerely hoping this isn’t the new trend in museum exhibitions

      • I so second this! The last big Viking exhibition (1992?) had a great catalogue, and I only wish I had more knowledge to have been able to properly appreciate what I saw. Interestingly, when the current exhibition was in Copenhagen, they had tablets at every case with details of the finds, and the little valkyrie figurine had its own tablet with large pictures from almost very angle – I ended up taking pictures of the tablet instead of trying to get focus on the tiny figurine.

      • I’d guess the Bm would veto tablets as a cause of too much congestion, as they know how busy they get. they’re getting a real hammering on trip advisor over the fact that people with timed tickets are still queing for an hour or more, and it really is impossible to see anyhting when they’re busy.

        Of course they could sell less tickets and charge more for them, but them the daily mail readers would accuse them of being culturally elitist (the same daily mail readers who pay thousands a year for football season tickets, no doubt, but football isn’t elitist, or so we’re told) so they really can’t win

  2. I think something seen ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, as opposed to a photo image is always best but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve almost broken my nose trying to see stitch detail on fabrics displayed behind glass! I understand the need for the glass as well as the low lighting but sometimes I just want to get up close and personal!!

  3. Compare and contrast – I saw the Bayeux Tapestry and was distinctly underwhelmed by the workmanship!
    I think it must be very hard to get Exhibition catalogues right. The one for “In Fine Style” was fabulous and I’ve not been impressed enough to buy anything from another exhibition since!

    • I think I’m underwhelmed by the workmanship of the bayeux after having only seen photos, although I would like to see the victorian copy as well. but then I think the bayeux was intended to be impressive by scale above all other considerations.

      getting catalogues right is simple, just make them catalogues, yes, you can have poeple write papers on viking ship or what have you that go at the front, but it simply isn’t a catalogue unless it contains an actaul catalogue describing every item in the exhibition, as the meerkat would say “Simples”

  4. When I see the tiny work I did 20 years ago trying to copy medieval work, work that I would now hesitate to do even with glasses and probably a magnifier sometimes I despair.
    I don’t ever mention the work I did while learning and before I visited museums lol.

  5. I has a similar IRL experience this week. I got to handle and measure one of the legendary Mindum shoehorns. I wasn’t prepared for the fineness of line on the real one. Detail I had thought was 3mm/1/8″ from photographs turned out to be 0.8m (1/32″)

  6. Ugh, I hear you about books without scale bars. They are the bane of my existence and, as a scientist, I cannot understand for the life of me how archaeology/history books don’t think they are important. *glares at the Greenland find books*

    But yes, there is nothing so glorious as seeing an original in real life. I was astounded when I went to the British Library’s medieval manuscript exhibition a year or two back. I finally understood why it was stupid to expect manuscript images to show dress lacings or buttons or jewelery — most of the people stood at 1″ high or less. (Something the gorgeous online zoomable facsimiles never quite make you realise, as they never tell you what is true-scale and what is magnified.)

    • I can’t either, esp when you do archaeology at uni and they go on and on about how archaeology is a science!

      I think though that even wiht a scale bar and detailed measurements you can still get a skewed idea of the size of something.

  7. Very nice work! They are so colorful 🙂

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