Periodic Blackwork

Back at the start of 2019, the International Year of the Periodic Table, I had an idea. It was 150 years since Mendeleev published his first version of the periodic table we recognise today. Today there are so many brightly coloured and eye-catching periodic tables around – those which picture a sample of each element, those with colourful graphics, those which divide the table up by colour into types of element. Some of these are using the colour for information and others for decoration. It struck me that lovely and informative as these are, it might be nice to take the periodic table back, in some creative way, to its original black and white, or rather, black and off-white. My thoughts had been led in that direction by a very early version that had just been discovered at St Andrew’s University and was thought to be the oldest classroom periodic table in the world, and I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge in March 2019 which included original Mendeleev versions and others published around that time.

I had long intended to try my hand (and my eyesight) at blackwork embroidery, and on browsing pictures of blackwork samplers online and in books, the idea was born. I could stitch a periodic table and represent each element with a pattern. As a starting point, I knew that John Dalton had devised graphical symbols for the elements known at his time, and knew also that there were alchemical symbols for many of the elements.

After much deliberation over the thread count and fibre of the cloth (see below), whether to use single or double strands of embroidery thread, what format of periodic table to depict (standard or long-form), I finally got going. I knew that I would never get it finished in the IYPT, but was heartened when a good friend said she had never seen anything wrong in signing a piece of artwork at the start rather than at the finish. In the end I did both and stitched the signature on the last day of 2021. It is signed ‘CeW 2019 (IYPT) – 2021’.

As well as the alchemical and the Dalton symbols, I have also used symbols and patterns related to the origins of element names, their discoverers and places of discovery, their structure, properties and applications. Some are based on traditional blackwork patterns; most I have designed myself. I have used books and websites for inspiration – the main ones are listed below.

The cloth is is Zweigart 28ct Quaker (Bantry) evenweave in antique white, which is 55% linen / 45% cotton. The thread is DMC stranded cotton, colour 310, double stranded for the grid and single stranded for the pattern.

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