Last year, when the Royal School of Needlework began producing a series called “Essential Stitch Guides,” I was pretty excited! The first two books in the series, the RSN Essential Stitch Guide for Blackwork and the RSN Essential Stitch Guide for Crewelwork, I’ve already reviewed. I like them both.
The RSN Stitch Guide for Silk Shading is going to be a little more difficult to review. After reading the book cover-to-cover, I have to admit that I wasn’t in raptures over it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some good points and some good content. I’ll give you a synopsis and touch on some pros and cons, from my point of view. Then you can decide whether or not you’ll add it to your library.
The RSN Essential Stitch Guide for Silk Shading is written by Sarah Homfray, a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework who still teaches for the RSN. The book is bound like the previous two books in the series – it’s a small book, with board covers and spiral binding, which makes it very convenient to use as an instructional book (because it stays open without any trouble).
Like the previous books in the series, the book begins with a blurb on the Royal School of Needlework, followed by an introduction to silk shading and a brief history of silk shading. Then comes a nice “materials” section with tips on different types of fabric that can effectively be used for silk shading, as well as tips on backing your fabric.
There’s a section on threads suitable for silk shading, and the author provides some good pointers on choosing different types of threads.
There’s a bit on color, too. This section is basic, but informative. There’s a short glossary of the essential terminology used when discussing color, which is nice to have, and a brief list of do’s and don’ts when selecting color.
Following the discussion of color is a two-page spread on finding inspiration for silk shading. The author points out that even mundane items like eggs and spoons can make an interesting study in silk shading. She talks a bit about what to be aware of when finding inspiration in photographs and in everyday items.
Composition is also covered in brief. The author discusses basic rules such as the “rule of thirds,” focal points, grounding objects, and the use of negative space. These are good points for anyone who hasn’t studied or read up on the subject of design, and though succinct (after all, this is a stitch guide, not a book on design), the information is good and useful to know.
The section on composition is followed by a section on color planning, tonal references, stitch direction, and stitching order. I would have liked a bit more content in this section – especially some visual instruction – as I think these questions are essential to silk shading. (I’m hoping to see some of these points really elaborated on in Trish Burr’s upcoming book on color in embroidery.)
There is an extensive bit on transferring the design, the first instructions being devoted to prick-and-pounce (you’ll find this in the crewel book, too), and then other options are also discussed, like tracing, using a transfer pen (iron on), and using tacking stitches with tissue paper.
There are six pages devoted to framing up – four of which are devoted to slate frames. Scroll bars, stretcher bars, and hoops are covered in the other two pages. If you already have the crewelwork and blackwork books, this may seem like redundant information, but it’s necessary information for each book, when owned in isolation. However, since fewer people use slate frames than they do the other three methods of framing up, I tend to find the emphasis on the slate frame (which is not as commonly owned by the average stitcher, is harder to come by, is more expensive, and is more time-consuming to set up) a bit overdone. Still – if you want to do it the RSN way, then a slate frame is part of that approach.
The “stitch guide” part of the stitch guide falls a bit short, in my opinion. Here, you’ll find a combination of diagrams and photos illustrating some of the stitches used to enhance silk shading projects (in addition to long and short stitch).
Why does this section fall short? I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the methods of using the long and short stitch – like stitching in various directions with long and short stitch, blending colors and switching threads and so forth – rather than diagrams on simple stitches like running stitch and whipped running stitch. Some of these points (on stitch direction, for example) are covered a little later in the book, but it would have been nice if all these techniques had been addressed in one uninterrupted section, rather than having to flip through the book to find the instructions for different long and short stitch techniques.
I found it surprising that, for a book on shading with long and short stitch, the first stitches one comes across in the book are running stitch, whipped running stitch, and so forth. I found the whole instructional section on stitching a little broken up and disorganized.
Two pages are devoted to the long and short stitch itself, stitched straight up and down (the technique known as “tapestry shading”). As stated above, a little later in the book, the author covers varying direction with the long and short stitch. While the purpose of the simple long and short stitch demonstration is just to show the movement of the stitch (the mechanics of how to do it), I’m a little disappointed in the instruction here. Clare Hanham’s book, Beginner’s Guide to Silk Shading, does a much better job on basic instruction on long and short stitch.
After the stitch guide section, you’ll find some exercises that demonstrate techniques of effective silk shading. There’s a little exercise involving a vase that shows directional shading (rather than straight up and down tapestry shading). There’s this carrot exercise, for shading “complex shapes” using tapestry shading. Then there’s a banana exercise that demonstrates natural shading (following the curves of the banana and its peeled peel).
Following the vase, carrot, and banana, we get into a section called “Projects to Stitch.” Unlike the previous two stitch guides, the silk shading stitch guide has specific projects in it. Thread painting takes a lot of practice, so I like the fact that a few practice projects are included. The projects are nice – the “blue curves” project is an interesting excise in shading complex designs that are foliage-like, using natural shading; the “marbles” project is colorful, different and fun; a “poppy” project, which is ok; and an “autumn leaves” project, which is the most realistic looking project featured in the book.
Following the projects section is a section titled “Taking Your Work Further,” where the author focuses on using long and short stitch in abstract and multi-technique designs.
And then there’s an explanatory section on working with different threads and then one on working with different fabrics.
At this point, I was becoming frustrated with an overall sense of “choppiness” to the book. The instructional parts previous to this point seemed choppy, because I was flipping around looking for all the instructional points on long and short stitch. Then I arrived at this section, which talks again about threads and fabrics. There’s a materials section at the front of the book discussing threads and fabrics, and now this one at the end of the book. The reason for including the topic again here is apparently to elaborate on the notion of taking long and short stitch shading “further.” We see a needlepainted peacock feather stitched on denim and some pictures of Chinese needlepainting in this section.
Next up, we go back to specific technique instruction, in a section devoted to working with painted backgrounds (with information on painting the backgrounds), followed by a project that incorporates a needlepainted image (the face of a Native American) stitched on a painted background featuring sky, hills, a green meadow, and some teepees. There’s a nice diagram and explanation of needlepainting the Apache’s face, which is handy. It’s good to see the treatment of a face in needlepainting (something that’s rarely discussed in any other books on long and short stitch), even though this particular face is more reminiscent of carved wood than of a natural face. The author points out the detail that can be achieved in tapestry shading by changing colors and shades.
Moving away from specific technique instruction, we reach a gallery of other needlepainted pieces – a bird, some animals, some still-life – that covers a couple pages. I was disappointed in this section of the book. The pieces are ok, but fell a little short of the Wow Factor.
Then we get a section on finishing (mounting, lacing, and framing). Again, another bit of choppiness here – we’re back to instruction.
Finally, we get a section called “troubleshooting,” and this area features a list of tips to help improve our needlepainting efforts. It would have been nice if these tips had been “fleshed out” with demonstrative photos in the body of the book; treated that way, they would have served as better – and more thorough – instructional material for long and short stitch. I think it’s good the troubleshooting tips were included, but a little elaboration would have been nice.
1. The binding is nicely done in spiral (I like that in an instructional book, though I realize other people don’t necessarily like it).
2. It has some interesting and useful content, especially in the form of highlighted tips throughout the book, the section on design and composition, and the troubleshooting tips (brief as they are).
3. It’s an affordable book to have as an extra resource in your library. There are enough good tips in it to make it worthwhile.
1. For actual instructional purposes, especially for beginners to shading, there are better books out there. Clare Hanham’s Beginner’s Guide to Silk Shading is one of them, as well as the A-Z of Threadpainting. For advanced-beginner through advanced stitchers, Trish Burr’s books would provide better inspiration and instruction, too.
2. The organization of the book is disappointing. It lacks a logical sequence and seems choppy. Flipping around to find the various techniques involved in long and short stitch shading was rather annoying.
3. There’s not enough emphasis on the “troubleshooting” aspect of needlepainting. Silk shading is not an easy technique when it comes to achieving realistic shading, and it would be nice to see more of the troublesome aspects more clearly tackled, in an organized and logical sequence.
4. Though the author discusses tonal qualities in needlepainting and shows how a black-and-white photocopy of the original picture of the design can help the stitcher know where the different shades change, there is no specific or detailed instruction on where to work different colors & shades, on how to switch off to other colors & shades, on how to manage switching between shades in small areas or vertical areas, on working into one color and then out of it again, etc. These points are really essential to good silk shading, and I think the book could have gone into much more detail on managing color and shade changes in various stitching circumstances.
I’d say the book is a good one to have as an extra resource, but it doesn’t strike me as a “go-to” resource for silk shading. I wouldn’t categorize it as a beginner’s book. Rather, I’d describe it as a “recap” on general points of silk shading, with a lot of extra information on the peripherals, and not quite enough information on the essential aspects that would answer the questions of stitchers new to silk shading.
If you have the book already, I’d like to hear your input on it! Leave a comment below!
Where to Find It
You can find the RSN Stitch Guide for Silk Shading through the following book affiliates:
In the US, it’s available here through Amazon.
Worldwide, with free shipping, you can find it here at Book Depository.