I finished Wild Rose the silk shading piece last friday, and as I sit down to blog about it, I find myself reflecting on the timeline of a project, and how a design brief and a spark of an idea gradually develop and grow into a finished embroidery. For me, a project falls into several recognisable stages.
The planning stage is luxurious and fun. I usually poke around google and other internet sources (a week or so back I finally joined Pinterest), as well as my own photographs and memories. Amorphous ideas bubble up to the surface and coalesce, usually far too many at once. Luckily, I have the Royal School of Needlework design briefs for the various modules, which stop me getting too carried away. The key to ideas gathering and planning is to lightly graze on things that interest you, trying to notice the common factors that connect the ‘hits’, gradually narrowing down and honing the idea. When the source image presents itself or the idea comes together, it is like all the lights go on. After that, I tend to fixate on the design, daydreaming, sketching and generally wearing it in like a pair of new shoes. By the time I am ready to start stitching, the design is already an old friend.
Beginning to stitch is a time of impatience. It takes a while for the first elements of the design to come together. It is also a time of hope. The design obsession carries through to this stage as I start to put some of the ideas in train, and there is a little nervousness- always wondering if I will be able to pull it off.
The tipping point comes about two thirds of the way through, when the thing under your needle reflects, mirror-like, the idea in your head, and you realise that it is coming together, there is more of it already worked than there is work left to do. Rather than feel this to be liberating, I start to feel a weight of responsibility. Hours of work have gone in to it, and so far, the piece looks good. Don’t stuff it up now, Emma. Every spare second goes into stitching now.
The end sneaks up on me. The very last job is to add a tiny circle of felt padding and cover it tightly with a lot of tiny, single strand french knots in various shades of beige and khaki, which had to be found in the stash, and shaded carefully to give the impression of it being a rather lumpy dome shape, rather than a slightly raised disc.
It is absorbing work, but suddenly I run out of places to put french knots. I put off the end for a minute or two, fiddling, tidying, fixing up, but there is no getting around it, Rose is finished. I open up the protective tissue paper to get a proper look, turn it around, and look from all the angles. Yes, definitely finished… Oh dear. Because there is no denying it, the first feeling is one of loss. This time around, I was prepared for this. With my last piece, I had a big rush to finish before moving house, and the end of the project marked the end of my time with my tutors and and my friends at Hampton Court. The sense of loss was quite intense and took me totally by surprise. With Rose, I finished on time with no great drama, a happy new studio with many modules ahead of me, but I still had that twinge of loss. It wasn’t until after I shared some photos and the congratulations started coming in that I started to think about the rose with a degree of satisfaction. This is my first go at silk shading, my first flower, my first attempt at some form of realism, my first module with Tracy in Durham, and my first piece since moving here and making the step towards serious embroidery. It still needs to be properly assessed for quality (as does the bird) by the RSN people who know their onions. But however she fares in the marking process, I am pleased with Rose, and she has taught me a vast amount.
The final part of the rose to be completed was the very centre, worked in bullion knots and french knots. These turned out to be a really important element in the whole design, because once the bullions were lined up with their corresponding shadows I had previously shaded on to the petals, the whole thing seemed to be thrown into relief, even though the design itself is flat, save for the bullions themselves, and a tiny circle of felt padding right under the centre circle. Quite a few people, on seeing the bullion knots, told me that they found bullion knots to be complicated and difficult, and voiced a certain awe at my plans to do all the anthers in bullion knots. But I really enjoy a bullion knot, and have never found them to be a particular hassle. There are loads of stitching resources out there, and I am sure there are plenty of excellent pictorial instructions for bullions, but I thought it might be nice, before I do the “big reveal” of Rose (and yes, she is finished!) to step through the construction of bullion knots. Please note, I am a LEFT HANDED EMBROIDERER, so I usually work with my left hand underneath and my right hand on top. Trying to hold my phone, take in-focus pictiures and do bullion knots one handed was enough of a challenge, and I really didn’t feel up to doing it wrong handed. If left handed embroidery is likely to confuse you, look away now!
I drew out a little stamen on the calico edging of my piece, for illustrative purposes only. I wouldn’t normally use pencil lines for something as delicate as a stamen, because there is too much chance of it showing, and anyway, mine were being laid on top of petals already worked in long and short shading. I picked up two skeins of stranded cotton pretty much at random from my stash, so they aren’t colours I have been using on Rose.
1. Setting up for the bullion
Thread a small embroidery needle (a size 9 or 10) with two strands of cotton and cast on with a waste knot and three stab stitches. The strands can be both the same colour or two closely related shades of a colour, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Bring the needle up at one end of where you want the bullion to be, then take it down again at the other end. Don’t pull all the thread through, leave a loop on the surface like in the picture. Finally poke the point of the needle back up at the original starting point, leaving it sitting there, pointing up, without pulling it all the way through to the front of the fabric, and you are all set up.
2. Winding it up
Hold the needle steady with one hand at the back of the work, and with the other hand, pick up the thread that you left lying on the surface in step one. At the end closest to the needle, start to wind the tread around the needle. From this point on, you need to hold the thread so it doesn’t unwind, but without yanking too hard on it. The number of times you wind the thread around the needle depends on how long and fat you want your bullion to be. Go round and round as if you were constructing a little spring on the needle, starting at the bottom near where it emerges from the fabric and working your way up slowly in the direction of the point. You don’t want to be piling all the coils up on top of each other, so much as wrapping the needle neatly. I went round ten times in the example above. When you think you have enough, take up any slack on the end in your hand, and push the loops down the needle so that they are neatly stacked together, looking a little bit like what you want the finished bullion to look like. This is your opportunity to check the length. Flatten the needle to the surface of the the fabric, where you want the bullion to lie, keeping the coils compressed. If it it too long or too short, then wind or unwind loops as required. In this case, ten was just right.
3. Pulling through
With the needle back in its vertical position, you are now ready to pull everything through. You still have hold of the end of the thread, don’t you? just slacken the tension a tad. When you pull the needle through, the eye end and the double width of thread it carries need to work their way through every single loop on your needle, and if you are holding the tension too tight, you are going to have a battle on your hands. Don’t let go of the end, but shift your grip a little so that the finger and thumb are softly holding the needle shaft with the loops around it, preventing them from coming unraveled.
Bring your other hand to the front of the work and use it to slowly draw the needle fully through the fabric and the little tunnel that is formed by the loops on the needle, just as if you were threading a bead. Don’t panic if the loops get pulled about a bit, become spread out or a bit bunched up, that is normal, and you have your finger and thumb stopping any unraveling. just draw the thread through slowly, taking up the slack under the fabric, then the excess from the working loop, until you feel it start to come tight. At that point, you can let go of the loops. You will probably have a slightly untidy selection of loops on your stitch. Again, this is no cause for alarm. pull the thread down and in the direction of the stitch, and use your fingernail or a needle to push the loops together. If they are still a bit bunchy, hold the loops and give the end a good tug. That should sort them out and bring them in to line.
4. Finishing off
If some of the loops overlap, you will see a slight thickening at the base of the stitch, which might be exactly the effect you are after. But if, say, I wanted a sausage and got a pear, then I can usually sort it out by sliding a needle under the bullion and stroking the loops in the direction I want them to go, whilst keeping a gentle tension on the free end, until the bullion is the shape I want. Then the final job is to send the needle down through the fabric right near the end of the bullion to finish off the stitch.
Bullions, it turns out, are very versatile. The one above is simple and straight, but they also do lovely curves, just by varying where the needle goes own at the very last step. A tiny step to the left or right will help the bullion sweep a curve. if you make the bullion a couple of loops longer than the length required, then tuck the needle underneath the end to tie it off, the bullion will stand up, making a little arc.
In the picture above, I have made the brown bullion slightly longer so that I can curve it around the yellow one. putting the needle through a fraction to one side helps it to curve.
As well as being short and fat, bullions can be long and thin. On the rose, most of the filaments of the stamens were worked in stem stitch, but for some of the front-most filaments, My tutor tracy had the idea that I could do some very long, thin bullions, to give the area some depth.
The thin bullions are worked with a single strand, but otherwise the technique is the same. I and careful not to add too many loops, because if they end up overlapping in the finished knot, the stamen would look a bit lumpy!
Bullion knots can feature in all sorts of ways, not just stamens. In my jacobean piece I used rows of parallel bullions to shade a petal turnover. A few big bullions formed the thorax of a butterfly, and tapered, curved bullions were the claws of the bird of paradise. I think their reputation for being fiddly and fussy is somewhat undeserved. I suppose they do involve a few steps, but they are very pretty and quite satisfying. Just as well, because there were hundreds of them on the rose project!