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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Sheesh – Some Shocking Shisha


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A few weeks ago, I showed you the beginnings of this little embroidery sample worked on dark fabric.

Have you ever had one of Those Projects that you knew, from the beginning, that the results probably wouldn’t be All That Great? That was this project.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I think shisha embroidery is a lot of fun. I like the combination of beads and shisha and metallic threads.

(These all appeal to my secret attraction to Things Sparkly. Shhh. Don’t tell my family. They’d never believe it.)

But good golly, Miss Molly! Try combining shisha, beads (iridescent ones, to boot), metallic threads and dark fabric in the same project, and then try to photograph it decently, and you’re just begging for lunacy.

shisha embroidery with metallic threads on dark fabric

Out of 326 photos taken in every range of lighting condition – from the light tent adjusted umpteen times, to natural light, to everything in between – and in every possible position of display, this is the best I got.

And it’s not very good.

Thank goodness for digital cameras, says I. (Film?! Could you imagine?!)

shisha embroidery with metallic threads on dark fabric

This photo gives you a better idea of the background color, but it gets the green slightly wrong, and post-production color correction doesn’t help. The background is a very dark navy blue. The green is more of a true green, but it looks so blue-green here.

Upon close inspection (you can click on those photos to enlarge them), you might be amused by the general quality of the stitching, too. It leaves a wee bit to be desired.

But, with every disappointing finish – especially on samples like this – there are lessons to learn, which is, incidentally, the whole point of stitching the sample in the first place.

With this particular sample, I’ve learned some lessons. I’m going to put them to work this very day.

First, I’ll adjust the pattern. What was initially a quick doodle needs some work. I like the little stylized “flowers” (if you want to call them that), but the leaves have got to go.

Second, I don’t have any dark blue linen left. I have to stitch the next attempt on a different color background. Oh, shucky-darn. I’ll try to live with that. (I’m so very happy I used up the dark blue linen!)

Third, I think the shisha stitching around the mirrors needs to be a bit heavier. I plan to experiment with some ideas that have been brewing in my noggin.

Fourth, with the limited color palette available in these threads, I think it will be worthwhile to combine floss and metallics in some parts of the design. This will help accentuate the sparkly parts, too, and it will tone done other parts and make the whole thing meld together a bit better.

So, that’s my plan for today!

Do you have any suggestions that might help improve this sample? If you have any suggestions on how to improve the piece or any ideas on background fabrics or anything like that, feel free to chime in with your thoughts! After all, all our heads are decidedly better than mine alone!

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(61) Comments

  1. Your stitching almost always looks perfect (or very near perfect) to me, even when you point out errors or problems. And yet, when you “fix” what you say needs fixing — it always looks better afterwards. I do love this blog!

  2. Hi Mary – I appreciate your efforts to set high standards for your work; but I think you are too critical of this piece. It looks great to me.
    Mary Ann

  3. Mary honey – you are way too hard on yourself but aren’t we all? I think it looks quite lovely as is, but if you believe you can improve it – go for it! We all look forward to the next iteration.

  4. What about separating the shisha and the beads within the design? Just a thought.

    Shelia in Oklahoma

    1. Hi, Sheila – Do you mean to add a little more stitching between the mirror and the beginning of the beads? That’s kind of what I was thinking, with the heavier shisha area. Just a little more transition before the beads. I’ll fiddle and see what happens!

  5. I really like this idea, especially the addition of beads. I wonder if you did some whipped spider web just after the shisha and then transitioned to the beads if it wouldn’t ground the beads better by establishing the radial pattern. I love the look of the beads on the stem.

    1. Hi, Lucy – that’s a good idea, and that may be worth trying – it would make the shisha area a little heavier, which I’m thinking might be a good idea. Another thought I’m toying with, which also involves whipped spider web, is alternating whipped spider web and the beads on the radiating part. Hmmmm….. might have to stitch two different flowers on the same piece, for the sake of comparison!

    2. That’s exactly what I was thinking! Maybe with beading alternating with the whipped bit of stitching on the fanning-out part of the flower? (I’m using very technical terms here.)

      Now, if I can explain this is any way that makes sense: I also wonder if it would work to change up the leaves and swirly tendril thingies? Widen those tendrils and do narrow swirlies where the leaves are now?

      (I do like those leaves, but I agree that they don’t quite fit…)

  6. Mary, don’t sweat the green color in the photos. The camera always does a number on certain colors. I’m surprised the blue didn’t turn purple. As to the stitching, I liked the flowers. My high school art teacher said don’t over fuss the work and I’ve taken that to heart. After many years of teaching I realize my students love it when I make a mistake. It makes me human.

  7. When I saw this project, I laughed out loud! The flowers have this surprised expression – and it appears to be from the little bugs (beads) crawling up the stem of the shorter flower. Love it!

    1. Just looked again and I would maybe add some more beads on the swirly parts but I would maybe use a 15 seed bead . I do like it a lot you are very creative.

    2. Hi, Diana – Yes, I like the idea of beads on the swirls. The overabundance of very stiff leaves sort of prevented that in the original doodle, but I’ve worked it out for the next design. I didn’t go with the size 15 beads because I found them a bit small in relation to the mirrors. The mirrors sit so high – they’re thick. But I might fiddle a bit and see. If I end up using a mirror substitute (like the mylar disks), then the smaller beads would be ideal.

  8. Dear Mary

    Good Golly Miss Mary, I can’t believe you took 326 photos just to share with us, that is dedication for you. Considering the dark fabric and stitching with metallic threads, which is difficult, I think it’s turned out lovely and your stitching is perfect as usual. I don’t have any suggestions but I know that if you adjust the pattern and use different fabric and combine other threads it will look just as lovely as it is now. I look forward to seeing the adjustments on this sampler. Thanks for sharing your sampler with us and for the time and effort it took to show us the completed project.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  9. I think they are rather pretty, Mary.
    Digital cameras tend to balance things too much -here you have a generally dark shot, so the camera has ‘helpfully’ lightened it. Try reducing the aperture, so the darks get left darker. I often resort to putting a good chunk of contrasting colour – here it would be pale yellow or pale pink – into the area that is in the shot, so the camera sees it and doesn’t ‘help’ so much. Then the contrast can be cropped out later at the processing stage. Modern cameras take such big pictures that cropping the edges off still leaves you with all the detail you need for use on the web.
    I had the same problem with a piece on navy fabric, and solved it by using a cream matt board on it when taking pictures. I also had almost the exact opposite problem with a soft-yellow self-coloured Hardanger piece – it came out too light and the yellow dulled out to almost grey. So I upped the aperture setting a little bit and put a good strong blue fabric into the shot. The result still needed some post-processing, but it was loads better. Hope this helps.

    1. Oh, thanks, Sue! That does help a lot! I’m no genius with a camera. I’m just now getting the hang of a DSLR, so your tips are very useful, indeed. I didn’t think of adding something lighter to the photo – that’s a very good point.

  10. HI Mary,
    I like the non-standard, non-round, bead and thread combo in the Shisha mirror treatment in your “flowers”. I also like the beaded echo along the stem of the lower flower. I always find it amazing how much punch just a few beads have in a design.
    Thanks for sharing the sample. Lots of good lessons to be learned.

    1. Hi, Helen – I’m finding that I like beads more as accents for the “punch” you mention, rather than as solid filling. They’re so much FUN! They can be a little addicting. I better be careful, or Needle ‘n Thread is going to end up being needle ‘n thread ‘n beads…

  11. Hi Mary, I have no suggestions on improving either your design or your photography, but I am curious about what you do with these small samples after you’ve completed them. They would be beautiful as the centerpieces of crazy quilted blocks assembled into a wall hanging. All the different techniques you’ve sampled and the different colors and threads types would make for a very interesting CQ.

    1. That’s a good idea, Janet! It depends on the sample, really. Some, I end up filing away in a sleeve in a notebook, where I keep track of what threads, etc., I used, just for reference. The ones that come out fairly decent, I might frame and give as gifts, or finish into something small and gifty. It really just depends. This one….. I think it’s going to get filed! πŸ™‚

  12. Mary,
    I really liked the flowers – especially the beads and the rays around the shishas. I especially like the asymmetry with the rays and beads heavier on one side of the flowers. I think it would look great on a lighter colored background (with darker value threads) and I look forward to seeing how you work out your changes.
    Thanks for sharing!

  13. Your stitching always looks beautiful πŸ™‚
    I really like the look of the beads along the flower stem. Are they attached by the yellow wrapping stitches? I think they would look nice on the other flower stem as well, make it look a bit less bare and bring some more of the red colors to that side of the piece.
    Thanks for persevering with the pictures, I love seeing all the fun stuff you’re working on.

  14. Well, your colorful efforts look mighty fine to me. Photography troubles notwithstanding. I have played around with shisha too. Getting that tie down stitch nicely balanced can be a puzzle. What about using perle#5 I find this is my go to thread. Not sure what thread you have used.
    I love your interplay of threads and sparkles. Thanks for all the ideas and valuable information on your website. I always give your information to my students. They love your How To videos. We even use them in class. Thanks so much. Anna

  15. Maybe if the leaves curved, following the curve of the other lines, and you can vine out the top with an additional curl either as an extension or a stem like flourish. but the straight leaves don’t work. Perhaps the leaf with a paisley inspired flair? that is all my noodle can think of.. (have you tried a polarized flilter when shooting shiney reflections I had one on my older camera, and it worked well.)

    1. Hi Mary~~
      I really like the idea of a paisley inspired leaf~~stylized, but don’t go overboard with the detail or it will detract from the fantasy flowers.
      I love the flowers, and I think everybody’s suggestions about the transition between the shisha and the beads are spot on. The shisha stitching looks out of balance.

      What about changing the middle leaf on the left into a bud to go along with the flowers? I keep thinking of the golden rule of keeping design elements in odd numbers. A smaller flower or a bud would balance things a bit better. What about some tiny beads at the ends of some of the radiating lines? Pick out a few, just enough to look like stamens.

      Maybe navy is too conservative of a choice for the background. A deep purple would be a more exotic choice if you still wanted to go dark. If you want to lighten up, I’m thinking a saffron yellow, rich but not neon.

  16. It’s gorgeous! As usual Mary, you fixate over details no one else can even see. Oh well, I guess that adds a little drama.
    Beautiful work, thanks for the info and inspiration and all the time.

  17. As usual, Mary, your worst is better than my best! I think your beaded flowers are beautifully stitched and neat.

    I was just thinking today how messy my newbie stitching is. I’m embroidering some flowers onto a piece of cotton that has an old photograph of my maternal Grandmother printed onto it. The flowers will frame the photo and the finished piece will become part of the cover of a photo album for my Mother.

    The stitches are dreadfully wonky and uneven but I know my Mum will love it and think it’s perfect.

    Don’t forget, we’re the only ones who know how it’s supposed to look! Everyone else will think it’s great πŸ™‚

  18. It must be me, but I like it on the dark blue linen. Then again, I wasn’t the one stitching on that dark blue linen. I love the look of things on the very, very dark linens. I hate stitching on them because it is so easy for me to lose my count, and mind.

  19. As I said on the fb post, I think this design is gorgeous, even if the colors are wrong and I’m not wild about the leaves, either. The concept of the flowers is beautiful and the flow of the vines/tendrils is very nice. I might actually like the blue-green a lot with the orangey flowers. I can’t get good resolution on the metallic thread- it all looks like cotton on my computer. I looked at the design again and still think it’s lovely. I’m sure what you do to adjust it will be great.

  20. I don’t know, Mary…I love it. When I think of shisha mirrors, I think of elephants. My niece has a penchant for everything elephants. I’ve been thinking of doing an elephant with quirky embroidery and shisha mirrors in the interior of the elephant design. I think this would be fun on a leg – like a tatoo πŸ™‚ I’ll be interested to see what you come up with next.

  21. Just thought I would mention a mystery I just finished reading with chapter 7 being a lesson in embroidery. Lie of the Needle by Cate Price, a cozy mystery, with the embroidered sampler being a clue to the mystery. The book was not fabulour literature but fun and interesting with the needlework adding that little bit extra. Might be interesting to do a posting on Needlework mysteries for summer reading!
    Jean,retired librarian

  22. well mary, this is not going to be easy to say.
    i just about drool over everything you produce, and this is no exception! i love it. so no symphathy here. if only i could come close to anything you’ve done, i’d be dancing around the house! keep talking to us Mary, it is so very very comforting and enjoyable.


  23. I agree on changing/dropping the leaves, and sorry about the unexpected change of plans in terms of fabric. never happy when that happens.
    I have a bit of a question: have you ever discussed how to clean embroidery scissors properly? recently I picked up one from my scissor “frog” and to my surprise someone must have used it, and then washed it (or something ridiculously stupid of this sort) because the poor girl squeaks, has a hard time closing and has a risky look on the inside of the blades.. any suggestions? (apart from planning my own vendetta against the guilty baboon?)
    thanks πŸ™‚

  24. Hi Mary,

    I am right along side you when it comes to critiquing my own work and doing things until I get them “right”. I appreciate your dedication but also know that things are never as bad as they seem to us.

    Regarding the photography, I am no expert but I do know that cameras tend to assume that what they are photographing should overall be a neutral grey. As such, I think that your image is overexposed. I don’t know what your camera can do, but if you can shorten the exposure time that might help you get a better result.

  25. Oh, I LOVE the shocked little flowers – poor things, your flash must have been awfully bright, or your were making terrible faces at them! I think curlicues or buds would work better than the leaves, for this piece, but really the colors are nice.

  26. I don’t have the courage to post my own web site yet. I think I would like the flowers better if the strings coming out of the flowers should a little bit of the threads on the bottom. I will try to draw my idea and send you an email with an attachment.

  27. Dear Mary, just when I start collecting designs for a Gypsy hexie quilt, you post that design, perfect. Is there anything safer than mirror shiskas I could use?Thinking maybe flat pieces of Mother of Pearl with softer colours or the other shell(forget the name) for stronger brighter colours. Love all your ideas, hints and posts.

    1. Hi, Geraldine – Yes, you can use any flat, smooth piece of anything, from buttons to mylar disks to mother of pearl to metal washers from the tool box, seashells, to what-have-you! Some slightly domed shapes work as well, but if the dome is too high, it can be difficult to actually secure the piece with normal shisha stitching.

    2. Paua shell? Available in little disks (they call them “cabochons,” but they deal in beads & stones) from Fire Mountain Gems in Grants Pass, OR (they have mother-of-pearl, too).
      If you use shells, if there’s ANY possibility you’ll ever wash the quilt, soak a test shell in water, or soap and water, for a few hours to see if the color fades – some of the brighter ones are dyed, and some of the pale/natural colors do not have any protective coating.

  28. Hi Mary
    I just saw a video in drawn thread and he was using a needle with a wing at the end and a hole at the top. It was just a sewing needle but with the wing. Do you know what it is called and where to get them. It was in a foreign language video. Thanks

  29. On YouTube search for manualdades faciles dt and it is the first video.
    Hope this helps. It is a very interesting needle. I don’ t know how to put the link. But this will find it

    1. You might try a glover’s leather needle – it has a flat surface before the tip. But I don’t know of a needle here in the States that has a barb like that on the end. I’ll keep looking, though!

  30. Mary this is a very charming design in itself, but since you were thinking of amending it, I’ll add my two cents worth. Truthfully I’m going agree with many of the suggestions already put out there. I agree the shisha stitches need bulking up. I’ll leave that to you. Plus you might add a ring of beads in this area. I like the beads already there, but you could also end them with a couple in a size smaller. Another spot for beads would be to add to the main flower tip points. I like the beads on the stem and think that should be repeated on them all except for the bud stem. Yes I liked the bud idea very much, positioned on the left in place of the middle leaf. Leaving the stem with out beads here would help indicate a young tendril stem. I really liked the suggestions for the leaves, using a slightly bigger, more curvy, shapely paisley style with an additional little curl of tendril at the tip like the flowing lines you were already using. I also think on the older bigger leaves, in the leaf color or it’s highlight, a row of smaller beads down the center of the leaf would look cool on this fantasy flower. You could even add a tiny bulbous spear tip to the ends of the flowing stems. Any how that’s a lot of different ideas, so pick and choose what you like, I can’t wait to see your results, the anticipation is so fun.

  31. I think I know what you mean, Mary. Photographing dark colours is problematic, but as someone else has pointed out, Jerry (Sharon B’s other half) is a dab hand with a camera and even if you can’t find anything useful on his blog he is happy to engage in email conversation to help sort out your difficulties.

    As far as the work itself is concerned, I feel compelled to say that I don’t think it is up to your usual stratospheric standards, lol. But I would be proud to acknowledge it as mine. I agree with the suggestions re ramping up the first layer around the shisha, as well perhaps as the ‘rays’ – maybe use thicker threads?

    Have you tried cutting old CDs into small circles to use as shishas? It is quite easy to do if you have a hole saw, either for a hand drill or an electric drill. My husband makes them for me with his electric drill. They don’t look like mirrors of course but they have that holographic-type colour changing quality and they are thin. Not to mention cheap.

  32. your critic is helpful to hear cause it teaches all of us to be less hard on our selves. did you redo this with different leAVES and if so i would like to see a pic. recently i made something and i was disappointed with the results. i got bored and put it away. 30 days later i walked by it and thought wow that turned out pretty good.might be worth a try for you.

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