The fabric you use as the base for your embroidery forms an integral part of the overall design and should be chosen with thought and imagination. If you were guided by the embroidery police you would be restricted to fabrics that were available in and around the 17th and 18th centuries. That would be a pity. I tend to draw the line at synthetic fabrics, but other than that I will use whatever takes my fancy, or whatever suits the design and the function of the finished article.
Like many embroiderers who have been at it for years, my walls are full of framed embroidery, so I tend to make other things, mostly for my home. This requires that I need medium to heavy weight fabrics. As a Jacobean/Crewel embroiderer, if I was sticking to rules I would be surfing the net and having linen twill delivered to my door. Why? It’s hard to find, the colour range is a little narrow and there is so much other fabric out there that does the job just as well and, in many cases, better. Besides, living at the bottom tip of Africa in a society that tries to extract as much as possible from the productive in order to hand it over to the unproductive so that they can reproduce with impunity, customs duty is huge, and let’s not even get onto the cost of shipping to the bottom of the world.
A lot of countries have a textile industry that produces all sorts of fabrics that are the equivalents of fabrics that are produced elsewhere, but have different names. We have a fabric here called “bull denim”, a name which suggests all sorts of other uses. It is available in just about any colour you want and on closer inspection I found that it is actually cotton twill. A really nice quality twill too. It is available in the more traditional weave with diagonal ridges and I have purchased it with a box weave as well. The design below was worked on this fabric, it was a pleasure to work with, very stable and it washed like a dream.
Somewhere out there are people that say you shouldn’t wash your embroidery because you shouldn’t get it grubby in the first place. I’ll discuss that at length another day. All I’m going to say today is that I live a life surrounded by dogs who get patted, stroked and hugged with the same hands that do the stitching. Hands that are attached to a real human being that has natural oils and whose home is not a sterile environment. My embroidery gets washed. End of story.
Another fabric that is ideal for textured embroidery is a heavy weight seedcloth. This is a woven cotton fabric, often used for table cloths, and is Ecru in colour. The charm, and what gives it its name, is that the cotton seed husks have not been bleached out. They are visible, but not intrusive. The little number below was worked on seed cloth.
My favourite fabric for Jacobean embroidery is called “hopsack”. I would imagine that the hops that are used in the making of the beer that keeps millions of men moderately sedated every day, are now harvested with some sort of large agricultural machine, but in days gone by they were collected in sacks that were made of linen. As its name suggests this fabric, although a pure cotton, is reminiscent of the material used to make those hopsacks. It has an even weave with a count of 30 threads per inch and is a stable medium weight fabric.
The image below is a portion of one of the designs in my book, “Crewel Twists”. It was stitched on hopsack.
There is no doubt that embroidery worked on pure silk is exquisite, but I do think that, as an embroidery fabric, it is over rated. It is delicate, not that well suited to heavily textured stitchery and, if you are using a dyed silk, the colour runs when you wash it. It is dyed with vegetable dyes and those, by their very nature, are not colour fast. Even if you are not grappling with the colour-fast problem, it doesn’t wash well, losing some of its lustre, and it is prone to watermarks. But it is lovely and I will often use it for something that is going to be displayed behind glass. The image below is a small cameo that forms part of a set of five, all of which will ultimately be framed behind glass and hung on the wall.
Before I traced the lines of the embroidery design onto the silk, I rinsed it in tepid water a few times to get rid of as much excess dye as I could. I also backed the fabric with cotton voile.
I always back my fabric with cotton voile, unless it going to be made into something that can do without the extra bulk. It stabilises the fabric and also gives you something to start and end off in.
Having said at the beginning of this post that I tend to draw the line at synthetic fabrics, I sometimes do use them. A few years ago I went through a bag-making period. Wanting to make useful handbags that could be used daily, I needed a substantial and strong fabric. My bench mark was whether it would stand up to taking the dogs to the vet. I went off to all sorts of fabric emporia, stared at everything, touched most of it, rubbed it between my fingers and eventually chose a mock-suede upholstery fabric. I don’t think that this fabric had seen a natural fibre in its life, but it was perfect for what I had in mind.
It wasn’t particularly easy to stitch on this fabric, but it wasn’t impossible either. I used thicker needles than I usually do for the thread embroidery.
I would usually use a short beading needle for bead embroidery stitches but found, on this fabric, that I needed to use a long needle for extra leverage.
There are times that I pick up a fabric with no particular design or project in mind. I buy it because I like the texture or the colour. Those are often the best fabrics because they inspire you to design something that suits the fabric. The two stumpwork designs below were designed in those circumstances.
Both fabrics were originally intended for soft furnishings and I honestly don’t know and can’t remember whether they had a synthetic component, but you can be fairly certain that they did.
I loved the embossed design on the first fabric and was attracted to both the sheen and the colour of the second.
And then there is quilting fabric. Like all needle craft supplies, there is good quality fabric and there is rubbish. I go for the pure cotton American quilting fabric which works really well and I always back it with cotton voile to give it extra stability. I’ve always like the idea of working a design onto a fabric that has an existing print. It provides extra interest and is something that I haven’t explored enough. I intend to do a lot more but in the meantime, the brick doorstop that is in my “Crewel Twists” book was done on a dark print.
When you start working on printed backgrounds you find the choice of thread colours can be challenging but you soon get into it and I have always been pleased with how the project turns out.
So, in line with my original stated intention to attempt to debunk some of the myths that surround hand embroidery, take note of what the embroidery police say you should be using and then use what inspires you. I don’t do much canvas work and neither do I have enough time to get down to doing more of the even weave embroideries. I will be the first one to tell you that if you do, then you should probably use the real thing – the fabrics that are recommended for these styles.
If, however, you are doing anything from Jacobean to Silk Ribbon embroidery, from Stumpwork to even Goldwork, there is no need to be stuck in the past. Look at the upholstery fabrics, the quilting fabrics, taffetas and silks. Use what you like and if it needs stability, back it with cotton voile and enjoy the result. The Mother Grundies will disapprove, but I do promise you that there will be far more admirers than detractors.
Dress designers embroider on any and every fabric. Shouldn't those of us who do it for pleasure follow their lead?