You’ve been Framed! A personal guide to hoops and frames.
When I’m asked what hoop to use I find it hard not to give a simple answer! The fact is there is no one hoop or frame that is correct. I tend to use different ones for different projects, based not only on their technique but function. Put in simple terms, hoops and frames serve to stretch the fabric being sewn and make the design easier to negotiate however if the hoop or frame is clipped into a stand you have the added benefit of being able to sew using both hands and this is the only point at which I get a tad bossy.
Using both hands is not only essential for good embroidery, but to many a revelation. Whilst researching this piece I came across a glorious quote from Gladys Windsor Fry who wrote ‘Once the unusualness of using both hands for the stitching has worn off, it will be discovered with pleasure that much more rapid work can be done than is possible when one hand is perforce occupied in holding the material.’ (1) Since 1935 when she wrote this we have the benefit of many more beautiful and intricate stitches in the embroidery repertoire and using a good frame or hoop is important to get pleasing results.
Works of art from as long ago as the middle ages show the construction of frames has changed very little. With the exception that the Tambour (the round hoop we recognise consisting of two hoops) may have had the outside hoop replaced by a leather strap and buckle in some instances, both the round hoops and square frame differ very little from the ones we use today.
In ‘Embroidery or the craft of the needle’ (2) (1907) W.G Paulson Townsend describes a frame that has not changed one bit:
“The common type of frame…..consists of two round pieces of wood, which have a mortise at each end. Strips of webbing are securely nailed along these, extending the full length of the wood between the mortises –to this webbing the work is sewn. For the sides of the frame two flat pieces of wood. With holes pierced at regular intervals, are used; these pass through the mortises, and the width of the frame is adjusted and the work kept tightly stretched by means of metal pins which are inserted in the holes by each mortise.”
Originally ‘Slate Frame’ was the catch-all name for a square frame but today where we make the differentiation between a ‘Roller’ frame being one with mobile bars which roll the fabric around them to tighten, and a ‘Slate’ Frame which has rigid bars such as the ones described above.
In the 1880’s Thérèse de Dillmont (3) states ‘The practice of fastening the work to the knee, besides being ungraceful, is injurious to the health’ yet doesn’t specifically recommend a hoop or frame until later in her Encyclopaedia of Needlework when she advocates their use for more formal techniques such as Goldwork. Here she specifically suggests the use of ‘Tambour’ or the ‘Swiss Embroidery Frame’ for ‘pocket-handkerchiefs and other small articles’ because these items need working with ‘extreme care’.
Hoops were and still are easily adapted to be clamped to or stand on the table or extended on a pole to be freestanding. Elbesse are a UK based company and produce hoops and frames which are not only beautifully made but incredibly versatile for two handed embroidery. They produce a 6’, 8’ and 10’ hoops on a stalk which fit into a table clamp or a lap frame comprising of a flat base which fits under the thigh, enabling what I call ‘extreme Embroidery’ in every position and location possible! I like this frame mainly because I am a slob and like to embroider in front of the TV.
An Elbesse lap stand or table clamp comes with a 10’ hoop as standard, but if you are buying from Ebay or Amazon double check that unscrupulous sellers don’t swap the
10’ hoop for a smaller one. The only flaw of the lap stand is that the covered screw in the base is not counter sunk and it does not stand properly if you want to put it on a flat surface! I cunningly put round sticky felt ornament pads on the bottom which level the base nicely.
You’ll find Elbesse hoops at any good sewing shop and the full range at sewandso.co.uk. They cost und
er £20. A word of caution; If you are buying a Table clamp, make sure your table edge is square and less than 2 inches deep for the clamp to attach properly.
The only drawback to a round hoop is that your work will need to be mounted and Laced* to pull the hoop mark out of easily creased fabric like fine linen. But Fret Not! Because Elbesse think of everything, they also produce a ‘versatile clamp’ which is essentially a clamp on a stalk which can be used in the table clamp or lap stand to clamp traditional round hoops and light square ones too! …Which brings me to my other frame of choice – The Siesta interlocking Bars.
The Siesta Interlocking bar frames are fantastic! They are cheap as chips, super light and come in lots of different sizes and can be interchanged to fit any project. I love these frames as they are perfect if you are doing a project like cushions which are not being stretched and Laced. The fabric is prepared as normal on backing fabric* and just stretched and pinned onto the sides with drawing pins. I also love these frames for tapestry because they are so much lighter than a roller frame.
I use a traditional Slate Frame for all formal embroidery and for the purists and professionals working beautiful traditional methods, only this frame will do. But let’s face it, life is just too short and I have pretty much lost the will to live by the time I have spent ages dressing* it when you can achieve the same end in half the time on a frame with which I can sit on the sofa!
I love buying vintage hoops with their mellowed wood and possibility that dozens of embroiderers have used it before you. If you are using an auction site, do scrutinise the pictures carefully however! Check that screws are present and check with the seller that the screw threads work, that bases match hoops and that they are clear of dirt or wood worm!!
Trestles were and still are the traditional way to support frames but other than in a studio situation are completely impractical and personally I find them extremely uncomfortable. Mrs Christie rectifies the little detail given in many early needlework books regarding needlework stands in which to hold the hoop or frame and in her book ‘Embroidery & Tapestry Weaving’(4) she shows a diagram of a frame on a stand and goes to lengths to give a detailed description of the sort of frame stands that could be obtained and how they operated.
Although essentially very little has changed in the design of needlework tools, my very favourite embroidery apparatus completely reinvented the traditional Embroidery stand. Designed in the early 1980’s The Lowery Stand was initially inspired and designed by farmer Keith Lowery as a present for his wife. So envied war her stand that he was asked to make others for her fellow embroiderers and thus at a time when farm diversification was encouraged, he became farmer turned Embroidery stand maker! The Lowery stand is metal, built on the principle of simplicity, durability and portability and to my mind is a design classic.
Beautifully balanced, though slim, it uses ‘L’ shaped levers to grip the frame so it doesn’t break your wrist or hurt your fingers getting a sturdy hold any type of frame which slot ingeniously into a simple clamp…….If I had an item I cuddled the most it would be my Lowery stand ; It is my pride and joy (after my Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine!) I admit they are a considered purchase, starting at around £85 but I find the testimony of a wonderful product is the ‘Ebay Check’! Here is a work stand you will rarely pick up second hand because they will be the best item you ever purchased! More than anything – It’s that slob thing again – because the base is wafer thin, it fits under the sofa or your fav comfy chair. It is adjustable horizontally and vertically and you can swivel your work to the reverse easily.
Mrs Christie wrote ‘Technical excellence in needlework, as in all other crafts, is a question of the worker’s perseverance and her ability in the use of tools.’ (5) We are blessed that embroidery uses few tools and those that we need are very inexpensive. Yet using the right hoop or frames is probably the most essential decision you make before you even pick up a needle. The ability to keep our fabric neat and flat also give us the ability to use both hands which makes it possible to create masterpieces with needle and thread. They are the very foundation of our craft.
*Laced : Lacing is a technique used to mount and stretch needlework over board
* Backing fabric : It is good practice to use backing fabric such as calico when preparing embroidery. This holds the stitches, gives a good layer in which to finish threads and gives substance to the finished piece. It is placed at the back of your linen and attached with Herringbone Stitch.
* Dressing : This is the traditional term for preparing an embroidery frame ready to sew.
1.Gladys Windsor Fry Embroidery and Needlework, Pitman 1935 p.222 1966 Edition
2. W.G Paulson Townsend Embroidery or the craft of the needle 1907 p.220
3. Thérèse de Dillmont Encyclopaedia of Needlework, DMC Quoted from my 1889 copy p.1 Plain Sewing
4. Mrs Archibald Christy Embroidery & Tapestry Weaving, John Hogg 1907
5. 4. Mrs Archibald Christy Embroidery & Tapestry Weaving, John Hogg 1907 Chapter II p.43
With special thanks to Gemma at Lowery Workstands