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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Secret Garden: Embroidering Feathers!


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Do you ever get really stuck into your embroidery, completely engrossed in it, with the absolute certitude that you will not only reach your daily goal but surpass it, everything just ticking along exactly as you wanted it….when suddenly….


…out of nowhere… the phone rings, the unexpected happens, some sort of interruption comes? They’re not necessarily bad interruptions – but they are interruptions.

This happens to me a lot. And it’s always when I’m the most settled, the most determined, the most engrossed, and the most certain that I’m actually getting somewhere.

In particular, it happened the other day when I was working on the hummingbird feathers on the Secret Garden project. And I was so sad to leave them! I was having such fun!

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

Here are some of the feathers, stitched. The ones you see here are not completely finished yet, but they give a good idea of where I’m going with them.

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

This group of feathers on the top wing are worked in fishbone stitch, and it is really a perfect stitch for these feathers!

Starting with a very dark blue at the tip (DMC 820), I’m working the fishbone stitch down the feathers in a progression of slightly lighter blues, beginning with 820, 995 and 996, and then working through 3843, 3844, 3845, and 3846 all the way to the “cap” of the wing.

The top feathers being slightly darker, I didn’t make it all the way to the lighter blues on those.

And as the feathers lighten up even more (in the lower feathers, which you can see in the photo above), I alternated in some of the light-light blue – a white-ish blue – DMC 747.

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

Now, looking at the photo directly above, which is just a repeat of the one before it, there is one section that needs a little touch up. Can you see it or guess what it is?

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

It’s right here. The dark blue does not extend as far as it needs to. The dark blue in this second feather needs to line up better with the feather right below, but it falls short slightly.

To fix that, I don’t have to take the whole feather out, and that’s another good thing about fishbone stitch, especially when it’s not packed too tightly together – you can go back and sneak in a stitch or two without disrupting anything.

Let me demonstrate …

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

This is the same feather – the second feather down on the wing, after I first stitched it.

I wanted the tip to look a bit turned. But this layout I tried with the blues didn’t work. The feather didn’t look turned. It just looked weird.

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

After embroidering a few more feathers and convincing myself that it really did look weird, I went back to that second feather and fixed it.

I just sneaked in a couple more dark blue stitches (it needs two more still, I think), but you can’t tell they were sneaked in, can you?

So, whenever you’re working with a particularly forgiving stitch (like fishbone stitch, or long & short stitch, or even stem stitch or split stitch fillings), if you need to make tiny, subtle corrections, there’s nothing wrong with going back and sneaking in a stitch or two.

Or three!

Just make sure that the stitches are worked in such a way that they fit and flow with the surrounding stitches, rather than sitting on top of them or moving in a different direction from them.

No one will ever notice. And you’ll be the only one who knows!

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

Here are the feathers from the side, to give you a better idea of the progression of blues.

Secret Garden Hummingbirds: Embroidered Feathers

And here’s the bird in context.

A tip on using multiple colors or shades in one small area: don’t end your threads – park your embroidery threads!

Keep a needle on each shade of thread you’re using (so you don’t have to keep re-threading your needle), and pull the threads off to the side, anchoring them in your fabric. You want to make sure they’re pulled out of the way on the back of the work, too, so you don’t get any messy tangles there.

And another tip: if you’re working with shades that are barely different from each other and difficult to distinguish at a glance, park your threads in some kind of order, so you always know which shade is which.

You can see the needles parked off to the left on my frame in the photo above – the threads there are in order, from light to dark, down the side. That way, I always know which shade is which in the middle ranges that are close in value.

The Resident Hummingbird

Hummingbird at Feeder

The other day, while I was out on my porch taking photos of a book, a little shadow kept flitting across the page.

I glanced up and this tiny guy – our resident hummingbird – was buzzing about, having lunch.

The triangle behind the bird’s tail is the steeple of a church a couple blocks away.

Cute, isn’t he? Not super colorful, but cute!

Back to the feathers – they’re coming along! I only have a small window this morning where I might finish them. Fingers crossed!

Questions, comments, suggestion are always welcome! Have your say below!

If you’d like to follow along with the Secret Garden Hummingbirds project, you can find all the articles relating to this project arranged in chronological order in the Secret Garden Project Index.


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(49) Comments

  1. Good Morning, Mrs. Corbet! I admit I cheated last night and looked on Twitter. I thought it was perfect last night, and it’s even more-so this morning. For the first time I came very close to imagining what you chose to do! :O The image in my head had added some of the dark Emerald green to the dark blue tips of the feathers. You see, I thought that would help tie in the green on the breast and wing cap. Still, I could not be more enthralled by the feathers! BRAVA!

    You certainly have a cute little Hummer as your backyard mascot, I daresay he’d be delighted with his thread-drawn counterpart. We have hummers here too, and they always whisper, “stitch me” or maybe I’m just too obsessed for my own good.

  2. I am so enjoying watching this project progress and getting to stitch vicariously through you! Thanks for sharing your creativity and your process.

  3. Holy cow Mary! Those tail feathers are fantastic with the blending of colors and the use of the fishbone stitch. I cant stop looking at it.

  4. Oh, I am loving those tail feathers, Mary! What a perfect stitch for them.
    We have a hummingbird feeder too and I always enjoy seeing how many different kinds can be feeding at once. They are fun to watch!

  5. All I can say is WOW ! I have been watching you make this come alive from the beginning and every post is just amazing. Thank you for letting us come along with you. Gorgeous !

  6. I love the fishbone stitch for the feathers! And I also love the way you worked the blues from dark to light; They blend nicely.
    Your “tiny guy” is adorable. I love hummingbirds. This one isn’t colourful, but he’s simple and sweet!
    The Secret Garden is coming along, Mrs. Corbet! It’s really coming along. And it looks beautiful 😀


  7. What beautiful work. I’m really enjoying watching everything come together.

    You know, your “tiny guy” might actually be a “tiny gal” instead!

    1. I agree. The tiny gal is likely a female ruby-throated hummingbird. I bet she’d be blown away by the beautiful blue boy in the embroidery. Those gorgeous wings put a simple ruby necklace to shame!

  8. Dear Mary

    The feathers with the different shades of thread and the fishbone stitch look absolutely gorgeous I love the fish bone stitch it is such a pretty stitch. The colour threads you have used blend in beautifully with the whole design and such beautiful stitching so lovely and professional. Thanks for the tip on parking threads I used this method on my current project which I learnt from you and it is so handy and saves so much time of not having to continuiously thread needles. I love your resident hummingbird so cute. Thanks for sharing your update on The Secret Garden project and for sharing your tips and techniques on parking threads and for the lovely photo of your resident Hummingbird.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  9. Mary, I am following your project eagerly, but the feather situation has suggested a question to me. How do you deal with a situation where the weave of the fabric conflicts with the perfect place to put your needle into it? Sometimes I can’t quite get my needle into the fabric in the right place to make a curve perfectly smooth, or to get one stitch right up next to another one, without splitting the threads of the background fabric. Or sometime the point of the needle is not sharp enough to pierce the fabric in just the right spot (I am a crazy quilter, and I don’t always use fabric woven for embroidery).

    1. Hi, Leslye – well, that’s just it, the fabric and the needle. If you’re using something with a looser weave, this is more difficult. Typical, widely available linen sold for counted cross stitch, for example, can be difficult to hand embroider on, and get a smooth edge. A closely woven fabric is better for hand embroidery. If your weave is loose, you can always back the fabric with a closely woven cotton muslin. Also, a crewel needle (which has a sharp point) is imperative. Tapestry needles have blunt tips – they’re used for counted work or certain (limited) types of stitches in surface work, but not generally for surface embroidery. With the right needle and fabric, you should have no trouble piercing the ground fabric right where you want the stitch to be.

  10. Dear Mrs. Corbet,

    The feathers look absolutely stunning! The shading is beautiful, I am in complete awe!
    Thank you for your generosity in showing us all the process of creating unique work with neeedle and thread!



  11. I love the look of the bird. I am stitching again after nearly twenty years of doing other things. (Like learning to quilt and crochet and beadwork.)You are so inspiring and truly gifted.

  12. Mary,
    I’m in awe looking at those feathers on the tail. The whole thing just puts a smile on my face and makes me want to go stitch every time I see it. Unfortunately, I’m cleaning today, but hopefully I will be able to sneak in a little stitching before the day is over. One of these days that longstanding cross stitch is going to get finished.

  13. this last picture makes me miss having a hummingbird feeder. looks like you might have an immature male who hasn’t gotten his full red throat yet (hard to tell 100% from that pic but I think that’s what that black spot is, sometimes they get the odd patch of red feathers before the full red sets in).

    thanks for the idea about parking your threads in color order…wish I’d thought of that the other day with my three reds that look almost exactly alike.

  14. All is forgiven!! ( not that anything needed forgiveness). The bird’s feathers are glorious — perfect! What a great beauty he is.

  15. I am just euphoric watching the beauty of this piece unfold.
    I would so love to see Inspiration Magazine pick up this project for one of its articles. The knowledge, instruction, color experience,humor, techniques, skills, (gosh I could go on forever Mary), are given straight from your heart.
    Like so many of us senior embroiderists, my eyes are not what they use to be. I would struggle in a classroom and feel self conscious to hold others back.
    Your classroom affords me the perfect place at the table and I feel blessed everyday that I get to show up for class.

  16. Marie,
    Je ne réalise pas le projet Colibri, mais je le suis avec attention.
    En observant attentivement les couleurs, je déduis que les autres plumes devraient être plus claires à la suite.
    Comment introduisez-vous les nouvelles couleurs? j’ai pu observer l’ajout de bleu ultra clair et aussi un mélange non fondu de bleu dans les premières plumes. Un résultat magnifique et vivant.Comment prendre une telle décision, pour une brodeuse plus que moyenne?
    Je dois avouer que me bluffez,tant le résutat est magnifique. Merci Marie

  17. Does your buzzy little neighbor approve of the work you are doing inventing another hummer? 🙂 He/she seems to approve of lunch. 🙂

    Seems odd that fish bones are perfect to make bird tails….. (hehe)

  18. I have been following along, just watching you stitch, so to speak. It is soooo beautiful. I am not that good, but I love it.
    Best part of getting your email is that it gives me the stitch itch! Right now, I’m crocheting, but I may pull out the Carolyn Barrani crewel embroidered lamb I started some time age.
    I know one thing for sure. I will never run out of wonderful projects to do!!

  19. Dear Mary, it is such a relief to find someone as meticulous as I am about every single stitch. I’ve been teased mercilessly about my perfectionism. Now I found a kindred spirit! But after a lifetime of always doing a little bit extra, that no one will ever notice, I feel really good about everything I’ve created. You are an inspiration to all!

    1. I understand what you mean! My Grandmother (AKA My first embroidery Guru) her friends, and everyone else who has watched me stitch, frogging, and re-stitch all think I’m flat-out LOCO! My sister was bugging me about it just yesterday. But… then I come here and it’s like a sanctuary, I am not alone in my quest for exquisite stitching! If only I actually made exquisite stitches… Oh well, the quest must continue.

  20. Hi Mary,

    I just have to comment now – it’s simply stunning! This would be a project I would hope to aspire too someday in the future, when I’m more competent at stitching. I’m glad you circled the area where you needed to put extra stitches as I didn’t pick up on it. I’m always amazed at what you do, the depth of your knowledge and your unselfishness in teaching others through your website. Thank you very much!

  21. When I see another email from you, Mary, I actually get motivated to do something! Following your embroidery path is such a great start to the day. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Those wing colours really shimmer, and without using shiny thread (which would detract from the beauty of the work). You are a genius.

  23. To be able to show such dimension and depth with thread on a flat surface embroidery as you do is my main goal. You are truly an artist!
    I wonder if you would do the Peacock at some point in time. Yhey are my favorite birds.
    Yours and His, Deonia in Florida

  24. Many of the comments refer to tail feathers. Surely these are wing feathers?
    The blending of the colours is exquisite. This is a beautiful example of fishbone stitching.

  25. This is coming along beautifully. The fishbone stitch was a good choice.

    Regarding your friend and monograms:


  26. You already know your resident hummer is a female ruby-throated hummingbird. Here in northern California, we don’t get that one, but our female black-chinned looks just like your little girl. As for the embroidery, I couldn’t see a thing wrong with the turned feather. I love the graded blues you are using and how you are using them.

  27. How nice that you still have hummingbirds out in KS, where cooler weather should be setting in right about now. I think, however, that your “tiny guy” is actually a girl. Boys have bright red throats in front — harder to tell gender from the back. We had a particularly fat one one year whom we named “Mr. Christmas!”

    1. I have a triple fix of hummingbirds, outside at my feeders. Inside at Needle n Thread, and at
      Mary, thank you! It is a privilege and pleasure to follow your needlework adventures. Helen

  28. Mary, the feathers are beautiful!
    I have been wondering if at some point you may lead us in a beautiful jacobean project? There are so many beautiful patterns out there. Jacobean patterns allow you to play with so many stitches and colors. I do like the soft medium colors that some people select for their designs.
    I thought it would be interesting to see what colors and stitches you would use for such a project. The jacobean designs forever catch my eye.

  29. These look really beautiful, you’ve done a wonderful job! I love the rich colours and the blending is really fantastic.

    I always like watching the evolution of your projects, as you work out the best way to do things, and I always appreciate seeing the changes you make – trying thing X and pulling it out and trying thing Y until you find the thing that’s going to work best for you. I don’t stitch a lot, but I do dabble (I mostly quilt and sew) and sometimes I feel like my instincts are all wrong for it because I’m constantly trying things and pulling them out to try something else instead. And a lot of my online friends tell me to quit being so negative about it, just leave it and move along, but I do think trying again is an important part of learning. My instincts have to come from somewhere, and eventually some of that is going to be all this trial and error that I’m doing these days…

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