Reading through an old and excellent embroidery book called Church Needlework by Hinda Hands, I found her chapter on design particularly interesting. Her comments are not restricted to ecclesiastical needlework (that is, needlework done for church). They can be applied to needlework for any purpose.
Her thoughts may be considered passé nowadays; they tend towards conservative, certainly. Yet she instructs on certain concepts with knowledge and experience to back her up, setting forth her thoughts with precision and assurance. It would be interesting to hear what others think of her remarks.
I have edited some portions that apply strictly to church embroidery, trying to draw the focus out across a wider spectrum of interests.
Embroidery may be defined in a general way as an ornamentation of textiles by means of the needle. This being the case, one ought to expect from it something different from what can be attained by weaving, or something which cannot be done so well or so readily by that means. Some of the earliest forms of embroidery were, it is evident, direct copies of woven patterns, but these were quite appropriately placed, either on material which did not lend itself happily to being woven in patterns, or where the surface so decorated was too small to be worth while weaving; or again, where the ornamental material (such as gold or silk) was too precious to be lost on the underside of the work, as would be the case in all woven work wherever the ‘ground” shows between the patterns.
The superiority we expect to see in needlework as compared with woven decoration consists chiefly in three points:
- The more harmonious gradation of colour.
- The absence of mechanical repetition of pattern.
- Freedom of line in the drawing.
It is this very freedom from mechanical restraint in all these respects of colour, drawing and treatment which has proved such a pitfall to the unartistic Englishwoman. Much of the beauty of the foreign peasant work is due to the restrictions imposed by their traditional style and limited range of color. There is practically no limit to the number of shades available in the present day, and without a cultivated “colour-sense” an embroiderer can run riot among an embarras de richesses [difficulties of abundance] with most disastrous results!
A good colour-scheme is even more necessary in embroidery design than in any other (except, perhaps, stained glass) because of the brilliance of its possibilities – at once its highest merit and its greatest danger.
The colour-scheme, then, being an essential part of the design, must be decided upon in accordance with it; and the actual materials with which the work is to be carried out should be chosen at the same time, if possible.
It is necessary for the designer of Church needlework to have a very clear idea of the capabilities and the limitations both of the methods and the materials by which the design is to be completed as a work of art, and also a fair knowledge of the traditions of ecclesiastical art from early times up to the present day.
It is equally necessary for the embroiderer to be able to enter into the ideas and intentions of the designer. It adds considerably to the interest of the work when it is carried out by the person who designed it, but I must protest against the notion gaining ground largely in certain educational circles, that the embroiderer ought to design her own work. There are very many women capable of executing perfect stitchery, and of entering into the highest ideals of beauty and devotion who are not fitted by nature or training to artistic design… The embroiderer with patient stitches will endeavor to express the ideal set before her by a master of the craft and will meet with a like reward. This is the utmost that the majority can hope to attain, and I cannot insist too strongly upon the principle that it is better to work from the designs of good artists, and to do again and again what has been proved excellent, than to attempt an originality which may be attractive only by its novelty.
Whether the worker be her own designer or not, too much care and attention can hardly be bestowed on the choice and arrangement of the design.
The principal requirements of good decorative design of every kind are:
The author then addresses these three concepts (beauty, fitness, and practability) separately, unfolding a short but rather philosophical treatise on each of them.
I’d be interested to know if readers think the ideas above have changed drastically over the years. The last edition of this book was printed in 1950, with the first edition being in the early 1930’s. Has the concept of design changed? What do you think?
I really enjoy reading these older embroidery books, especially books that focus on embroidery for specific purposes. If you’re interested in acquiring the complete text of Hinda Hands’s work, which contains all kinds information on working with silk and gold (information that can be applied to embroidery for any purpose), you can find rare copies of her book on ABE Books or at Amazon.