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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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Needlework Terminology: Surface Embroidery

 

Grab your morning cuppa and let’s have a chat about surface embroidery!

Terminology can be a huge source of confusion for beginning embroiderers, and even for stitchers who have been plying the needle for years.

While there are lots of terminology lists with short definitions out there, I’ve always found that the one-line definition of A Thing doesn’t always do that Thing justice.

For example, take the term “surface embroidery.”

Wikipedia (which, next to Google, is apparently The Source of All Instant Knowledge) defines surface embroidery as “any form of embroidery in which the pattern is worked by the use of decorative stitches and laid threads on top of (their emphasis) the foundation fabric or canvas rather than through the fabric; it is contrasted with canvas work.”

The Wizard of Wiki goes on to explain: “Much free embroidery is also surface embroidery, as are a few forms of counted thread embroidery such as cross stitch.”

And then, a list of forms of surface embroidery is presented: appliqué, art needlework, crewel embroidery, cross stitch, goldwork, Jacobean embroidery, stumpwork.

To a beginner, that’s probably about as clear as mud. To a non-beginner, it still presents a few problems. Let’s chat about it a bit!

Embroidery Terminology: Surface Embroidery

Before we define surface embroidery, I think it’s a good idea to explore the word embroidery.

What is Embroidery?

Embroidery, in the traditional sense, is the embellishment of fabric with decorative stitching, using a needle and thread.

Exceptions to the Definition

Today, you can see a lot of other things besides fabric embroidered. I’ve embroidered on eggs, on wood, on plastic, on metal.

So the ground (or matter) being embroidered may not necessarily fit into the textile or fabric category – today, we often embroider other things besides fabric.

It seems, then, that the parts of the definition that would still hold true are “with decorative stitching, using a needle and thread.”

But again, depending on what we’re embroidering and what we’re embroidering with, we might eliminate the needle, since other devices could be used to lead whatever you’re embroidering with through the holes on whatever you’re embroidering.

And we might even eliminate “thread” as an absolute, because you can use other manipulatable materials to embroider – like wire, rope, grass, wood strips, plastic strips, metal tubing, or… I don’t know… noodles.

What it boils down to, then, is that the only absolute Absolute today would be the notion of “decorative stitching” of some sort.

And this eventually leads us to a more abstract meaning of embroidery – the non-technical meaning, which just means “to embellish.” I might, for example, embroider a tale for you – that is, embellish a story.

Yaaaaaaaaawn.

See the problem? If I say that embroidery is the embellishment of fabric with decorative stitching using needle and thread, I’d be taken to task with all the exceptions. So I had to cover my bases.

(And then it got boring, didn’t it?)

The Usual Circumstances

All that being said, for our purposes here, on a website devoted to hand embroidery, I think we can pretty much agree to talk about embroidery as we know it in its most usual circumstances: the embellishment of a ground of some sort with decorative stitching using a needle and thread.

Embroidery Terminology: Surface Embroidery

The term “surface embroidery” doesn’t really stray far from that definition much, but we can narrow it a little further.

The Wiki Confusion

The Wikipedia definition becomes problematic when we study it closely – especially these parts: “by use of decorative stitches and laid threads on top of the foundation fabric or canvas rather than through the fabric; it is contrasted with canvas work.”

Does Wiki mean that surface embroidery is only on the surface, not through the fabric? Then how exactly do those decorative stitches and laid threads adhere to the fabric?

Laid work (like lattice filling patterns and the like) require stitches that pass through the fabric to hold the laid stitches in place.

But apparently they don’t really just mean laid stitches. After all, they say “decorative stitches.” Chain stitch is a decorative stitch. It passes through the fabric.

So they can’t mean “surface” in the sense that the stitches are only “on top of” the fabric and don’t pass “through” the fabric.

And then, of course, there’s the list that apparently explains the definition: appliqué, art needlework, crewel embroidery, cross stitch, goldwork, Jacobean embroidery, stumpwork.

This is a wide and varied list, and it has its confusing points! Jacobean embroidery, for example, is not a technique. It is a design style, belonging to a certain period of history.

And the technique that surface embroidery is contrasted to: canvas work. So… surface embroidery is everything except canvas work (or needlepoint)? Back to the definition, “on top of the foundation fabric or canvas…” Canvas? So, some canvas work can be surface embroidery? Does that depend on the stitches?

“Much free embroidery is also surface embroidery…” What does that mean?

“…as are a few forms of counted thread embroidery such as cross stitch.” So, if cross stitch is surface embroidery, why isn’t canvas work? Because it’s done on canvas? But in the main definition, canvas is one of the ground fabric possibilities.

So far, what can we glean from the definition? Pretty much every kind of embroidery is surface embroidery, except, apparently, some kind of canvas work, although canvas is one of the grounds that surface embroidery can be done on, as long as the stitches are on top of and not through the canvas.

Are you confused yet?

Embroidery Terminology: Surface Embroidery

Three Main Classifications

Often, in the needlework world, we differentiate between three main types of decorative needlework on a ground of some sort using needle and thread, that fit their own general classification. These would be the following:

1. Surface embroidery
2. Counted work
3. Needlepoint or canvas work

Needlepoint is worked on canvas. Historically, needlepoint employed predominantly the tent stitch (or some variation thereof), but now it regularly incorporates other stitches, too – not just canvas work stitches (of which they are many), but also, sometimes, decorative embroidery stitches. Normally, needlepoint is either a counted technique or it involves a painted or drawn canvas.

Counted work – counted cross stitch, counted blackwork, and even Hardanger and similar counted thread embroidery techniques – rely on (usually) an even-weave fabric, and they normally employ a limited repertoire of stitches, depending on the technique. However, as tastes and style change, as techniques evolve, other types of stitches have become part of counted techniques. It’s not unusual to see counted cross stitch that involves French knots, stem stitch, satin stitch, and more. Or a Hardanger design with a base in Hardanger techniques, but with bullion roses and whatnot vining through the Hardanger pattern. These stitches, which are normally surface embroidery stitches, can cross over into counted work as well.

Embroidery Terminology: Surface Embroidery

Surface Embroidery

Surface embroidery is an umbrella term. Pretty much, all embroidery techniques can fall under it, somehow. It’s a very general term, as opposed to a specific term, so it isn’t a technique on its own. But lots of techniques fall under it!

While crewel work is surface embroidery, not all surface embroidery is crewel work. While goldwork is surface embroidery, not all surface embroidery is goldwork. Whitework is surface embroidery, but not all surface embroidery is whitework.

Embroidery Terminology: Surface Embroidery

Now think of embroidery that’s just embroidery. For example, pretty stitches on a pillow case. Or that colorful monogram you embroidered last weekend. Or a piece like Late Harvest, that employs all kinds of stitches, bead embroidery, needlepainting, and the like.

This type of embroidery doesn’t fall into a specific type or technique classification, necessarily. It’s surface embroidery, or just embroidery. Some people might call it “free style” or “free” embroidery, meaning it is worked free of a grid in the fabric.

So, the upshot: usually, when we use the term “surface embroidery,” we normally mean one of three things:

1. “free style” or “free” embroidery that isn’t counted work, or

2. decorative embroidery that doesn’t fall into some technique classification, or

3. for some, an umbrella term for any type of embroidery.

How I Use the Term

I use the term surface embroidery as a combination of the first and second points above – decorative embroidery that doesn’t fall into a more specific technique classification and that is free of a grid.

If embroidery is crewel work, I call it crewel. If it is whitework, I call it whitework. If it is, more specifically, Mountmellick embroidery (a specific type of whitework), I call it that.

If it’s counted cross stitch, I call it that. If it’s needlepoint or canvas work, I call it that.

Everything that doesn’t fit under a specific technique, I call surface embroidery – decorative stitching on some kind of ground, free of a grid, using needle and thread.

So, in my own particular usage, embroidery (the most general term) includes pretty much everything, but surface embroidery (which is a step more specific) doesn’t include a grid – it isn’t counted work and it isn’t needlepoint.

Exceptions?

There are always exceptions.

For example, I wouldn’t include drawn thread embroidery under “surface embroidery.” It doesn’t really involve the surface so much as it involves removal of the surface. And I wouldn’t include cutwork for the same reason. I also wouldn’t include needle laces, because they are worked free of a surface.

All that being said, the above techniques can all be mixed in with surface embroidery!

Your Input?

I’m sure I haven’t covered everything here! But it’s a starting point for further discussion. If you’d like to add your take on the topic of defining surface embroidery, feel free to join in below!

 
 

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(50) Comments

    1. Oh, hell yes. I was taught that Wikipedia was a good place to start researching (you know, for a paper or speech or whatever) because it gave you a general overview and links to ACTUAL sources. This particular Wikipedia page seems to just confuse and will point some lowly student in the wrong directions. But, Ms. Corbet here knows her shit and can contribute in the embroidery aspect and, also, a scholarly aspect with the teaching and whatnot. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Diane.

      (Also, we’ve all known people who just use Wikipedia and don’t ever research any further. I do this just to find out what “blah, blah, blah” is, usually a disease. But, I’m not writing anything important. I never do.)

  1. Omg! Too much! I think all the people who embroider will say, “I embroider, I am an embroiderer”. IMO embroidery is an all encompassing word. There is no need to break it down to its miniscule parts and politely file it under 50 different labels. Embroidery does not need to be politically correct, IT’S EMBROIDERY, no matter what shape or size or form!!!
    Ok, I’m done. Putting away the soap box.
    Melanie

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  2. I really did enjoy this article. A lot of information but also a lot of giggles. The first thought that came to mind is “How can you do surface work without piercing the fabric?” I pictured threads laid out and a glue gun in my hand. LOL

    As a cross stitcher, I see more patterns incorporating “specialty stitches.” It’s so much fun to add rice stitches or Smyrna crosses. Lazy daisies are a bit challenging so the petal doesn’t drop into a space some where but I wish more variety was included in counted work.

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  3. Surface embroidery seems to encompass those examples of work by folks, who are well enough grounded in the basic techniques of their favorite type of embroidery, that they can then start to play around on the surface of their latest endeavor. Whew! Well Mary, you started this by tickling my brain on a Saturday morning.

    Louise

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  4. I distinguish between surface embroidery, which decorates a fabric but doesn’t cover it completely, and needlepoint, which (traditionally) covers the canvas completely and in effect creates a new fabric. Of course this distinction is thrown out of court by the recent fashion for ‘open stitches’ in canvaswork which leave some of the canvas showing – something which was a no-no not so long ago!

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  5. This is a little off topic but I just wanted to say how much I love your new website. I think it’s just dandy – especially the search function. I’m working on a crazy quilt block and want to insert a tree in one of the spaces. I remembered that you stitched a tree awhile back so entered “tree” in the search box and ta da – several articles popped up including the one I was thinking of. I know this took a lot of work and the results are just great!

    Best,

    Jacquelyn

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  6. Bonjour Marie,

    Je me demande si Wikipédia ne faisait pas référence à la trame du tissu, à savoir un motif tissé par rapport à la broderie qui vient effectivement sur le tissu et non pas “en dedans”. Votre blog est toujours aussi passionnant, je ne m’en lasse jamais. Merci !

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  7. Well…whew! Thanks for the discusion.. I cant say clarification! But I have lately wondered about that often used term “surface embroidery.” You really covered it thoroughly and I am satisfied that I can smile about it now and just go on learning how to make some of the absolutely beautiful embroidery stitches you show your followers! I just wish I could perfect some of them!
    Thank you for what you show us!

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  8. Great topic. I like and use the term surface embroidery. I stay far away from anything I have to count as that is not relaxing for me and definitely interferes with multi tasking.
    For me surface embroidery is the language of stitches. I feel as though the learning opportunities are endless in this particular craft. I simplify this by breaking it down to cross stitch and surface embroidery. All I care to count is number of threads needed and of course my blessings. Have a great day all. Mauri R in Arizona

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  9. hi Mary — I was not bored at all, actually. I found your article quite interesting. Whatever the definition for embroidery, I guess it is just like pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I think someone once said that about pornography, and I think it also applies to embroidery. Thank you for the interesting article with my Saturday morning coffee!

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  10. A very helpful article – when trying to explain in classes or workshops what”surface embroidery” is, I’ve always come up against the fact that most embroidery is done on a surface of some sort! However, unlike you I would actually include cutwork because a lot of the preparatory work (satin stitch/buttonholing etc) is surface embroidery.
    Not sure where I would put counted work – probably as you suggest in “embroidery” but not “surface embroidery”

    One of the other commenters said something about needing no politically correct terms, which reminded me of my mother-in-law, and accomplished needlewoman, who insists that cross stitch and tapestry is not embroidery, it’s “just counting”. She makes an exception for my Hardanger, which is also just counting but apparently has redeeming features :-). We compromised on using the term “needlework” as one covering all decorative exploits with needle and thread, so pretty much synonymous with your use of embroidery.

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  11. I have always considered embroidery to mean the creation of art using needle and thread on cloth of various types. Reading your blog has opened up such an expanse of possibilities that I must admit I’m confused. I was cleaning out a closet the other day and found a crewel picture, about fifteen by twenty inches, that I made many many years ago. Today my love of quilting eclipses all other crafts; however, embroidery is part of my quilting and the addition is due in a large part to reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your love of the art form and know it is being used by those of us who love needle and thread.

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  12. Very interesting. I think I’ll just stick to the general term “embroidery,” while using the specifics for each type like “whitework,” counted crossstitch,” and etc. It’s easier on my brain to do that. But, I still rebel at the thought of a programmed machine embroidery being “true” embroidery, although it fits the definition. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that, while it may be a creative effort on the part of the programmer, in the long run, each piece is probably not an individual work of art, but more of a print of an original work of art. Just my opinion. Thank you for this very informative discussion of an art that we all enjoy producing.

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  13. I always thought surface embroidery is like couched to the fabric ie like goldwork or darning patterns. Free style embroidery is any embroidery stitched to fabric or canvas. Throw in mixed media embroidery which covers everything from metal to wood to plastic to anything lol. Needlepoint or canvas work is specifically on a grid like structure so cross stitch hardanger blackwork possible would fall under that but I would count it as counted work in its own right like chicken scratch embroidery. Needle lace is usually categorized as lace not embroidery. In conclusion I think its all called embroidery but there are specialties within Embroidery that get call other names.

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  14. Wow, first time I’ve commented since the new website! I didn’t have to do anything, it was all there! Nice. 🙂
    OK, either I’m tired today or this one is a more complicated subject (not that it wasn’t very understandable). I’ve never had to think so hard while reading your posts. LOL. Fun to read Mary, thanks.

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  15. I think “surface embroidery” as a type of stitching is a result of internet searches. What we all used to know as embroidery becomes subdivided as we try to search the internet. “Embroidery” as a search term in the vast interwebs finds an enormity of machine embroidery sites. So “embroidery” must be refined to be a good search term. I like to think of “surface embroidery” as “any surface embroidery”; in that surface embroidery doesn’t require a grid or fabric that is a grid.

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  16. Oh, Mary, I am SO GLAD your English is good and you know where to put apostrophes! Then you throw in down-home folksy expressions. But this discussion is so pippy-poo! There are people out there who will say they “love to embroidery”! As a kid, I took my “embroidery” everywhere. It was a cheapo kit printed on linen, something in printed cross stitches about home is best and a picture — and I put my name and birth date! I was 10 and didn’t know better. Yes, I have edited a couple of Wikipedia articles, specifics about people. However, most of us don’t know THAT MUCH about any one thing. You certainly do — for embroidery! With creative work, I’m all for Nike: Just do it! And make it pretty!

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  17. Love this article, you are a great writer! Thanks for your dedication, this morning my coffee was better with your article. Antonella

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  18. Thanks so much for this column, Mary. I thought I was the only one who thought “surface” a limiting term to the point of nonsense since, as you say, the thread has to adhere to the surface somehow. I must be on the right track if you had the same questions I did. Whew!

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  19. Definitions present knotty problems no pun intended. To me, the term ‘surface embroidery’ denotes a form of embellishment with needle and thread in which the embellishing design lays on the surface being decorated. It differs from other embroidery in which the design actually becomes part of the fabric as in drawn work and pulled work or canvas work in which the thread being applied becomes an integral part of the fabric. Embroidery that develops a lace like design as in cut work, Hardanger or the needle made laces of Europe is a category all its own.

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  20. Thank you, Mary, for such a clear explanation. Now, when anyone asks, I can tell them how the best embroiderer in the world defines things and point them to your site. BTW, I got ‘page not found’ when I clicked on the photos of your gorgeous whitework and the black fish – I wanted to admire them all over again in greater detail.

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  21. When I read the first line I was interpreting it to mean decorative stitches applied to a surface as opposed to being decorative stitches as part of the surface (as in warp and weft). However, they did then utterly confuse the issue with everything they said after that. 😛 I would apply the term surface embroidery as the all encompassing term of decorative stitching, applied for the sake of embellishment as opposed to construction stitching. There after all following terms are specific terminology to describe technique, materials, styles, etc. I think the person writing that piece got mixed up in writing it, changing their thoughts literally as they wrote, and simply did not proof read what they were trying to describe. Technical mind fart! Ha.

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  22. You’ve put quite a lot of research into this post Mary. Surface embroidery has always meant anything not counted. No specific holes in the ground fabric that must be followed. Many in my EGA group are “afraid” of doing anything but counted work. I think they’re missing out.

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  23. It’s a pretty big subject, this one of surface embroidery, isn’t it? Even those types of embroidery that you believe are not ‘surface’ because they involve removal of [some of] the surface, to my mind still fall under the catch-all of ‘surface embroidery’ because when completed the decorative elements are on the surface. Personally I would leave out the word ‘surface’ altogether, since all embroidery decorates a surface of one kind or another.

    Oh, damn and blast it, I wish I had never started to think about this …..I hate that anyone would think I was disagreeing with Mary, and I am not really, just adding a bit.

    Can we just focus on embroidery, please?

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  24. Well said! (And not a bit boring, ever.) I actually had never thought about the terms “embroidery,” or “surface embroidery” before, just sort of lumped them all together in my mind. It’s fun to think through it and differentiate, like choosing thread colors carefully. And your beautiful pictures are always a delight. Thank you for correcting a misperception, and bringing to light a somewhat misleading definition. Is it disconcerting to anyone but me how careless our society is with our online information, and how little you have to know to post something as “fact?” But that’s beside the point. At least it’s potentially fixable. Mary?…! (-;

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  25. I like this discussion, but there is a flaw in the fact that the starting point is a definition from Wikipedia, which is notorious for bad entries. Anyone can add or correct it, as has already been suggested.

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  26. Hi Mary, I have been confused with this definition only recently. I was entering my work into a show, and the only definition they had for the specific work I entered was ‘surface embroidery’. As you mentioned, this can include hundreds of different styles of embroidery. As it is, my thread painting will be up against Stumpwork, Crewel, Jacobean, Mountmellick, Deerfield and ribbon embroidery. It would be absolutely horrible to judge something so diverse, Thankfully it is not me

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    1. I had never heard of Deerfield embroidery. So I looked around the internet. Its seems to be blue and white embroidery. I was wondering if they settlers where of Dutch origin as Delftware pottery is also blue and white. Does anyone know the history of Deerfield embroidery?

    2. In the late 19th century after the industrial revolution there was a move back to more traditional and individually made items called the Arts and Crafts Movement.

      In Deerfield, MA an association was made to revive “traditional embroidery”. Much of the needlework in the 19th century was Berlin work (needlepoint). There was a desire to return to the work of the 17th and 18th centuries. There was belief that much of the work had been done in blue and white so that is what they did.

      There is a book DEERFIELD EMBROIDERY TRADITIONAL PATTERNS FROM COLONIAL MASSACHUSETTS by MARGERY BURNHAM HOWE on the subject.

  27. PS. I’ve just gotten my first “scroll” type of loom/frame and put on a crewel project. I was not sure though, should I loosen up the fabric (by unrolling the scroll/roller) a bit when I’m not working on it? Thanks so much for the answer in advance! Hugs, H

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  28. I fourth the proposition that you should write a better definition for Wikipedia. This article is scholarly as it is.

    I embroider very little – I am the first to confess – but I keep coming for the “mind candy” as much as the “eye candy” if you get what I mean. For moments like this, when I feel that before my breakfast is finished I have learned a lot.

    Just as an exercise, let’s try to imagine what is an embroidery where the thread doesn’t go through the fabric. What does it do? Float? How do the stitches stay stuck to the ground if they don’t have any contact points whatsoever to it, are they glued? Maybe that’s crochet or tricot sitting atop a fabric ground?

    Thanks Mary.

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  29. To me, it seems all embroidery is “surface” embroidery (i.e., laying stitches on a fabric surface), so when people ask what I do, I usually say “free-style embroidery and counted work.” Agree with you, Mary, that it’s all a bit murky.

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  30. I added this article as a reference under the embroidery entry. If you want to edit the article, it’s ready to be cited as a source text. Actually, a lot of the fiber arts articles need some love. Wikipedia editors are overwhelmingly male[1] so many of the “girly” topics are quite lacking.

    [1]Articles on wrestling and monster trucks are much more detailed than they really have any right to be.

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  31. I am always confused about what to call embroidery in general, which is not counted work or needlepoint. I tend not to work in either of these two types of work and when trying to explain what type of embroidery I do it is hard. To list all of the various techniques is not what one would do in normal conversation – it is generally more than the other person wants to know and even I someone who runs on forever knows that – as well as one might miss a technique.

    I was referred to the embroidery I do as “traditional” but that is not correct as counted work and needlepoint are also traditional embroidery. “Embroidery with the designs on the fabric to follow” is a mouthful and not really correct either.

    When I heard the term surface work it made sense to me to use it as it does involve using the surface of the fabric for the design, usually (IE. generally there is a design drawn on the surface of the fabric, although not always as mentioned above) and I tend to use the term mostly for explaining the type of embroidery I do.

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  32. I’ve looked at the Wikipedia article. It’s brief. Somebody needs to edit/rewrite it. I know you’re a busy person Mary, but having put your thoughts in today’s post, you’re already part way there.

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  33. Lovely article, not at all boring, and it generated interesting comments. Though I have no idea what “pippy poo” means, and can’t find it on Wikipedia!!

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  34. As a ole newbie I do basic embroidery , but I want to learn (whitework ,jacoby, etc.) So I bought books on the subject , only to find the supplies are not available in my area . As I’m on a fixed income I really can’t afford to buy things that are wrong for the project . Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. Hi, Betty – You can find whitework supplies through lacis.com online. They have reasonable shipping. If the book tells you what kind of thread you need for a specific project, I’m sure you’ll be able to find it there. If you’re looking for thread AND linen, you might try Hedgehog Handworks online. They sell beautiful linen cambric, shadow work linen, and other linens for hand embroidery that would work well for whitework. But their linen is a bit pricy. So if you already have fabric and you’re just looking for the threads, I’d search the catalog at lacis.com for the threads, because I’m pretty sure they’d have everything you need.

  35. To me embroidery means working with textiles… that’s how it originated and what it meant for centuries. until modern pioneers started using all sorts of things … mainly to shock, rather than please…and aesthetics is important in art (which embroidery is)
    You can drill holes in anything and you can use noodles… but it won’t be embroidery. it will be,.. say, ‘decorating’ surfaces with noodles

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  36. Sounds like a variation-on-a-theme explanation, which works well. Similarly, a dog is a dog, but, my gracious, the plethora of different breeds, colors, and sizes. Thank goodness we have descriptive words to dispel some of the confusion.

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  37. After reading your expose on this topic, I am totally convinced that I would hire you as my defense attorney for any and all issues. This is a good thing.
    Jo in SC

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