Good news! About 10 years ago, Galina Tregubov wrote and published a book on icon embroidery, using a guardian angel icon constructed into a banner as the teaching project in the book. For embroiderers in the US interested in this type of embroidery, it was really the only book available with clear, step-by-step instructions for needlepainting an icon.
I bought the book back then because I was intrigued by the techniques, and I learned a lot just by reading the book. And now you can, too, without buying the book. It’s available in complete form, online, for free!
The technique involved in icon needlepainting as presented in this book is somewhat similar to Opus Anglicanum (English medieval embroidery), insofar as the stitch of choice is split stitch. There are, however, noticeable differences between icon embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, including (on the icon’s part) a richer use of shadow in a very stylized and formulaic way, as well as much more angular features throughout the whole design.
Throughout the book, there is much excellent information for the embroiderer, whether you are interested particularly in icon embroidery or simply interested in split stitch shading.
The best information in the book is the information on split stitch shading. The shading in this type of embroidery is not accomplished with long and short stitch, but instead with lines of split stitch.
The clear diagrams and concise explanations throughout help the embroiderer achieve the shaded effects characteristic of icon embroidery, but that can be translated into other styles of embroidery, too.
The explanation of stitching folded garments is particularly clear and helpful. The garments in the icon are characteristically more angular and two-dimensional (they might remind you of a mosaic), but even if this is not the style you are after when needlepainting garments, it is not difficult to take the concepts presented herein and “soften” them to achieve a more natural look.
There’s a thorough section on the finish work, from adding the pearl embroidery to constructing the banner.
You can find the entire book Guardian Angel: Embroidering a Traditional Banner in a Modern Age available online for free. It is definitely worth taking time to read it – you will pick up many worthwhile tips to apply to any embroidery, but if you are even remotely interested in icon embroidery, you will certainly appreciate the book fully.
While you’re there, it’s also worth taking a look at Galina Tregubov’s iconographic embroideries portfolio. You can click on the slide-show button and scroll through a vast collection of embroidered panels, banners, and works of art.
Interestingly, all this work is done in DMC perle cotton, size 5. You don’t often see perle cotton used for detailed surface embroidery like this. The embroidery is worked on velveteen, over interfacing.
Icon Embroidery Classes
If you already know that icon embroidery is your thing, and you’re interested in learning not just the embroidery techniques involved, but the history of iconographic ecclesiastical embroidery, Hexaemeron (a non-profit organization dedicated to ecclesial arts in education) offers icon embroidery classes in different spots around the country. There is one class left this year, from September 28 – October 3, in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. You can read the details of the embroidery courses offered on the Haxaemeron website.
Opus Anglicanum Embroidery
Before wrapping up, if you like Opus Anglicanum and you are interested in ecclesiastical and historical embroidery from medieval England, you might take the opportunity to visit the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There’s a beautiful silk and silver-gilt thread chasuble available for viewing on the Met’s website (not on display at the museum, though). Unfortunately, you can’t zoom in on it too far. In any case, it’s an amazing piece of embroidery almost-700-year-old embroidery, and pretty rare to find in this condition.
While you’re lingering on the Met’s website, you might use the search feature on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History and type in any period of embroidery history you might be interested in reading about or viewing objects from. For example, you can search “Tudor and Stuart Embroidery” and come up with a nice slideshow of embroidered objects from this era, along with some good reading.