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The Craft of Embroidery

The Craft of EmbroideryIntroduction to Embroidery

This century has seen a revolution in the world of embroidery. Women have pushed the boundaries of their craft out in all directions, experimenting with new materials and methods and bringing their pieces new found recognition as works of art.

Origins of Embroidery

Embroidery has been used to embellish textiles for centuries. Embroidery has long been seen as a women's craft and it is women who have pushed it beyond its traditional bounds into acceptance as a fine art. The impetus for this new direction came mainly from art colleges in the 1960’s. Young women students became caught up in the interest in mixed media – or trend for combining all sorts of unexpected materials in paintings and sculpture. They incorporated embroidery into their artworks, producing startling results: embroidery was even used with such unlikely media as plaster.  

Today's embroiderers continue to explore the rich possibilities needle and thread offer to a creative mind, and the works produced are a feast for the eyes. Many works incorporate paint and fabric as well as different textures of thread. In addition to this embroidery is a versatile art form – it can be used for traditional wall hangings, framed panels or to embellish clothing, or it can be employed to make three dimensional sculptural pieces, even jewellery.

Basic techniques of Embroidery

The key to successful creative embroidery is the design. Inspiration for a design may gradually evolve or suddenly spring to mind. Once the design has been worked out, the means of execution has to be decided upon. This depends very much on the intention and style of the individual. Some peoples work is instantly recognisable because they habitually use the same materials or stitches. Others will experiment with different backing fabrics, yarns and incorporate other media such as paints or fabrics.  

It may be necessary to work samples to see if the colours, materials and stitches produce the desired effect before beginning.

Embroidery is a particular tactile medium and texture is central to the construction of any piece. The desired effect is created by a combination of stitch technique, threads, yarns  and often the incorporation of fabric. The range of threads and yarns available offer an Aladdin’s cave to the embroiderer from lustrous silks and metallic threads to woollen yarns; there appear to be no bounds to what can be used, what is not directly stitched can be attached with couching stitches.  


Many embroiderers have a wide vocabulary of stitches but use only a few so that the work does not become too complex – over complex stitching can detract from the overall composition.  


Linear stitches such as satin, chain, back stitch and straight stitch add movement to a piece and create strong defining lines. French knots and bullion knots are particularly important for giving texture. Other stitches such as buttonhole wheels and fly stitches add pattern. A high standard of needlework is maintained, but often the stitches are modified to produce the desired effect.  


Machine stitching – Sewing machines capable of innumerable embroidery stitches are a relatively new tool for embroiderers, offering yet another range of possibilities. Some people do all their work by machine while others incorporate it with hand stitching. Worked on water soluble fabrics, machine embroidery produces lacy pieces of embroidery which can be appliquéd on to a backing fabric or used in their own right to make delicate jewellery.  


Composition – No matter how carefully a project is planned, it will inevitably evolve to a greater or lesser degree in the making. Most people like to work using a frame to hold the fabric taut allowing even stitching and giving easier access to the backing.  


The density of stitching will depend on the piece. In a landscape for example, parts in the foreground may be densely stitched in great detail. The stitching becomes thinner in the background receding perhaps into scattered stitches on a paint dominated horizon. A study of a tree trunk on the other hand could be tightly covered in textured stitches in a mixture of yarns evoking the knotty, gnarled nature of the natural surface.  


The composition is not necessarily worked on one piece. Figures may be made separately and then stitched onto the backing fabric. The embroidery on three dimensional figures is worked then fitted over an armature.

It takes a knowing eye and experience to judge precisely when to stop adding and pronounce a piece of work finished.


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