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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The Blackwork Fish – Coming Along…


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When last we visited the Blackwork Fish, I had not quite finished embroidering the lower half – almost, though! Today, I’ll show you how far I’ve gotten, talk to you a little about the pros and cons of the project, and pose a question that has come up.

To recap, the Blackwork Fish began as a doodled drawing. When I finished with the doodling, which was done on a whim in a moment of boredom while waiting for an appointment, I began to wonder if this type of doodling could be interpreted in embroidery. Recalling that I had a package of unused black silk threads in various weights, I found the concept of embroidering the doodled fish rather appealing. And hence, the Blackwork Fish.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

The last time we looked at the fish, that’s what he looked like.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

Here, I’m moving towards the tail. I wanted to move some of the stitches laterally, because normally on a fish there’s an obvious lateral line in the middle of the caudal peduncle (the narrow part of the body that the tail’s attached to). But I didn’t quite carry the lateral stitching across the middle of the peduncle, as you can see:

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

I’ll actually pick up some darker lateral lines in the top half of that back area by the tail, if I remember! I figure there’s not too much about this fishy fellow that’s very realistic, anyway. So I won’t fret over it!

Funny – until I actually had the outline of the body stitched (minus all the fins and tail), I didn’t realize what a big forehead the fish has! It looks kind of odd at this point, but I think once the dorsal fin (the top fin) is stitched, it’ll look a lot better.

So that’s the complete bottom half of the fish.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

Then I moved up to the forehead of the fish. I like the wheat stitch for working darker lines, and I found myself using it more and more on the top of the fish. It tends to look kind of sea-weed-ish, doesn’t it? I stitched lines of buttonhole scallops on each side of the wheat stitch line.

You can also see that I’ve sketched in a few divisional areas, using a micron art pen. This helps me divide and conquer the stitching areas. I find it’s easier to stitch in some darker dividing “lines” and then to fill in between with smaller threads.

One of the pros of working this project is that there’s never really a dull moment, because each area changes. One of the cons is that I find myself drawing a blank now and then when thinking up a new fill pattern or line stitch to use.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

The “square” lines in the lighter threads that fill in the area above are worked in buttonhole stitch. I like using buttonhole stitch – it’s versatile! It looks different with each application and it takes on a different look depending on the weight of the thread, too.

Another one of the pros of the project – for a different look without having to change the stitch, just switch to a heavier or lighter weight of thread. One of the cons – I find myself switching threads more often than I usually like!

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

I jumped over and worked some of the divisional areas next. The scalloped half-circle there is worked in a combination of buttonhole and straight stitch. I didn’t want the scallops to be solid. I was trying to achieve a kind of sketchy look, but it looks somewhat sloppy, so I might end up going over this area again. On the other hand, once this area is surrounded with stitches, it doesn’t look as sketchy.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

The filling here was completely random. I started with backstitch, outlining the scallop semi-circle, using a tiny thread. As I stitched, I moved the lines out, and ended up with some chunks of area suitable for different filling patterns.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

The variety makes it fun. The stitches look a bit larger than they are in real life, due to the close-up shots. I’m stitching on 40 count linen, so that may give you an idea of the size of the individual stitches.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

That’s about half of the top of the fish, finished.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

Working towards the double wheat stitch lines, I used buttonhole stitches to fill, changing the weight of the thread and the size of the stitches. To give a little depth to the lines, I used stem stitch to darken the under parts of the curves of the buttonhole stitch lines.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

I want to be careful with how I fill the area behind the tip of the fin there. I really want the fin to maintain the look of standing out from the fish, if possible.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Fish

And there’s the fish so far!

I’ve had some suggestions for finishing the project: pillow, outer pocket of a black and white tote bag, framed for a “guy” gift, and so forth. Any other suggestions?

Finally, I’m contemplating all the fin areas. Should each little section of each fin be a different fill pattern? Or should I keep the fins uniform, to make the body stand out more? That’s something I’m contemplating.

What think you?

I’m enjoying this project, more than I actually realized I would. It’s fun! And while working on it, all kinds of possibilities for future projects have been floating through my head. It might be fun to do a series of these. It might be fun to play with the same concept, only in color. So many possibilities! So little time!!!


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(28) Comments

  1. Blackwork fascinates me and I love your blackwork fish and all the different patterns that you have included.

    I do have one question though. You stitch the outline of your fish before you have filled in all the middle stitches. Is this something you always do with blackwork or just a one off on this project? I was under the impression that the outline was the last thing stitched.

    Maybe you could use some gold thread to outline some important points and another comment is I think you should stitch the fins all the same to make them stick out but maybe using different thicknesses of thread.

    I think the finished project will look great. Keep up the good work. I admire your effort.

    Gillian Gonzalez

  2. Just found your site through Stitch Map – what a great and interesting site. I will follow you and I know that I will come back for a lot of inspiration.

    Wow, your doodle really is turning into something beautiful! Your work is wonderful.

    Look forward to seeing more!

  3. Dear Mary ,
    You are a shear genius!!! Mr Fish is just getting better and better. What to do with it afterwards? Well if you are not going to donate it to me… ahem… Mr Fish must definitely be framed!! It is to good for any other uses!! Love. Elza Bester Cape Town

  4. The fish is ever so cool with all his random patterning. Very nice! I think the fins should perhaps be uniform, lest they simply blend into the body.

  5. This is turning out to be quite a nice project!! Interesting. Fun. And really pretty! I have been a pencil/paper doodler my entire life — but not so much in stitching probably because I get too intimidated or something. Anyway, thank you for doing this exercise for us all. I am thinking of some single, double, and triple featherstitches might be amusing! Good Luck!

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments! Glad you like him so far. (I do, too – he's lots of fun to work on!)

    Gillian – Regarding the outline and the fish in general, it's not really "blackwork" proper, the way the term is used today. It's only blackwork, in the sense that it's done entirely in black thread, which is why blackwork was originally called blackwork, but the actual proper "blackwork" embroidery has morphed into something specific. So I'm using the term loosely. I would say with this type of random needlework, there's not necessarily a right or wrong way. I can see the point of stitching the outline last, so that it covers up the edge of the stitches, but I stitched it first to give me a sense of placement and to help me determine what threads I want to use in comparison to the thread and stitches used for the outline. So I'm not really following specific rules for the project, since I'm not really following any specific technique.

    I actually thought about gold to begin with, by the way, but the more I work on it, the more I like the black-on-white.

    Thanks again for the comments!


  7. She is one awesome fish. I have done some blackwork, but this fish makes me want to take up my needle and do her. BarbM

  8. Stunning! This should not be for anything which will be "used" since it is so fine. As for the fins, maybe variations on a theme. Make the fish the more "solid" with the fins more delicate and gauzy done in a variety of webby stitches which accentuate the veining.

  9. I love the fish…he is coming along nicely. I do agree with you that the fins should be more uniform so that they stand out from the body some.

    You suggestions to use this are great. I could see it being a lovely wall hanging in the sports lodge…summer cottage…they other quiet spot in the house to dream of the fishing trips.

    Keep up the great work…you inspire us all.

  10. This is truly amazing. I love the artwork, the astounding usage of only black. I'd love to see the finished product!

  11. This is lovely. I just started learning and making samples of the different stitches. This really helps to know what to do with the wonderful stitches I am learning. Thanks for sharing your talent!


  12. So very cool!! Could it somehow be reproduced like a logo on shirt or bag. Even a poster to hang on MY wall.ETC. I've buy it!!
    For fishy inspiration,one local town has a ShadFest complete with lots of fishy inspiration. (link would be thru lambertville.org)

  13. Your fish is coming along swimmingly, Mary (pun intended!). I agree on keeping the fins uniform so te stand out. And I like the suggestion Gillian made about using different thicknesses of the black thread on the uniform fins.
    I aree is it just too nice a piece (especially with the silk thread) to use it as a pillow. I agree it is worhty of framing – unusual, fascinating to look at, and beautiful to boot!- but don't think it has to be a guy gift, unless, of course, you really really like the guy, or the guy really really apreciates the gift.

  14. Very inspiring! I need to learn more embroidery, and I'm glad I stumbled across your blog. 🙂

    PS: Your fish reminds me of a James Christensen fish. I love it.

  15. G'day Mary,

    Goodness, he's almost fin-ished!

    "Capital, capital, excellent" like Mr ? kept saying in Pride and Prejudice.

    I would keep the fins uniform, not only to complement the body but also for their own benifit.

    The fish might be suitable for a blokes scarf too.

    Cheers Kath.

  16. Exquisite work Mary. I would have never thought of working on something like this but then you are creativity par excellence. So I continue to get inspired by your various projects. Thanks Mary.

  17. I love this project! I really want to eventually work on something like this. So many wonderful design qualities about it.

  18. I'm in love with your fish. Pretty sure I've never said those words before….

    This project would be wonderful as a notecard. Have you ever thought of printing notecards of some of your stitcheries? I've done some of my crazy quilted blocks, simply by putting them in the scanner and printing onto card stock. They are cheaper and more personal than store-bought cards.

    I'm thinking I'd leave the fins as simple as the one is now (just outlined). Or filled in completely with satin stitch or another fill stitch. The simplicity would really set off the complex body.

  19. Mary, judging from the rush of comments this little fish has hit the spot with your visitors. Perhaps it's because they can all imagine doing their favourite stitches in one colour surface stitching in an outline and producing something beautiful too. I DO love your goldwork embroidery, but this style has certainly appealed to a very wide audience. Thanks for sharing with us.
    Christine in much cooler Sydney Australia.

  20. Hi Mary,

    Your fish is fascinating me very much!! It's very creative, and the random patterns make it very attractive.

    I agree with all others in keeping the fins in simple straight stiches; you can use something like the long and short dash lines which you have used in the curve portion below the mouth. something like the following pattern in the upper and lower fins – |',','|,',',| (take commas for straight lower dashes :), and ofcourse more closely spaced).

    The tail fins could be worked in fish bone stitches separated by straight stiches.

    But I believe you have more creative ideas :). Looking forward how it would progress…

  21. This project is just one big WOW! It's stunning. I love how the swirly bits make it look rather like 1960s psychedelic but without color.

    What if for the fins you pick three patterns and repeated them? That way you have both uniformity and a suggestion of movement?

  22. He's looking so "fin"tastic, you should give him a home where you can admire him every day. How about as a cover for a journal or sketchbook?

  23. Hi Mary,

    This is the first time on your site, and I love it! I’ve already subscribed to your newsletter. 🙂 I learned a few basic sewing and embroidery skills when I was a little girl and recently I’ve become very interested in learning more, which has lead me to your site.

    The video tutorials really help since I am left-handed and so it is easier for me to picture the mirror image by watching it rather than reading it, like most tutoritals. Thank you for making them!

    Your blackfish project is amazing and my favorite of your projects. No only does it show your great skill, but it also shows your strength as an artist. It’s a very creative and beautiful piece and I’m just so in love with it! For me, this is an art piece that should be framed and displayed.

    I wish you all the best and will be keeping an eye out to see the finished piece. 🙂

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