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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
and 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.

MAY MORRIS.





Next: Of Lace

Previous: Of Dyeing As An Art



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