Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Revisiting and Rethinking an Embroidery Project


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Some of the earliest articles that featured photos of my own hand embroidery here on Needle ‘n Thread were two posts that examined a project worked with silk threads on silk fabric. The two articles focused on one half of an embroidered stole worked predominantly in satin stitch and stem stitch filling. The first article featurs close-up pictures of the stole, and the second article featurs a photo of the whole stole.

This past weekend, at the request of a friend, I pulled the embroidery project out again, including the second half of the stole, which has been laced up on a scroll frame, neglected for many years.

In revisiting this project, I’ve had the opportunity to rethink a few things about it.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

This is the beginning of the second half of the stole. In my mind, I remembered being about a third of the way finished with this half of the project. I’m not sure why I thought I was so far along. It’s discouraging, actually, to see that I finished so little on the second half!

What slowed me down on this project? Why did I resign it to the shelf?

The first thing that happened was that Life got in the way. I remember frantically applying myself to the first half of the stole, and, after about 3 months, finishing it, setting up the second half, and making a start on it. But it was the middle of the school year by then, and things just got busy. So the project was set aside for a time.

Then, one day, I had visitors, a lady and a little girl. And the lady wanted to see my current embroidery project. The little girl – about six years old – was playing outside when I took the piece down. I looked at the piece with the lady, and had just turned away from it, when the little girl came in. I didn’t think to pay close attention to her – her dirty hands were wet and sticky and a little muddy. And she made a bee-line for the frame. Before the thought could formulate in my head (I don’t think I got beyond the internal “Noooooooooooooooooooooo!”), she had applied one particularly grimey finger to the fabric and threads, leaving a big, wet, dark spot on both the embroidery and the ground fabric.

Do you know how it is, when you have a “big” obstacle to overcome in a needlework project, and the obstacle kind of takes the wind out of your enthusiastic sails? This was the case for me. At the end of that day, I wrapped the frame up in a cloth, and tucked the whole thing away on the highest shelf, in a box. And it has been there ever since.

But in taking it out again this past weekend, I discovered several things.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

First, I discovered that the way in which I originally transferred the design had been a good idea, for the image has withstood the test of time magnificently. On the soft gold silk ground fabric, I had used white dressmaker’s carbon. The white, once embroidered over, is not visible at all – even if a little fringe of it is left beyond the embroidery. And yet, it is clearly visible on the silk ground fabric, due to its light white-ness and its matte finish against the shiny silk.

Dressmaker’s carbon can be an excellent way to transfer a design on smooth fabric. You can find transfer paper in the sewing notions section of fabric stores. Saral Transfer Paper is a good brand to use if you can find it. The variety packs come with a sheet each of red, white, yellow, blue, and graphite (greyish black). The sheets can be used many times over. If you can’t find Saral, Dritz also makes a wax-free dressmaker’s transfer paper in five colors. It is probably more commonly available at sewing stores, and the size is actually perfect for a project like this stole, which is long and narrow. It comes in 5.5″ x 19.5″ sheets.

Though the frame for the stole was wrapped in fabric that rested against the design, and then packed again in a box with other stuff, and put on a top shelf for several years, the design is still crisp and fresh and hardly smudged at all. I’m glad to see that.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

The next thing I learned is that I tend to exaggerate in my mind how serious a “flaw” is on a piece of needlework. The wet, dark smudge (that I thought could never be cleaned away) was right here, between these two “petals” on the embroidery. Where is it now? Did time take it away? Or was the flaw not quite as bad as I had worked it up in my mind to be? Whatever the case, that excuse for shelving the project is now completely gone. There was only the slightest sign of a bit of dirt on the silk threads in the top petal. A little scratch with the fingernail, and it was completely gone.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

I’ve learned a lot more about embroidery in general, ecclesiastical embroidery in particular, and individual stitching techniques since I embroidered this piece. In my mind, I recall this piece as being a “beginning” step in my pursuit of serious embroidery. As a beginning step, I somehow had adopted the impression, over the years, that I didn’t do a very good job on the piece. But in looking at it (and this isn’t to honk my own horn – just to make a point), my satin stitching was actually pretty darned good. Had I convinced myself that it wasn’t up to par, as a further excuse not to return to this project? It is Certainly Possible!

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

I can’t help thinking that I might be hard-pressed, now, to replicate this satin stitching!

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

Finally, there is the question of this frame. When I first started this project, I would’ve killed for a slate frame (not literally, but…). I looked high and low, here and there, and absolutely everywhere for one. I settled for a scroll frame, because it was the only thing that could accommodate the silk, keep it relatively taut, and roll up the excess fabric.

But in looking at the framed up piece now, I can confirm that I was right about my lousy lacing job. And, on top of that, using masking tape to “finish” the edge was probably just downright stupid (though there is actually about 6″ of excess fabric on each side of the design).

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

In my mind, whenever I thought of this project (because it does still hang over my head now and then, and I think on it with regret…), this lousy lacing job and the tape fiasco were obstacles to completing the piece. But are they, in reality, obstacles? Not really. It would be nothing, now, to take this frame apart, remount the piece on a slate frame using proper
fabric edges, and tighten it up to work on it.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

Going back to the original first half of the stole, I took some photos of it again. Since that first post on the subject oh-so-long ago, I’ve had two different cameras, each progressively better, and I’ve learned a bit about light, and also a bit about photo editing programs.

Hand Embroidered Stole in Silk Thread on Silk Fabric

I can’t help looking at images of the original finished half of the stole and asking myself if it would be worth revisiting this project and even finishing it.

But now that some serious time has passed since I shelved the project, some serious issues have arisen that are truly obstacles. Of course, obstacles exist in order to be overcome!

The greatest obstacle is that of thread: the original piece was worked with Au Ver a Soie’s Soie d’Alger. Though I had, at the time, purchased enough of the same dye lots for both sides of the stole, over the years, I have used those threads. Can I match them closely enough in order to finish the second half of the stole? Maybe. It is worth looking in to, but can’t be done until I visit a shop that carries the threads.

There are several – actually, many – things that I would do differently now, if I were making this stole from the beginning. And this is another obstacle for me! It is more of a mental obstacle, though – which are the worst types of obstacles, because they require overcoming self, rather than overcoming something tangible outside of one’s self.

I can’t guarantee what I will do with this – whether I will finish it or not. Most of the trivial barriers that I had built up in my head regarding the whole project are gone, but a few serious ones still linger.

So, those are my musings on this project from the past. What would YOU do at this point? How would you come to a decision about whether or not to finish such a project?


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(29) Comments

  1. Mary — You absolutely have to finish this breathtaking stole! The "obstacles" you mention are all in your head. This stole was what led me to your website in the first place, and I thought at the time that it was one of the prettiest pieces I had ever seen. I still feel this way!


  2. Dear Mary, I know how you feel. I once started a tapestry which was really difficult. I would start it and put it down again. In the mean time I got married had two sons and did many other things embroidery wise. Then one day I decided this was it. No more excuses I just had to finish it and so I did. From start to finish it took 15 years. In case you wonder, the tapestry was from a painting by Henry Raeburn "Boy with a rabbit " painted in 1814 So my advise is if you not sure, do something else and then suddenly one day it will haunt you enough to finish it. Hey thanks for all your good work. I still learned quite a few things from you. Regards Elza, Cape Town.

  3. Mary – Yes you should finish this exquisite piece. Made me think about a angel project I have yet to finish! I want to also thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us. I so enjoy your newletters! A very bright point in my day!

  4. First of all, your stitching is flawless!! And yes, I would vote to finish it. I have a cousin who is a priest and I would love to make this for him. I would think getting to the cross would be an exciting accomplishment and might keep your interest? As for your disappointment about the mark, I had a similar issue happen to me when I had purchased my silk for karahana goldwork in Japanese embroidery. A fellow student had been sneaking peanut butter crackers in the studio (a HUGE no no!) and then came over to look at my piece while I was in the bathroom and put her grubby fingerin the middle of the stamens…and left a greasy peanut butter smudge — I was devastated. She denied it. My teacher and I were bereft because the cost of the material was almost $200 because it was hand dyed…I had just started so I'd only stitched the center so I had to decide whether to continue stitching or toss the whole thing and buy a new one. My Mom said to go for it…once all the stitching was complete, you wouldn't notice the grease mark…and she was right? I still see it but no one else does…

    I hope you finish it and I'm wondering where you got the pattern?

  5. I would love to see it finished. I love the cleanness and crispness and flowing lines of the design, is it origional? I too was inpired by this piece to embroider more, because it was a design that I found interesting, whereas I find a lot of embroidery designs very twee, which led me to discovering my favourite source of designs Therese de Dillmont in the antique pattern library.

    I've used dressmakers carbon too, but I thought it was cheating!

  6. Wow. The stitching on this is breathtaking. You must finish. Certainly no rush. But eventually this piece will pull you back to it now that you've spent time looking at it.

    Funny how time took care of the little girl's grime. There's a technique I've never employed before – ignore it and it goes away.

    And lastly. Good luck matching the AVAS. Some of the greens and reds have changed completely over the past ten years. If it hadn't been for someone out on the internet hearing my plea for AVAS that was eight years old, I'd still have an unfinished Agnes Scott sampler.

  7. Love this piece. I do Jap Embr and could imagine using those techniques on this stole. Have you ever thought about studying Japanese Embroidery? In case you're interested, you can check out japaneseembroidery.com.

    Thanks for making every one of my days a bit better with your wonderful blog. – Christine

  8. I would also have total qualms about finishing this project. If I couldn't match the dyelots exactly, though, I would probably switch up the arrangement slightly in the motifs. After all, a big part of how colors appear is what surrounds them.

  9. If you can't find the threads perfectly suited to the perfection of the first half of the piece, could you not finish off the one end of the stole as something else? The middle of a square cloth for a table? A framed design? An elegant pillow top? I can't tell from the photos if this is even possible – could be the design comes together in the middle.
    Just an thought in case your thread search comes up short.

  10. The original dirty fingerprint was probably wet, and so after all this time it has dried lighter. And probably some has fallen off after touching the covering fabric. You are very lucky – the embroider is beautiful.

    And the threads, for the most part, will never be seen to 'mismatch', as different leaves would normally be different colors, etc. The only problem would be a half-finished leaf or stem.

  11. Mary, I think this stole is fantastic…even unfinished. I am a United Methodist Pastor and started embroidery with the hopes of someday being skilled enough to do a stole for myself. If you decided to finish the project and couldn't match threads (and it really bothered you), you could make two stoles, with embroidery on just one side. I would love to have something this exquisite!

  12. Don't sweat it Mary. As you already detailed, this became more of a learning project for you. There's nothing wrong with that!!

    Personally, if I was sick of it and wouldn't enjoy finishing it, then I wouldn't. I'd use the first half and make into something else.

    If it will bug you forever and you truly want to finish it, then go for it.

    Thank you for this detailed post. You echoed what many of us have struggled with regarding unfinished projects. It's always helpful to hear how others resolve the issue.

  13. I'd vote for finishing it, but of course I'm not the one who has to do the work! I have a cross stitch project that is 80% done and really pretty and just needs a few more hours… it's been 'in progress' for about five years now. Frustrating, isn't it?

    But yes, I think the stole is lovely and really should have a chance to be seen. If you decide you don't want to finish it, maybe the completed half can be converted for some other use? It just seems a shame to hide away such a pretty piece.

  14. This is such an amazing project! You're so talented! I can't express how I'm impressed by this project! If I was you and I was able to match the threads, I would definitively finish it. If you can't, at least, you can cut the bulk of fabric and finish it as a table runner, a long cushion or a wall hanging. It's so beautiful!! You can't let it stand in a cupboard!!


  15. Hi Mary,

    Amazing stitching and I think despite all your "Obstacles" this piece occupies a place close to your heart. You have chosen one of the motifs as the embroidered piece on your home page. I have always admired it and would love to see the completed piece.

  16. Hi Mary,
    your stitching and design is just breathtaking you must get your head around your obstacles and finish off this beautiful stole. As for the thread, if the shades are slightly different on one side will it really be noticed? Good luck
    Joan from Richmond BC

  17. WOW, what a beautiful piece! I love your work. Of course, I would finish the piece but certainly understand your hesitancy in doing so, it's quite an undertaking. I so enjoy your work and appreciate your sharing with us.

    Nancy Lee
    Middlesboro, KY

  18. If you cannot match the thread to finish the project. I would frame the beautiful work that is done or put it into another project to keep as a remindrer of my first big project. The work that is done could be worked into a quilt or picture woderfully becase it is so well done.

  19. I found your site by looking for embroidery how to videos a while back. After seeing some of the videos I wanted see what some of your embroidery looks like. I happened upon this project first and I must say I loved it. It's so beautiful. Needless to say I decided to do embroidery myself from then on. Although it's only been a few months since I've started, I absolutely love it! Now you have to finish your piece after seeing that! If I can ever get anything decent to show I'll email you some pictures.
    Thanks so much!

  20. The pictures of this stole are what brought me to your website, and led to the long-and-short project and my renewal of interest in embroidery other than cross-stitch. So, please finish! (However, it does make me think of the cross-stitch alphabet sampler I started for my son about a monthy before he was born. He is now 25, and I am a grandmother. Perhaps I should get it out and finish it for the "next generation"!)

  21. Wow – I want to thank you ALL for your insightful and encouraging comments. It's so nice to be able to bounce ideas off you all and receive such good feedback! I will certainly take the first step – that of matching up thread colors – towards the completion of this piece as soon as I can get to a store that stocks Soie d'Alger. Thanks for all the tips on thread matching, and the information on changes of thread colors and so forth, too!

    I'm sure sometime in the future – well, it'll be a while! – I'll be revisiting this project again, and hopefully with good news about a new start. We shall see!

    Thank you again! You're such a terrific bunch of stitching folk!


  22. Mary,
    You use the pomengranites (?) from the scroll as your Net icon – how can you NOT finish the project – taking up one or more of the suggestions above?

    It's *you* (well, what I associate on the computer with you)

  23. Yes, yes, yes! You have to finish it. The obstacles are not insurmountable. Break them down into steps, take one step at a time, and cross each step off your list. Follow your own advice – work on the project for 15 minutes a day. And when you have completed this breathtaking piece you will feel a great sense of accomplishment. This isn't a project to let languish in your closet.

  24. Like everyone else, I am humbled by the beauty of the work you have already done on this stole and would urge you to complete it.

    I come from a family of talented makers, and have suffered all my life from the demon of perfectionism. My mother has a touch of it, too, but fortunately, we are able to encourage each other by seeing the other's talents instead of the flaws. So I'm giving you the advice I think my mother would give me:

    No two things in nature are ever identical. Even a simple blade of grass is unique, so variations on a theme should not be seen as flaws but as a celebration of Our Maker's desire to explore new ideas as He Creates.

    If you can't get silks that exactly match what you have done already, ask yourself if, hanging as they should during a service, the two sides of the stole would ever have seemed to be identical in color (the answer is, of course not — the play of light on the silk is part of its beauty!). The harder question is, can you come close enough to strike a balance so that one side does not seem "heavier" than the other? If you feel you can do so, then I hope you will complete this stunningly beautiful work and bless someone to wear it in glory!

    Karen from Arcadia

  25. I wanted to add to everyone elses comments that this is one of the things everyone sees because it is in your header. I think if the colour matching is slightly off, finish the pieces that are half done, then use the new almost the same colour in a different area and you won't notice…

    …I have been working on a quilt where I used up some royal blue fabric from my stash, then realised I didn't have enough. Of course the dye lots had changed, but I used the new royal blue fabric in a different area and if you can tell that it is a slightly different colour then you will think I've done it deliberately… at least I think I'll be the only one that will notice.

    I think you've done a fantastic job and truly, the things that you have mentioned will only be recognisable to you, and people you tell and show with a magnifying glass. I am so glad the dirt came out though!

  26. Dear Mary, while reading this article I had a very strong feeling of de jevu. The feeling you had about your obstacles – real or imagined – are similar to those I have had about various embroidery projects that I have left unfinished in the past.

    About 3 months ago, I finished 2 long term projects and I am glad I did. The first, a piece of material which I embroidered around the outside of leaves and flowers, I had put aside after being told that the foam I had used for the reverse of my embroidered cushion cover was wrong and that I should have used needle punch. This had been on the go for about 20 yrs.

    The second project was a combination of cross stitch & surface embroidery, but I had chosen to stitch on Aida cloth. I had begun the cross stitch on the aida, then wanted to add other, embroidered flowers to the 'scene'. this project was completed 7 yrs after it was begun.

    I will take photographs tomorrow when it is light and email to you.

    I suggest that you should complete the stole, if only to get it finished. The satisfaction that comes from getting it done is sweet.

    I know this because it took 11 attempts for me to pass my economics exam and 6 attempts for me to pass my statistics exam (B- no less) and so in Dec I will finally graduate with my bachelors degree AND a Diploma for Graduates, 9 years after commencing my studies, and earlier this year I turned 50.

    You will feel so much better for getting it done. 🙂 But by all means, wait until you can get the correct threads that are required 😉

  27. This embroidery is very beautiful, and it absolutely must go! This would be a shame to abandon definitively… I have some Soie d'Alger from a few years, if necessary please contact me, I can maybe help you.
    Sorry for bad english!

  28. Mary,
    It is always hard after we put things away unfinished. A lot of times it does spark interest when we bring it back out. Most of the time we find that we have grown in many ways, when we look back, and it is good, because we see how far ahead we have gone. You have come a long way and when the time is right you will pull it out , take off the masking tape and stitch it the right way that you have learned, and after you find the right colors or close to it, you will in your own time start to stitch on it once again. You took the first step, you took it down from the closet and looked at it, your mind is rebooting to see where you have to go from here.
    I have a feeling that with this group of friends, you will find your colors, and that will probably be the beginning of your re-starting point.
    We have all done that, been there and sometimes it may take a little more time, one thing for sure, you won't have to worry about it going anywhere.
    It is a beautiful piece Mary, and I know you will finish it!
    Thanks again for all your inspiration! You always keep us thinking!
    Keep Stitching,
    Kathy Kelly

  29. Mary, it's very beautiful and would be lovely finished. But if it doesn't "sing" to you anymore, I would give it up. I have many UFOs and go through them periodically. I find my taste has changed, or I want to move on to more detailed work or the design just doesn't thrill me anymore. If I try to sit down and force myself to finish it, it defeats the whole purpose of craft; to be creative, express oneself and for fun! If you still love it, then I would say go for it!

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