The Feast of The Immaculate Embroidery

an extremely fine embroidery on pigskin

Yes, it is fussy. And tedious. It takes twice the amount of time. Will probably ruin my eyesight. And my hands, while I’m at it…but what of all that? It yields perfection…and you just can’t touch perfection.

When I was studying creative writing at university—many, many years ago!—one of the things young students were cautioned about was cutting loose with a whole heap of whizbang stylistic experiments before they had first learned to toe the line and had memorized all the rules of the English language. James Joyce, it was pointed out, may have produced the greatest modern masterpiece of prose style in English, but he was a master of the language whose straight lines he was so fancifully bending.

I think this is a good attitude to have in practicing any craft. More circumstantially  than deliberately, my practice of embroidery followed along these traditional lines. I taught myself to embroider when I was seven, and then mum gave me an embroidery primer when I was around ten; from that very proper and traditional book (Mary Gostelow’s “Embroidery Book”) I discovered all the stitches, learned the various techniques, as well all the proper practices of working with fabric, needle and thread. A lot of emphasis was put on neat, even stitching, keeping your fabric taut and immaculately clean, and I learned to start threads off without making knots, or trailing long straggling threads across the back of my work.

Until today I cannot work happily without a hoop (and I like to have a stand, as well), I wash my hands thoroughly with soap every hour or so to keep them oil- and sweat-free. I admit that I occasionally make a small knot in the back, and I do like to break out with some pieces and stitch randomly, without pattern or measurement, but just for the sheer joy of seeing the different colors of thread lie any-which-way, like candy sprinkles tossed upon clouds of frosting. After 25 years of being meticulous, I think I’ve earned the right to start breaking some rules and bending some lines.

A year ago I had an exhibit of my (mostly) embroidered works, inspired by my grandmother—the only other embroiderer in the family that I know of—and the spirit of all the Filipina embroiderers, from the 15th century till the present, who were renowned for their intricate, immaculate, white-on-white embroidered church veils and fine gowns. To avoid making any pattern marks on the white and cream-colored fabrics I was going to use, I came up with this way of transferring a pattern.

Yes, it is fussy and tedious, it takes twice the amount of time, and will probably ruin my eyesight and hands while I’m at it…but what of all that? It yields perfection…and you just can’t touch perfection.

So up there’s the pencil drawing, made onto tracing paper; just below it is a piece of iron-on interfacing (lightweight) that is big enough to accomodate the drawing with a bit of margin all around.

I tape the drawing (on tracing film) to a light table (or, since I moved back onto the house boat and don’t have electricity, I have used a sunlit window)…

…and then tape the interfacing, sticky side AWAY from me, over the drawing.

I then trace the design onto the interfacing using a sharp pencil. Don’t use Sharpies or markers for this, as the long fibres of the interfacing will cause the ink to bleed

The finished trace, complete with “90” minutes of play time, in reverse.

Cut the pattern out, leaving a bit of a margin around.

Iron the pattern onto the wrong side of the fabric with a dry iron (Do NOT use steam on iron-on interfacing!)

Put your fabric in a hoop to keep the fabric flat and to prevent puckering. I used a small, sharp needle and a single skein of stranded embroidery floss for this piece, though if I want fine detail, or a very fine line of backstitches, I will often use a good quality sewing machine cotton. If I want to make sure the stitched line stays crisp, I will even run this thread through some beeswax, first.

Start stitching on the wrong side of the fabric, pushing the needle in on a line of drawing.   Knot or leave a tail to weave in later, as you wish. Pull the needle and thread through.
The Feast of The Immaculate Embroidery

Flip the hoop over and complete the first backstitch. This first stitch takes a bit of poking around, to make sure that when the needle comes up again on the wrong side of the embroidery, it comes up on the pattern line.
Subsequent stitches are easier, because although you are working on the right side of the fabric (and cannot see the pattern) you need only insert the tip of the needle in the same spot as the previous stitch. This is what you see happening in the picture above. 90 Minutes, detail of backstitch

Keep going till you’re done backstitching all the lines of the design. If all you wanted was a  design in outlines, then your piece stops here and it will be perfect. I usually keep going, by turning to the right side of the embroidery after this, and re-working the whole design in filling stitches like satin and long-and-short, like the word “Morir” you see at the top of this post.
90 minutes, outined in backstitch


9 thoughts on “The Feast of The Immaculate Embroidery

  1. great tutorial/explanation. I also saw your work on Pininterest, absolutely lovely. thanks for reminding us that making things right and with the heart still matters for some of us.


  2. Fascinating… my maternal grandma embroidered until the day she died at age 96 — without glasses, I might add! Of course, her satin stitch was a bit sparse here and there! I still treasure some of the dish towels on which she embroidered what I used to call “those silly designs,” and most of all am thrilled that she took the time to teach my mom who taught me. I love the sound of the thread coming through the taut fabric, don’t you?


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