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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Tambour Embroidery with Metallics & Mirrors


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Here’s a little practice and play piece I worked on last weekend.

I wanted to try out the tiny mirrors for shisha embroidery that I told you about last week (the punched ones). I’ve also been itching to play around with some DMC Diamant (a metallic thread that I wrote about here) and tambour embroidery.

I went about setting up my play piece the wrong way, though. I don’t know why I do things like this, but I do!

And I usually regret it later. So, learn from me. I like to make mistakes so that you don’t have to.

Embroidered tree with shisha embroidery and tambour work, in metallic thread

From this angle, things aren’t looking so bad. The little punched mirrors work really well.

Because they’re so darned small, it takes little time to stitch them onto the fabric. And, because they’re small and flat, they’re a little more subtle than the larger, heavier glass shisha. They add the gleam and flash of the mirror without the bulk. I like them.

Diamant, which is a relatively newish thread (at least in the U.S.) by DMC, is one of the better metallics on the market for surface embroidery.

Pretty much every metallic thread has its troublesome moments, but I’ve found that Diamant is less troublesome than most when it comes to surface stitches. I find that I can work surface stitches with it that other metallics can’t manage. I can also use longer pieces (not too long, but a good 18″ piece will hold up pretty well), and get just about as much out of it as I would out of a piece of floss.

I wanted to test Diamant with a tambour hook, primarily because it comes on a spool, which is always a boon when you’re doing tambour embroidery. Tambour also has an interesting advantage to it, when using metallic threads.

See, when you work a chain stitch with a tambour hook (you can watch a video of tambour embroidery here to see what I mean, if you’re not familiar with it), the thread only passes through the fabric once per stitch, and only a tiny loop at a time. So the thread doesn’t wear down as much, and I was thinking that under these circumstances, tambour embroidery and a spooled metallic would be a match made in embroidery heaven.

It works! It took a little practice to get things really going, but I was able to stitch up this little tree in about 1/3 the time it would have taken me had I been working the chain stitch with a needle.

So I was pleased with that part of my playtime.

Embroidered tree with shisha embroidery and tambour work, in metallic thread

To understand my regret, though, we have to go back to the beginning.

This is my impromptu swirly tree, with the little mirrors laid out on it. My frame’s flat on the table – otherwise, the mirrors would not stay in place. In fact, they’re so light that if I breathed while I took this photo, they would blow out of their respective spots.

I didn’t intend for this piece to be anything but practice. It was just something I was fiddling with, for the sake of learning and discovering some things.

So, when I went about setting it up, I did what I could kick myself for doing. I drew directly on the fabric, free hand.

Now, some folks can get away with that. You might be a very confident sketcher who has no problem creating smooth lines and curves with one simple sweep of your hand.

I, on the other hand, end up with lines and curves that are Just Slightly Off. And so I try to correct them. And then I make a mess.

Embroidered tree with shisha embroidery and tambour work, in metallic thread

And here’s the tree straight on.

You know what bugs me?

The wiggle in its walk. The hitch in its get-along. The totter in its timbers.

It’s the trunk. It’s warbly on the left and rickety on the right.

This goes back to one of the principles of basic embroidery: your design transfer is one of the most important steps in any embroidery project. While there might be some room for correction along the way, ultimately, if your transfer is sloppy, it will show in the finish.

My regret is that I didn’t take more time to draw out a design for this, proportion the elements a little better, smooth up the lines, and then transfer it properly.

If I didn’t end up liking the piece, I probably wouldn’t care much. I’d say, “Oh, it’s just a practice piece,” and leave it at that. But in fact, I do like it – I think it has potential. And I’ve got a slew of ideas for further embellishment.

And so, I face The Dilemma – it’s a question we’ve all faced before: Do I stop now and start over? Or do I continue forward?

I’m confident that further embellishment will help minimize the flaws in the drawing. 80% percent of me says Go Forward!. 20% of me knows that I’ll always see the flaws.

Would you go forward? Or would you start over?

I’m going forward.

But I learned a good lesson. Next time, I won’t underestimate a practice piece. I’ll put a little more care into the transfer.

And I learned what I set out to learn: that the tiny mirrors work well and that Diamant and the tambour hook play pretty nicely together.

So even if, going forward, the piece turns out just awful, I still learned what I set out to learn, and that’s never a waste!


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(42) Comments

  1. Mary I would definitely move forward. If the swagger still bothers you make some landscape curves to represent little mounds at the base of the tree. I think it would also be gorgeous with a curly cue wind coming from the right hand side and little shush as fallen on the ground. It has a lot of potential

  2. Just move forward. Have you looked at ‘real’ trees lately? They are full of bumps, twists, and just general unevenness. They bend in the wind. Linda has a neat idea … add a small group of fallen ‘leaves’ at the bottom of the tree … they could be the same color thread or introduce a second fall color.

  3. Ditch it and start again. If the bumps bug you now, they’ll bug you when it’s done too. It was intended as a practice piece, so let it stay that way!

  4. I’d go forward. It’s cute! As a botanist, I can tell you that “wonky” trees are far more interesting than boring old straight ones.

    Tambour work is a nifty thing. I had a historical reinactment friend who used to drop her working thread spool in the capacious bosom of her bodice and let it unroll from there.

  5. I don’t think it’s so bad. The kink on the left side of the trunk should be repaired or covered up. Can you remove some of the chain stitch, redo it and connect it to the line already there (in tambour)? As for the right side of the trunk, I’m rather fond of the pot belly look. LOL It accentuates the leftward flow of the whole tree, like a ballet dancer bending back before leaping forward. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Dear Mary

    I do like like the tree with the small shisha mirrors and the swirly branches it’s lovely and for a practice piece I would go forward and try and cover it up, trees are not meant to be straight and it doesn’t really notice. What a good idea to use Tambour stitching with metallic thread I can see that this would work really well. Where can you buy Diamant thread it looks interesting. Thanks for sharing with us your dilemma on transferring patterns and what to avoid.

    Regards Anita Simmance

    1. Dear Mary

      I’ve just looked at Sew and So here in the UK and they sell it and it comes on spools, so I know I can buy it in the UK.

      Regards Anita Simmance

  7. I love this design. I didn’t see the wobbles until you pointed it out! I can see what you mean but I think extra embellishment could easily balance it out. x

  8. I have had this problem numerous times – I call it “trap of all small things” – design on paper looks cool, but it does not live up to expectation. And I have figured out that “smallness” is the problem, because treads/beads size limits its possibilities to reproduce pens line. Look at the small dots – they become invisible, and all the small lines and up looking ridiculous mistakes … I’ve been there ๐Ÿ™ What to do? I might put it away, if there is not enough heart in it … these relationships might not work at all ๐Ÿ™‚ On other hand I have hated all my works in some of the stages of work (hmmmm)

  9. I didn’t even notice the wiggle in the trunk until you pointed it out. I think we are always our own harshest critics. I say keep moving forward, it looks lovely!

  10. I’d go forward simply because further stitching could fudge the lopsy bits into “intended design elements.” In my mind, if a wonky piece has a stopping point, it isn’t necessarily in the beginning, when you first discover the “oops.” I’ll play around a bit more to see if I can somehow fix (i.e., camouflage) the piece, but if nothing’s making it better, then I ditch it.

  11. My first reaction to the swirly tree was to pin it for inspiration ๐Ÿ™‚ I wish all my spontaneously free drawn pieces were so good! Go forward and enjoy – don’t worry about a little wonkiness in a PRACTICE piece! It will encourage many other stitchers to “branch out” with their own designs when they see something imperfect can still be beautiful ๐Ÿ™‚


  12. It is beautiful as it is. When I looked at it, I didn’t see any flaws, I saw a beautiful piece of work. After reading your comments, I looked back and still was not seeing anything bad. Yes, there might be a small hitch in the trunk, but it is not offensive! I like the look of handmade as it speaks volumes the work a person put into doing it. Great Job!

  13. I would start over. This was a practice piece and the flaws in those lines show that. The fact that you like a lot about how it came out shows you that you should fix it or start over. You won’t be able to hide those lines and, while in nature they might be realistic, this is NOT a realistic design. They will always look off and bother you.

  14. Go forward – still a learning piece. How about shading the trunk to shift the weight and do corrections. I would balance the slant with a hedgehog or sitting lamb on the ground to the right of the trunk. Something to play with and your purpose of learning about the threads was achieved.

  15. Been there, done that Mary. Move forward — I’m sure you’ll be able to fix it. I really love the look of that thread.

  16. looks like a good experiment to me….. i know when i am doing something for the first time, i almost ALWAYS want to do it a second time so i can correct all the things i “learned” — but that also takes twice as much time per project!!

  17. NO ONE ELSE’s eye will go right to it. No one. Their eyes go to 73 other places first. Maybe 173.
    With all the mirrors and shiny stuff you must trust me on this. When you’re done, give it away for someone else to cherish so your eye is not tempted to ruin it for others. It is very worthwhile as a learning experience for you and a work of art for others.
    (Love your blog!)

  18. So I am a bit at a loss. I thought tambour work is done from the back side of the piece. If that is correct how did you get the little shisha to stay in place while you stitched? And there are fabric glues to help hold things in place while quilting. Have you tried these to hold your little shisha? Is there a reason to avoid those products?

    I haven’t done any shisha work myself–but have had a similar thought to yours about what could substitute for glass mirrors. I’ve thought it might be possible to use the foil on wine bottles that seal in the cork. Or the shiny liner (mylar?) that hold ‘Nilla Wafers”–after washing of course! All pretty cuttable and lightweight so no sharp edges. The foils would allow using many colors. They are made of different materials so it’s possible that how particular material interacts longterm with the fabric is a concern.

    Since you asked about continue on the shisha tree or not–I like it. Nothing in nature is perfect–trees bulge and are lopsided. Maybe suggesting a little bark in the trunk will unfocus your eye from the single wobbly line and maybe add a few other wobbles.

    But I agree with some other commenters: I am SURE that if something bothers you now it always will bother you. Maybe you want to think about how much more time and design and embellishment you want to put into your appealing shisha tree before pressing ahead on this sample.

    1. Hi, Ruth – tambour beading is done with the fabric upside down, but tambour embroidery is done on the right side (the design side) of the fabric.

      The shisha doesn’t actually involve tambour embroidery. I used the traditional shisha stitch, with a modified foundation because the mirrors are so small.

      You can certainly substitute lots of things for mirrors, but consider the use of the piece first. If it’s something that has to be laundered, your choices for substitutions will narrow a bit.

      I went forward with the tree yesterday. It’s looking a bit better!

  19. Flaws are creative opportunities. And trees aren’t symmetrical and don’t have smooth lines. Even though some elements, early in the process, might bother me, I continue on, because I can’t know what a piece will look like until it is done.

  20. I really like what youโ€™ve done here, and no need to scrap the whole thing. Having done some hand engraving, I can tell you that drawing scroll work is very difficult. Unless you practice a lot, the hands put a flat area in a curve, and your eye will be drawn to that part.
    So if it were my project, I would move forward after one adjustment. Iโ€™d pull out the left line of the trunk from the shisha to the root end and rework it so it is more gracefully curved. That line flattens out and is the only thing I find bothersome. Everything else flows nicely. I canโ€™t wait to see what other plans you have for your little tree of gold.

  21. Hi Mary,

    Honestly? You learned what you set out to know, and it was a practice piece. Save it for reference, and move on. The diamante thread and its use with the mirrors and tambour is beautifulโ€“โ€“that is what you wanted to see.

    I’m sure you have a number of other projects and questions waiting for your attention. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. Mary, it is beautiful. I know you will always know about any flaws, but no one else will. Just enjoy it. I say move forward.

  23. Hi Marie,
    Yes, the pattern is not” mirific” but not horrible and you learn us point de beauvais with metalic thread and very little sisha. Sorry, I learn again with you and yours points are….beautiful….

  24. I’d go forward, it wasn’t until I kept reading that I noticed the ‘oops’. I did notice the beauty in it and the lovely stitching though.

    Onwards and upwards =)

  25. I really like this wee tree. Still not sure on shisha embroidery, but no doubt will give it a try one day. in the meantime, I’m off to see about these tambour hooks – wow!

    Oh and I adore my Diamant threads – playing with the pink one at the moment.

  26. I love the tree. The potbellied branch on the right looks great – it’s a nice smooth curve, balanced and in keeping with the design. The wiggle in the trunk on the left is rather obvious (although if the tree is really tiny and we’re looking at it magnified it may not in fact be noticeable). If it were my work I’d probably leave it because I don’t expect perfection, but I’d always be aware of it. Is there any way to use an invisible tacking stitch or two to pull the offending two loops of the chain a squeak to the left?

  27. Real trees are never 100% symmetrical, they are full of bumps and wiggles and gnarly bits – it’s a Real Tree, go forward!

  28. Finish playing with it, then get my address from my website that the comment form just asked me for and ship it to me. With a little fringe and a tassel or two it will make a fabulous pillow in my office and no one will ask about the trunk.

  29. I would go forward. But my approach would be to add 2 or 3 more lines inside the trunk. They could add additional swish as well as jogs. Then it will be making a silk purse out of what is definitely not a sows ear.

  30. I’d ditch it, or at least put it in the practice file, and knowing you from the past few years I figure you will never really be happy with it. Sorry to be so blunt but you did ask. Stop now, cut your losses, start again and do it properly and be happy with it. JMHO.

  31. Hello Mary, is Tambour the only way to make the little mirrors stay on fabric. I really like the little mirrors,but is there any other way to attach them to fabric like embroidery and make the mirrors and the actual piece look gorgeous. If you could use embroidery and make your piece look gorgeous where could find a technique? Also where can you purchase the tiny mirrors?

    Thank you,

  32. I like your tree! Go forward and as the other gals mentioned, maybe some leaves scattered hither tither.
    I would be so proud if I stitched that out!

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