Slate frames have been around forever – well, certainly since the Middle Ages, and anyway. They’re made up of four parts – two rollers (top and bottom) and two stretchers (sides, with peg holes).
The advantage of a slate frame is that, with them, you can achieve and maintain perfect tension for stitching. In fact, of all the methods I’ve used of mounting any fabric for embroidery, nothing compares to the excellent and even tension you can achieve with a slate frame.
Now, that being said, and as I mentioned yesterday, setting a project up on a slate frame (or “dressing the frame”) takes a wee bit o’ work. And the larger the frame, the more work. Normally, you should be able to accomplish dressing a frame in an hour or so, if your fabric’s prepared and you don’t run into any hitches along the way.
So let’s go step by step through the whole process, including preparing the fabric.
Preparing Fabric for the Slate Frame
There are different ways to prepare your fabric for dressing a slate frame. I’m going to show you one way. I use different ways, depending on the fabric, project, etc.
I’m using Alba Maxima linen from Legacy, a nice medium-weight, sturdy, smooth linen. The first thing I did was shrink the linen. (I’ve already posted on preparing linen for embroidery – scroll down to the shrinkage section!).
Then, I sat down and did some figuring. I don’t love figuring…
The project I’m preparing is about 22 inches long, and about 13 inches wide. But I’m taking advantage of the width of the frame and killing the two birds with one frame-dressing job: I have another project that I can work on the same piece of linen. The second project is about 7.5 inches wide and 14 inches long. So I will situate them both on the same piece of linen. And that means I have to stitch both of them before I can cut either of them off the frame.
I determined exactly what size linen I would need to accommodate both pieces, and decided that using the frame to its full capacity, without having to roll the top rollers, would be fine. I decided to set up a piece that’s 23 inches wide and about 26 inches long. That gives me plenty of room for seam allowances on both finished pieces, as well as some “doodle room” on the fabric itself.
Next, it was time to cut the fabric out. I laid out the linen and the requisite tools.
Don’t get any ideas about that rotary cutter! It’s not that easy!
I measured the linen and marked my cutting spot with a pencil. I measured an extra inch on each side and an extra half inch top and bottom, for the turn-overs on the fabric edges.
So – 25 inches wide (with an inch on each side to turn in) and 27 inches long (with a half inch, top and bottom, to turn in). I actually cut 28 inches long, to compensate for a sloppy cut (more on that below).
At this point, it would be nice to lay out a ruler and slice the piece with a rotary cutter – so quick, so easy. But this is the thing: You need your fabric mounted onto the frame on the grain, so it’s better to cut the fabric on the thread. If you do everything right from the very beginning of this process, you will have no regrets later (after all the hard work). So cut your fabric on the thread.
There are several ways to go about cutting your fabric on the thread. When working with linen, many needleworkers say to draw a thread out, creating a cutting line, and then cut your fabric.
On the Alba Maxima linen, drawing a thread out of the middle (especially after shrinkage) is a Royal Pain in the … Fingers. So I do it this way:
I make a small cut at the pencil mark, then pull up on the thread to the left of my scissor blades. I keep this thread pulled up from the fabric as I cut, and it provides a nice cutting guide. Relatively quick, and sure beats drawing one thread out of the whole piece to mark a cutting line.
At this point, you may well be thinking “This is already too much effort…” but hold on! It really gets much worse!
Still, persevere! It is honestly worth it in the end!
Once your fabric is cut, make sure that all sides are on the thread. For this piece of fabric, to get the size I wanted, I had to cut two sides on the thread, one side was selvage, and the fourth side was jagged from a previous sloppy cut. This fourth side needed to be straightened out. The easiest way to do this is to pull off all the stray side threads, until you can pull one long thread from the entire width of the fabric. Let me explain with a photo:
See the wispy threads sticking off the side in the background? Those can be pulled out, until you’ve got a straight edge visible on your fabric.
You’ll end up with a bit of fringe, but that gets trimmed off.
So there’s the straight cut on the thread as a remedy to a sloppy cut.
Now, iron the fabric. Purists may not do it this way, but I’ll admit that I use starch and steam on my linen. I wouldn’t necessarily use the starch, except that I’m planning to put my design directly on the linen with pencil, and I find the pencil washes out better when I use starch. I really like the Niagara starch in the pump bottle (rather than the aerosol kinds, which tend to flake). I’ll wash the whole piece before I do the finish work on it (sewing up the project), so the starch will be rinsed out, anyway. If I weren’t going to wash the piece, I would not use starch.
Now, it’s time to fold the edges of the fabric to prepare it for lacing. The top and bottom edges of the fabric will be folded in half an inch. These will be sewn to the canvas strips on the rollers of the frame.
I fold up the top edge half an inch and finger press it along the thread of the fabric (as best as possible), then run the iron over it, then pin it, starting from the center point out.
For the sides of the fabric (they’ll attach to the stretcher slats with the peg holes), I turn it up an inch, finger press, then turn in half an inch (into the fold, to make a kind of casing), iron it, and pin it from the central point outwards.
Above, you can see the top edge of the fabric (the pinned edge in the photo) and the one of the sides, folded in to form the half inch casing.
Cut a piece of string a little longer than the length of your sides – not much longer, about an inch – and tuck the string into the casing formed by the double turn on the fabric. The string will help support the fabric when it comes to pulling it with the lacing. (This step is not necessary – I only do this when I think the fabric needs some extra support, when I’m not using webbing on the sides of the fabric).
For the lacing string, by the way, I use regular 2-lb weight string found at the hardware store.
Now that your fabric’s ready, it’s time to attach it to the frame. Gather your supplies and pull a chair up to a table that will easily accommodate the size of your frame. Just like in cooking, the whole process is a lot easier if you have all your “ingredients” on hand first!
At this point, your frame is in four pieces: the two top and bottom “roller” bars and the two side “stretcher” bars (with the peg holes in them).
Dressing the Slate Frame
You’ll need the following:
Thread – I use topstitching thread, doubled.
String – regular 2-lb weight string from the hardware store
A stiletto or awl – you have to put some serious holes in the side of your linen; this tool is essential!
Various needles, including a very large tapestry needle and a smaller sewing needle or crewel needle, plus, if you have one, a good curved needle
Cotter pins or pegs that came with your frame
The fabric is attached to the top and bottom bars (roller bars) first. Most slate frames come with a strip of canvas attached to the rollers. You can go a step further and mark the center point of the rollers on the bar or on the canvas strip, if you want.
Line up the center of the top of your fabric with the center point on the canvas strip attached to the top bar. (Top and bottom bars are the same thing…)
Pin the center point of the fabric to the center point of the canvas strip.
Working from the center out to one edge, pin the fabric to the canvas, about every inch. Then repeat this, going from the center out to the other edge.
Oversew the center point to the canvas. Again, I’m using a topstitching weight thread, doubled.
And oversew both of the ends.
Then, stitching from the center point to the outside, and removing the pins along the way, use a herringbone stitch to sew the linen to the canvas strip. If you’ve pinned everything carefully, you shouldn’t have any buckles at all.
When you’re finished sewing it on, and you flip it over, it looks like this.
Now, repeat the whole process on the opposite roller bar, so that both top and bottom edges of your fabric are attached to the rollers.
Lay out the frame so far on the table, with the top of your fabric facing down. You’re ready to lace up the sides.
Mark the undersides of the side casing in one inch intervals, and get your stiletto out. Pierce the fabric with the stiletto, making good-sized holes.
Really good-sized holes!! If you have an awl, you might be better off using it. A stiletto is great for the initial piercing, but I really had to work it to get adequate sized holes.
Slide the stretcher sides into the holes on the roller bars…
…get your cotter pins or wooden pegs out …
… and stick the cotter pins in to hold the frame together. At this point, you aren’t stretching the fabric from top to bottom or from side to side. You’re just sticking the pins in to hold the rollers in place while you do the lacing.
Stretching comes later…
If you’ve persevered to this point, this is the beginning of the “fun” part, the part that characterizes the slate frame.
You’re going to pull out a good length of string from your ball of string. I would say you want at least five or six times the length of the side stretcher bar. Remember – it’s always better at this point to have TOO MUCH string than too little. You don’t want to get to the end of the lacing and find out that you’re out of string. Aaaaaaaaaagh.
Start with a slip knot at the top of the stretcher bar. It’s important to use a slip knot!! You want to be able to adjust the tension on this string, so you’ll need to be able to loosen or tighten that knot easily.
Thread your Very Large Tapestry Needle with the end of the Very Long String, and start lacing. Take the needle down into the linen, underneath the side slat of the frame and up around the slat, then back down into the linen – do this moving down the line of holes.
You may find that you need to revisit the holes in the linen with your stiletto here and there.
At this point, your aren’t concerned so much about tension. Just get the sides laced. As you lace, try to keep the edge of your fabric parallel with the stretcher bar. This is a bit hard on the first bar, since you don’t have anything you’re pulling against, and it’s easy to pull the fabric towards the bar. But resist the temptation, and keep the fabric parallel to the bar as much as possible.
When you reach the end of your lacing – arriving at the opposite roller bar – tie your string off with another slip not.
Now, in exactly the same manner, lace the other side.
Now, you’re all laced up. But you’re not finished. Notice that the linen looks a bit wavy and rippled? That’s because nothing’s been tightened up yet.
At this point, if your project is being stitched on silk or damask or some other very fine fabric and being backed with linen or muslin, then you’ve only just added the backing to the frame. You need to now add the fine fabric. To do this, you tighten the frame “a little bit” – enough to remove noticeable ripples – but not all the way with the final stretch. Take your fine fabric (which you have already cut on the grain and that’s ready to mount), and situate it on the lining that’s stretched on the frame. The ground fabric (the fine fabric) and the lining (the muslin or linen) must match up with their grains. Match up the grain, pin the ground fabric onto the lining all around, and then sew it onto the lining, from center points out on each side, smoothing it as you go and making sure there are no wrinkles or buckles in it. Use herringbone stitch to sew it, crossing over the lining onto the ground fabric, and so forth. Once all four sides are sewn down, you’re ready for the last step, which is the final stretch…
But on my frame here, I’m not using a different ground fabric lined with linen. I’m embroidering the linen. So I don’t need to add ground fabric. I’m ready for the final stretch.
Because this is a large frame, I’m going to use a combination of hands and feet here – which was really impossible to photograph!
Stand the frame on the floor. You’ll have the ends of the stretchers (which pass through the rollers) touching the floor. You’ve got your cotter pins or pegs in the side slats already. Rest your foot on the protruding edge of one side of the bottom rollers, and then, using the heel of your hand, push down on the top end of the side slat, and with your fingers of the same hand, pull up on the roller.
The top of that side slat is really pushing into the heel of my hand, because I’m using the top of the slat for leverage to pull the roller up.
If necessary, use both hands – but remember, you need one to move the cotter pin or pegs!
Pull the roller up as high as you can, holding onto the bottom of the frame with your foot. When you’ve stretched it as much as you can, replace the peg or pin below the roller.
Now do the other side, lining it up in the corresponding hole exactly opposite on the other side slat.
Turn the frame over, so that what was the top roller is now the bottom roller, and double check your pins and holes on the sides slats. Make sure all is lined up well.
Now, adjust your lacing one last time, pulling each side tight by working down the lacing and then adjusting the slip knots. Do both sides.
And there it is!!
If you’ve persevered to the end and done it right, you’re ready to embroider on the best surface ever! A lot of work, but worth the effort!
The whole process took me about three hours, but I had to prepare fabric (including washing the linen), and the frame is a large one, which increases the time for hand stitching and the lacing.
That reminds me – I forgot to mention the obvious. You can use your sewing machine to sew the linen to the top and bottom rollers. I prefer to do it by hand, but some people use their machines. It would save some time, but your machine needs to be able to handle the twill tape.
So, would you go to the trouble to set up a slate frame? Or do you think it’s just too much? It’d be interesting to hear readers’ opinions on this one!
Enjoy the weekend!