Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Elephant No. 51: Shisha Mirror Work

For today's elephant, I decided to try shisha mirror work. I've always liked the look of this kind of embroidery, but I figured it was probably difficult and time-consuming, so it was something I was never particularly motivated to try.

Because it's so prevalent in Indian clothing, I assumed that shisha work developed in India. Although some sources do indeed suggest an Indian origin, it's more likely that this kind of embroidery comes from Central Asia. The Persian word shisheh means "glass", and the technique probably found its way to India via the conquering Moghuls of Central Asia. Whatever its origins, shisha embroidery is today most widely found in India, adding sparkle to everything from clothing to home decor.

Shisha describes both the embroidery and its characteristic small mirrors. Originally, the mirrors were made of mica flakes, and even beetle wings. In sixteenth-century Europe, glass supplanted mica, and shisha work began appearing in the stumpwork embroidery of Tudor England. Today, shisha work is created almost exclusively with mass-produced shisha mirrors. These mirrors come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, cut down from much larger sheets of glass.

I already had several shapes and sizes of shisha mirrors on hand. Some were given to me by my father, who brought them back from India. Some I ordered from an embroidery shop. Some I actually found at a local dollar store. Why I bought any at all, for a technique that didn't really interest me, I'll never know.

Although I could probably have figured out on my own how to sew the mirrors to fabric, I decided to take a shortcut and find some instructions online. I found a great tutorial from Joyful Abode that made it look easy, so I started with this.

I chose heavy black satin for the backing, thinking it would set off the mirrors rather nicely. Satin turns out not to be the best fabric to use for this kind of work. Even the thick satin I used is not heavy enough to bear the weight of the embroidery and the mirrors—even held very taut in an embroidery hoop—so it had a tendency to pucker and pull. It also had a tendency to snag.

For thread, I used inexpensive cotton embroidery thread. I toyed briefly with the idea of using silk embroidery thread, but since I was just learning, I thought it might be better to use something cheap.

Although the stitches are very simple—even if you've never embroidered before in your life—it took me a while to get the hang of this. First of all, it doesn't seem possible to affix something round to fabric when there are no holes to stitch through.

Second of all, it's surprisingly difficult to keep the stitches even all the way around, while also keeping the mirror from sliding about. If the stitches aren't even—or if they aren't wide enough—the mirror will ultimately pop out of its ring of stitches. In a couple of places, I had to go back and add a few extra stitches to keep this from happening.

The diamond shapes were even more complicated than the circles. I couldn't find any instructions on how to deal with this particular shape, so I more or less winged it. It turned out okay, but the diamonds don't have the nice edges I was expecting, so there must be a better way of doing this.

I didn't draw anything to start, so I mostly just filled things in with mirrors as I went along. It was a little easier once I did the trunk.

I would have liked to add more mirrors in the ear area. Unfortunately, I ran out of room on the embroidery hoop, and I also ran out of time. Truth be told, I also got tired of doing this. It was surprisingly time-consuming, and I kept getting blinded by the little mirrors, which had a tendency to catch the light.

If I were to do this again, I might use a single colour of embroidery thread. And I'd definitely use a heavier fabric. Most shisha work also includes additional embroidery to tie things together, but I didn't have time for that, either.

I like the final look of this, although it's more abstract than I had planned. It looks like an elephant if you sort of squint at it, but I think it might need a bit of extra embroidery to make it more obvious.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The southern Indian state of Kerala is famous for its festivals—almost all of which include at least one elephant. Richly caparisoned, the elephants carry deities during festival processions, as well as on their daily circuits of temple grounds.

Temple elephants are decorated with gold-embroidered textiles, bells and necklaces. Riders carry silk parasols with tinsel trim, and wave peacock feathers and large white tufts of fur in time to an orchestra.

Most Hindu temples in Kerala own at least one elephant; the famous Guruvayur temple has more than sixty. At the Koodalmanikyam Temple, seventeen elephants make daily ceremonial rounds. Seven of these wear headdresses of pure gold; the other ten have headdresses of pure silver.

Elephants and riders at the Thrissur Pooram Festival in Kerala.
Photo: Rajesh Kakkanatt
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ThrissurPooram-Kuda.jpg

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