Jane Morris Blackwork part 2: stitching a portrait

After researching and choosing my Pre-Raphaelite muse, The next job was to find a way of stitching a portrait that would be somewhere between a photograph and a painting – a sort of augmented reality – with shading and textures that added to the picture and did no become jumbled, blocky or busy.


I chose 36 count Edinburgh linen for the background, knowing that I was going to want to add a lot of fine detail.  It is backed with white cotton, which helps to give a neat overall appearance, and helps to keep fine threads from hiding themselves under the warp and weft of the linen.

Threads being tested for use

I did a lot of research to try to find the threads that would work best for this piece. I started with a large pack of mixed silk for blackwork from Mulberry silks along with Restore Products ultrafyne polyester but the lightest one of the Mulberry silks (marked 200) was still quite dark, and there was a big jump between that and the Ultrafyne.  I discovered the Pipers silks do ultra fine twisted filament silk in 6/20, 4/20 and 2/20 (2/20 being the finest) which was much better for the lighter shades.  There were three shades of black and nearly black that I used in 2/20 and 4/20, and that gave me a lot more control over the lighter areas, and allowed me more subtlety in shading.  Twisted silk is lovely to work with – soft and strong, with excellent definition.  For areas that were almost pure while but where I still wanted to suggest a texture or stop the linen from being too bright, I also had a very fine translucent black polyester monofilament, which is designed to be “invisible” on dark fabrics, but on white linen it is just visible enough to offer the subtlest of shading, and being polyester, will not become brittle over time (unlike nylon invisible thread).  Using broken up stitch patterns and this thread I was able to suggest texture and detail even at the lightest shades.  The drawback with this thread was that it was slightly glossy, and the colour was smoke rather than grey or black, so I used it with restraint.

Vertical darning stitch going in

I chose to use a vertical darning stitch for most of the dress, which allowed me to blend it with variations in the pattern to break up the texture where necessary, but keeping the flow and keeping the look of smooth plain silk.  On the sleeves, I used oblique slav as a variation, which helped me to follow what would have been the grain of the fabric down the sleeves by altering the angle. A lacy stitch pattern (rounded eyelet) was used to suggest the trim on the cuff and button band that is just visible on the photograph.

Interlocking Y pattern (half scale) used on hands

For the skin tones, I needed a pattern that would give a smooth appearance, and that was close textured so that I could obtain a continuous spectrum of shades with it.  I chose the interlocking Y pattern at half scale, and used my finest monofilament and pipers fine twisted silks to get a delicately shaded effect.

half scale long diamond, with variations, was used on the hair.

Janey’s striking head of thick, wavy hair is undoubtedly one of her defining features, so choosing a pattern to do it justice was quite tricky. in the margins I tried out several complex patterns that appeared to suggest curls or waves, but the effect was not what I needed. all patterns have a repeating unit, and the bigger and more complex the pattern, the more obvious the pattern repeats become, giving it a contrived, almost ’tiled’ look.  it was very difficult to find something that shows a natural wave, that can easily be broken up to produce highlights.  I decided to try something very simple – long diamond at half scale.  I thought it would be much too linear and expected to find it better suited to other parts of the design, but I was surprised by how very versatile it was, and how it could be used to suggest natural organic shapes.  I used different weights of thread and blended it with variations: adding and omitting internal vertical or horizontal stitches, or leaving out stitches to form hexagon shapes for the light frizz effect around the edges.  In some areas I repeated the pattern with a half drop, which made a very smooth shaded effect made up of tiny diamond shapes.

Many of the patterns I chose were selected deliberately so that they would flow in to one another.  I was keen to ensure that the shading would look naturalistic rather than blocky.


The first thing everyone asks me when they see Janey is “I bet you needed a magnifying glass to sew that!” To the uninitiated, 36 count linen is intimidatingly fine.  The number 36 refers to the number of warp/weft threads per inch, so the higher the number, the finer the weave.  Strangely enough, I didn’t use a magnifying glass.  I just got used to the weave.  As it happened, my eyesight gradually deteriorated during this project, but I didn’t actually notice until the very end.  I now have varifocal specs that I wear all the time, and now if I try to look at Edinburgh linen without them I realise I cannot focus. But while I was working on Janey, I just adapted to counting threads by touch…  I literally ran my needle over the weave and counted the ‘Ticks’ as it went over a thread!  It is a lot easier now I have spectacles and I can see again.  Looking back, it is something of a miracle that most of Janey was done when I couldn’t actually focus on the weave or the stitches.  But when something deteriorates gradually enough, you learn to accommodate the impairment, I just added it to the list of things I was accommodating!

It took several attempts to get this intense stare right, while my own eyesight required attention!

I surprised myself by really loving this module.  This was partly because of a connection to Janey which grew and developed over the months I spent working on her.  Janey herself was an artist and embroiderer, someone who took an interest in everything; we had interests in common, as well as, who knows? maybe even a shared disability.

I am dedicating this piece to my husband Dr Richard Frith, who is my main source of information about the Pre-Raphaelites, also to my friend and Janey’s namesake, Jayne Beadle.  thank you both for the endless encouragement.

Pomegranate detail

Jane Morris blackwork Part 1: Finding Janey, and musings on Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

Blackwork is a counted thread technique that was popular in Elizabethan times.  It is traditionally worked with black threads over white linen, in detailed repeating patterns or textures.  it made a good adornment for collars and cuffs in times when lace was an expensive luxury.  however, the fashion caught on, and there is even a famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth herself wearing a garment with blackwork sleeves.

Queen Elizabeth with blackwork sleeves

Most often these days, blackwork is used on samplers and simple decorative designs; however, the patterns can be used as shading in more detailed designs – different effects can be obtained by varying stitch pattern and size, pattern complexity, and weight of thread.  I chose to depict Jane Morris (‘Janey’) because of an existing interest in pre-raphaelite art and Janey’s remarkable personal story and influence.

Who is Jane Morris (nee Burden)?

Jane was spotted by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones in 1857, as they attended a performance at a theatre in Oxford.  Jane was from a poor background but she embodied the pre-Raphaelite concept of beauty, and Rossetti persuaded her to come and sit for him and William Morris as an artist’s model.  Morris fell for Janey, and in due course they got engaged, despite the fact that Janey was not in love herself.  The match was advantageous; Janey’s education was poor, as she had been destined to follow her mother in to domestic service. William Morris gave his new wife every possible opportunity to read and study, which she availed herself of eagerly, becoming an accomplished linguist, musician and embroiderer, with deportment and manners that allowed her to move in the highest circles of society.  Rossetti never lost interest in Janey, despite his own relationship and marriage to Lizzie Siddal.  In 1865, three years after Lizzie’s tragic early death from an overdose, Jane Morris began to pose for Rossetti again, and a deep emotional attachment kindled between them.  In 1871 Morris and Rossetti took out a joint tenancy on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, ostensibly to use as a summer home, but in reality to become a secluded venue for the long running affair between Rossetti and Janey.  William would absent himself for long periods, on research trips to Iceland and other places, fully aware of the liaison  www.preraphaelitesisterhood.com/jane-morris-an-enigmatic-muse .

The photograph of Jane Morris, June 1865, John Robert Parsons
Photograph of Jane Morris, posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his back garden, taken by John Robert Parsons in 1865

A photograph is like an instant freeze frame of a point in time. In 1865, Janey and William had been married for six years, and had two young daughters, Jenny and May.  Rossetti arranged for a series of photographs of Jane to be taken at his home in London, by John Robert Parsons.  Rossetti himself was involved in the posing of the photographs, and he used the finished results as the basis for some of his paintings.  (www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/sa140.raw.html ) Rossetti’s wife, Lizzie Siddal Rossetti had died three years previously, and Rossetti had sunk into despair.  Painting Janey was something that Rossetti found compelling; she “consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life” and it seems that his obsession with Janey helped to lift him out of his depression.  The photograph I chose for my black work is one that was taken in Rossetti’s back garden.

The light source and pose struck me as familiar, and while I was researching, I found similarities between the photograph and Rossetti’s later painting Proserpine (1874).  This is what gave me the idea for my embroidery.  I wanted to show the two sides of Janey, and her two relationships, married into the same image; The photograph of Mrs Jane Morris, wife and mother, and the painting of Janey as Proserpine, a beautiful young woman, swept away from her family, seduced and tempted.

The Proserpine myth and DGR’s painting

Proserpine (Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone) is the mythical daughter of ceres (Greek: demeter), the goddesss of fertility, growth and the harvest.  Proserpine was abducted by Pluto and taken to his realm in the underworld.  Ceres tried desperately to get her daughter back, and by appealing to Jupiter and withholding the harvest, she finally secured proserpine’s return, on one condition: that she had not eaten or drunk of the food of the land of the dead. Either by her own accord, or because Pluto forced her, Proserpine was found to have eaten four seeds of a pomegranate.  She was allowed to return to her mother, but for four months of the year she was compelled to go back to the underworld, because of the four pips she had eaten.  The myth says that that Ceres, delighted at the return of her daughter, caused the trees to send forth blossom, and all of the crops to sprout green, the origin of spring time.  The yearly return of Proserpine to the underworld was marked by the fall of the leaves, and all of the crops seeming to wither and die for four months – winter time. (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proserpina )

Two of DGR’s versions of Proserpine, with Janey as model

Casting Janey as Proserpine must have seemed natural to Rossetti, remembering the long summers they spent together at Kelmscott, and the times they had to spend apart when she returned to her husband.  It is a theme he returned to many times, and worked on 8 separate canvases of proserpine.  By that time, he and Janey were seeing each other very little, the affair having ended, and Rossetti’s mental health was in a precarious state.  At this time, the series of photographs taken almost a decade previously must have been very precious to him, and no doubt very important as source images, just as they are to me today.

Combining the images

The main figure of Janey in the embroidery is taken directly from the JRP photo, cropped and enlarged.  In the black and white photograph, Janey is wearing what appears to be a silk dress.  Proserpine is painted wearing a very similar looking dress, and a portrait of Janey done by DGR has her wearing “the blue silk dress”.  It is tempting to assume that it is the same dress in all three images, and I have used some of the detailing from the paintings on my embroidery.  Around the central image, I have incorporated details found in the Proserpine paintings.  The square of reflected light on the wall behind her, the curl of ivy framing her face, and the bowl on the left of the picture.  In the painting, Proserpine holds the fateful half eaten pomegranate, but in the embroidery, the pomegranate is in the bowl, uneaten, and the future is undecided.

 Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – A connective tissue connection?

I have a disability called hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) that causes, pain, injury and multiple symptoms due to a genetic structural deformity of the connective tissue.  This affects me in a lot of quite debilitating ways; I use a wheelchair for mobility, and I have to structure my life around management of chronic pain and acute injuries such as dislocation or fracture. Whilst examining my images for this project, certain features of Janey leaped out at me straight away as indicating hypermobility, and it made me wonder if she had hEDS or another hypermobility spectrum disorder (HSD).

Jane Morris showing hypermobile traits in her hands and facial features, and details from DGR’s paintings showing his fascination for her long, graceful, and exceptionally bendy hands.

She has very long, slender fingers and wrists (arachnodactyly) and some facial features that are in common with myself and many people who have EDS (deep set eyes with lax eyelids that give the eyes an appearance of a downward slant).  Looking at all the photographs together, as well as DGRs paintings, some of the charismatic, graceful pre-raphaelite drape of her limbs seems to suggest hypermobility – an abnormally large range of movement in the joints.  Obviously, there is no way to prove categorically that she had a HSD, but it is known that she was often indisposed, suffering from undiagnosable illness that has been attributed in the literature to everything from a spinal condition to being entirely psychosomatic (www.ncgsjournal.com/issue42/parkins.htm ).  Her continual exhaustion, sciatica, pain in her back and limbs sound very familiar to me as symptoms of hEDS.  Even the lack of definitive diagnosis is, in itself, suggestive.  To this day hEDS and HSDs are often misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and in some unfortunate cases the patient is disbelieved entirely for years before a diagnosis is finally made.  hEDS and hypermobility spectrum disorders are genetic in origin, and are often inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern.  Again, it is pure speculation, but pictures of May Morris (Janey and William’s daughter) seem to show similar deep set eyes, laxity of eyelids, and long thin fingers.

One of the symptoms of my hEDS is hypermobility of joints.

Jane Morris was, like her husband, a bright and voracious polymath, she was an artist and embroiderer, she campaigned for social justice, she found fascination in everything, and she had to overcome pain and infirmity that was poorly understood by everyone. The more I researched Janey, the more attracted I became to her as a subject.  As I worked on my piece, I felt I was getting to know the woman behind the intense gaze.

Read more about stitching janey here…

Jane Morris by Emma Frith – detail