Monday, October 2, 2017

Still Life in Needlework, Part III

Still life shapes
In Part II, I promised to show you a technique in which you could do a still life in black and white only. This is one of several related embroidery techniques which spread across parts of Europe after the Renaissance and eventually found their way to the Americas. It is called Spanish blackwork. Its patterns can be used in other styles of single-color embroidery, such as Russian redwork and Scandinavian whitework, as well as a multicolor style like Holbein embroidery. My choice of objects to portray is shown above in a photo that J.D. took at the beginning of the project.

I'm going to take you step-by-step through a still life picture in blackwork. The original 16th century blackwork was done in black silk and gold thread on white linen. I urge beginners in any of these monochromatic stitch techniques to begin with black floss on quarter-inch checked gingham because it is so much like graph paper. It is easy to work out the individual patterns (called diaper patterns) on graph paper and then repeat each individual line with a single stitch.

"Cat Nap," blackwork embroidery on 1/4" checked gingham
"Cat Nap," blackwork embroidery on 1/4" checked gingham

If you have done counted cross-stitch, you may want to work on the smaller “baby check” gingham to get more complex-looking patterns. I prefer pastel checks so the blackwork design stands out dramatically. If you are working on “baby check”, you may want to divide your floss and use only three strands instead of six. The stitch used for the patterns is a simple back-stitch.

Hot iron transfer for still life
Hot iron transfer for still life
In order to have a truly black and white (and gray) design, I'm going to work on white monks' cloth, where the squares are indicated by tiny spaces in the weave at each square's corners. I begin with a piece of monks' cloth that I have backed with interfacing and basted around the edges. I find the vertical and horizontal center lines of the fabric and mark them with a running stitch in a color other than black. This is to center my design; the colored stitches are pulled out after the design is worked. I made a hot-iron transfer of my design outline and transferred it to the fabric. (The transfer will reverse the design, so I studied mine carefully from the back against a bright light to make sure it worked well in reverse.) I chose the area to begin and used an embroidery hoop.

You will need a sharp-pointed crewel needle with an eye large enough to accommodate the floss and several skeins of black six-strand embroidery floss. I like to have several needles so I don't have to stop as often to thread my needle. I was working on monks' cloth, which is comparable to “baby check” gingham, I divided the floss to use three strands. Here is a picture of the first completed section, and close-up of the pattern used for it. Each line on the pattern is a single stitch. Stitches begin and end in the same spaces at the corners of squares.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 1: the Vase
Blackwork embroidery, Step 1: the Vase

Stitch pattern for the Vase
Stitch pattern for the Vase
Tip #1: The Vase. When you are stitching a pattern over an object with a complicated shape, begin at the widest part of the object. Start at one side and work the pattern line to the other side. Then stitch the pattern lines in order both to the top and the bottom of the object.

The next series of pictures show each of the other sections as they were completed, accompanied by a close-up of the graph-paper pattern for each. The lighter I wanted the section to be, the simpler the pattern I used; the darker I wanted it to be, the more complex the pattern.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 2: the Pitcher
Blackwork embroidery, Step 2: the Pitcher

Stitches for the pitcher
Stitches for the pitcher



TIP #2: The Pitcher. When you are stitching a radiating pattern like this one, find the exact center of the place you want it to be and mark it lightly with a pencil. Begin there at the center of the design; work outward, one step at a time.


Blackwork embroidery, Step 3: the Cup
Blackwork embroidery, Step 3: the Cup

Stitch for the Cup
Stitch for the Cup
Tip #3: The Cup. As you reach the border lines of the section, make as much of the pattern stitches in each square as you can without crossing the border-line. When your outline of the shape is completed, there may be small gaps where the pattern doesn't quite reach the outline. Fill these in with tiny stitches.



In this project, I concentrated on shape, pattern, and perspective only. If objects of the same size are placed side by side, the one with the faintest outline will seem the furthest away. If you make the objects overlap, so that the more faintly drawn objects are partly covered, you have started the illusion that they are behind the darker figures and are farther away from the viewer. This is called “recession in space”. This illusion can be considerably increased by combining it with lighter outlines. Because I wanted to draw your attention to this visual device, I used gray floss for the two objects “behind” the front three. You will also notice that their bases appear to be on a higher plane. You can use all these devices in your own still life projects.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 4: the Birch Bark Box
Blackwork embroidery, Step 4: the Birch Bark Box

Stitch for the Birch Bark Box
Stitch for the Birch Bark Box
Tip #4: The Birch Bark Box. Instead of back-stitch for this pattern, I used a simple running stitch. The marks on the birch bark appear in clusters on the box, but I didn't think that would show up sufficiently so I used the stitches for the entire pattern. I left an empty space for the line indicating the bottom of the box lid.



Blackwork embroidery, Step 5: the Candle
Blackwork embroidery, Step 5: the Candle
Stitch for the Candle
Stitch for the Candle


Tip #5: The Candle. Here the back-stitch is used vertically. Be sure that your stitches are as straight as possible. To make the wick more visible, I stitched it in black instead of gray.




Finally, I covered the outlines with solid lines of stitching. I wanted a bold, modern feeling to the picture, along with many contrasts, so I used the full six strands of floss for the outlines. I chose chain stitch, but I could have used back-stitch, outline stitch, stem stitch or any of several other stitches. I outlined the gray objects with the same number of strands of floss that I had used for the black ones. You might prefer a more delicate treatment. J. D. has shown here how it would look outlined in three strands of floss in a back-stitch or outline stitch. I then removed the colored centering stitches. A quick hand-washing in the sink with dish-washing liquid removes the remnants of the iron-on pattern. Follow this by a rinse and pressing with an iron set on 'cotton', and it's done.

How the still life might look with narrow outline stitching
How the still life might look with narrow outline stitching

To make your own blackwork still life, start with a simple outline pattern. Follow the directions for preparing the material. Use the patterns I used, see additional patterns on the posts for October 6, 2013, October 18, 2013, February 21, 2014, and January 15, 2017 or make up your own.

Now, you are ready to transfer those outlined areas of your design to your fabric. You can place your outline on a light-box or tape it to a sunny window-pane and trace it directly on your fabric., or you may want to use a hot-iron transfer. For directions to make one, go to the post for October 6, 2013. For more on monks' cloth, see see the post for April 30, 2014.

Go make something black, white, and beautiful!




Finished Blackwork Embroidery Still Life
Finished Blackwork Embroidery Still Life

Updated October 10, 2017, to replace all the illustrations Google Photo somehow lost :-p


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