Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Chain-Stitch Family, Part I: Plain Chain With Variations

(Continuing the topic of crewel embroidery, introduced in the previous post.)

chain stich sampler 1
 A chain-stich sample, yarn on burlap
I like to think of related stitches as “families”. We've looked at cross-stitches, running stitches and back-stitches previously in this way. The chain-stitch “family” is surely in the top three of important stitch families ― and is my personal favorite. The stitch is very old and very widespread, indicating that it may have been “invented” several times. It can be found in the oldest surviving embroideries of such diverse places as Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Greece, Russia, Scandinavia, France, Bolivia and Peru. A glance at the maps makes me suspect some of it spread from contact and trade with ancient Egypt, where some authorities believe it was derived from a sail-makers' stitch used to make the sails of small boats that traveled the Nile stiffer and more durable. But the pieces from Bolivia and Peru predate contact with Europeans by more than a thousand years.

A line of chain-stitch
A line of simple chain-stitch
Before we explore the many varieties of chain stitches, let's take a simple chain and see how it can be embellished. To make the chain, place your fabric in an an embroidery hoop and make it tight. Thread your yarn into a crewel needle (a thin needle with a large eye like a tapestry needle, but with a sharp point). Start with a waste knot (see the blog post for Sept. 24, 2013) on the surface of your fabric. Push your needle through the fabric and bring it back to the surface several inches from the waste knot. Holding the yarn aside with the thumb of your non-stitching hand, insert the point of your needle through the same hole where it came up. Bring the needle up a few threads ahead of where it went down. Loop the thread under the needle from left to right (or right to left if you are left-handed). As you pull gently on the yarn, it will begin to form a teardrop-shaped loop. Draw the yarn through until the loop is the size you want and the yarn lies flat on the surface of the fabric. (Don't leave the loop loose and floppy, but don't pull it too tight or the fabric will pucker.) Insert the needle in the same hole you just made and repeat the process. You have made the first two “links” of your chain. Continue until the chain is the desired length. Stitch the top of the last loop down with a tiny forward stitch, pointing the tip of the needle back under the completed stitches. Overcast (wrap) the yarn around several completed stitches to anchor it and cut it close to the stitches. Cut off the waste knot, pull the yarn to the back, thread it into your needle and overcast several stitches at that end. The back of your chain should be a straight line of back-stitches. Practice several lines of the plain chain-stitch.

Closeup of simple chain-stitch
Closeup of simple chain-stitch

Another section of the crewel embroidery mushrooms
Another section of the crewel embroidery mushrooms
Chain stitch is used both as an outline stitch and as a closely packed filling stitch. In this section of embroidery, it outlines the cap and gills of the mushroom and the edges, stem, and veins of the large leaf. It is used as a filling stitch on the mushroom stem. These stitches are done with a single strand of tapestry wool, so they can be quite small, and it is difficult to distinguish individual stitches. If you begin practicing with large, visible stitches, you can then gradually decrease the size of your yarn or thread until your stitches  are tiny like the ones done in silk on the vest at the end of this post.

Removing a thread to create a straight void
Removing a thread to create a straight void
Two things about chain-stitch usually require practice: keeping the line of stitches straight and making the “links” in your chain as alike as possible. To make this easier, I suggest that you start with a piece of fabric loosely-woven enough that you can easily withdraw individual threads. I've used wool, coarse linen, hop-sacking, and even burlap for this. You need to be able to gently remove a single thread completely without breaking it. Then draw out a thread every inch (2.5 cm.) or so before you put the fabric in the embroidery hoop. Stitching in the space where the thread once was will help you stitch a nice, straight line. You will be able to see and count the threads that cross the space. If you pass your needle under the same number of threads each time and use the same amount of “pull” (tension), your stitches should be fairly uniform. The tension on the fabric is important, too. Keep it stretched tight in the hoop. Adjust the hoop with the turn-screw as needed.

Not too many years before my time, girls and women made and framed “samplers” to show off their best stitchery. Now it is your turn to make a sampler. (Before you begin, you may want to review the stitches and terms shown on the Jan. 16, 2015 blog post.) Start by making a line of plain chain along each of the pulled thread lines that you made. Then try each of the seven variations I'm going to show you in the sampler below. I used 4-ply yarn, which is not ideal for embroidery, but I wanted to make big stitches that were easy for you to see and copy. The rows are as follows:
Chain-stitch with variations
Chain-stitch with variations listed at left
  1. plain chain stitch in medium blue;
  2. chain back-stitched with a smaller white yarn from link to link;
  3. chain with double-running stitch, alternating white and navy yarns link to link;
  4. entire chain whipped (overcast) with the white yarn;
  5. each side of the chain whipped with thin navy yarn, stitched one side at a time from center out;
  6. Pekinese stitch done in white through the entire chain;
  7. entire chain laced (threaded) with white yarn, with the loops then stitched down at the tops with white sewing thread;
  8. entire chain laced with white yarn, first from one end, then from the other (double-laced) and then couched (stitched down) with a contrasting yarn.
Lazy Daisy stitch
 Demonstrating the Lazy Daisy stitch
If you look carefully at the bottom of the first practice sampler (photo at the top of the post), you will see some stitches that look like flower petals. This is Detached Chain or Lazy Daisy stitch, one of the first stitches I learned as a child. Look at the demonstration and try it for yourself. The next time we touch on this topic, I will have a design for you that you can download and do these stitches on in your choice of colors.

Practice, practice, practice,

Embroidered vest
Embroidered vest, silk floss on wool

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Monday, October 12, 2015

The World of Crewel Embroidery

mushroom embroidery section 1
Part of the crewel embroidery mushrooms in progress
First, let me apologize for writing fewer posts this summer. The farmers' market season, which occupied so much of our time, is finished here in the high country. Although we are still very busy, harvesting, transplanting, getting gardens ready for winter and “weather-proofing” the house, greenhouse, and out-buildings, my thoughts are turning to completing unfinished projects and planning new ones. My fingers are eager to work with yarn — whether for rug-making, crocheting, knitting or embroidery. One of my first projects to finish is a rectangular crewel embroidery piece featuring fanciful mushrooms done in wool yarn on rather coarse linen. One of these motifs was featured at the end of the August 31, 2015 post.

Detail of Bayeux Tapestry from Wikimedia Commons
One of the oldest (and largest!) pieces of crewel embroidery still in existence is the Bayeux Tapestry (not a real tapestry because it was embroidered rather than woven), probably embroidered by needlewomen of Normandy to celebrate William the Conqueror's victory over England in 1066 A.D. The piece is believed to have been completed about 1100 A.D. Besides land and sea battles, it shows many details about costumes, artifacts, techniques and customs of the time.

crewel embroidered handbag
Crewel embroidered handbag (modern)
Crewel embroidery became popular in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The queen loved roses and native wildflowers, so these motifs were widely used, along with leaves and vines like those on the 20th-century European handbag shown here. One of the major functions of this type of embroidery was to provide warmth. The embroidery added weight and thickness to bed curtains and canopies, draperies, and wall coverings made of linen or wool. The work was usually done by groups of needleworkers, supervised by an experienced embroiderer, who may also have designed the motifs. Lovely examples of this work are exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

crewel embroidered pillow cover
Crewel embroidered pillow cover (modern)
Crewel embroidery reached the peak of its popularity during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I's successor, King James I. Work from this period is also called Jacobean embroidery. The designs were heavily influenced by the Chinese and other Oriental fabrics, porcelains, and lacquer-work which were beginning to be imported into England at that time. This Jacobean influence can still be discerned in much more modern crewel embroidery like that on the 20th-century European pillow cover shown here. Dragons, gryphons, and other mythical creatures were also popular in the 17th century.

mushroom embroidery section 2
Another section of the mushroom embroidery
The word “crewel” refers to the type of yarn they used, a loosely twisted 2-ply (2-strand) wool yarn. I prefer Paternayan® crewel yarn and a 3-ply Persian yarn (used for the mushrooms) that I separate as needed. Unfortunately, these have become more expensive and harder to find in recent years. We have talked previously about dividing 3-ply and 4-ply yarns (May 29, 2015 post). You will find some of these synthetic yarns easier to embroider with than others. Practice with them to make your choices. You can also use novelty yarns and silk, linen, cotton and rayon flosses. You just can't call your work crewel embroidery unless it is done with wool yarn. (I recommend calling it “crewel-style” embroidery.)

mushroom embroidery section 3
More crewel mushrooms
Early colonists brought crewel patterns and techniques to the New World, where they became quite popular. We have already discussed several of the stitches widely used in crewel embroidery, such as cross-stitch, back-stitch, running stitch and double-running stitch. (If you are new to this blog, check our search feature.) We've also shown techniques such as whipping, lacing, interlacing, etc., which embellish these simple stitches. You may want to review some of these on the January 16, 2015 post before we begin a crewel project. (Use our Archive to find it.) You can see some of these techniques used on the completed mushroom motifs.

mushroom transfer
Hot-iron transfer for mushroom embroidery
I made separate hot-iron transfers for each section of the mushroom design. (See the post for October 6, 2013.) You can see what the transfer looks like on this unfinished motif. Some red lines from the transfers will show around the finished embroidery. To remove them, I will gently hand-wash the embroidery in cool water and Woolite®, rubbing until the red lines disappear. A quick rinse and the entire piece will be ready to be pressed or blocked. I'm looking forward to our first crewel project together. I hope you are too.

See you again soon,

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