Handbook of Embroidery

1880, by L. Higgin, edited by Lady Marian Alford






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Handbook of Embroidery by L. Higgin
Handbook of Embroidery
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Stem Stitch.—The first stitch which is taught to a beginner is “stem stitch” (wrongly called also, “crewel stitch,” as it has no claim to being used exclusively in crewel embroidery). It is most useful in work done in [Pg 20] the hand, and especially in outlines of flowers, unshaded leaves, and arabesque, and all conventional designs.

Method of working stem stitch

No. 1.—Stem Stitch.

It may be best described as a long stitch forward on the surface, and a shorter one backward on the under side of the fabric, the stitches following each other almost in line from left to right. The effect on the wrong side is exactly that of an irregular back-stitching used by dressmakers, as distinguished from regular stitching. A leaf worked in outline should be begun at the lower or stalk end, and worked round the right side to the top, taking care that the needle is to the left of the thread as it is drawn out. When the point of the leaf is reached, it is best to reverse the operation in working down the left side towards the stalk again, so as to keep the needle to the right of the thread instead of to the left, as in going up.

[Pg 21]

Correct way to work a leaf outline

No. 2.

The reason of this will be easily understood: we will suppose the leaf to have a slightly serrated edge (and there is no leaf in nature with an absolutely smooth one). It will be found that in order to give this ragged appearance, it is necessary to have the points at which the insertions of the needle occur on the outside of the leaf: whereas if the stem stitch were continued down the left side, exactly in the same manner as in ascending the right, we should have the ugly anomaly of a leaf outlined thus:—

Incorrect way to work a leaf outline

No. 3.

If the leaf is to be worked “solidly,” another row of stem stitching must be taken up the centre of it (unless it be a very narrow leaf), to the top. The two halves of the leaf must then be filled in, separately, with close, even rows of stem stitch, worked in the ordinary way, [Pg 22] with the needle to the left of the thread. This will prevent the ugly ridge which remains in the centre, if it is worked round and round the inside of the outline. Stem stitch must be varied according to the work in hand. If a perfectly even line is required, care must be taken that the direction of the needle when inserted is in a straight line with the preceding stitch. If a slight serrature is required, each stitch must be sloped a little by inserting the needle at a slight angle, as shown in the illustration. The length of the surface stitches must vary to suit the style of each piece of embroidery.

Split Stitch is worked like ordinary “stem,” except that the needle is always brought up through the crewel or silk, which it splits, in passing.

The effect is to produce a more even line than is possible with the most careful stem stitch. It is used for delicate outlines. Split stitch is rarely used in hand embroidery, being more suitable for frame work: but [Pg 23] has been described here as being a form of stem stitch. The effect is somewhat like a confused chain stitch.

Satin StitchFrench Plumetis—is one of those chiefly used in white embroidery, and consists in taking the needle each time back again almost to the spot from which it started, so that the same amount of crewel or silk remains on the back of the work as on the front. This produces a surface as smooth as satin: hence its name. It is chiefly used in working the petals of small flowers, such as “Forget-me-nots,” and in arabesque designs where a raised effect is wanted in small masses.

Method of working satin stitch

No. 4.—Satin Stitch.

Blanket Stitch is used for working the edges of [Pg 24] table-covers, mantel valances, blankets, &c., or for edging any other material. It is simply a button-hole stitch, and may be varied in many ways by sloping the stitches alternately to right and left; by working two or three together, and leaving a space between them and the next set; or by working a second row round the edge of the cloth over the first with a different shade of wool.

Four styles of blanket stitch

No. 5.—Blanket Stitch.

Knotted Stitch, or French Knot, is used for the centres of such flowers as the daisy or wild rose, and sometimes for the anthers of others. The needle is brought up at the exact spot where the knot is to be: the thread is held in the left hand, and twisted once or twice round the needle, the point of which is then passed through the [Pg 25] fabric close to the spot where it came up: the right hand draws it underneath, while the thumb of the left keeps the thread in its place until the knot is secure. The knots are increased in size according to the number of twists round the needle. When properly made, they should look like beads, and lie in perfectly even and regular rows.

Method of working knotted stitch

No. 6.—Knotted Stitch, or French Knot.

This stitch is very ancient, and does not seem confined to any country, and the Chinese execute large and elaborate pieces of embroidery in it, introducing beautiful shading. A curious specimen of very fine knotting stitch was exhibited at the Royal School in 1878, probably of French workmanship. It was a portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola, not more than six inches in length, and was entirely executed in knots of such fineness, that without a magnifying glass it was impossible to discover the stitches. This, however, is a tour de force, and not quoted as worthy of imitation.

There is one variety of this stitch, in which the thread is twisted a great many times round the needle, so as to form a sort of curl instead of a single knot. This is found in many ancient embroideries, where it is used for the hair of saints and angels in ecclesiastical work.

Knotted stitch was also employed largely in all its forms in the curious and ingenious but ugly style in vogue during the reign of James I., when the landscapes were frequently worked in cross, or feather stitch, while the figures were raised over stuffing, and dressed, as it were, in robes made entirely in point lace, or button-hole stitches, executed in silk. The foliage of the trees and shrubs which we generally find in these embroidered [Pg 26] pictures, as well as the hair in the figures, were worked in knotted stitches of varying sizes, while the faces were in tent stitch or painted on white silk, and fastened on to the canvas or linen ground.

Method of working bullion knot

No. 7.—Bullion Knot.

Another variety of knotting, which is still occasionally used, resembles bullion, being made into a long roll. A stitch of the length of the intended roll is taken in the material, the point of the needle being brought to the surface again in the same spot from which the thread originally started; the thread is then twisted eight or ten times round the point of the needle, which is drawn out carefully through the tunnel formed by the twists, this being kept in its place by the left thumb. The point of the needle is then inserted once more in the same place as it first entered the material, the long knot or roll being drawn so as to lie evenly between the points of insertion and re-appearance, thus treating the twisted thread as if it were bullion or purl.

[Pg 27] Chain Stitch is but little used in embroidery now, although it may sometimes be suitable for lines. It is made by taking a stitch from right to left, and before the needle is drawn out the thread is brought round towards the worker, and under the point of the needle.

Method of working chain stitch

No. 8.—Chain Stitch.

The next stitch is taken from the point of the loop thus formed forwards, and the thread again kept under the point, so that a regular chain is formed on the surface of the material.

This chain stitch was much employed for ground patterns in the beautiful gold-coloured work on linen for dress or furniture which prevailed from the time of James I. to the middle of the eighteenth century. It gave the appearance of quilting when worked on linen in geometrical designs, or in fine and often-repeated arabesques. Examples of it come to us from Germany and Spain, in which the design is embroidered in satin stitch, [Pg 28] or entirely filled in with solid chain stitch, in a uniform gold colour.

Chain stitch resembles Tambour work, which we shall describe amongst framework stitches, though it is not at present practised at this School.

Twisted Chain, or Rope stitch.

Method of working twisted chain

No. 9.—Twisted Chain.

Effective for outlines on coarse materials, such as blankets, carriage rugs, footstools, &c.

It is like an ordinary chain, except that in place of starting the second stitch from the centre of the loop, the needle is taken back to half the distance behind it, and the loop is pushed to one side to allow the needle to enter in a straight line with the former stitch. It is not of much use, except when worked with double crewel [Pg 29] or with tapestry wool; and should then have the appearance of a twisted rope.

Feather Stitch.—Vulgarly called “long and short stitch,” “long stitch” and sometimes “embroidery stitch.” We propose to restore to it its ancient title of feather stitch—“Opus Plumarium,” so called from its supposed resemblance to the plumage of a bird.

Method of working feather stitch

No. 10.—Feather Stitch.

We shall now describe it as used for handwork; and later (at page 37), as worked in a frame. These two modes differ very little in appearance, as the principle is the same, namely, that the stitches are of varying length, and are worked into and between each other, adapting themselves to the form of the design, but in handwork the needle is kept on the surface of the material.

[Pg 30] Feather Stitch is generally used for embroidering flowers, whether natural or conventional.

In working the petal of a flower (such as we have chosen for our illustration), the outer part is first worked in with stitches which form a close, even edge on the outline, but a broken one towards the centre of the petal, being alternately long and short. These edging stitches resemble satin stitch in so far that the same amount of crewel or silk appears on the under, as on the upper side of the work: they must slope towards the narrow part of the petal.

The next stitches are somewhat like an irregular “stem,” inasmuch as they are longer on the surface than on the under side, and are worked in between the uneven lengths of the edging stitches so as to blend with them. The petal is then filled up by other stitches, which start from the centre, and are carried between those already worked.

When the petal is finished, the rows of stitches should be so merged in each other that they cannot be distinguished, and when shading is used, the colours should appear to melt into each other.

In serrated leaves, such as hawthorn or virginia creeper, the edging stitches follow the broken outline of the leaf instead of forming an even outer edge.

It is necessary to master thoroughly this most important stitch, but practice only can make the worker perfect.

The work should always be started by running the thread a little way in front of the embroidery. Knots should never be used except in rare cases, when it is [Pg 31] impossible to avoid them. The thread should always be finished off on the surface of the work, never at the back, where there should be no needless waste of material. No untidy ends or knots should ever appear there; in fact, the wrong side should be quite as neat as the right. It is a mistake to suppose that pasting will ever do away with the evil effects of careless work, or will steady embroidery which has been commenced with knots, and finished with loose ends at the back.

The stitches vary constantly according to their application, and good embroiderers differ in their manner of using them: some preferring to carry the thread back towards the centre of the petal, on the surface of the work, so as to avoid waste of material; others making their stitches as in satin stitch—the same on both sides, but these details may be left to the intelligence and taste of the worker, who should never be afraid of trying experiments, or working out new ideas.

Nor should she ever fear to unpick her work; for only by experiment can she succeed in finding the best combinations, and, one little piece ill done, will be sufficient to spoil her whole embroidery, as no touching-up can afterwards improve it.

We have now named the principal stitches used in hand embroidery, whether to be executed in crewel or silk.

There are, however, numberless other stitches used in crewel embroidery: such as ordinary stitching, like that used in plain needlework, in which many designs were formerly traced on quilted backgrounds—others, again, are many of them lace stitches, or forms of herringbone, [Pg 32] and are used for filling in the foliage of large conventional floriated designs, such as we are accustomed to see in the English crewel work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on a twilled cotton material, resembling our modern Bolton sheeting.

It would be impossible to describe or even enumerate them all; as varieties may be constantly invented by an ingenious worker to enrich her design, and in lace work there are already 100 named stitches, which occasionally are used in decorative embroidery. Most of these, if required, can be shown as taught at the Royal School of Art-Needlework, and are illustrated by samplers.