In my last entry, I wrote about how Wild Rose came about, the research, the sketching and the framing up. Now it is time to catch up to the present day.
Once Tracy had rearranged her studio for me (so that I could sit comfortably and so my wheelchair wasn’t blocking the door etc) and helped me frame up, we set about choosing the colours of stranded cotton. Note that I am using ordinary cotton embroidery thread for this – ‘silk shading’ as in shading on a piece of silk, not shading with silk thread. Colour-wise, you will remember that Wild Rose is a kind of mid-pink, with dark purply-pink shadows and very delicate cool pink highlights. the stamens are yellow and orange and the very centre is greenish yellow. The stems and leaves are a good range of different greens. We started with the leaves to get my eye in with the technique, so we picked out those colours first. We had no trouble there, both DMC and Anchor have extensive ranges of greens, so we were able to go straight to the ones we wanted. I was even able to use some of my own extensive stash of skeins that I have built up over the last few years. I have discovered that when people learn you have a passion for embroidery, it sometimes happens that their eyes light up and they say “my mum/grandmother/aunt was a very keen embroiderer, I have all of their threads at home, I don’t embroider myself but I cannot bring myself to throw them away – would you be able to use them?” I love to take in orphaned stashes. It feels like it connects me to a previous generation of embroiderers. When you open box after box of carefully curated threads, you can feel the love and care that has been lavished there. I know that sometimes, I can spend whole evenings just arranging my materials, soaking in the colours and the textures, and feeling all the potential stored up in them. With inherited stashes, I am sure generations of embroiderers have been just the same, and with inherited stashes, it is like they come pre-loaded with love. The sad thing is that cotton is an organic substance, and believe it or not, it has a shelf life. At some point, it will inevitably lose its lustre and become fragile, although this can be delayed with careful handling. Most of the “heritage” stashes I have been given have been packed and stored with the utmost care, and are therefore suitable to be incorporated into my working stocks. Some skeins are not usable, but because of what they mean to the donor, I usually keep them too. This means that my stash of stranded cotton is pretty enormous, and periodically growing (NB – if you are reading this thinking “I have a stash I don’t know what to do with”, the RSN accepts donations, and it might be worth asking at your local arts college or school if they need any).
I digress. My thread stash has that effect on me. Where was I? Yes. we chose the greens without too much bother, and I got started, going around the outline of each leaf in split stitch, then, from the tip downwards, I established my foundation row of long and short stitch. Tracy kept a close eye on my stitch spacing and the angle of my stitches. For L&S, you need to establish your angle according to the contours of your design, for simple leaves, the stitches usually form a V out from the central vein, and the angle is maintained all of the way down in order to get realistic shading.
For more complicated shapes, the angle changes with the contours. Long and short shading is truly a fundamental technique of embroidery, and it is extremely easy to get wrong. For this reason, I have historically regarded it with a degree of trepidation. I did some long and short shading on Birdie, which allayed the worst of my fears, but I still knew I needed to have my wits about me. At no point when doing L&S stitch should you neglect any one of the following:
Stitch length: as the name suggests, the idea of long and short stitch is that the stitch length is varied, to facilitate a merging and blending of the rows as it builds up. You end up with a row of parallel stitches with a sharp edge where it goes over the split stitch edging at the edge of the shape, and a sort of feathery edge on the inside of the shape. the next row in is worked into the feathery edge, and that row is feathery on both edges. Apart from the edges of the shape and down the vein line, there should be no solid joins where the shading happens. If the stitches are too short, blending is hard. if they are too long then they wriggle about, the surface gets lumpy and the contours and shading look wrong.
Angle: as mentioned, the angle needs to be consistent, and to follow the contours if necessary. contouring angles needs lots of concentration so that the stitches don’t pile up at one aen and spread too thinly on the other. Surprisingly, even keeping the angle the same also requires concentration – angles have a habit of drifting.
Colour: shading happens in two directions. not only does the shade vary as you travel into the shape – i.e. row upon row, but it also varies as you travel along a row. so you have to plan each row and introduce new shades gradually as you go.
Spacing: like satin stitch, the stitches need to lie down parallel to one another, with no gaps between them. To begin with, mine were a little too far apart and the fabric showed through. This was because I was trying very hard not to get them too close together – if you do this, they all pile up and your surface and edging becomes lumpy.
Points: the points of the design (leaf tips etc) must be pointy. This is not as easy to achieve as it sounds. The final stitch of a point needs to stick out further than you think it does to make the points pointy. This only works if you have your stitch angle spot on, I discovered.
Edges: this mainly involves being very precise over exactly where your needle goes down, and spending time inspecting your work from all angles. It is easy for edges to become a bit “nibbled”
Big picture: when you are eyes-down, it is easy to concentrate only on the current square millimetre. I soon realised that by doing this, you can lose track of the design – the angle of the incident light, the position of a shadow etc. and if you make the shading too fiddly, you run the risk of not actually achieving your goal. Sometimes, I thought I had changed a colour too rapidly, but when I stepped back I realised that was what was needed at that point in the design. I found there was a great urge to obsessively blend and use lots of different colours to make transitions gentle, only to find that when I stepped back, all my careful shading averaged out into one fairly standard mid green leaf. Once I started being more confident with my colour changes, things became a lot better.
Once we established that I was OK on the leaves, we started trying to find a set of pinks. This was considerably more challenging. You see, there are two kinds of pinks going on here. There is a rosy pink, the kind of pink that starts off as pale red and gets paler and paler. then there is what I call a “cool pink” – it starts off as a kind of lilac-pink and fades from there. The source image I chose fits neatly RIGHT BETWEEN those two ranges of pinks, and we had a bit of a job finding what we needed. we had to pick out a real hotch-potch of Anchor and DMC strands. The shadows were another headache – we couldn’t match them excatly, and had to plump in the end for a set of purply-greys and some darker pinks. They seem to be working OK though.
All in all, long and short shading for the beginner can be quite taxing. Having said that, once you get going, it becomes much easier. I think it is safe to say I am no longer scared of it. My tutor says that it seems to come quite naturally to me – that is very nice to hear, if I could choose one technique to be a natural in, silk shading would definitely be that one. And I am certainly enjoying myself! I can happily manage an entire day just trundling along (it really isn’t a quick technique) and have to be quite strict with myself as regards taking breaks and looking after my ergonomics. Not to mention the fact that even the eye end of a size 10 needle is really quite sharp enough to make holes in me. I tried a thimble, but it made me clumsy. So I borrowed a technique from another blog and put tiny patches of superglue on the side of each middle finger where the needle rests. It seals up the holes beautifully, and protects my finger tip without loss of dexterity.
So far, I have got as far as doing most of the leaves, the stems (in stem stitch), and three petals, including one with a petal turnover on. That brings us to here: