When folks ask me how long I’ve been embroidering, I often say, “oh a long time” or “since I was a kid” but, my Facebook memories have recently reminded me, this is not exactly true.
When I was a child, I did some stitching and worked on some kits but I never actually finished any embroidery projects.
It wasn’t until in 2010, when I was in collage that I started a counted cross stitch sampler from a pattern in a book. Its loosely based on extant early American Samplers.
I love this sampler, I love the way it resembles historic designs, and I think my embroidery was exquisite. Early on, I was not someone who would abide a misplaced stitch, and ripped them out when the occurred.
Summer of 2011 I found some old placemats at a yard sale or flea market and endeavored to stitch them in oranges and greens to match my orange owl themed kitchen for my new apartment I was moving into that fall.
When I was a kid I remember my mother teaching me how to do the “daisy” stitch, also known as a single chain stitch. This was my first big “free” embroidery project and looking at the tension of the little stitches and their precision, but also my choices of color and detail, I am very proud of this piece.
At this point in my life, I was very much missing my grandmother. She was not much of a sewer, and did not embroider, crochet, or knit, but she encouraged me and told me everything I did was beautiful, even if it wasn’t. I learned to crochet from books and looking at lace doilies at her house. I spent the majority of the next few years crocheting a 65inch table cloth. It brought me much joy, but its not embroidery.
Sometime during this period I completed a counted cross stitch kit of hot air balloons.
This piece taught me that cross stitches should always be stitched in the same direction, but at this time I was still concerned about “thread conservation” rather than stitch tension. I would try to use as little thread as possible to the detriment of stitch tension and coverage. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t effect the piece much at all, but it is an important thing I wish to discuss in the manner of progress.
Fast forward through my early SCA carrier, past detached button hole and applique owls and free embroidery favors, and to German brick stitch.
When I learned German brick stitch I learned that in order to get the right tension on the stitches you needed to stitch each stitch up and down, in the same direction. This means there is often more thread on the reverse of the fabric than on the face.
This method of stitching keeps the stitches from going wonky from one side to the other and provides more coverage than switching back and forth the direction of your stitches. At this moment in my stitching journey I understood the importance and the theory, but it did not dawn on me exactly how important this would be to non canvas/counted work for another year.
The importance of “the next stitch”
One of my favorite stitches that I learned in the SCA is split stitch. I have successfully split stitched large areas using only one strand of silk floss. This is something I am very proud of as it takes a fair amount of precision and stitch tension to perfect.
Long and short stitch is in the same family of stitches as split stitch though it is quite different. After completing one row of up/down stitches, you go back and each stitch of the next row pierces the stitches of the row before similar to split stitch.
I found as I was stitching, going up through the stitch and then coming down, the stitch would look okay, but it really looked great when I started the next stitch, pulling the thread on the reverse of the fabric taught.
The same is true with split stitch, the first stitch is only completed by stitching the next stitch in the line, locking the first stitch into place.
While, I am not entirely sure I am communicating this fully, and knowing this may seem intuitive for others, this was a true epiphany moment for me in my embroidery journey. That with some stitches, the act of creating the first stitch is not as important as the tension and placement of the next stitch. This is true for up/down stitches, back stitches, and other more complex stitches.
In Jaqui Carey’s Elizabethan Stitches book, she explains that often Elizabethan needlepoint included a near excess of embroidery thread/floss on the back of the fabric in order to create and maintain proper tension on the face of the fabric.
Thoughts for the Future
I have considerable imposter syndrome when it comes to embroidery. Tension and precision of embroidery comes naturally to me (and I have an academic background in historical research). Pushing myself to do more complex stitches is helpful and I enjoy the exploration, but this epiphany in understanding the tension of stitches brought considerable growth to my embroidery practice that I haven’t achieved otherwise.
When thinking about stitching, it is important to consider that one stitch is not just one stitch by itself, but a group of stitches that work in harmony together to create a design. Ever since I saw the backs of some historic embroideries, with threads going every which way and knots galore, I have been less hard on myself about the backs of my pieces looking “good”.
But, now I think I need to rethink this idea, that while yes, the reverse does not need to look “good”, but it does need to function, the reverse side stitches need to do their job of providing tension so that the stitches on the front look their best. I think its important, when we get those stubborn knots on the back of our work, instead of ignoring them and leaving a glob of thread on the reverse, that we cut the thread, pull out enough stitches that we can weave in the end, so as to preserve the tension of the stitch on the surface.
This epiphany highlights the importance of exploration. Try new stitches, sample stitch families, explore different materials to see how they function and look. But, when you are exploring do not forget the most important thing: observe what the thread is doing. Consider why it looks the way it looks and what things you can do as an embroiderer to shape the way that thread looks, beyond just stabbing the fabric methodically.
Happy Stabbing! — Scolastica