Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elizabethan Embroidery Primer

The Elizabethan era, (1558-1603,) was a beautiful time for embroiderers as they began to experiment with more colors, designs and three dimensional work.  Embroidery was seen in many venues of fashion, including coifs and cauls, partlets, shifts and shirts, jackets, aumonieres and sweetbags, as well as household items such as cushions, sheets and blankets.

During this era, the use of raised embroidery was at a pinnacle.  Stitches such as the detached buttonhole, hollie point and trellis became popular; as they were not sewn into the underlying fabric but were instead anchored to the preceding rows of stitching, could be padded as the embroidery progressed, allowing for a slightly raised effect. 

There are two basic three forms of Elizabethan embroidery, raised and flat.  Of the raised stitching, there are two styles, as well, padded designs such as flowers and leaves and designs which are partially detached, such as the wings of a butterfly or the outer side of a peapod.

Basics of Embroidery:

The first step in creating an embroidered piece is to choose your equipment.  Though Elizabethan embroidery was found on a variety of items, most background fabrics were linen canvas grounds.  If you consider yourself a beginning embroiderer, chose linen that has a larger weave and is a bit heavier in weight.  Until you are familiar with your own tension, heavier weight background fabrics will buckle less from the weight and tension of the embroidery threads.

The thread that you chose for embroidery is also an important consideration.  For beginners, DMC floss is easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and it is not far off in appearance from the silk threads that were used in period.

Another important consideration to make involves whether to frame the background fabric.  While many embroiderers use a hoop to keep the fabric even and taut, a hoop can actually damage the fibers of linen.  A more period method, which is forgiving with linen, would be the use of a frame.  Scroll style frames can be found at most sewing and art stores.  They can be used with a stand, or simply held as you would a hoop.  To stretch the linen ground, you can either baste it to a background fabric, which is then held in place by the bars of the frame, or you can “sew” the ground fabric to the bars, keep an even tension to stretch the fabric. 

Period patterns are highly comprised of florals, birds, insects such as butterflies, peapods and geometric borders.  If you would like to produce a period style piece of embroidery, you can easily find portraits and pictures of extant garments in books on the subject and on online websites.  I have included a listing of resources on the last page, for this purpose.

There are many methods for transferring your pattern onto the fabric background.  The most common period method is often referred to as “pierce and pounce” or “pounce and prick.”  The pattern would be drawn onto a piece of parchment.  The embroiderer would then take a blunt needle and prick holes along the drawn lines.  When this was done, the parchment would then be laid onto the ground fabric and a bag of charcoal would be pounced along the design.  When the parchment was lifted from the fabric, charcoal dots would be left on the fabric revealing the pattern design.  This method can be quite messy, however.

More modern methods of transferring patterns are less messy and time consuming.  You can find cheap disappearing ink pens at sewing stores.  You can even use a pencil, if the embroidery will be opaque enough to hide the lines.  You can also draw the pattern onto tissue paper, which is then pinned to the ground fabric. As you embroider along the pattern, the tissue paper can be torn away. 

Basic Stitches:

There are five common, basic stitches used in Elizabethan embroidery, though many more were used during this period.  The most common are the running stitch, chain stitch, split stitch, stem stitch and detached buttonhole.

The running stitch is simply a line of stitching, where the needle maintains a direction, and the stitches are accomplished with an in/out motion. 

The chain stitch uses a single strand in loops to resemble a chain.  The needle comes up through the fabric where the thread is held into place to make a loop, and then the needle is inserted back into the hole where it emerged, and back up at the opposite end of the loop.  The chain stitch is an outlining stitch, also used for stems on floral patterns. 

The split stitch produces a similar design as the chain, except that the needle is brought up through the working thread to create the chain effect.  This stitch is more flat than the chain, and is used prominently for filling on aumonieres, sweet bags, and background stitching.  The stem stitch is also good for outlines, as it creates smooth curves.

The stem stitch was also used for outlines.  It is achieved by working from left to right with small stitches, resulting in a “twisted” appearance.  It can be used as filling, if the lines of stitching are sewn closely together.

The detached buttonhole stitch is a filling stitch, and is the basic stitch most commonly used for raised embroidery.  This stitch is worked over a foundation line; for partially detached pieces, a couched outline is laid first, and the detached buttonhole stitch is then anchored onto the couched thread, which can be snipped free from the ground fabric to partially detach the piece.  To work this stitch, insert the needle from top to bottom, into the stitch directly above the work area.  As the needle is pulled through the stitch, it stays over the working thread, much like a buttonhole or blanket stitch.  As each row progresses, it will anchor into the row before, leaving the area between the stitching and the fabric open.  For a raised design, stuff this pocket with padding while the rows are progressing. 

With all of these stitches, you want to keep your tension consistent as you progress, in order to keep your rows even.  Your thread will twist; allow it to untwist every so often or your stitches will warp and become uneven.

This is an example of a coif I have been working on, using Eliabethan embroidery stitches.  It is a linen ground fabric, with wool thread.  The outlines and stems are created using chain stitches.  The fill uses  detached buttonhole stitches.  The leafs, flowers and butterflies are all padded to give a raised appearance.  The thread is available through Reconstructing History, and is very delicate, but beautiful to work with.

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