Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Drizzling & Parfilage – Goldwork in Reverse


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My sister’s pajama pants are made from fabric that has a metallic thread running through it.

The other day she confessed that she finds it addicting to pick out the metallic thread. She carefully picks, breaks, and pulls out the metallic threads, bit by bit, when she’s wearing those particular pj’s. And she likes doing it!

This cracks me up! The addiction to picking apart textiles and pulling out metallic threads is not a new thing. Unbeknownst to her, my sister belongs to a history of rather grand people who engaged in the activity known as “parfilage” (the French term) or “drizzling” (the English term).

Parfilage is the practice of picking out or removing metal threads from textiles – from fabric, from braids and laces and the like – in order to recover the metal threads either for the fun of collecting them or to sell them. The hobby was pretty popular in Europe from the 17th through the early 19th centuries. They even had fancy tool sets just for engaging in the practice!

Picking apart goldwork embroidery

A long time ago – ten years, in fact! – I wrote a series of articles here on Needle ‘n Thread about deconstructing an old piece of goldwork. You can read those articles here.

My purpose in deconstructing the piece, which was well past its use-by date not recoverable, was to learn from the piece whatever I could about its construction.

While my purpose wasn’t at all to engage in a hobby just for the fun of picking out all the goldwork, after the deconstruction process, I could see how this type of pastime could take off in popularity. It is addicting to pick things apart, especially if you are somehow saving the pieces, organizing them, collecting them…

Picking apart goldwork embroidery

I like to pick apart things if I’m motivated by curiosity.

I don’t like picking apart things when I’m motivated by necessity. For example, mistakes that need correcting in needlework, or sewing machine seams that went amuck – that type of picking apart is less than fun.

Picking apart goldwork embroidery

But picking apart because I want to see something or learn something is fun. I would say it’s even exciting. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle in reverse, because, by taking a thing apart, you come to understand or see the whole process of the thing’s going-together. There’s something exciting in the discoveries you make at the various layers. And so you want to go on and on, picking the thing apart.

I like that kind of picking apart of things.

For me, though, the exciting part – the fun of discovery – pretty much ends when I find out what I want to find out. If I’ve found it out, I’m not necessarily programmed to want to keep picking, unless I’m trying to accomplish something. I’m not a picker-aparter-of-things just for the sake of picking.

But some people are. Some people are programmed pickers. And I can imagine how the hobby of parfilage appeals to pickers!

Picking apart goldwork embroidery

For your weekend enjoyment, I thought you might want to read the rather fascinating story of a little-known aspect of textile history – the story of the parfileuses and parfileurs (or the drizzlers) of history, those who engaged in the hobby of picking apart textiles to retrieve bits of gold.

This article, “Of Parfilage or Drizzling Through the Regency,” by Kathryn Kane of The Regency Redingote is eminently readable and amusing.

Drizzling: A Peculiar Pastime by Dr. Peter Kaellgren of the Royal Ontario Museum is a research article on drizzling, focusing on the tools of the hobby. It’s a fascinating article, and it includes photos of beautiful drizzling sets.

I challenge the tool-lovers among you to avoid coveting your own sets!

I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I did.

Have a wonder-filled weekend!

Embroidery hoops on Needle 'n Thread


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(5) Comments

  1. Gods…. you always post the coolest stuff. I have learned something new. Thank you for taking the time to share this. : )

  2. I remember that deconstruction, it was fascinating!

    The skirt that I am wearing as I type is made from fabric that has a metallic thread running through it. I “try” not to pull them out because I like the sparkle in the fabric but they shag or somehow work themselves out and then I find I am trailing silver strands behind me. Then I have to pull them out and it is strangely satisfying.

  3. Another fascinating post Mary. I do so enjoy all your posts. Who would have thought people would unpick rather than restore embroideries. We also had the practice of Oakum unpicking in this country.

  4. Fascinating! My brain keeps saying “pilferage” when reading the word “parfilage”. I might not be that far off when reading about people secretively taking bits off other people’s clothing.

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