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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When Goldwork Gets Hairy


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When doing goldwork embroidery that involves plunging threads, I admit that I’ve always been a Plunge-Sooner-Rather-Than-Later kind of gal. Being this kind of Plunger has both its advantages and its disadvantages. Recently, though, I’ve converted (or revolted), and now I’m a Plunge-Later. This is how things went:

Plunging Goldwork Threads

Take a look at the goldwork above. It’s getting a bit hairy, isn’t it? All those loose ends need plunging. I’ve always plunged my goldwork threads section by section – so, technically, in the photo above where you can see all those loose ends sticking out on each petal, that’s not really Me. Me would have plunged the threads belonging to each petal, so that the surface of my work didn’t build up with too many hairy loose ends.

The Plunge-Sooner stitcher has the advantage of a much neater, less confusing work surface. The chance of the working thread getting caught up in loose ends is greatly reduced. Each section arrives at a finished look sooner, imparting a certain sense of satisfaction and completion.

Plunging Goldwork Threads

And this is all well and fine. But the Plunge-Sooner stitcher has the disadvantage of Frequent Interruptions. And Frequent Interruptions can be the catalyst for Stitch Madness, a disability well worth avoiding.

Imagine it: there you are, stitching along, happily couching little pairs of gold threads, developing a certain stitching rhythm, when all of a sudden, you have to stop stitching, plunge all your threads, turn your work over, switch to that magical, wonderful, best-loved, life-saving Curved Needle, overstitch all the the plunged ends, cut your thread, cut a new thread, wax it well with beeswax, thread up your regular stitching needle, and set out all over again, couching your next section of gold thread. Just when you’re getting into that soothing stitching rhythm, your Plunge-Sooner Mechanism kicks in, and the whole process starts all over again.


It is ever thus, if you are a Plunge-Sooner.

Plunging Goldwork Threads

The Plunge-Later stitcher has a different set of problems to face. When things start looking like this, you can’t help wondering What the heck is this mess? And how the heck am I going to get out of it?

But on the bright side, getting into the mess was awfully easy and pleasant – you just couched and couched and couched, developing a great stitching rhythm and moving along at a rapid pace. Remember? Oh, it was wonderful not having to stop to plunge all those hairy ends!

Despite the ever-growing maze of threads, you really did make great time couching all those threads! And you didn’t have to stop and start and start and stop, cutting old threads, waxing new ones. You just Stitched. You were, in fact, a stitching fiend and you really felt as if you made Progress.

Oh, bliss! Oh, joy! you cry to yourself. I have made Progress!

Plunging Goldwork Threads

And then you look at your progress. You begin the Which-Thread-End-Gets-Plunged-Where Game. It takes a bit of sorting, but eventually, all threads are poking out on the other side of the fabric.

What happens on the backside? There, you can secure your threads in bunches. You’ll be careful, though, so that you don’t bulk up great wads of thread on the back. You’ll keep your bundles of threads relatively neat and sedate. And when you’ve finished, you’ll realize that you actually stitched down all those cantankerous thread ends a Whole Lot Faster than you would have, had you worked them over two at a time.

Plunging Goldwork Threads

Suddenly, you find that you have converted. You are no longer a Plunge-Sooner. You are a Plunge-Later, and you are much happier for it!

Plunging Goldwork Threads

And then you start the whole process over again.

Points to Consider when Plunging Goldwork Threads

There are times when plunging sooner rather than later is the way to go, and there are times when you can get away with plunging a Whole Lot Later. A few things to keep in mind when deciding whether to plunge sooner or to plunge later:

1. If the threads on the front of your work get too out of hand that you can’t keep them sorted, or that they are constantly catching your working thread (that’s the thread you’re couching with), you may want to take a break from couching and plunge those suckers to the back. Get them out of the way! Make sure, though, that you secure the thread ends right after you’ve plunged them. Don’t make the mistake of plunging them, and then continuing to couch on the front, while all those hairy ends are sticking through to the back. You’ll make a Huge Mess on the back of the fabric if you do that.

2. If you decide to plunge later, make sure that the bundles of threads on the back are not so thick that they create a ridge that will cause a bump that will effect the front of your finished piece. Lay the threads out a bit and secure them in little bundles rather than in one big fat bundle.

3. If you decide to plunge sooner, you can speed up the turn-around time by waxing several threads and threading several needles ahead of time, so that at least you can switch to your new thread quickly.

What about you? Can you see certain advantages or disadvantages to plunging at different stages of work? If you do goldwork (or any other kind of embroider that requires plunging threads), when do you plunge? Or if I have confused or befuddled you, do you have any questions or would you like clarification on any of the above? Feel free to use the comment form below and have your say – I’m all ears!

If you’d like access to all the tips and techniques discussed in the Medallion Project, including complete step-by-step coverage of the Tudor-Style Rose, conveniently collected in one document, interlinked, referenced, and indexed, why not add the Marian Medallion Project e-book to your library? It’s packed full of all kinds of embroidery tips for undertaking a project like this, all in a convenient electronic format for easy searching.


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(50) Comments

  1. I like to plunge ‘sooner’, just to get the loose end out of the way. Then there is less danger of catching it and possibly giving it an unwanted tweak. But I prefer to do the securing and tidying bit when an area is finished, before moving on.

  2. Mary – not so much about plunging but what are the red & blue threads called? numbers ect, they are really gorjuss.

    1. Hi, Christine – the blues are Soie d’Alger silk, and the reds are Soie de Paris. Both are made by Au Ver a Soie. I don’t have the color numbers in front of me right now, but they are listed in earlier posts. When I get a chance, I’ll look them up again… MC

  3. G’day Mary,
    More interesting things I’d have never contemplated without this post. I’m neither a ‘sooner’ or a ‘later’ as don’t do enough goldwork to have the technique to contend with. I find all this very interesting though, and my understanding is, well, happily elastic!
    Thanks and cheers, Kath.

  4. I’m a Plunge Later. I often don’t cut the metal when moving from one area to another, I keep it connected and loop it over to the next spot if it’s fairly close by. This helps with the sinking, to keep it taught and not strip the metal. And, if I need to tighten it as I work along, it’s convenient (I often do this with a tekobari). And, as you noted, the loose ends are on top where I can see them, vs being underneath where they’re more apt to get caught in couching threads. But, sometimes I break this ‘rule’ and sink, when I need to see where it is in order to make a decision about the next thread.

    I also work in a clockwise pattern, as much as possible. For consistency in my stitching. My couching stitches generally follow the rule of away from me -> towards me, or right -> left. Again, for consistency.

    As you can probably tell I like the order and logic of doing metalwork!

    1. Hi, Christine – that’s a good idea to carry the threads when you can. This area is too small to carry them far, though. It wouldn’t leave enough at the end of the thread for plunging. But I suppose I could loop up the thread a little bit – I may try that, just to see if it makes things a little less messy. Thanks for the tip! – MC

  5. I’m a plunge sooner – I cannot bear all the ends and facing having to plunge all in one go. I can see the advantages but cannot make myself do it!

  6. Can we see what those gold threads look like from the back, after they have been plunged and then “corralled” on the back? I’d like to see how to do the bundling without creating ridges. Also speak more about the curved needle and its advantages. Are the points sharp or tapestry-style? They sound awkward to me.

    1. Hi, Terry – the curved needle has a sharp point. I’m using a curved beading needle, which is very fine, and yes, they are awkward to use until you get used to them. But they are definitely worth getting used to! They make oversewing the threads on the back Much Easier. I’ll show you the back of the work a little farther down the road, but you can read my response to Pauline here in the comments to see a bit more about the whole idea of bundles, ridges, and so forth. I do have bundles on the back of this, but they won’t interfere, due to the structure of the whole finished piece. More on the back, later! MC

  7. Mary, a few weeks ago you warned us all about nightmares involving “rabid embroidery scissors and angry needles” and now I read about Stitch Madness.
    Being stuck in embroidery-kindergarten, as the novice I am, this is scary and tough stuff for me to take in.
    I consider paying for a 2nd health insurance, which of course will limit my future purchases of linen and threads (which is a HORRIBLE thing!) but I see no other options.
    Embroidery (especially goldwork) – beautiful as it can be – is obviously a health threathening business – I think I’ll stick to crewel *lol*

  8. I have to plunge as I go. I have enough trouble keeping one or two strands from knotting on themselves. Using more than that or having to work around more than that seems to overwhelm me. I envy those of you that can keep two or three needles in different colors going at once. I agree, no matter which way, the flatter on the back the better.

    1. Yes, that’s usually me, too, Debbie. It is usually less of hassle just to plunge them and get them out of the way. But on these tiny spaces, it seems to make more sense to work as much gold as possible in, and then to go about plunging, just to get more actually stitching time in! Working the inner petals of the rose, I can only do one petal at a time because it is just too close to have the thread ends in the way…

  9. All those loose threads would drive to total distraction. Would it be possible to use a small child’s barrette to hold them out of the way? I was thinking of the ones that use a small amount of pressure to “lock”.

    1. Hi, Sally – well, due to the wiry nature of the threads, it’s easy enough to push them aside while stitching an area. I haven’t had any problems getting caught up in them. But this part was an exceptional looking mess, which is why I took the photo in the first place! I’ll talk more about this part a little later, and show some other points about working this area. I think a barrette or something similar would actually get more in the way, because the rose is so small. If I were working in an area that was not already embroidered all around, I would probably pin the threads out of the way if I needed to, but there’s nowhere to really run a pin at this point in the stitching…. MC

  10. LOL!!! I did indeed laugh out loud when reading this post. I’ve not done enough couching to really face this problem of needing to make PROGRESS and get it DONE. But I know now that there is a method to this hairy madness that is quite sane. Thanks for the tips on avoiding the bunching problems and other tangles. I am really looking forward to seeing this wholly complete. It is finally starting to look ‘almost finished’ – which for me, is the longest part of any project.

    1. Yes, I agree, Elisabeth… This is definitely the part that seems longest. I think part of that is due to the eagerness to finish, and since it seems “so close,” we tend to think it should somehow take less time… But it doesn’t really change the time involved to get the stitching done – no matter how you slice it, hand embroidery takes time! Well, hopefully not toooooooooooo much more time! – MC

  11. I’m with terryb – would you mind showing us how it looks after anchoring down so many gold threads? You’ve shown plunging and anchoring a few gold threads but this many would be interesting.

  12. Your project looks absolutely breathtaking, but I’m curious — what does the back look like with all those plunged threads? Grovenore

    1. Yes, I’ll show you the back a little further down the road… Now, on this particular piece, since it isn’t going to be framed with a hard backing, I’m not too concerned about bunches of threads. The piece itself is rather “thick” because of the padding on the lettering, the extra layer of backing fabric, and the general build up of the embroidery. On top of that, it is to be sewn onto the back of a vestment, and it won’t have anything pushing against it, as the interfacing in the vestment is actually cloth, and the lining of the vestment is also cloth. So my bundles on the back are like little logs almost, but they won’t effect the front. I’ll show you the back once I make a little more progress on the roses, so you can see more clearly what I’m talking about.


  13. “Frequent Interruptions”
    “Stitch Madness”
    Hahahahahahahaha!!!! Made me chuckle and smile! You described it perfectly —- the thought process that goes through your head while you are stitching. Thanks for another great post!

  14. Holy cow. I hope to have the chance to learn about this dilemma some day. How do I do that? Do you have a plan for that up your sleeve?

    1. Hi, Kathy – it’s not really a dilemma. I’ve been doing both – plunging as I go on some parts, where it makes sense to do that, and plunging all the threads at the end, where I can get away with it without causing too much of a mess. It depends on which part of the rose I’m working on…


  15. Regarding curved needles: Many years ago I attempted my first goldwork piece. At that time it was suggested to ask among our friends and neighbors to see if any were surgeons, then to ask them for either heart or kidney suture needles. That was all that was available as a curved needle, and only doctors could buy them. Needless to say, my goldwork career was short.

  16. Ha ha Mary!! You make even the possibly most boring process funny, not to mention valuable as a lesson. But how did you know the kind of conversation that goes on in my head? Thank you!

  17. It depends on how big the design is, but if I had to say, it’d be a sooner. I don’t do an aweful lot of goldwork, but it drives me nuts to have anything amiss on top. I like that idea about carrying the threads sometimes and will try it.

    This is such a great discussion, Mary. Do you have a video that shows plunging?

  18. Hi, Mary. Knowing my own temperament I would have to plunge sooner rather than later. I just know my couching thread would constantly be getting caught and my frustration level would be bad for my blood pressure. Much better for me to just bite the bullet and include plunging in the overall pattern of a slowed tempo in completing the gold work.

  19. Dear Mary: What an astonishing work! I just got curious about the wrong side of the fabric… It would have been interesting to see the wrong part… although I know you will show it the sooner or later…

  20. Hi Mary,
    Absolutely beautiful! I started plunging sooner on the tiny “I H S” Chalice Veil project from the cover of your E- Book. I was laughing because the gold threads were like wiggly worms (novice – first attempt with gold work.) I tried to turn corners to avoid plunging and to keep those buggers under control on the first letter. Then I plunged and secured each thread, but the space was so small, the threads on the back interfered with the next row of stitching.

    By the time I was on the final letter “S,” I had given up turning corners and plunging as I went. I never like my sewing projects to look like chaos, but I would give chaos a try. (Let’s just not mention the chaos of the sewing room!!! – that’s a different topic.) So happy I did! Those little thread started to behave and go where they were suppose to. The final letter looked so much better than the first two.

    Thanks for sharing and encouraging us to learn and try new things!

  21. Mary,
    Looking at this section today, I am now wondering if the pink area should have been the same creamy ivory (without the gold squiggles) as the background behind the blue letters. I liked the pink at the time you asked, but now i am having second thoughts.

    1. I had just the reverse reaction: At first I had my doubts about using pink for the connecting arches, but now I feel that it gives just enough subtlety to avoid upstaging the roses whereas using the paler/brighter background color might draw attention away from them.

  22. Dear Mary- I never did goldwork and every day I’m amazed to look at your beautiful Tudor-rose and your gorgeous embroidery work! It’s a real pleasure and I admire your perfect workmanship! Thank you for your blog and all the wonderful things you are showing to us!
    cheers Martina

  23. thank you for this recent spate of articles on goldwork technique. I am about to embark on a series of artworks involving heavy use of gold work. I would have been a plunge-sooner type, but having read your article I think I will be plunge-delayed.

  24. I have been following the Medallion Project with great wonder and interest. Your stitching is to be envied! My question is about waxing the gold thread. I have always wondered about using Thread Heaven and now waxing. Is there a difference? What are the advantages?
    About the comments of late: I love the beveled edge which shows perfectly and I do like the pink area at the flowers site. It gives a wonderful subtle color interest behind the rose. The whole design is just wonderful. Thank you Mary for your lessons and sharing your talents. By the way, I have done gold work in my Japanese studies. I am both a sooner and later plunger!

  25. Hi, Mary, it looks really nice. Is this still rose no. 1 ? This is when I tend to bog down. Perseverance is an acquired virtue, right? I do what Christine said, leave loops uncut. Seems easier to control that way.

  26. Hi Mary –

    The neatness freak in me says plunge as you go, while the compulsive/obsesive one says keep the rhythm. The pragmatic solution is as you suggested – get the plunging threads and needles prepared in advance and when the “twangle” gecomes annoying stop and plunge.

    I smiled when I saw your “neatned” tudor rose. Such a pleasure!

    Doreen from Maine

  27. Mary, the plunge sooner/later isn’t limited to goldwork. I’m a ‘plunge later’ type for most of my stitching. Yes, it can be a mess of threads. On the plus side, I can be ‘counting challenged’, and it’s much easier to take out if I haven’t fastened the ends.
    Now if only I could count 🙂

  28. Mary-

    Wow, this looks amazing!! It’s really, really, really beautiful!

    [I’m still slowly plugging away at my needlebook!]

  29. I just love the way you write, and the way you use words, its such a delight to read your blog. I haven’t embroidered in 30 years, yet you are the first blog I check every day. Thank you for sharing such beautiful work with the world.

  30. I would love to see what the back of a plunged piece looks like. All the little bundles tied up in a row. 🙂 I have never tried to do this!

  31. Oh great Sensai,
    I am absolutely agog at your embroidery talent and your willingness to pass it on. Thank you. I’m not ready to try gold work yet but I’ll be re-reading these postings of yours before I do. I noticed you using different types of gold threads close to each for different effect. How do you plan for a finished piece? I wonder what do you do with ends of threads that are too short for your current or most projects but too long to discard? Especially the gold threads or very expensive silks. Take care, Cat

  32. I’ve been thinking so much about the beautiful medallion you’ve been stitching. It’s quality of workmanship reminds me of the exquisite beauty of the goldwork on blue velvet you shared with us a few years ago. Your work is wondrous, Mary.

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