Bullions, hundreds of bullions!

Centre of rose - bullions and french knots

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

Setting up the foundation for a bullion knot
Setting up the foundation for a bullion knot

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

Winding the thread around the needle
Winding the thread around the needle

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

Slowly pulling the slack through the bullion
Slowly pulling the slack through the bullion

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

Finishing the bullion
Finishing the bullion

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.

5. Variations

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.

A curved bullion
A curved bullion

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.

A long, thin, single strand bulion
A long, thin, single strand bullion

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!

Author: emmafrith76

I am an embroiderer, learning to craft my art with the Royal School of Needlework in the studio of my tutor, Tracy Franklin. I am a vicar's wife and children's church volunteer., and yes, I really do bake and make jam. I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. My wheelchairs and my scooter are my freedom and I love them.

Leave a Reply