Friday, 15 June 2012


The fabric you use as the base for your embroidery forms an integral part of the overall design and should be chosen with thought and imagination.  If you were guided by the embroidery police you would be restricted to fabrics that were available in and around the 17th and 18th centuries.  That would be a pity.  I tend to draw the line at synthetic fabrics, but other than that I will use whatever takes my fancy, or whatever suits the design and the function of the finished article.

Like many embroiderers who have been at it for years, my walls are full of framed embroidery, so I tend to make other things, mostly for my home.  This requires that I need medium to heavy weight fabrics.  As a Jacobean/Crewel embroiderer, if I was sticking to rules I would be surfing the net and having linen twill delivered to my door.  Why?  It’s hard to find, the colour range is a little narrow and there is so much other fabric out there that does the job just as well and, in many cases, better. Besides, living at the bottom tip of Africa in a society that tries to extract as much as possible from the productive in order to hand it over to the unproductive so that they can reproduce with impunity, customs duty is huge, and let’s not even get onto the cost of shipping to the bottom of the world. 

 A lot of countries have a textile industry that produces all sorts of fabrics that are the equivalents of fabrics that are produced elsewhere, but have different names.  We have a fabric here called “bull denim”, a name which suggests all sorts of other uses.  It is available in just about any colour you want and on closer inspection I found that it is actually cotton twill.  A really nice quality twill too.  It is available in the more traditional weave with diagonal ridges and I have purchased it with a box weave as well.  The design below was worked on this fabric, it was a pleasure to work with, very stable and it washed like a dream. 

Somewhere out there are people that say you shouldn’t wash your embroidery because you shouldn’t get it grubby in the first place.  I’ll discuss that at length another day.  All I’m going to say today is that I live a life surrounded by dogs who get patted, stroked and hugged with the same hands that do the stitching.  Hands that are attached to a real human being that has natural oils and whose home is not a sterile environment.   My embroidery gets washed.  End of story.

Another fabric that is ideal for textured embroidery is a heavy weight seedcloth.  This is a woven cotton fabric, often used for table cloths, and is Ecru in colour.  The charm, and what gives it its name, is that the cotton seed husks have not been bleached out.  They are visible, but not intrusive.  The little number below was worked on seed cloth.

My favourite fabric for Jacobean embroidery is called “hopsack”.  I would imagine that the hops that are used in the making of the beer that keeps millions of men moderately sedated every day, are now harvested with some sort of large agricultural machine, but in days gone by they were collected in sacks that were made of linen.   As its name suggests this fabric, although a pure cotton, is reminiscent of the material used to make those hopsacks.   It has an even weave with a count of 30 threads per inch and is a stable medium weight fabric.

The image below is a portion of one of the designs in my book, “Crewel Twists”.  It was stitched on hopsack.

There is no doubt that embroidery worked on pure silk is exquisite, but I do think that, as an embroidery fabric, it is over rated.  It is delicate, not that well suited to heavily textured stitchery and, if you are using a dyed silk, the colour runs when you wash it.   It is dyed with vegetable dyes and those, by their very nature, are not colour fast.  Even if you are not grappling with the colour-fast problem, it doesn’t wash well, losing some of its lustre, and it is prone to watermarks.  But it is lovely and I will often use it for something that is going to be displayed behind glass.  The image below is a small cameo that forms part of a set of five, all of which will ultimately be framed behind glass and hung on the wall.

Before I traced the lines of the embroidery design onto the silk, I rinsed it in tepid water a few times to get rid of as much excess dye as I could.  I also backed the fabric with cotton voile.

I always back my fabric with cotton voile, unless it going to be made into something that can do without the extra bulk.  It stabilises the fabric and also gives you something to start and end off in.

Having said at the beginning of this post that I tend to draw the line at synthetic fabrics, I sometimes do use them.  A few years ago I went through a bag-making period.  Wanting to make useful handbags that could be used daily, I needed a substantial and strong fabric.  My bench mark was whether it would stand up to taking the dogs to the vet.  I went off to all sorts of fabric emporia, stared at everything, touched most of it, rubbed it between my fingers and eventually chose a mock-suede upholstery fabric.  I don’t think that this fabric had seen a natural fibre in its life, but it was perfect for what I had in mind. 

It wasn’t particularly easy to stitch on this fabric, but it wasn’t impossible either.  I used thicker needles than I usually do for the thread embroidery. 

I would usually use a short beading needle for bead embroidery stitches but found, on this fabric, that I needed to use a long needle for extra leverage. 

There are times that I pick up a fabric with no particular design or project in mind.  I buy it because I like the texture or the colour.  Those are often the best fabrics because they inspire you to design something that suits the fabric.  The two stumpwork designs below were designed in those circumstances. 

Both fabrics were originally intended for soft furnishings and I honestly don’t know and can’t remember whether they had a synthetic component, but you can be fairly certain that they did. 

I loved the embossed design on the first fabric and was attracted to both the sheen and the colour of the second.

And then there is quilting fabric.  Like all needle craft supplies, there is good quality fabric and there is rubbish.  I go for the pure cotton American quilting fabric which works really well and I always back it with cotton voile to give it extra stability.  I’ve always like the idea of working a design onto a fabric that has an existing print.  It provides extra interest and is something that I haven’t explored enough.  I intend to do a lot more but in the meantime, the brick doorstop that is in my “Crewel Twists” book was done on a dark print.

When you start working on printed backgrounds you find the choice of thread colours can be challenging but you soon get into it and I have always been pleased with how the project turns out.

So, in line with my original stated intention to attempt to debunk some of the myths that surround hand embroidery, take note of what the embroidery police say you should be using and then use what inspires you.  I don’t do much canvas work and neither do I have enough time to get down to doing more of the even weave embroideries.  I will be the first one to tell you that if you do, then you should probably use the real thing – the fabrics that are recommended for these styles. 

If, however, you are doing anything from Jacobean to Silk Ribbon embroidery, from Stumpwork to even Goldwork, there is no need to be stuck in the past.   Look at the upholstery fabrics, the quilting fabrics, taffetas and silks.  Use what you like and if it needs stability, back it with cotton voile and enjoy the result. The Mother Grundies will disapprove, but I do promise you that there will be far more admirers than detractors. 

Dress designers embroider on any and every fabric.  Shouldn't those of us who do it for pleasure follow their lead?  

Monday, 4 June 2012

More Needle Lace

As I predicted, the naughty dogs’ situation took up rather a lot of my time last week and left me with no inspiration to write anything.  More about that later, for now let’s get back to using needle lace techniques in your embroidery.
One of the joys of hand embroidery is that as it takes a while to do, your mind wanders while you are stitching.  Well, not if there’s something worth watching on the television, but despite the fact that we have a satellite dish on our chimney and, apparently, a hundred-and-something channels at our disposal, there’s not that much on the telly that’s new.  Too many repeats, even the news channels repeat themselves every 20 minutes.  Which, is why the mind wanders.  While it’s wandering mine thinks of future projects, things that might be interesting to try out, things to invent and so on.
I have no interest in quilting – been there done that, made a quilt for every bed in the house and then moved on.  I do, however, fancy the idea of crazy patch because of the endless possibilities for embroidery.  For ages I’d been thinking of embarking on a project.  My main thoughts have been along the lines of ‘why stitch a scrap of lace to the thing when you can make the lace with needle lace techniques’, ‘why stitch buttons onto the crazy patch when you can work up little three-dimensional flowers or other doo-dats with beads’, why attach things that you have bought when you can make them yourself? 
Late last year I asked my quilter friend, Pat, to make me a square of crazy patch and I got started.  I’m having a lot of fun, not least because each little block is a mini-project that you need to embellish, at the same time making sure that your embellishment ties in and balances with the other blocks.  Added to that is the fact that you can use just about each and every needlework technique that you have ever learnt.  So far I’ve put silk ribbon embroidery, crewel stitches, Brazilian embroidery techniques, tatting, long and short stitch shading, bead embroidery, bead-woven flowers and butterflies, metal thread embroidery and, of course, needle lace techniques onto the project.  I’m not even half way through it, so there’s still scope for a lot more. 
But for today I want to show you a bit of the needle lace that I’ve put onto it (so far).  I’ve faded the background of the crazy patch out in each photograph, in order to concentrate on the area of lace, leaving that bold.

The lace in the picture above was my first bit.  I started out by doing the eighth needle lace stitch.   After a few rows I realised that I didn’t need to stick with just that stitch.  With a little bit of thought, I could morph into another of the stitches, then morph back into the stitch that I started with and, finally finish it off with a row that included a picot in the middle of each group.  By doing this, I ended up with a result that actually looks like a piece of lace, as opposed to just a covering of a needle lace technique.  The difference between that and a scrap of lace that has been stitched on is that it fits perfectly into the space.  You've also had a creative adventure working it out.

When I got to the next piece, however, I chose to do the fifth needle lace stitch.  This is one that needed to stand alone so, apart from adding a picot in the middle of each group in the last row, I kept to that stitch.

While all this stitching is happening my mind keeps wandering and somewhere along the way I decided that I needed a piece of ‘insertion’ lace.  You know what I’m talking about, the kind of lace that has a bit of ribbon threaded through it.  It was easy enough to work out.  By combining the fifth needle lace stitch with tulle bars and whipping the thread that forms the loops, I managed to come up with a piece of lace that had wide gaps that were stable enough to accommodate some 2 mm silk ribbon from Di van Niekerk’s exquisite range of hand painted silk ribbons.  

The large pink area in the photo above started life as a big, empty silk block, one that I wanted to break up a little, so that I could fill it with all sorts of different things.  I divided it in half and filled the left side with the twenty sixth needle lace stitch using a Chameleon Threads perle no. 12 which, being a space dyed thread, gave it colour and interest.  Initially, it looked a little bare but once I had surrounded it with other things, studded it with three beadwork flowers at the bottom and allowed a butterfly to hover over some of it, it created a textured background that blended in with its surrounds.
You may be wondering where I find all of these stitches, and why I refer to them with particular numbers.  Some years ago I picked up a copy of T.H. de Dillmont’s Encyclopaedia of Needlework in an antique shop.  My copy doesn’t tell me how old it is, I think it was probably printed in the 1930s.  It was however first published in the late 1800s and it is still possible to get a brand new copy today on Amazon.  It is also widely available on second hand book sites.  This book has a section on Needle Made Laces, and all the stitches are there. 
The chapter has obviously been written for lace makers and there are techniques there that would not convert easily to surface embroidery.  As for the rest, there’s a bundle of them that tend to make one’s fingers itch.  And here’s the thing.  You are only limited by your imagination. 
The other thing that may limit you is learning how to do the stitches.  Let me tell you a little story about that.
I have a 22-year old son who is known to most people as Dude.  Now Dude is an about-to-be qualified cameraman, editor, film maker, whatever.  And he’s quite good at it.  So being his mother I assumed that he would happily do a stitch DVD for me – for which I would pay of course.  Big mistake.  We started it about a year ago.  It was supposed to be ready in March and then it was supposed to be ready in April.  It wasn’t.  Dude was very busy hanging around with his “Chinas” and doing the things which young men do and the old sock's DVD was unimportant.  I begged, pleaded and threw my toys out of the cot many, many times, then did it all again.  And again. 
It is now early June and today I was finally able to upload it on my website.  There is now a stitch guide with accompanying DVDs, filmed in high definition, with voice overs and all sorts of high tech wonders.  All the needle lace stitches that I have used over the years are on these DVDs and you can find them at  So if you need help, it’s in those DVDs.
And the dogs?  Well, they came home as the best trained Boxers on the planet, and they live separate lives.  We have installed security doors and expanding gates, along with so much metal fencing, that we can hardly move.  I think you could call it a gilded prison.  For two dogs that were used to sleeping on (and in) the bed, they were settling down to the new regime.  And then.  My husband left a door open this morning and we’re back to square one, with a trip to the vet along the way.  But what do you do?  Just keep going and beg everyone to concentrate.  You couldn’t give one away.  Which one would you choose?
Till next time...............