In the most recent issue of Inspirations Magazine (Issue #71), you’ll find an article by yours truly about finding inspiration from the past for needlework designs today. In the article, I highlighted sources for out-of-copyright needlework designs that can be adapted to all kinds of different embroidery techniques.
Besides designs from these old publications, I also like to glean ideas and inspiration from old pieces of needlework. One area of needlework where stitches, techniques, and materials are used in interesting combinations is old church embroidery. Whenever I get the opportunity (and have permission), I photograph old pieces of ecclesiastical embroidery, and often when I’m looking for ideas for materials, for interesting combinations of threads for certain effects, or for some kind of inspiration for a design, I’ll flip through my ever-growing collection of photos of church embroidery pieces. I also have a tendency to collect old worn out pieces of ecclesiastical needlework. Damaged beyond repair, they make a great learning tool.
Using an example from my collection of photos, I’ll show you what sparks my interest.
Here’s the overall piece. The colors – especially that background fabric – are somewhat bright, but the whole piece would have been even brighter when it was new, as the gold has tarnished considerably over the years. I’m not too wild over the colors, myself; it’s the stitchery that interests me the most.
The majority of silk embroidery in the piece is done in chain stitch. Whether or not this particular chain stitch is worked with a regular needle or a tambour needle is hard to say.
There are several types and treatments of gold metal threads in the piece.
First, there’s this central flower. The very center is made of gold purl (or bullion), and around that is stitched more purl, in a technique called s-ing. S-ing is somewhat similar to working a stem stitch (only backwards) with chips of gold purl.
The colored parts of the petal are worked in chain stitch, in three colors – a darkish pink-red, a pink, and a goldish-yellow. The chain stitching is worked in lines straight up the petal, but following the contours on the outside walls of the petals. Over the petals, radiating from the middle, a metal thread is couched in lines. It looks like a very wiry check thread.
The outside “turn overs” on the petals are made from card that have been stitched over with a fine gold wire (like a passing thread, only a bit more wire-like). The gold wire is couched only along the outline of the card – the wire does not pass under the card, and there is no stitching on top of the card. A couching stitch is taken at the side, each time the wire is passed over the card and turned to pass over the card again. In this manner, the gold looks like a satin stitch. The surface is very smooth and is not broken up by any couching stitches. The card lifts the gold up above the rest of the design – it’s really quite thick (I’d say about 1/8″). Around the outside of the whole flower, a red outline is stitched in a fine stem stitch.
There are some strange colors used here, are there not? There’s the deep bright red, a bright yellow, a tannish color, and …. yes …. an old burnt orange. Well, I think they’re a bit strange, especially when you throw in the metallic blue-ish grey on the other part of the design. It seems to work overall for the style of the piece, I guess, but it still causes me to shake my head a bit and wonder.
But it’s the gold here that caught my eye. Around the edge of the medallion, you see an edge treatment that, in some form or another, is pretty common on medallions like this on old vestments. The “rosette” that borders the design is made again from card (or board), about 1/8″ thick. In the same manner that the turn-overs on the flower petals were stitched, the board is covered with a gold wire, like a very smooth passing thread, and a crinkled wire, like a very fine check thread (or rococco), alternated in blocks. Outlining the gold-covered board on each side are two pairs of heavier passing thread. Outside the passing thread, you’ll find some pearl purl that’s been stretched quit a bit. At first, I thought this wavy thread might be rococco or even a larger check-type thread, but in fact, it is hard, like a wire. It’s not milliary wire (which could be used to achieve this look, too), because there’s no straight metal wire to which the wavy wire is attached. The pearl purl is couched in the valleys of the stretched coils. On the outside of the pearl purl, you can see a dark red line, which is a stem stitch outline in silk thread.
I like this edge treatment! I’d like to give it a try on something Very Small. On a large piece, I imagine it would take quite a bit of time to cover the scalloped rosette.
So if you were to see this piece of embroidery, what would catch your eye? Anything in particular? Do you like to look at old pieces of needlework for ideas for design and technique? What types of things do you look for in pieces like this, if you do? I’d love to hear your take! Leave a comment below, if you like – it could make for an interesting discussion!