Back in 2015 I visited the ROM for the Viva Mexico exhibit on Mexican textiles, clothing and embroidery. I took a ton of pictures, hoping that I would have a good use for them one day–and that day is today!
Most of the pictures are my own; I’ve taken a few from elsewhere where necessary and will credit when that’s the case.
Everything at this exhibit was created by regular people in out-of-the-way places. Everything was made by hand; some garments were traditional and some more modern. But all were beautifully embroidered and embellished. Professional embroiderers were commissioned for many (maybe all) of them, but in this case “professional embroiderers” means “local nameless expert,” not “D&G” or “Alexander McQueen”–but they’re all producing work at that level.
Satin stitch, with beautiful sharp borders and gorgeous shading. The shading, however, isn’t particularly blended; there are borders between shades.
And then they wore it. Imagine spilling dinner on it.
This one has more long-and-short stitch, used to effect a more gradual transition between colours. But look at those borders. And see too how, even though the fabric is very sheer, you can’t see any threads or knots from behind.
The whitework is stunning too. Those flowers are perfectly regular.
A detail from the neckline. Some of the tendrils look to have been done with a stem or back stitch.
The leaves have a naturalistic border, while the flowers have dark outlines, further highlighted by bright light colours immediately adjacent. It makes them slightly more graphic, but still the overall effect is of “beautiful shiny bright flowers” not “hand-stitched.”
The knots are most likely buried within the stitching on the reverse to ensure nothing shows on the right side.
On the garment as a whole:
The hem is plain. All of the attention is drawn to the top half.
The embroidered motif in the centre is quite stiff, and that pushes the lightweight fabric out to either side.
There is a nearly-but-not-quite-symmetric pansy motif (in particular, colours change between sides while shapes remain the same). There’s a lot of little birds, and a few non-pansy flowers.
Look how flat and smooth it all is. From this distance, the main stitch is a satin or long-and-short stitch.
A little closer.
At the top of the smocked/gathered panel in the middle, human figures are stitched in a band. They’re all wearing slightly different outfits.
And a close-up:
The shading between colours on petals and leaves is flawless. You have stem stitches and french knots for stamens and buds.
Someone made this by hand. Isn’t it incredible?And then they wore it.
The garment’s outer edge looks, to my eye, to be a crocheted border embroidered with a buttonhole stitch in bright blue. It gives that frilly, scalloped look you see in the first two photos.
This one is cross stitched. I bet you could wear your eyes out looking for a single stitch that is less than perfectly square.
It’s less naturalistic and more geometric, because that’s what cross stitch does best; but the overall colour scheme is much the same and you still have repeating motifs of flowers, leaves and birds.
Another garment with perfectly even cross stitches, again with flowers and leaves. This one is more naturalistic than the first one. The ribbons around the neckline are pleated and the three embroidered sections appear to me to be joined by the pink ribbon. It’s not quite symmetric; the motifs on the left and right haven’t been mirrored, for one thing; and for another, the colour of some elements is changed.
My guess is that this was done without the aid of waste canvas.
More pleating and smocking between embellished panels, but this one has been beaded. The beads are applied in a line, creating an illustrated effect.
Again you’ve got flowers, leaves and birds.
In the middle the words “libertad” has been embroidered into the sun, so I guess this is an early example of political clothing.
The centre panel has been completed with more of a bead-weaving style, where the shapes are filled in.
It’s hard to make beads behave as regularly and predictably as thread, as you can see here; but also when you zoom in, you can see that some of the wonkiness in the line is because the beading is used to embellish smocked sections.
I think this also helps to illustrated different looks created by outlining a shape, filling it in, or outlining and filling it in. Outlined shapes have more weight, particularly if a dark outline is immediately adjacent to a bright or light area.
C) That said, flowers, birds, and repeating motifs are hardly unique to Mexico, and embroidered tunics are not a North American innovation. Just exercise some common sense and don’t be an asshole.
You can’t go wrong with a brightly coloured floral.
Packing the motifs in and covering the textile is very visually effective. It will also take forever.
Keeping motifs in a similar scale works well, even if it’s not quite realistic (such as the small birds in amongst the flowers).
Beads like to be wonky. You can make them less wonky if you are exceptionally careful and outline larger shapes.
Cross stitches, when used to create pictures or motifs, should be as square, even and regular as you are capable of making them.
Satin stitches should be shiny and smooth with even borders. They should follow the shape so that they can reflect the light well.
Embroidery makes fabric stiff, particularly when it’s dense, and the embroidered fabric will hang differently.
If you wanted to recreate something similar as a beginner, I’d choose an opaque, medium-weight, white cotton like muslin or poplin, stabilized with maybe more muslin or poplin behind, with a medium-sized floral motif in either cross-stitch or long-and-short stitch. Cross stitch will be easier to do well with a larger stitch size, in the 11 ct range, using 3 or 4 strands of cotton floss. Long-and-short stitch is normally done with one strand of floss or thread at a time, but you could use two to save a bit of time, particularly for larger motifs. To make a nice clean border, particularly if you’re not sure about being able to make even satin or long-and-short stitches, use a buttonhole or chain stitch around the edge. Buttonhole will blend easier with the long-and-short if that’s the way you go, but inevitably it means the border colour will be blended into the motif.
If you are, as I am, a person with a job and responsibilities and the desire to spend free time doing something other than embroidering one garment and also a desire to finish and wear the garment before it goes out of date, I’d also recommend embroidering a small part of a garment: a collar, cuff, neckband, button band, part of a yoke, waistband, pocket.
The needle painted butterflies for this bookmark project took me an hour or slightly more each, and they are just about one inch square. Just to give you an idea of how much time to allocate to a smallish motif–plan on an hour, especially if you’re just getting started.
But only if it’s on clothes. I think? Are my wall hangings and cushions cool yet? I didn’t think so.
This is a brain dump for those of you who might want to try hand embroidery on your handmade (or storebought, I suppose) clothes: a few tips, some ideas, and resources for inspiration and instructions.
Tl/dr–because oh my god Dear Readers I may have said I have a “few tips” but this is a really long post–if you don’t have time to read the whole thing now, and I don’t blame you, but you are interested in embroidered clothes, scroll all the way down to the bottom, read the last paragraph, and let me know what you think.
I mean, it’s not a requirement, no. But just as you probably would not start sewing your own clothes with a wedding dress or a tailored suit, you are best off to start embroidering a simple project. That doesn’t mean that the embroidery has to be simple necessarily (more on that below) but that the overall project doesn’t require a lot of assembly time. It’s awful to spend 15 hours assembling a dress and 40 hours embellishing it and then have it all go to waste because the embellishment didn’t turn out well enough. So, some ideas of small ways to incorporate embroidered embellishments into wearables that are low-effort and often reversible:
1. Buttons. Self-covered buttons are perfect for embroidery. Keep the thickness of the fabric in mind and for a thin or delicate textile, you will still need to stabilize (see below).
2. Wearable hoops (wood or metal). Turn them into necklaces. I prefer the look of the metal ones but both are super cute.
3. Perforated goods. Perforated iphone cases for embroidery; perforated wooden charms for jewelry; perforated paper or plastic for bookmarks or decorations. And of course with paper or cardstock, you can just perforate it yourself and stitch away.
If a needle can go through it, you can embroider it: even wood or metal if you have a drill with a small bit and a very steady hand. People have embroidered chicken wire and window screening, but unless it’s going to be inside that seems a lot of effort for something that will fall apart quickly.
4. Pouches. Make a small zippered pouch and embroider a piece of it. Small, quick, and if you don’t like it, chances are it’s being carried inside something else anyway.
5. Purses. You can have a lot of fun trying large, colourful, experimental embroidery techniques on a project that doesn’t take long to put together, is super practical, very pretty, and unlike embroidered clothes is rarely ever going to be completely out of style. The embroidered project I get the most use out of is still the shoulder bag I made years and years ago. And it still gets compliments.
6. Small non-wearables: bookmarks. Eyemasks. Pictures for framing. Cushions. Holiday decorations. Pincushions. Needlebooks. Wallets.
1. Stabilize. Stabilize stabilize stabilize. (Stabilizers are interfacings applied to the back of non-embroidery fabrics to make them suitable for embroidery.) Your garment fabrics are not stiff enough or strong enough to support hand stitching. If you stitch directly on the garment fabric without stabilizing, it will warp and ripple. You can use a permanent, tear-away or soluble stabilizer, depending on how the finished garment will hang, but for the love of god: stabilize. (If you look inside storebought embroidered clothes you will often still see the stabilizer in place.)
Also: the design should work in concert with both the weight and the density of the textile being embroidered. Something light or gauzy or with a loose weave should have light, loose stitches. A densely packed or highly detailed pattern will work best on a densely woven fabric with some body: dense linen, muslin, poplin, crepe, and so on. Stabilizers can only do so much and they won’t transform a lightweight material into something suitable for a very heavy stitch. Whitework can be an exception to this, but it’s a lot more delicate than it looks and is hard to execute on a lightweight fabric.
2. Fibres: The most common type of embroidery floss is stranded cotton. Cotton is great; but cotton can shrink. Don’t pull your stitches too tight. Sometimes, the colours bleed. I recommend doing a test swatch with your garment fabric, a stabilizer, and a few stitches of the kind you are planning, thrown in the wash and then dried on hot to see if the floss bleeds or the stitches contract. Also applies to wool and silk fibres (wool won’t come in strandable flosses, but silk does).
There are synthetic fibres that won’t shrink, but they are shinier and/or sparklier than the natural fibres, so it will make for a different look. Most machine embroidery threads, both to buy and on embroidered storebought clothes, will be poly or rayon.
A standard craft store will typically carry only cotton stranded floss, and maybe perle cotton. If you want to branch out, go online or find a specialty embroidery or cross stitch store. There’s one in Port Credit I love for anyone in the GTA. If you google embroidery store, you will probably find businesses that provide machine embroidery services, so try “cross stitch store,” “needlework store,” or “petit point store.”
One last note of warning is that the chemicals used to treat leather and suede will degrade natural fibres, so if you’re going to embroider on hides, use synthetics.
3. Weights: Embroidery threads can be super super fine or very heavy. Also, there’s no need to restrict yourself to threads sold in the embroidery aisle. On a heavy fabric, try knitting yarn (I used yarn on that shoulder bag) or crochet thread. Do a woven rose with lace trim, or use a narrow lace in a running stitch or french knot. Thread painting is often done with sewing thread. Ribbons make gorgeous flowers, but you don’t have to use them for that. Use whatever you have that you can hook through a needle and pull through a textile.
4. Embellishments: Beads, sequins, goldwork–all good. Stabilizers will be even more important because embellishments are heavy. They will also alter the weight, and therefore the drape or line, of the finished garment. Just something to keep in mind.
5. Knots: Knots should never be visible from the front side of a garment. This includes a knot that presses or pushes through to form a visible lump on the right side. Make Pretty Knots. Waste knots are a good way to start. If you want to tie regular knots, make them small, as close to the fabric as possible, and positioned well within the design area.
6. HOOPS: Just as important as stabilizers. If you don’t have a good firm tension on the textile surface, it will ripple and warp and you will have puckers and dents in your finished garment. You can use a standard embroidery hoop (the cheapest and easiest to find) or a scroll frame (harder to find but easier to use, and no hoop rings when you’re done).
IF YOU ARE EMBROIDERING PALE FABRIC: Your hands will leave stains on the fabric. Doesn’t matter how often you wash them. Put a strip of a very lightweight fabric or tissue paper between the fabric and the hoop/frame so that only the area to be embroidered is visible. Keep the fabric covered between embroidering sessions.
Your goal with a hoop is to have the entire embroidered area visible as you work. You can move the hoop, of course, but it will warp the fabric and any stitches you’ve already done, so try to avoid that if you can.
If you are embroidering a piece too small to be held properly in a hoop and that is going to be attached to a garment (pocket, yoke, collar, etc.), you have two options:
a) embroider it before you cut out the pattern piece, so that you have a large piece of fabric to securely attach in the hoop/frame
b) cut out the pattern piece, MARK THE SEAMLINES IN ADVANCE, baste it nice and taut to a larger piece of fabric that can fit in the hoop/frame securely. In this case the fabric it has been basted to will be the stabilizer and will remain a part of the fabric, so be careful in case your main fabric is sheer or light and the stabilizing fabric shows through.
7. Stitches: There are thousands of different kinds of embroidery stitches. You are limited only by what you yourself can produce with consistent size and tension on the fabric and project you’re working on. A beautifully consistent running stitch or cross stitch will be a thousand times prettier and more professional than the fanciest needlelace produced with inconsistent spacing and tension.
Stitches will leave permanent marks if removed, particularly on a good dense fabric (or hide), so consider from the outset if you are likely to get tired of the design and want to tear it out. Simpler larger stitches will leave fewer marks and be easier to remove if in the future you want to.
8. Use more than just thread: Multimedia works beautifully with embroidery. Some things to consider include fabric paints, dyes, screen printing, markers, pencil crayons, regular crayons (test first for running but usually it’s fine), and needle felting (yes on clothes–this will work best on wools and other feltable fabrics).
This gorgeous painting/embroidery combo isn’t on a piece of clothing–but it could be. And Missoni in 2011 did some beautiful multimedia embellishments on their collection:
You can copy or trace one from a book or magazine. Sublime Stitching sells some nice pens and markers for making or tracing iron-on transfer patterns.
You can draw your own.
You can use simple designs that don’t need transfers, like a running stitch. In which case marking the stitch length and/or separation distance on a finger is the easiest way to produce consistent results.
You can trace the pattern or design directly to the fabric using a pencil, vanishing pen or a fine-tip sharpie/marker. Whatever you choose should be a fine enough line to be completely covered by your chosen thread.
You can use freezer paper or tracing paper, adhered or basted to the fabric, and sewn directly through.
IDEAS & INSPIRATION
A lot of the couture houses still do hand-embroidery as a staple part of their collections. To my mind Dolce and Gabbana and Chanel do it best, and I have stacks and stacks of pictures of their clothes torn from magazines for inspiration. But Google is your friend, too, if you just want to wander around and fall into a rabbit hole of pretty hand embroidered clothes. What they do–be warned–is not easy or quick. You’re probably talking a minimum of 40 hours just on the embroidery for any one of their garments, which is why they charge $10k for a dress.
D&G is my favourite. It would take me a year just to make one of their dresses–but holy cow. Those flowers are thread-paintings–and enormous, so probably a hundred hours or so each.
Vogue and Elle (and sometimes Bazaar) are the best sources for embroidered clothing pictures. In the meantime, some Ways You Can Use Embroidery on Clothing Textiles:
1. Create a design on a solid fabric. This is the one people tend to think of first. Think placement. If you look at the fancy-pants embroidered clothes, you’ll notice the designs are hardly ever centred, and they usually are on the bodice, near the neckline and/or waist. Embroidery draws attention, so think of embellishment as you would a necklace, belt, etc.
I can’t remember where I pulled the pattern from, but this has french knots, chain stitches, satin stitches, fern stitches and stem stitches, worked in crewel wool, glittery synthetic floss, and perle cotton.
I guess in this case I was thinking less “necklace or belt” and more “look at my butt.” But the embroidery is cute.
2. Complement or extend a design on a printed fabric. Outline a motif; add shading; fill something in; extend a flower with a bud. Put a bead or sequin in a flower centre. Thread paint over an existing printed element using the same colours for added texture.
3. Subvert a printed fabric. Put a spider or a fly near the flowers. Add a conversation bubble to a print with people on it, or change their clothes. Or give them little horns, or wings.
4. Completely overlay a printed fabric. Add words. Make a completely different kind of motif and just treat the existing pattern as a background: tattoo motif on a pretty floral. Pretty floral on an abstract or geometric print. Slogan on something retro or fussy.
5. Use blackwork stitches to provide a textured filling for an existing shape.
6. Use a running stitch for edge or top stitching. (Or another simple repeated stitch.) I did this on a shirt.
7. Whitework to add tone-on-tone texture to a solid or muted print
(Neither whitework nor blackwork need to be done with white or black threads; use a colour that suits the textile and project.)
9. A fancy line-stitch along a seamline, like a fly stitch. Or along a pin-tuck or pleat. One caveat: if you have a lot of pin-tucks or pleats, take extra care to keep your stitches the same so they all start and end the same, and at the same points.
10. Use waste canvas for any canvas stitching. Most common is cross-stitch but there’s lots of other options.
Bags in Bloom: Great, simple purse patterns with nice and fairly easy to execute embroidery patterns for them. I’ve made a few and I still love and use them. If you like the embroidery patterns but would prefer a more complex bag, it’s easy enough to put the embroidery on any bag pattern you like.
Inspirations: Best embroidery magazine anywhere. Not a lot of clothing projects, but most of the ideas are transferable. They do have a lot of small projects like pincushions, pouches, needlebooks, and so on, that are a good way to practice stitching skills and make something practical, and a few times a year will carry a beautiful purse pattern.
Cross Stitcher: British cross-stitch magazine with lots of cute and modern project and pattern ideas. Of course, it’s all cross stitch, but they do it well.
There are no good embroidery magazines in North America. I don’t know why. South Africa, Australia and the UK seem to be where most of the really good publications and artists are based.
So hey. This was an enormous pile of information. I hope it was of some use to those of you who are thinking about adding decorative hand stitching to clothes.
There’s a similar learning curve to embroidery as there is to garment sewing, and you’ll likely find as you go that projects that look amazing to you now look pretty handmade in a year or two. Just like with handmade clothes, that’s not necessarily a problem, and no one who doesn’t sew or embroider is likely to notice.
The big difference is this: embroidery takes a lot more time than sewing.
Like an order of magnitude more time.
It’s a good idea to consider the time investment relative to your skill level when thinking about embroidering a piece of clothing. When you make a dress that took fifteen hours and in two years you realize that the seams are wonky and the hem’s crooked, it kind of sucks, but it only took fifteen hours. When you make a dress that takes fifteen hours to put together and then embroider it with a fancy design that takes forty hours, that’s now a total of 55 hours for a dress, and if you decide in two years that the dress is fine but the embroidery is amateurish–that lost time investment is going to smart more. It’ll be easier to swallow if the embroidery only took three hours because you kept it simple, or if the garment was fairly basic and didn’t take long to assemble.
That said, you should totally do it. Embroidered clothing is still better. Just recognize that you’re at the begging of a learning process similar to but much more complicated than the learning process involved in sewing your own clothes.
If I have the time and attention span, I might write a few posts in the next little while looking at an embroidered garment (couture or historical or whatever) and talking about what kind of embroidery it is, what you can figure out by looking at it, how it was done, and so on. What do you think? Is that something you’d like to read?
They are just the cutest. Aren’t they just the cutest? Look at the cute. Two itty bitty birds being all cuddly on a branch.
You can see why this was the companion piece for the LOVE cross-stitch. Dear Readers, if these two birds don’t love each other, I’ll eat my tea mug.
It’s a Trish Burr pattern from her book, Colour Confidence in Embroidery. Most of the book is an in-depth discussion of how to achieve shading effects in thread-painting, with examples of different kinds and colours of shading used in different ways. I expect it will be an enormously useful reference book basically forever. It also has a smaller section of thread-painting projects in the back, sorted by colour, to demonstrate the shading. This was one of those (it’s also a variation on the project she uses on the front page of her website, if you want to click through and see how a real expert does it).
The top fabric is a scrap of the cotton satin I used for my math skirt last summer; it has a lovely, subtle sheen. The backing fabric, underlined in the standard method, is a stiff white cotton muslin. They were then stretched taut in the kind of plastic hoop frame that has an inner groove to prevent things from slipping. I used a standard pencil to trace the pattern; next time I’ll use a mechanical to get a finer line. Don’t try to erase a mistake. The eraser left a larger mark on my fabric than the misplaced pencil did.
Having finally tried a project from this book, a review:
The picture to trace to the fabric worked, but could have been better labelled. What’s labelled as the “neck” on the diagram, when you actually get into the instructions, is actually the upper part of the chest. A couple of things are a slightly different size or angle from the pattern diagram to her finished example. I’m assuming that’s simply because she took one of her own finished works, made for herself, and reverse-engineered it for publication. You’d expect a few differences to creep in. None of the errors are significant, but do be prepared for an inconsistency here and there.
More concerning, the colours are represented in the book’s photography don’t always match the colours in the embroidery flosses she tells the reader to use. They’re close; it’s not like the picture shows purple and you buy the thread# she says and it turns out to be green. But going by the project photography, I was expecting something with a warmer tint throughout than what I got by following the instructions. Whether or how this will affect the usefulness of the prior section on colour shading (all of which also has photographs and thread#s) I can’t yet say.
I also learned some things that I shouldn’t have needed to learn because I knew them already and chose to disregard them:
Will your clean hands leave oil marks and stains on the white fabric? Yes.
Will you be able to wash those stains out afterwards? No.
Will they respond to bleach? Also no.
When you wash it, will the top fabric and the backing fabric shrink differently, even though they have been pre-washed? Quite possibly.
Will you curse yourself for having ignored the recommendations for avoiding these, after having spent so many hours making it? Absolutely.
Next time, will you promise to cover the project with white tissue paper when you’re not working on it, and when you handle the frame, will you do so with a piece of clean, plain white cotton between your hand and the project? Yes. A million times yes. And then yes some more.
It’s still a nice project, but I’m kicking myself for not having taken these minor extra steps to prevent this from happening. And I’ve learned my lesson. Next time (and there will be a next time; I’m definitely a thread-painting addict now)–fabric protection! Very key!
At any rate, it has been framed and added to the wall and our sofa is cuter than ever.
She loves to read, and if the gifts she’s accumulated in her house over many decades are any guide, she loves little embroidered things.
Either that, or people have been giving them to her for years and she’s been too nice to say she hates them. In which case, I have added to her stockpile of unwanted embroidered things, and I apologize.
Being me, I couldn’t leave the directions alone, and had to “improve” upon them. I did this in two ways: 1) The use of hand-dyed linen instead of the white irish linen recommended, and 2) using a bit of buckram in the middle to stiffen it, instead of cardstock or stiff paper.
The linen was maybe not the best choice. This was a piece from the bug juice test dyeing of a few years back, and it is a lovely shade of pink (Aunt Sue, please don’t think about it being stained with the blood of dead lady cactus beetles). The colour contrasts quite well with the butterfly colours. But the linen is quite fine which, while perfect for less heavy embroidery, turned out to be a challenge for thread painting. There is so much thread and it is so thickly layered, and it’s hard to be precise with needle placement when the fabric warp and weft are placed rather spaciously. I think it turned out ok, but it could have been better, for sure.
The buckram would have been a fantastic idea, if I’d remembered about turn of cloth and not cut out a piece exactly as big as the finished bookmark. Once I’d sewn it together, flipped it around, and then topstitched it flat, it buckled in the middle something fierce. Very disappointing.
I got that far just before Christmas but couldn’t bring myself to mail a wobbly bookmark to my Aunt.
And there it sat for three months.
Just before her birthday I finally straightened my head out, took out the seams, removed the buckram, cut off a quarter inch from the top and one side, put the buckram back in, and sewed it all up again, after pressing as many of the creases out as I could. So much better. Now it’s smooth and much less wonky looking.
I know some people are big fans of wonky but it’s not a look that works well with thread painting.
Aunt Sue is a lovely, warm-hearted, generous, and unbelievably positive woman with a kind word for everyone and a possibly limitless capacity for forgiveness. It was a lot of fun to make her a little something. Here’s hoping the next time I do, I’ll remember to mail it before at least one of its intended celebrations.
I read a number of years ago in Snoop that motivational posters are essentially a form of self-talk, and one of the most reliable external indicators of a neurotic temperament. Science. Gotta love it. Apparently people buy them, not to communicate to other people their commitment to Excellence or Overcoming Fear or Success, but to remind themselves of the kinds of people they want to be.
It made me incredibly insecure about anything that might be considered a motivational poster in any of my spaces. Oh my god. I’m advertising my neuroticism. Laying bare my inadequacies for the viewing pleasure of any passing pizza delivery person.
One exception to this rule has been this poster:
Proudly displayed right above the sofa, for many years now. Except at Christmas when it’s replaced by a seasonal cross-stitch. Anyway:
Backstory is that our former PM, Harper, had a very anti-science and secretive attitude, and this artist, Franke James, was outright censored by the government for her views on climate change. You can read her story elsewhere, but James put together a series of posters and stickers, and a really funny book, about her experiences. And this is one of those posters. (I also have the book. Worth reading.)
True to Snoop form, it is of course a statement to myself of the kind of person I want to be: committed to environmental values, willing to take an unpopular stand to communicate my commitment to environmental values.
But since the election of Justin Trudeau in the fall, it is also out of date.
Cue parade, streamers, marching band. Hurray! So glad it’s out of date!
This meant it needed to be replaced. And the sooner the better. I don’t want to have to look at any Harper Era reminders for any longer than I have to.
It’s been replaced by this:
Soon to be joined by the most adorable little threadpainting. It’s going to be a corner of nauseating sweetness. Frances and I will snuggle up with Simba and talk about our days under a nice little “LOVE” banner (plus the threadpainting), possibly while using the critter cuddle quilt. Maybe I’ll call it the Saccharine Seat.
The backing fabric is a hand-dyed aida bought at Gitta’s Charted Petit Point (favourite embroidery store in the known universe, Dear Readers. Did you know you can buy embroidery fabric off the bolt?). What I love about hand-dyed aida is, well, first off the colours are fabulous, but I also find the slight mottling introduced by the hand-dyeing process tricks the eye into seeing it as a regular fabric, at least from certain distances, rather than a grid.
Never let it be said that I lack self-awareness, Dear Readers. (Though it’s true sometimes.)
I could say I made it just because of how wonderfully the colours work with the grey-blue walls. I love the contrast between warm and cool. Give me a room to decorate, I’ll put a warm or cool colour on the walls, and then the opposite for the furniture and fixings. And the golds in the cross-stitch work so well with the golds in all the other art hung over the couch.
And I could talk about how mentally I have just not been up for sewing. The massive purge has contributed, yes–but even then. Sewing (even pouches and tote bags) requires a kind of focus and concentration I haven’t had much of. Whereas cross stitch is like paint by numbers on fabric. You can set yourself up on the sofa with something on the TV and just plug away, one little x at a time, and as long as you count correctly, you’ll end up with something gorgeous. But that begs a whole other question, doesn’t it?
The TV appears to be important, because otherwise I end up fruitlessly ruminating on unhappy memories.
And you don’t want to hear about it, but fruitlessly ruminating over unhappy memories is, in the main, incompatible with a hobby that requires focus, concentration, some math, and the use of machines with strong engines and sharp edges. An easy, mindless project that can be carried out on the couch while watching sci-fi shows is much more the thing.
According to WordPress I’ve written about 25 versions of the rest of this post. Not that I’m indecisive or anything, but apparently I can’t decide how to end this. Dear Readers, let’s try #26:
Once upon a time, a young girl at daycare stared, puzzled, at a boy who was sobbing brokenheartedly as his mother left. “Why would you cry,” she wondered, “just because your mother is leaving?”
She thought about this hard all day, but her thinking brought her no closer to an answer. She decided to try this for herself, the next time her mother dropped her off there, and she did. Wailed. Her mother left and the daycare workers comforted her. “Nope,” she thought. “I still don’t get it.”
She would never cry for missing her mother. Not once, in her entire life. There was nothing to miss. Her relationship with her mother was like a three-prong electrical cord trying to fit into a two-prong outlet, like the outline of where a person should be. Fear, anger, and sadness were subject to evaluation and her reasons for being scared, sad or angry were never good enough. Eventually nothing would make her cry–not disease, not death–not where anyone could see, but she suspects the jewelry box she hid a scalpel and a bottle of aspirin in is probably still in storage with the rest of her childhood things.
One day she would find herself in a psychologist’s office, after having made so many mistakes that she could no longer chalk them up to circumstance, and realizing that she didn’t know what to do with her life except try to fit three-prong electrical cords into two-prong outlets. That psychologist would have a number of things to say, like, “I don’t know why you still have a relationship with those people,” and “Asking why is pointless. A doormat can ask the feet that walk on it for a million years why they’re walking on it. If it really doesn’t want to be walked on, it needs to roll itself up and go under the chair,” and “You are more disconnected from your emotions than anyone I’ve ever met.”
A lot of it wouldn’t make any sense at the time, but would become clearer as the years passed, until she was able to say to herself, “I don’t know why I have a relationship with these people either.” Until she became the kind of person who regularly wore waterproof mascara and carried kleenex in her purse, who was teased by her daughter for crying at everything. Who learned that crazy doesn’t look like crazy from the inside, that the people closest to a situation often see it least clearly, that children normalize whatever it is they’ve grown up with. That Philip Larkin is at least a little bit wrong, and so are The Clod and The Pebble.
That people who have grown up in houses with empty outlines instead of people develop a sense of humour that is quite distinct and often not appreciated, and she could find her tribe by telling a joke and seeing who laughs.
That people only change when they want to, and they almost never want to. Dragged to the edge of a cliff, held by the collar of their shirt over the edge, while life says “change or die.” They’d rather fall. They do fall, reciting a litany of reasons why falling was inevitable, why falling isn’t actually falling, why they’re falling up instead of down, why actually everyone is falling and those clowns standing there looking so smug are falling too even if they won’t admit it. It was a kind of gift, she knows, to have been dragged to the right cliff at just the right time. It wasn’t a given.
Eventually plenty of tears would be shed over what should have filled that outline–the words, gestures, and expressions that might have existed, but didn’t–a kind of meta-missing. Like missing a friend you’ve never had. A country you’ve never seen. But decades of looking for what wasn’t and couldn’t be there would eventually drive home the point that if it was to be found, it would need to be found elsewhere; and that regardless, it would need to be begged, borrowed, stolen, bought, or created out of popsicle sticks and duct tape, for her daughter.
(That part didn’t turn out to be so hard. Her daughter is pretty lovable.)
After a good, quick Linden as a palate-cleaner, I decided to do a good, semi-quick palate cleanser before getting back into anything more complicated. And by this I meant that I made another V9029, this time in a Nani Iro double gauze that I bought last fall (shame on me), and then edge-stitched by hand.
Yeah, well, what else was I going to do?
I bought this double gauze last year because the print was so lovely and the cotton was so soft, and I knew it was going to be a shirt, but what kind of shirt? It seemed too floaty to make into something tailored, but loose woven tunics and I are not on speaking terms.
After spending too many hours googling pictures of double gauze shirts, I confirmed that yes, almost every bit of Nani Iro sold becomes either a Grainline Scout tee or a Wiksten Tova. But looking at that sea of Scouts and Tovas, I only had eyes for the one double gauze Simplicity button-up blouse.
Because you know it was Embroidery Month, and the fabric print has that lovely hand-painted feel to it, and wouldn’t it look nice with a little hand-stitched touch? Like maybe the edge-stitching done by hand in a matching embroidery floss?
DMC 725 was a perfect match for the marigold yellow in the flowers. One strand of floss in a small needle, and to get the stitches just right, I ran my tracing wheel–hard, without the carbon paper–1/8″ from the finished edges.
It made a lovely straight line with evenly spaced divots that I just followed with the needle, up down up down, all the way around all the pieces needing hand-stitching. It’s not quite perfect, but then for hand-stitching, you don’t want it to be quite perfect. You just want it to be close enough. It made a heavy and long enough stitch that you can see the yellow, but from far away, it just looks like a normal shirt. So just what I wanted.
V9029 is becoming a TNT for me. The sleeves are the right length this time, the collar worked better–a bit on the big side, but no puckers underneath, and it fits fairly well through the body with no gaping and not too much ease. (For me, a successful button-up shirt is a shirt that, if I leave it unbuttoned, will fall naturally to the centre front, and this one does.)
I used the reverse of the double gauze on the under collar and inside of the collar stand, but given that it’s transparent it doesn’t add much contrast value. Still. It is a Thing that I Did.
Plus the obligatory back shot:
Look! My Back!
Not bad for fit, eh? So that’s one shirt pattern pretty much nailed.
Photos this time were inspired by those super formal early photography portraits, where no one ever smiled and so everyone looked faintly ridiculous and/or bordering-on-postal.
The chair in the corner was clean for a change; plus, it meant I got to sit down. I like to think that Simba also enjoyed it as another chance to claim a lap as part of his expanding territory, but it’s hard to be sure.
I can’t actually remember when I started to embroider. But I found a half-finished pre-stamped crewel piece of a frog on a toadstool saying “kiss me!” in a box of my old books, so clearly I have been embroidering for a good long time–at least 30 years. And the funny thing is that I’m still not an expert. There are dozens of techniques and stitches that I still want to learn.
I’ve done crewel, freestyle, cross-stitch, needlework, needlepainting, blackwork, whitework, redwork, some ribbon embroidery, a bit of crochet lace and smocking, and now stumpwork. So while I’m not an expert, I’ve done enough to be able to give some pointers to people looking for a place to start:
1. Cheapest: Needlepainting
Use a small needle and the threads you already have! Make tiny straight stitches in different colours to sketch or “paint” out the picture you want to make. Draw the picture directly on the fabric first, though, so you’ll have something to follow. If you have a good pattern to use, fantastic; otherwise, you’re best off if you already know how to draw fairly well, because it’s a lot of the same skills. Chloe Gordiano is a master of this.
2. Easiest: Cross stitching
There’s a reason this one still has its own magazines, and the rest don’t: it’s basically colour-by-numbers on the fabric equivalent of graph paper. If you want to put a cross-stitch design on a non-aida fabric (like the back pocket on a pair of blue jeans, or a shirt lapel), get yourself some waste canvas; you baste this stuff on top of the regular fabric, complete the cross stitch design, take out the basting stitches and pull the waste canvas out from underneath the stitches. (Trust me, it works.)
It’s also fairly inexpensive. It uses six-stranded cotton embroidery floss you can typically get for $0.5/skein or less, and aida cloth is similarly priced. Get yourself a cheap plastic hoop and a couple of tapestry needles, and you’re good to go.
3. Trendiest: “freestyle”
This is the kind of embroidery found in Sublime Stitching or Doodlestitching books and patterns. Easy, cute, fun. A few basic stitches: back stitch, straight stitch, maybe a split or chain stitch, satin stitch if you’re feeling ambitious.
4. Best introductory book: Mastering the Art of Embroidery
Sophie Long covers an enormous range of different kinds and styles of embroidery in her large and absolutely beautiful book. Not only does it include a survey of different styles of embroidery and the main stitches of each, as well as some basic projects, she includes interviews with proficient artists in those crafts, and absolutely amazing photographs of completed work. The kind of thing that will make your jaw drop open. It is a great combination of inspiration, information and instruction.
It is not the kind of book that will help you master any one technique (no one book could do that); it is the kind of book that will help you figure out what kind of embroidery you might like to try, and where to start.
Also, Sophie Long is a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework in London.
5. Most fun and inspirational embroidery book: Hoopla
Many, many photographs of finished works by professional embroidery artists doing amazing and unexpected things, as well as interviews and a handful of projects and ideas. Ever seen cross stitch on a wooden door or car hood? Right, well. There you go.
Also, their graduates publish a series of instructional books on a wide variety of different kinds of embroidery: crewel, whitework, blackwork, goldwork, stumpwork, and more. They’re small and relatively inexpensive and you can trust the information in them.
7. If you ever get to the point where you’re looking for embroidery books at a higher-than-intermediate level, you won’t need my help or anyone else’s. At that point, you’ll know the experts and the artists by name yourself, and trot after their exhibits and books and magazine articles happily wherever they lead. However, if you do want to browse some embroidery eye-candy, you can find my embroidery bookshelf on GoodReads here. There’s also a fair number of pattern books for different embroidery styles, if you’re the kind of person who loves to embroider but hates to draw out the pattern first.
8. Embroidery magazine well worth the cover and shipping charges: Inspirations
An Australian embroidery magazine with a very impressive roster of regular artists who contribute projects and articles. Everything about the magazine is very high quality, and their projects are helpfully organized by skill-level and type. You’ll find every kind of embroidery in it, with really fantastic photography. I’ve got more projects dog-eared in back issues of this magazine than I will ever have the time to make.
If you’re thinking about dipping your toes into the pool of decorative hand-stitching, purses and bags are a great place to start.
You don’t need to worry about flattering placement, or layering other pieces on top of something embroidered if it’s dimensional, or whether or not it’s “professional” or “appropriate;” you don’t need to worry about fit (if what’s holding you back is spending a lot of time decorating something and then having the final product not fit well). And there are some really good books and patterns out there that you can use as-is, or modify to be more your taste.
This is my winter work-bag. It’s a good size (almost, but not quite, briefcase-length), and the inside is the top of an old pair of blue jeans, so it’s got lots of functional pockets. I sewed the bottom of the jeans-top shut, gusseted the corners, added a facing to the top, then measured the outside of this to cut the outside pattern pieces, added handles, top-stitched and voila. Construction-wise for the bag, not very tricky (except for sewing through multiple layers of boiled wool and denim). But to me, the embroidery makes the bag.
The pattern is based off of one in Bags in Bloom by Susan Cariello, a really fantastic embroidered-purse project book that includes patterns and instructions for the bags and for the embroidery. I chose one part of a nice pattern and scaled it up for use on a slightly larger bag.
Given the heaviness of the boiled wool, heavier embroidery fibres were called for: primarily yarn (as in, for knitting) in wool, bamboo and angora, regular stretch lace, perle cotton for the finer details, and freshwater pearls and glass beads in the flower centres.
No, working worsted-weight yarn through boiled wool was not the kindest project on my fingers, but the end result was so worth it; and if you started with something like heavy linen, cotton canvas or a good stiff silk, it would not be so hard on the digits.
I’ve heard that Bags in Bloom has been recently republished under another title; if the cover looks the same and it’s by Susan Cariello, it’s the same book. But there’s a few other recent embroidered-bag project books, and while I haven’t yet had a chance to make up a project from them, they both look very solid from my reading: Artfully Embroidered by Naoko Shimoda and Strolling Along Paths of Green by Yoko Saito. Both are Japanese craft books recently translated into English.
Artfully Embroidered includes a variety of embroidery styles, and bag projects beyond purses, including coin-purses (above), wallets, tote bags, and so on. Strolling Along Paths of Green is more of an applique/quilting book, but the projects look beautiful.
If you find my bag amateurish, that’s fine, and you can exclude it from your memory for the next question:
Looking at them, do you think that either printed fabric or regular solid fabric would have been as lovely?
I don’t. You’d miss the texture that the stitches add, and the effects their fibres can create, whether shiny, sparkly, matte, fuzzy, or variegated. You wouldn’t have the same opportunities to customize, either; adding or omitting beads, shifting or outright altering the colour scheme, changing the scale of the image, using only a portion of the pattern. Certainly my work bag (and yes, I’m bringing it back in) would have been just a grey sack.
That grey bag is the one project I can count on to get a “You made that? You know you could sell those” response, including from gallery and store owners. Not that I made it for the approval of others, or that I would enjoy it less if I didn’t have it, and of course I have no intention of making them to sell. But it is something that, if executed reasonably well, adds a lot of punch to an otherwise simple and unremarkable project.
I am incredibly impressed by the level of research in Jane Nicholas’s insect embroidery books. I don’t read them expecting to learn more about the critters she embroiders, but I do: The natural history and basic biology of the insects are included; she also includes the history of the use of those insects in art, design & embroidery; and all of the projects are based on specific species of insects, quite true to life, with background information on their classification, habitat, and life cycles. It blows me away.
I’ve now completed one of the butterflies–the Chalkhill Blue Butterfly.
Below is a photo of an actual Chalkhill Blue Butterfly, to give you an idea of how realistic the embroidery is:
The instructions were detailed, thorough and accurate. This time, I used a much finer gauge of wire, and it was much easier to couch to the fabric and buttonhole stitch over it.
The instructions for shaded satin stitch in the wings also made sense, and made a final product that looked mostly like the photo in the book (any discrepancies I’m chalking up to my poorer relative skill level).
The wings cut out well and inserted through the background fabric no problem, and the remaining instructions to embroidery the body and antennae were simple and accurate. Voila, the final product (beside the ladybug I embroidered from her beetles book a few weeks ago):
Some imperfections to note:
-I didn’t have the stripey thread she used for the antennae, so mine are solid.
-I also didn’t have and couldn’t find 3mm beads for the head, so my head is not quite the right proportion for the body–still, I think it works
-I also didn’t want to pay shipping on the brand of chenille thread she used for the body, so I used a fuzzy thread I could buy locally. It’s not quite right but it’s better than the shipping charge would have been.
-And lastly, you can see the pencil tick marks on the background fabric showing where the butterfly ought to have extended to, according to the “finished size” photo/diagram. Mine is clearly smaller. I followed the patterns for the wings quite carefully, so either the photo/diagram of the finished project is a smidge off, or you’re supposed to buttonhole stitch around the wing shape, and not directly over it. In any case, it’s a minor thing, and won’t affect my ability to use the butterfly pattern on anything else I choose.
Five stars. I’m having a fantastic time with stumpwork so far. Yes, it’s small and fiddly, but the smallness means that each element works up really quickly, and I can see lots of potential for including little bits like these on clothing and bags and other projects.