Needlework FAQ: Stitching and Embroidery Techniques


Kathleen Dyer --
Sunday, March 20, 2005

Copyright © 1994-2005 Kathleen Dyer
All Rights Reserved.
Permission is granted to redistribute this article in its entirety for noncommercial use provided that this copyright notice is not removed or altered and that no portion of this work is sold either by itself or as part of a larger work without the express written permission of the author.


Table of Contents

1. Comments

2. Assisi Work

3. Blackwork

4. Counted Thread Work

5. Drawn Thread Work

6. Duplicate Stitch

7. Hardanger Embroidery

8. Pulled Thread Work

9. Shadow Work

10. Whitework

A. About the Needlework FAQs

A.1 General Comments
A.2 How to Find the FAQs

1. Comments

There are many, many styles or techniques for counted thread work and embroidery. Most are centuries old, and have been in and out of fashion more than once.

This list is far from complete. Any additions to this list or to the descriptions are welcome.


2. Assisi Work

From: Mary Rita Otto <motto@avaya.com>...

Assisi Work is a form of embroidery where the background is stitched around an unstitched silouette design, which is outlined in backstitch to further define it. One particularly lovely form employes subtle shading of the background threads -- to me, it looks like a sunrise backlighting the subject. These designs can be particularly lovely.

Contrary to popular opinion, Assisi work is not the opposite of Blackwork. In most Assisi work, the background is worked in a plain filling stitch, normally cross-stitch. The outlining in Assisi work is normally Backstitch rather than double running stitch, because backstitch makes a smoother line. (Note, Assisi work is done using a blunt needle. Double running stitch is best done using a sharp needle so that the second pass of stitches can split the threads of the first path to make a smooth line. Double running stitch done with a blunt needle will have the adjacent stitches not match exactly at the ends, where the threads must pass beside each other at the 'holes'.)

Please note that while it is possible to use patterned stitches to fill in the background for Assisi work, this is not usually done because it detracts from the design. If the eye is focused away from the voided area (the outlined but unfilled element of the design) the impact of the design is lost. The best Assisi work has a solid color background, or very subtle shading with no visible 'lines' in the background.


3. Blackwork

From: Gillian Cannon <gillian.cannon@solar.org>...

...It was brought to England by Catherine of Aragon, I believe, and came into popularity through the paintings of Hans Holbein (it is also called "Holbein" work) and because lace could not be imported from France because of the war. The blackwork gives the look of lace to a garment's sleeves, collar, and other areas.

From: Mary Rita Otto <motto@avaya.com>...

I've been researching the history of Blackwork. Actually, it dates back to at least the 1300's. It was mentioned in the Canterbury Tales, in a description of the Miller's wife's nightcap. While the use of black wool (natural, rather than dyed) on white linen is one of the traditional forms, red on white was also extremely popular. Catherine of Aragon was responsible for bringing the darker fashions of Spain to England, and with them came a fashion trend for blackwork in court clothing (as opposed to peasant clothing like the miller's wife was wearing in the 1300's).

Please note that blackwork merely became High Fashion (tm) at this time. It had been done for centuries prior to that. The popularity of blackwork which is described above came with the popularity of black in fashion -- prior to that, the fashion was to use multiple colors. To provide the distinction of different shadings, using a single color, the geometric filling patterns of blackwork were employed. This allowed complex design while using a single color.

Only some blackwork is reversible. Reversible work is confined primarily to border patterns. The reversible patterns were worked in double running stitch, sometimes overcast to smooth the lines and hide the holes between the stitches. Other embroidery in the classification of blackwork are repeating "diaper" patterns used as filling stitches, and outlined in chain, split or stem stitch. These were worked on a plain ground fabric, not necessarily an even weave. Interestingly, a technique was developed using starched cheesecloth over the plain fabric to regulate the stitch length, much like the modern use of waste canvas.

I must take issue with Gillian's comment about Hans Holbein. Hans painted portraits after the popularity of blackwork was established. Hans did not "start a fad" -- those portraits didn't circulate like a copy of People magazine!

Some say blackwork was a substitute for lace. I find that hard to swallow. It would be simpler to make needlemade lace than to execute the blackwork shown in portraits of the time. It is more likely that it was just a fashion. Someone of influence like Catherine of Aragon who might just happen to like the geometric look of blackwork, and really like the look of black on white, was capable of starting a trend. Spain, because of the Moorish/Islamic influences and traditions, had much more geometric design heritage than England. Such geometric designs were a refreshing fashion change for the women of the English court! Consider the fashion influence of Jackie Kennedy in 1960 for a modern comparison.

From: Shirley Wolfersperger <wolf@mho.net>
... Notes from "The Ultimate Blackwork Class" copyright S.K. Wolfersperger. Reprinted by permission.

Blackwork is one of the counted thread works. It was named (as almost all embroidery techniques are named) from its classic and pre-classic periods when it was done with black silk threads (usually) on white linen fabric. Other colors of blackwork which are extant from the Elizabethan period are red, blue, and green. It was sometimes done with gold metallic thread (called silver gilt because of its composition), silver threads, and paillettes which are small metal sequins.

Blackwork was never done as a framed piece to hang on a wall until the 20th century. Before this it was only done on clothing, household furnishings, and some ecclesiastical work. Some practice samplers from this period also have blackwork bits on them.

Blackwork can be divided into the following periods:

The above dates are approximate.


4. Counted Thread Work

From: Mary Rita Otto <motto@avaya.com>...

This is the descriptive category for stitches worked over a counted number of threads. It includes traditional sampler making stitches such as long-armed cross-stitch, Italian cross-stitch, four sided stitch, Queen stitch, nun's stitch, herringbone, and "countless" ;^) others. Cross-stitch is only one of the many counted thread stitches. Eileen Bennett of The Sampler House is a leading authority on this traditional sampler making stitches.


5. Drawn Thread Work

From: Mary Rita Otto <motto@avaya.com>...

This is a technique which is enjoying a resurgence. It involves the removal of some of the threads from a section of the fabric. One of the more interesting techniques is to remove the horizontal threads and to work twisting patterns (called leno work) in the remaining vertical threads. This creates a lovely lacey effect. Linda Driscoll is a leading designer of Drawn Thread samplers and provides excellent instruction in the techniques in her publications.

Drawn Thread Work is traditionally worked in white on white (or ivory on ivory) and is sometimes called "White Work". Such monotone samplers are often displayed by mounting them over a piece of colored linen to highlight the open work areas. Interesting effects can be achieved using color with the technique, though. Needleweaving (one of the techniques) can be used to create, for example, a row of Christmas trees in openwork. Gold threads were used in some historic pieces worked in this technique.


6. Duplicate Stitch

Duplicate Stitch is a technique for embroidering on knitted objects so that the design appears to have been knitted in. It is done as a series of V's, to match the V's in a standard stockinette weave. While regular cross stitch patterns may be used, it is important to remember that the resulting design will appear squashed.


7. Hardanger Embroidery

Hardanger is a Scandinavian counted thread technique, performed on linen or a special evenweave cloth called (logically) Hardanger. Traditionally, it is done with a matching color cotton thread such as Perle. Hardanger embroidery bears a resemblance to Drawn Thread Work, but it emphasizes box shapes rather than long rows of stitches.


8. Pulled Thread Work

Pulled Thread is a technique which intimidates some stitchers. It shouldn't, because very complicated looking patterns can be created with some of the simpler pulled thread stitches. Probably the hardest thing for a needleworker new to the technique to remember is to pull hard.

From: Mary Rita Otto <motto@avaya.com>...

Pulled Thread is one of my favorite techniques. It is, like it says, a technique where the embroidered thread is pulled tightly. This distorts the threads of the fabric, creating holes between the stitches. It makes a nice, light, lacey effect. I find that a border of double backstitch, pulled, makes a lovely accent around a stitched piece. It is simple to work. For someone who would like to experiment with this simplest of pulled thread techniques, I recommend the pattern leaflet from Sal-Em for their table linens which shows the rose design. This was my introduction into the technique. The instructions were very clear, and the stitch is easy to do. I was very pleased with the results of my first effort. (Hey, I went on to make 4 placemats and 4 napkins, so that says something!)

Pulled Thread is, apparently, a Danish technique. There are a lot of different patterns for pulled thread, either as a border or a filling stitch. It tends to have a lighter effect than either hardanger or drawn thread, and does not require the cutting of the fabric threads.


9. Shadow Work

From: Dianne Lewandowski <tom+di@netnet.net>...

Shadow Work:

This form of embellishment encompasses several techniques, all involving white, sheer (such as voile, batiste, organdy) fabrics in natural silk or cotton. ITALIAN SHADOW QUILTING uses colored yarns in the quilted channels. SHADOW APPLIQUE employs white or colored fabric placed on the reverse side of the fabric and attached with several different methods - the most common being pin stitching (Madeira applique). Very tiny hem stitching, three-sided (Belgian) stitch, among others, are also used. Shadow Applique was rare in Ayrshire and Chikan work, but specimens are still available.

The third form is SHADOW EMBROIDERY. Three stitches are used: herringbone; plain, zig/zag stitching known as Indian Shadow Work; and (shadow) darning. Floss should be chosen of sufficient color to show through the fabric. A raised effect on the surface adds to the interest of the work.

Stitchers can work the herringbone stitch from either the front or the back of the work, whichever is more comfortable. The long threads must always be on the wrong side of the fabric. Very tiny stitches (picking up only a few threads of the fabric) are mandatory. The worker should use a small hoop to maintain correct tension. Stitches should be no longer than approximately one-half inch (1 cm).

Indian Shadow Work is done in the same fashion, but the stitches do not cross each another.

Shadow Darning is simply an added step to either of the above two stitches. After the work is complete, floss is darned over and under stitches. This creates a darker hue on the surface of the work, and can be used to add more depth of color to some leaves or petals of flowers in a design.

Dianne Lewandowski
Heritage Shoppe
November 8, 1996

From: Stella Nemeth <s.nemeth@ix.netcom.com>...

...This is both a very old form of embroidery and something that is just making a comeback. It was popular in the last century and again in the 1930s and is just beginning to make a dent in the heirloom sewing world... It is embroidery done on a semi-transparent fabric like organdy. The idea is that you can see the threads on the back as a sort of colored pastel shadow. On the front, all you can see is what looks like backstitches outlining the elements of the design -- usually leaves, flowers and big bows. On the back the thread produces a herringbone pattern out of the crossing threads which almost, but not quite, fills in the elements being embroidered.

Modern shadow embroidery sometimes has surface embroidery on it as well in the form of french knots for flower centers and bouillon roses.


10. Whitework

From: Dianne Lewandowski <tom+di@netnet.net>...

WHITEWORK - WHITE THREADS ON A WHITE GROUND FABRIC

AYRSHIRE NEEDLEWORK

The "flowerers" of Scotland perfected this classification of embroidery, correctly referred to as Ayrshire Needlework. From original peasant designs, this form of whitework reached its peak in the early to mid 1800's in large part because of the foresite of Mrs. Jamieson, the wife of an Ayr cotton agent. The industry quickly faded with the advent of machine-made embroideries that could mimic this work.

Ayrshire Needlework is still practised, but the many hours it takes to complete a piece relegates this form of whitework to embroiderers with esoteric passions. The stitches are not difficult, but exacting and tire the eyes quickly. A hoop is not used except for the lace fillings, pulled thread and drawn fabric motifs. The form incorporates trailings (tiny satin stitches over a padded outline stitch), eyelets, padded satin stitch and seed stitch. Applique and Shadow work are rarely used. It is impossible to duplicate the original work, as the very sheer muslins and cotton threads used at the time are no longer available. However, reasonable facsimilies can be accomplished. Any needleworker who enjoys a challenge should try Ayrshire Needlework.

CUT WORK

Interest in this work is growing, at this time. However, much of the work is being done with satin stitching on the newer computer sewing machines rather than by hand. Although the main stitch used is referred to as the buttonhole stitch, this is a misnomer. It actually is the closed blanket stitch. The buttonhole stitch is a double looped stitch used only on buttonholes to increase wear.

A firm linen is required, although it is possible to use other firm fabrics. Threads used for stitching is dependent upon the fabric choice: floche, #30 Cebelia, cotton a broder or two strands of six-strand embroidery floss, among others.

Cut work is a form of embroidery wherein portions of the ground fabric are cut away. Several divisions are noted with each becoming progressively more intricate. Venetian cut work is simply the addition of padding stitches placed between the running stitches before buttonholing is accomplished. Some forms of cut work give the appearance of lace.

ORIGINAL CUTWORK is merely simple designs (such as large rounded flowers with large leaves) with no ladderwork, and a running stitch over which is laid a buttonhole stitch. RENAISSANCE has larger open (cut) spaces and uses "bars" to strengthen the piece. These bars can be made with woven or twisted threads, or buttonholed. Some of the bars appear as "spider webs", creating an airy appearance. RICHELIEU continues with more openwork and picots added to the bars.

ITALIAN CUTWORK is little seen. It is done in geometric, open work patterns with the surface of the material adorned with bullion and other three-dimensional stitches.

BRODERIE ANGLAISE

Originally this work was confined to eyelet work. The round or oval eyelets formed the patterns of flowers, leaves, stalks, vines and decorative edgings. The more modern form adds satin stitch, buttonhole (closed blanket) stitch, and includes ladder work. It is sometimes referred to, incorrectly, as Ayrshire embroidery. Although the forms overlap, as does many embroidery classes, Broderie Anglaise has its own distinctive style.

Dianne Lewandowski
Heritage Shoppe
November 17, 1996


A. About the Needlework FAQs

A.1 General Comments

Welcome. This is one of several Needlework Frequently Asked Questions (Needlework FAQs) documents.

The FAQs are a collection of information that should be of use to people who do many kinds of needlework. The hints and tips contained here have been collected from many people who have been kind enough to share their wisdom with the rec.crafts.textiles.needlework Usenet newsgroup.

Although efforts were made to make sure that the information in this FAQ was correct, this document is provided as is, with no warranties or guarantees of any kind either expressed or implied. Any commercial products or services are listed as a courtesy to the reader. No endorsement or value judgement is expressed or implied.

The FAQs are successors to the original "Counted Cross Stitch FAQ", first posted to the old rec.crafts.textiles newsgroup on April 20, 1994. Thanks to the people who have given permission for their messages and postings to be quoted directly.

A.2 How to Find the FAQs

The Needlework FAQs and other informational documents are listed below. They are available at <http://users.rcn.com/kdyer.dnai/>

x Needlework FAQ: Competitions, Selling Designs or Needlework
Tips for entering competitions, selling finished products, and selling designs.

x Needlework FAQ: Counted Cross Stitch Tutorial
Discusses everything from selecting the fabric to framing the picture (and most things in between).

x Needlework FAQ: Fabric
Information about evenweave fabrics from 6-count to 45-count, including fiber content.

x Needlework FAQ: Threads, Fibers, Embellishments
Color names or conversion charts for DMC, Anchor, J&P Coates, Marlette, Medicis, Madeira, Au Ver A Soie, Mill Hill beads, Danish Flower Thread, DMC Flower Thread, Ginny Thompson Flower Thread, Kreinik Metallics.

x Needlework FAQ: Stitching and Embroidery Techniques<br> Short descriptions of different embroidery techniques.

Copyright © 1994-2005 Kathleen Dyer
All Rights Reserved.
Last modified: Sun, Mar 20, 2005