Of Embroidery

The technicalities of Embroidery are very simple and its tools

few--practically consisting of a needle, and nothing else. The work can

be wrought loose in the hand, or stretched in a frame, which latter mode

is often advisable, always when smooth and minute work is aimed at.

There are no mysteries of method beyond a few elementary rules that can

be quickly learnt; no way to perfection except that of care and patience

d love of the work itself. This being so, the more is demanded from

design and execution: we look for complete triumph over the limitations

of process and material, and, what is equally important, a certain

judgment and self-restraint; and, in short, those mental qualities that

distinguish mechanical from intelligent work. The latitude allowed to

the worker; the lavishness and ingenuity displayed in the stitches

employed; in short, the vivid expression of the worker's individuality,

form a great part of the success of needlework.

The varieties of stitch are too many to be closely described without

diagrams, but the chief are as follows:--

Chain-stitch consists of loops simulating the links of a simple chain.

Some of the most famous work of the Middle Ages was worked in this

stitch, which is enduring, and of its nature necessitates careful

execution. We are more familiar with it in the dainty work of the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the airy brightness and

simplicity of which lies a peculiar charm, contrasted with the more

pompous and pretentious work of the same period. This stitch is also

wrought with a hook on any loose material stretched in a tambour frame.

Tapestry-stitch consists of a building-up of stitches laid one beside

another, and gives a surface slightly resembling that of tapestry. I

give the name as it is so often used, but it is vague, and leads to the

confusion that exists in people's minds between loom-tapestry and

embroidery. The stitch is worked in a frame, and is particularly

suitable for the drapery of figures and anything that requires skilful

blending of several colours, or a certain amount of shading. This

facility of "painting" with the needle is in itself a danger, for it

tempts some people to produce a highly shaded imitation of a picture, an

attempt which must be a failure both as a decorative and as a pictorial

achievement. It cannot be said too often that the essential qualities of

all good needlework are a broad surface, bold lines and pure, brilliant

and, as a rule, simple colouring; all of which being qualities

attainable through, and prescribed by, the limitations of this art.

Applique has been, and is still, a favourite method of work, which

Vasari tells us Botticelli praised as being very suitable to

processional banners and hangings used in the open air, as it is solid

and enduring, also bold and effective in style. It is more accurately

described as a method of work in which various stitches are made use

of, for it consists of designs embroidered on a stout ground and then

cut out and laid on silk or velvet, and edged round with lines of gold

or silk, and sometimes with pearls. It requires considerable deftness

and judgment in applying, as the work could well be spoilt by clumsy and

heavy finishing. It is now looked upon as solely ecclesiastical, I

believe, and is associated in our minds with garish red, gold and white,

and with dull geometric ornament, though there is absolutely no reason

why church embroidery of to-day should be limited to ungraceful forms

and staring colours. A certain period of work, thick and solid, but not

very interesting, either as to method or design, has been stereotyped

into what is known as Ecclesiastical Embroidery, the mechanical

characteristics of the style being, of course, emphasised and

exaggerated in the process. Church work will never be of the finest

while these characteristics are insisted on; the more pity, as it is

seemly that the richest and noblest work should be devoted to churches,

and to all buildings that belong to and are an expression of the

communal life of the people. Another and simpler form of applied work is

to cut out the desired forms in one material and lay upon another,

securing the applique with stitches round the outline, which are hidden

by an edging cord. The work may be further enriched by light ornament of

lines and flourishes laid directly on the ground material.

Couching is an effective method of work, in which broad masses of silk

or gold thread are laid down and secured by a network or diaper of

crossing threads, through which the under surface shines very prettily.

It is often used in conjunction with applique. There are as many

varieties of couching stitches as the worker has invention for; in some

the threads are laid simply and flatly on the form to be covered, while

in others a slight relief is obtained by layers of soft linen thread

which form a kind of moulding or stuffing, and which are covered by the

silk threads or whatever is to be the final decorative surface.

The ingenious patchwork coverlets of our grandmothers, formed of scraps

of old gowns pieced together in certain symmetrical forms, constitute

the romance of family history, but this method has an older origin than

would be imagined. Queen Isis-em-Kheb's embalmed body went down the Nile

to its burial-place under a canopy that was lately discovered, and is

preserved in the Boulak Museum. It consists of many squares of

gazelle-hide of different colours sewn together and ornamented with

various devices. Under the name of patchwork, or mosaic-like piecing

together of different coloured stuffs, comes also the Persian work made

at Resht. Bits of fine cloth are cut out for leaves, flowers, and so

forth, and neatly stitched together with great accuracy. This done, the

work is further carried out and enriched by chain and other stitches.

The result is perfectly smooth flat work, no easy feat when done on a

large scale, as it often is.

Darning and running need little explanation. The former stitch is

familiar to us in the well-known Cretan and Turkish cloths: the stitch

here is used mechanically in parallel lines, and simulates weaving, so

that these handsome borders in a deep rich red might as well have come

from the loom as from the needle. Another method of darning is looser

and coarser, and suitable only for cloths and hangings not subject to

much wear and rubbing; the stitches follow the curves of the design,

which the needle paints, as it were, shading and blending the colours.

It is necessary to use this facility for shading temperately, however,

or the flatness essential to decorative work is lost.

The foregoing is a rough list of stitches which could be copiously

supplemented, but that I am obliged to pass on to another important

point, that of design. If needlework is to be looked upon seriously, it

is necessary to secure appropriate and practicable designs. Where the

worker does not invent for herself, she should at least interpret her

designer, just as the designer interprets and does not attempt to

imitate nature. It follows from this, that it is better to avoid using

designs of artists who know nothing of the capacities of needlework, and

design beautiful and intricate forms without reference to the execution,

the result being unsatisfactory and incomplete. Regarding the design

itself, broad bold lines should be chosen, and broad harmonious colour

(which should be roughly planned before setting to work), with as much

minute work, and stitches introducing play of colour, as befits the

purpose of the work and humour of the worker; there should be no

scratching, no indefiniteness of form or colour, no vagueness that

allows the eye to puzzle over the design--beyond that indefinable sense

of mystery which arrests the attention and withholds the full charm of

the work for a moment, to unfold it to those who stop to give it more

than a glance. But there are so many different stitches and so many

different modes of setting to work, that it will soon be seen that these

few hints do not apply to all of them. One method, for instance,

consists of trusting entirely to design, and leaves colour out of

account: white work on white linen, white on dark ground, or black or

dark blue upon white. Again, some work depends more on magnificence of

colour than on form, as, for example, the handsome Italian hangings of

the seventeenth century, worked in floss-silk, on linen sometimes, and

sometimes on a dusky open canvas which makes the silks gleam and glow

like precious stones.

In thus slightly describing the methods chiefly used in embroidery, I do

so principally from old examples, as modern embroidery, being a

dilettante pastime, has little distinct character, and is, in its best

points, usually imitative. Eastern work still retains the old

professional skill, but beauty of colour is rapidly disappearing, and

little attention is paid to durability of the dyes used. In speaking

rather slightingly of modern needlework, I must add that its non-success

is often due more to the use of poor materials than to want of skill in

working. It is surely folly to waste time over work that looks shabby in

a month. The worker should use judgment and thought to procure

materials, not necessarily rich, but each good and genuine of its kind.

Lastly, she should not be sparing of her own handiwork, for, while a

slightly executed piece of work depends wholly on design, in one where

the actual stitchery is more elaborate, but the design less masterly,

the patience and thought lavished on it render it in a different way

equally pleasing, and bring it more within the scope of the amateur.