Samplers, Stitches and Techniques
This power to perform magic with a needle comes through the embroiderer's familiarity with stitches: with their structure, with the hand movements required to make them and with their seemingly infinite variation. In 1980 Mrs Christie classified stitches by their structure and, in a more rigorously scientific way, so did Irene Emery in 1966. Both demonstrated that a great variety has developed from two or three basic stitches.
The straight stitch evolved into satin, brick, long and short, tent, Gobelin, Florentine, Hungarian and others, while the running stitch evolved into double running, outline, stem, darning and more. It is this variety that often causes confusion. 'Hopeless confusion', Marcus Huish called it, and continued: 'It is hardly too much to say that nearly every stitch has something like half a dozen names, the result of reinvention or revival by succeeding generation, while to add to the trouble, some authorities have assigned ancient names to certain stitches on what appears to be wholly insufficient evidence of identity'.
This plethora of stitch names is not a recent phenomenon. In 1688 the following list was published to explain 'The School Mistris Terms Of Art For All Her Ways Of Sowing':
'A Samcloth, vulgarly a Sampler
Plat-stitch, or single plat-stitch which is good on one side
Plat-stitch, or double plat-stitch which is alike on both sides
Spanish stitch, true on both sides
Tent-stitch on the finger
Tent-stitch in the tent
Irish stitch - Back-stitch
Fore-stitch - Queens-stitch
Gold-stitch - Satin-stitch
Tent-stitch upon satin
Fern-stitch - Finny-stitch
New-stitch - Chain-stitch
Bread-stitch - Fisher-stitch
Rosemary-stitch - Mow-stitch
Whip-stitch - Cross-stitch
Raised work - Needlework Pearl
Geneva work - Virgins Device
Cut Work - Open cut work
Laid work- Stitch work and through stitch
Lap work - Rock work
Frost work - Net work
Purle work - Tent work
All of which are several sorts and manners of works wrought by the needle with silk…'.
This almost hypnotic list of stitches, many of them with unimaginable form, serves to illustrate the problem of a nomenclature that has varied over the centuries and across countries and continents. The clearest exposition of both name and form is to be found in Mary Thomas’s ‘Dictionary of Stitches’, 1934, and in the index she usefully groups stitches according to their function. The great variety of stitches has evolved because each stitch has a particular function. Even the slightest variation – in the length of the stitch, the axis of the stitch or the angle of the needle – subtly changes the role that particular stitch plays in an embroidery. It is the understanding of function that gives the embroiderer power to create.The patterns in samplers had their functions too. What could be more functional than a darning sampler with its exercises in how to repair holes and worn areas in woven fabrics? In the most carefully worked samplers holes were actually cut into the fabric, in others (right) there was no hole and the darning was worked entirely on the fabric. Lines of running stitch were made, first along the length of the sampler to replace or strengthen the warp and then across the width of the sampler to replace or strengthen the weft.
To extend the life of a damaged fabric, it was important to reproduce the woven structure as closely as possible in order to eliminate unequal tensions and to maintain any continuity of design. In this case, the stitches have been worked regularly over two threads and under two threads to create a small-scale repeating pattern. Coloured silks have been used to show clearly how the repair should be worked, but if suitable threads and colours had been selected to match the ground fabric, the darned area would have been invisible and would have been as strong and serviceable as the original fabric. Despite the beauty of these darned patterns, which could be used to form interesting backgrounds in other embroideries, they were primarily utilitarian and were never intended to be seen.
In contrast, other patterns recorded on early samplers were first and foremost decorative and fall into two main types: those which add pattern to a basically unaltered ground, and those which create pattern by changing the structure of the ground.
Occasionally it is possible to see the lines of black ink that marked out the motifs to be embroidered. In this example, if the coloured silks are gently moved to one side, the dark under drawing is visible. It marked only the outline and the main internal lines. As they might have shown through the paler colours of embroidery thread, no lines were used to indicate where the leaves and petals should be shaded. This was left to the eye and the skill of the embroiderer, who sometimes chose slight gradations from pale to dark and at other times chose bolder contrasts. Given that great care was taken to create a naturalistic form in this time-consuming way, it is surprising that faint lines of silk thread are visible through the unembroidered ground fabric as they have been carried across the back from one area to another. The untidiness was of no consequence as the back of these spot motifs would never have been seen: for the most part such motifs of animals, flowers, birds and insects would have been worked on a fine linen and then cut around and applied as ornamentation to a stouter furnishing fabric, to be used as decorative panels or hangings. It was necessary therefore that they should possess a certain degree of stability.A counted thread stitch, such as tent stitch, would allow the embroiderer scope for realistic modelling and at the same time would build a solid and robust motif suitable for applied work.
Texture in embroidery was once of great importance (right). Texture may be subtle, like the contrast between the slightly rough, uneven surface of the rococo stitch in the strawberries and the shiny smooth red satin stitch in the acorns above them. It may be simple, like the slight padding beneath the detached buttonhole stitch that covers the base of the acorns and swirls around to form the centre of the red roses. It may even be outrageous and appear as loose, three-dimensional rose petals in detached buttonhole stitch, anchored only at their base and standing proud of the ground. Colour is not always necessary but texture and contrast are.
It would, for example, be incorrect to think of a whitework border (left) as simple andunassuming. If there is no splash of colour to attract (or distract) the eye, great care must be taken to create a visually appealing pattern by means of contrast. Here the contrast is between the smooth, solid blocks of satin stitch and the diagonal lines of pulled thread work. Above and below the central band, greater contrast has been developed by bringing the needle through, making buttonholed bars and securing them as loops on the ground fabric, sometimes grouping them into rosettes. It is interesting to note that the border patterns on early samplers were only ever worked as straight sections, and never demonstrate how the embroiderer ought to take a corner. Such patterns were designed to be used as edgings and not as frames, and most were to be applied to personal linen such as shirts, chemises, collars, cuffs and caps. In a play written in 1581, a rich man’s wife is described using her samplers to enrich her own garments:
'Now, when she had dined, then she might go seke out her examplers, and to peruse which worke could doe beste in a ruffe, whiche in a gorget, which in a sleeve, which in a quaife, which in a caule, which in a handcarcheef; what lace would doe beste to edge it, what seame, what stitch, what cutte, what garde: and to sitte her doune and take it forth by little and little, and thus with her nedle to passe the after noone with devising of thinges for her owne wearyinge.'
The play is ‘Phylotus and Emilia’ by Barnabe Riche. A gorget was a collar, and a quaife and a caule were types of cap.
Less fine but more dramatic effects were created by withdrawing threads from the ground, removing them from either the warp or the weft, or from both. Those threads that remained were stitched together in varying combinations to form decorative patterns (right) suitable for use as insertions or as edgings.Breathtaking audacity must have been required to take the next step, to move from pulled thread and drawn thread work to cutwork. To remove entire blocks of the fabric, sometimes on a relatively large scale, leaving behind only a few vertical and horizontal threads on which to construct an entirely new structure.
New threads, which travelled diagonally, were inserted and strengthened and then augmented with various types of buttonhole stitches to create additional loops and circles until cobweb-like patterns were formed and snowflakes hung in mid-air (left). Despite the delicacy of these designs, cutwork had to be sturdy if it was to serve as an edging, so the use of a linen ground and linen thread ensured that it would be strong, and an application of starch would impart a fashionable stiffness.
Cutwork was not always stark and dramatic. If the fillings were finer and more closely packed the effect was softer, in which case textured elements were often introduced to compensate for the absence of bold simplicity. Detached buttonhole stitch produced scales on the mermaid’s tail and beautifully plump peas in the pods to each side of her (right). Another version of cutwork illustrates the inventive (if rather perverse) side of human nature, which first cuts a square hole in the ground fabric and then patiently fills it with minute hollie stitch until it is whole again (below, left), using needlework skills to transform one thing into another.