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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Stitch on Fish: The Blackwork Fish Revisited


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After finishing the goldwork pomegranate, I moved on to my Blackwork Fish, a project that is not truly blackwork the way we think of it today. Today, blackwork has become synonymous with a counted thread technique – not counted cross stitch, because it is mostly Holbein stitch, but like counted cross stitch in that it involves following a charted design. Blackwork today features mostly elaborate and lacy filling designs worked on the grid of an even-weave fabric, and not necessarily worked in black, either. So this isn’t necessarily the type of blackwork I’m talking about here – I’m using the term specifically because I’m using all black threads.

The last time we visited my Blackwork Fish, he hadn’t progressed too far. He was still rather a hazy idea, overall. I wasn’t sure if my experiment would work out!

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

This is what I’m doing, though. I doodled this guy a while ago – you can check out a larger version of my Doodled Fish on Flickr – and then I got it into my head that it might be a neat challenge to try to reproduce something similar in embroidery. So, using 40 count linen and a variety of weights of black silk thread, I set out to do that.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

Last time we looked at the fish, this is where I was.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

And a little bit of stitching brought me to this next point.

My plan is that the various weights of the black threads – from as light as a cobweb, practically, to about the thickness of a #8 pearl cotton – will provide much of the contrast in the piece, while the stitches chosen will do the rest of the job.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

Most of the time, the stitching is completely random. There are some lines drawn on the fabric, marking the overall design, and occasionally, if I want to be certain that I have equal or even lines, I will mark in something with a tiny black pen. But for the most part, I’m not marking anything as I go. I’m just filling with whatever comes to mind, but still using the doodled fish as a guideline or idea-board here and there.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

This section of spirals is stitched in backstitch, working from the center of the spiral out, and eyeballing the route of the spiral. You can see that each spiral is not “perfect” – the distance between the lines is not necessarily even, the shape is not necessarily perfectly round – but all that is quite ok with me, as I think it adds to the look I want to achieve with this piece.

Blackwork Embroidery: A Modern Take on a Fish

You can see below the fin on the fish, I sketched in a couple wavy lines. In fact, I also drew in that scalloped vertical line before I stitched it – for me, it’s hard to stitch scallops evenly, and I wanted these to be even.

So that’s my progress on the fish so far. I think he’s looking a bit startled, personally.

What I like about this project:

1. I can play with types of stitches and pretty much be guaranteed that I won’t ruin the piece.

2. As I parcel the fish up, each little bit offers the opportunity for variety – I don’t think I’m going to get bored with the stitching itself.

3. I like the look of it.

4. I like the challenge of deciding on a filling technique, or a stitch to use, etc.

What I like less about it:

1. Why on earth am I stitching a fish? Whatever am I going to do with this thing?

2. Working only with black may become a bit dull – but I don’t know about that, yet. So far, it hasn’t.

3. Sometimes, I sit and stare for quite a while before deciding what to actually stitch. I scratch my head. I wonder. I start to take a stitch. I stop. I think….. and this can become rather annoying.

But the pros outweigh the cons – I like the project so far, and I’m actually pretty eager to make progress on it, to see if it’ll turn out as I imagine it.

So what think you? Do you think this is a weird project, not worth the time it’ll take? Do you like the idea? Is it something you would try? Are you eager to see an outcome, or does the piece strike you as dark and oddly ugly? See, I’m not sure what to make of it yet, either!


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(34) Comments

  1. Okay — I am absolutely in love. This is my kind of embroidery! I've always been a huge doodler, and this is right up my alley. I'm inspired to try something similar! Really, love love love it.

  2. Dear Mary ,
    I like ..no love this fish!!It is so interesting. I can see how the doodle version can be transformed into blackwork very beautifully. Go for it, but on one condition, I have not forgotten Trish's lilac breasted roller!!
    Love, Elza Bester, Cape Town.

  3. I like the fish. I enjoy seeing your creativity in filling the different areas, and the freedom of choice that this involves. Often I think I have to follow the pattern and all the rules, but that can stifle my creative juices, I feel. I learn so much from watching your work. Thank you.

  4. I love this idea. I don't think you will get bored and you can use it as a type of sampler – trying different stitches and techniques along the way. I like that it is so free-form as well because it makes it easier to transfer to a dark or printed fabric which I usually enjoy stitching on. I loved the gold work but this project excites me and I could see how some metal work could be included if desired.

  5. I can feel your ambivalence about the black… but you could add a splash of color if you wanted to. I tried doing a free-form embroidery (when I was in college) and it did involve too much thought, I didn't get too far. (I didn't know as much about embroidery then as I do now either.) I think it is still languishing in a bag somewhere, more than 30 years later. I think this guy will turn out really cool. It's all about the process, isn't it?

  6. Focus on the list of pros, and forget your con list. All the reasons that you have for liking the fish are valid, and the outcome will be pleasing. What to do with it? That will become clear when it it finished.

  7. I like the fish. It's fun and very different. I like that. As I was looking at the pictures I was just thinking that it seems like some of the solid black lines are not filled completely. It seems like the design parts of the fish would pop even more if the solid black lines and outlines were really solid black. I hope that made sense. Thank you for your blog, I love reading it every day!

  8. I love everything about this project! The fish is such a rich symbol, or just a fish, depending on your point of view or mood; the randomness of the stitches and threads appeals to the crazy quilter in me; the overall look is delicate and lacy; and yes, he looks a little startled, as if he just looked in a mirror and can't believe how beautiful he is! Please keep going till it's finished!

  9. I think the fish is looking great Mary. Its starting to show character and I agree with the others that working in black with so many stitches could never be dull.


  10. I like the fish! He(?) provides many opportunities for varying textures and shading. Besides, you just did a bird (the handsome rooster).

    Working with one color boring? For me, it's doing the same stitch over and over that gets boring. Probably why it takes me years to finish a cross stitch project, even if it's a pattern I really really like.

    Sitting and Staring – you are waiting for the fish to tell you what he wants to look like.

  11. I have been following your blog for a few months now but this is the first comment I've left. I absolutely love the fish! I must say I thought I knew how to embroider until I found your site. The few stitches my grandmothers taught me years ago are nothing compared to what I've been watching you do. I LOVE the doodle look of the fish and I would never have had the imagination to think up something like this or the pomegranate. Very lovely work!

  12. I love this fish! I can visualize it in CQ. Would you have any objections if I enlarged it as a wallhanging if I ever get time? Your embroidery on him is wonderful and I look forward to seeing him finished.

  13. FabulousI I think your cons can easily be dismissed each time you see what you've stitched. I can't wait to see each stopping point.

  14. Mary, I've no idea how the finished work could be used, but it doesn't matter as the project is gorgeous! It's simple in colours but not in the number of stitches used. And all that makes it a really interesting piece of embroidery. I'd love to see the final look.

  15. I have to say that I wasn't too sure about this project when you started. A fish? A fish in blackwork? Hmmmmm…..


    The doodle is awesome and I really like the stitched version as well. Keep going!

    I'm hooked! 🙂

  16. At first I wasn't too much of a fan of the fish; maybe his eye put me off, I don't know. But now?! I am really starting to love him. The finer black threads reeled me in, heh, heh. Good job (as always), Mary!

  17. G'day there Mary,

    Of course he's looking startled. He has just woken up to the fact that he is going to be very gorgeous and very different AND however will he manage the media frenzy let alone the ensuing fan club of oggling people.

    This really is right up my alley. For years I've kept copies of any sort of doodley design things I've come across with the thought of embroidery in mind. And just 'cos I like 'em.

    I love the black. It highlights the graphics (in design/doodles/different stitches) and that's what is so appealing to me in this project.

    I like the different thicknesses of thread idea too, rather than combining different amounts of strands of the same thread all the time.

    I don't mind if this project goes on for a while, although am very interested in finished result, as I will find it so satisfying to savour each step. And to see how each step affects the previous ones, ties in, makes stand out, subdues etc.

    Artwork is problem solving all the way isn't it. Most things you do creates another problem or decision. Some are obvious and easy to the artist and the work flows but others take some pondering.

    This is all going beautifully Mary. Thank you again, Kath.

    PS, His eye is fine, it's a work of art and suits him.

    Reminds me of a story of Mums. Many years ago Mum had goldfish in a bowl and a visiting toddler was facinated by them. Eventually little Coral said to Mum, "They got eyes"!

  18. I like the idea. maybe you can give it someone who likes fishing or has a camp to hang up. It shows people how they can make their own designs come to life. Even from a doodle.

  19. I like the idea. maybe you can give it someone who likes fishing or has a camp to hang up. It shows people how they can make their own designs come to life. Even from a doodle.

  20. The fish is great. The black is dramatic, the texture and variety of stitches all add to the doodle and I think the startled look is because the fish is waiting for the rest of his body to catch up.

    I'd be happy with just black but wondered if you are not, would a fine border/ lower edge of muted color grasses work? Just a thought.

    Every day visiting here brings more surprises. Thanks for sharing.

  21. It is a great fish & so neat and the original is doodle brill. I also think it is a great idea, but I have done something similar myself so I'm biased. Mine was on painted fabric & very stiff to put a needle thru, so not neat like yours[I call it naive style]. Mine became a picture & is hanging in a gallery at this moment.

  22. I don't think it's weird or ugly, at all. I am definitely eager to see the outcome. I don't think I would try to do it, but only because I have too many UFOs as it is and I'm really bad about finishing. Maybe as I learn and feel more comfortable with more stitches, I might consider something similar — fish aren't my thing. Although the goldwork was beautiful, I actually like this a lot better, style-wise. I'm looking forward to more close-ups like the second to last here.


  23. Thank you again, Mary!

    I like the fact that it covers the basics. The Jacobean
    work fascinates me and although I have never done any crewel work I would like to see an introduction.


  24. Are you kidding? Firstly, if you can't think of what to do with that fish, I know a lovely and highly appreciative girl in Southern California who would know exactly where to put that fish. Secondly, this is nothing short of breathtaking, stunning, wonderous. There are not enough words! I love it, I can't wait to see it completed, I will follow your blog for that alone. Be proud of that work for it is truly inspiring.

  25. Thanks, all, for your comments on the Fish Project. I'm having such fun with it – this evening, I'll finish the lower half of the body, so I hope to have an update soon.

    Regan – Glad you like it! Your comment gave me a good chuckle!

    I've been getting some pressure to use the finished fabric as the outside pocket on a summer tote, made with black and white fabric. I'm thinkin' about it….

  26. This fish is definitely worth its weight in gold…oh hang on, it’s blackwork, not goldwork! Still, I love this style of work and admire your version of it very much.

  27. I love the fish. I may have chosen a flower or just random divisions on a rectangle but that is because, like you, I would wonder why I was doing a fish. What I have found is if you make it, someone will like it and want it. So, I say–go for it.

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