Beginners Blackwork Embroidery

This was the title of a one day course I attended yesterday. It was held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and was led by Helen McCook from the Royal School of Needlework. It meant a bit of an early start for me to get to Edinburgh in time, but it was well worth the effort. There were 12 of us, including two men, on the course and we all had a great time. The Portrait Gallery is a fine building with a wonderful collection and well worth a visit on its own. It also has a mouth watering cafe. Must remember the essentials!

Helen specialises in historic embroidery and the design she had prepared for us was inspired by some embroidery on a painting in the gallery. So we started by looking closely at this work – John Hope, 2nd Earl of Hopetoun, by Allan Ramsay. A full length portrait and one of his masterpieces. Helen explained the background to the painting and the details of the work. Surprisingly it did not feature any blackwork. This was deliberate as Helen wanted to show us that you could create a blackwork design from other types of embroidery. The Ramsay painting featured some very delicate and fine embroidery in gold threads. This is what Helen chose as her inspiration for the design for us to work on.

Below is a photo of the design with part of the embroidery completed. This is Helen’s own work, stitched to show us what we were aiming for.IMG_0614

As you can probably make out, this is a very fine piece of embroidery, with very tiny stitches. The fabric is 32t Belfast linen in white. We were to use two different threads – DMC stranded cotton and a superfine silk which was very, very fine. Helen had selected four blackwork stitch patterns for us to use in the design. A couple looked particularly complicated on first viewing, but in fact they were all fairly easy to follow. The big difficulty lay in the exceedingly short stitches that we were to use. I have never before embroidered a piece only using tiny stitches. I eventually got the hang of it and developed a bit of a rhythm.

To add depth and variety to a design with just one colour, parts of the work were to be stitched in different thickness of  thread. With the cotton thread this meant working with one, two and finally three strands of the thread. The one and two strands were OK to stitch with. I have not yet had the pleasure or challenge of using three strands. With such short stitches I imagine it will be quite difficult to follow the pattern. However the greatest difficulty was with the superfine silk thread. It is so thin that you feel it is going to disintegrate in front of you as you work. I found stitching with this thread very, very hard and demanded total concentration. Though the silk thread is black and the fabric white, nevertheless I found it difficult at times to see where I had already stitched a line, so fine was the thread. Still I will persevere with this. Below is a photo of the tiny amount of work I have managed to complete. Hardly a scratch on the surface!IMG_0618

I enjoyed this introductory course and my thanks to Helen McCook for her help and guidance. I fully intend to work in this form in a more regular way. I have to say though, that if this is what is regarded as Beginners Blackwork, then I am most unlikely to ever progress to intermediate, let alone advanced! The mind shudders.

My current project has turned out a bit of a shambles. I had made up a design for crewel work and had succeeded in drawing on the fabric. Alas when I started stitching with the Persian work the light cotton fabric was not firm enough to withstand buckling up. I then to my horror discovered that the fabric had two large faded lines running across it. So I decided to cut my losses and start afresh. Crewel work in wool clearly needs a firmer fabric than cotton, or it needs an iron-on backing to give it greater strength  I visited a fabric shop, but could not find the right colour for my original design. However I did come away with a remnant of a fine linen fabric in bright coral red.

As I still want to pursue something in crewel with wool, I decided to use this fabric, but with a new design. For this I have shamelessly plagiarised the images from a ceramic plate we bought in Tarragona many years ago. The theme this time is fishes and the sea. A bright red background will give the finished piece a decidedly unusual look. To make the linen stronger I have added an iron-on backing. So far this has make an enormous difference and the little I have stitched so far has been buckle free. More on this the next time.

The cushion cover I was working on is now finished and the help of Jane, I have managed to machine stitch it to make a real cushion. Here it is in all its, slightly rumpled, glory.P1080165

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