Thursday, May 22, 2014

Three Mecate Artists

There are only three mecate pictures in today's post, but I think you will find them compelling and interesting.  I first thought of putting them all side by side when I saw Danielle Hart's pink and brown mecate on FaceBook, in August of last year.
She was using a method I had never seen before applied to the model mecate.  I had seen it, a little, in experimental form, for Arab costumes and halters, in the hands of Kate Jennings of California.  I had also seen it in larger scale, that is to say, full scale (by which I mean "real life") in books in the book store and in sewing stores.  It's called kumihimo, a Japanese art of braiding using a wooden form.  The separate strands are crossed (braided) according to their patterns, and fed into a central opening; the rope emerges beneath.
Photo by D. Hart
I wouldn't have thought anybody could have had the patience and delicacy to pursue an entire miniature mecate -- nearly two feet long! -- with this method!
I had also run across the kumihimo approach, or 'mechanical braiding,' in a book on Victorian human hair memorial pieces, given me by a good friend some years ago.  This book did not use the word kumihimo, and claimed the method originated in Europe.  But the approach was the same: crossing the strands above an opening and feeding the result down a central opening.  Weights are used with this method, on both ends of each strand.  Incredibly complex braids resulted.
 Picture taken from eBay some years ago.

Danielle's mecate is superneat and clean.  It looks as though it was made by machine.  Words like 'neat,' 'tight,' 'smooth' and 'polished' come to mind.  It gleams, it does not look shreddy.  If you prefer a near impossibly perfect mecate, one that might almost be computer-controlled,  this might be your favorite method to collect.

At the other end of the spread is Jacquee Gillespie, of Beautiful Horses, down in New Mexico.
This lady does full-scale horsehair braiding, specializing in mememtoes of one's pets and horses that have passed on.  Give her some of your departed horse's hair and she will make bracelets, rings, tassels, keyrings, necklaces and other items from it.  I am positive she knows how to make full scale mecates and bosals, too.
Confession:  this picture is a pinch from MH$P.  However, I'm reasonably sure the photographer is Evelyn Frazier.

The shot shows what a good nick was made when Jacquee discovered the model horse hobby.  She has made her own silver buckles, conchos and ferrules.  In communication with her I found out she uses dog hair and alpaca hair in her model tack.  I am nearly one-hundred percent certain this mecate was spun from some type of animal hair.  It has the shaggy look of a full scale mecate.  If, as a collector, you prefer the charm of the real stuff and its methods rendered in miniature, this is the approach for you.
A full scale, 'real' mane hair mecate.  Picture taken from Hagel's Mecate Gallery.

And then there's me.
I find my own method lands somewhere in between Danielle's and Jacquee's.  Timaru Star II mecates are indeed hand spun -- there is no wooden form or mechanical approach.  (Full scale mecates are often made on turning machines.)  They use thread, not hair spun into thread.  But they don't use rayon or nylon, just cotton with maybe a little polyester covering to help protect against fraying.  (I do not use embroidery floss in my mecates.  That stuff frays way too much, and it is the wrong twist anyhow.)  The 'checkered' or flecked strands, the ones with two colors, are made from much smaller gauge thread (Hand Quilting).  The rest is made from "heavy" thread purchased at sewing stores.  The trick, in addition to designing colors and patterns that work, is to find out how many strands of how many threads will form a correct thickness or gauge for the Traditional, or whatever scale, model horse.
That is the fun part.  I do not seem to be able to leave model braidwork alone. : )
For collectors, isn't it fascinating to find out the variations on a theme?  There is no such thing as "the best" model mecate.  There are only individual artists' different methods of portraying the same item of real horse tack.  The only "best" should be what you, the collector, like best.
Happy collecting!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Very Long Button: Tightening

This is what Anja's breastcollar looks like right now: unfinished, but you can tell how it's going to wind up!   If the buckles match the bridle (and they will), it should be striking.

Getting the right braiding string for this particular ring and dees was hard.  I tried two different threads and actually braided a central ring with a third material, sinew, but I wasn't happy with any of them.  Too red.  Too fat.  Too shreddy.  Finally I took the "light banana" thread I'd used in the buttons, and peeled it apart.  It has three warps or whatever the term is: inner plies.  I peeled off 1/3rd and was left with 2/3rds.   I then combined two 2/3rds, making a thread fatter than my typical Topst (Topstitching).  It now measured the same diameter, or gauge, as my favorite, Heavy (Button & Craft).  This is a percentage in many of my notes:  Heavy = 1 + 1/3 Topst.
Just a note:  the sewing store calls my topstitching "heavy."

This was Anja's breastcollar up to yesterday.  Can you spot the difference?  Yup... it's the small buttons, the "white" (actually light banana) and deep turquoise ones, bracketing the longer, black-and-light-turquoise ones.  Got the middle ones backwards!  When you compare this to the bridle, you realize that Yup, I goofed.
I didn't put the white touching the ends of the long central button!  Would people notice?  I went ahead and did a lot of work on the other side of the breastcollar before my professional conscience started to bother me about it.  Tack, be it model or real, MUST be symmetrical... unless there's a darn good reason not to.  And personal pride/laziness is, unfortunately, not a darn good reason.  After a bunch of tightening, I went back and cut out the white buttons on that side and moved the deep-turqouise ones, and braided in new white ones.
Why not cut the turquoises?  in theory, you want to cut out the "worst done" ones, either color.  But with this particular breastcollar, the deep turquoise thread is hand-spun (from thinner thread), and thus has higher "value."   I know I just talked about hand-joining the "white" thread, but that was only for the ring and dees.  The buttons' light banana thread is straight off the spool.

This button is one of the longest I have ever made.  It is a 21 Part with 9 rings of interweave, 4 Bight casa (as Tom Hall uses the term).  The light turquoise has to be hand-spun up to a matching guage with the black.  It started life as Gutermann's, which is a very thin thread.  I love Gutermann's colors, but they just aren't thick enough for this type of braiding.
Here is the button after braiding, but before tightening.  I thought you might like to see the process of tightening.  Again, I haven't shown everything:  the tool I tighten with is a homebuilt needle awl.  I should put up a post about custom tools...  and about hand spinning...  If you think the above button is done, compare its ends' distance to the rings, and look at the top pictures.

It is hard to believe, but every button I braid is done twice:  once for the braiding and once for the tightening.   Why not do it tight the first time around?  Because I can't manage it, that's why.  It's too hard to see the laps, manipulate the needle, or avoid piercing the thread.  It's simply easier for me to do every button twice... and once started, a successful habit is hard to budge.
On to tightening.
In the previous picture you can see there are four ends of thread, two light and two dark (black).  I always start tightening with the outer, or foundation, button; in this case the black.  There should be a shorter end and a longer end for each color.  The shorter end is called the standing or dead end.  I start tightening with the dead end.
I am lifting up each pass as the thread goes along, following the whole thing, from the dead end onwards.  I am using the same amount of pressure each time.  Gradually a loop forms, as the slack is taken up and accumulates.
The button starts to look drunken, shrunken and weird.
Right about here you hope the heck you know what you are doing.
Notice how the light-turquoise passes are starting to stand up?  The black is becoming properly tight, and it's the other color's turn to have slack.
Who knew there was that much slack in the black?!  But this is a LONG button, one of my longest.  Ths slack is about right for the size.
Here we're starting to tighten the light-turquoise, the interweave color, beginning with its own dead end.
Around and around, just as if we were braiding it in the first place.  This sort of process really "learns" you your buttons... you see where everything goes... repeatedly!
The second color is forming up a nice long bight.  God help you if there are any pierces (one thread passing through another).  One has to be very careful with the teeny pointed scissors if there are any pierces... and there usually are a few snags.  That's why I use blunt point needles for the braiding... another subject.  : )
The important thing in miniature braiding is to maintain even tension.  Each pull of each pass has to be just exactly the same pressure.  This may sound impossible but you get into a trance state and it's not hard.
Notice how tight the whole button is getting.  It's half the size it was.
I kind of suspected I'd have to do the black a second time.  This step is unique to super-long buttons; normally, once through is sufficient for tighening.  As a general rule, thread cannot withstand working through more than about three times.  It shreds up and loses color.  After three or four you're better off ditching it and getting a new piece.  So we're up against my limits here.
And it's done.
We'll have to look at finishing, or burying the ends of the threads, another time.
I hope you have enjoyed this little lesson in tightening.