Creating a Personal Cipher

Rissa Root 2007

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According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, a cipher is defined as "a combination of symbolic letters; especially : the interwoven initials of a name."  I have seen many personal ciphers in antique needlework, but I never really thought about creating my own before I took a Blackwork class with Carolyn Standing Webb this past June. I spent a little time in that class doodling on a piece of graph paper and came up with something vaguely butterfly shaped, but I never tested it out on fabric. After all, it is one thing for Mary Queen of Scots to have a cipher, but surely no one will want to identify my needle work at some point in the future. 

I recently rediscovered counted work and have been making biscornu pincushions lately, so I had one with me to work on in my idle time while traveling to and from another needlework seminar.  I had completed the Elizabeth Design's Dragonfly pattern I intended to use for the obverse, but I was sort of winging it on the reverse.  When I finished stitching my initials and the year into the corners, I had an epiphany.  Suddenly I knew why I should sign my needlework and why a cipher was a good choice.  It was small and unobtrusive, yet identified the piece as my handiwork. 

Thinking of the symmetry of my initials, I had an idea for my personal cipher and proceeded to doodle on the biscornu I was working.  I tried several designs and even picked out my initials to have room for another cipher, sort of creating a cipher sampler by accident. By the time I got back to Jackson, I had come up with a design made from my initials that resembled an angel.  It was a far cry from the butterfly I originally conceived in Carolyn's class. 

After stitching three versions, I charted the designs to help me better recreate them.  I am still debating which of the designs I like most, but they are close enough that I can start using them in my work immediately.  As of this moment, I am leaning toward the one with a shared line for each R (upper right inside corner), but my husband likes the two color one (upper left). Feel free to weigh-in and tell me which you like best.

Unless your initials happen to be RR, these designs will not be useful to you, but I decided to include them.  You never know, they might inspire you to create your own personal cipher as a signature for your needlework treasures.


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