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A question about embroidery

Posted: Sat May 13, 2006 4:18 pm
by arianwen
Ive had a quick serach through the forums but cant find anything relevant.

Im just wondering how people would have done embroidery on fine weave fabrics such as linen, before the wonderful invention of printed/stamped patterns on the materials.

Im looking into making my own designs and transferring them to the fabric in cross stitch and other basic embroidery stitches and im trying to figure out how to get the pattern onto the finer fabrics

Is it simply a matter of tracing the pattern very lightly onto the fabric with a pencil and just using whatever colours i like?
or is it more complicated than that?

Many thanks


Posted: Sat May 13, 2006 7:01 pm
by X
Counted cross-stitch type work is quite a late invention, I think, although I wouldn't like to mention exact dates. But you can do it on fine linen - it's just a bit harder, that's all. So if that's what you're doing, you don't need lines.

For any other kind of embroidery, chalk or pencil your lines in and then embroider. Or go completely freestyle if you're confident enough.

Posted: Sat May 13, 2006 7:09 pm
by sally
as a really really rough rule of thumb, most early embroidery stitches leave as little thread as possible on the back of the fabric. Its not foolproof but its a handy way of checking is a stictch you are using is in keeping. For example, a variation of stemstitch is one of the ones used on the Bayeaux tapestry, and when you do that you get just a little line of stitches on the back, but the bulk of the thread on the front. Xstitch leaves rather more thread on the back of the fabric, and may be one possible reason why it isnt much used at times where brightly dyed silks were expensive.
Couching is another good example, the main thread doesnt go through to the back of the fabric at all, so a great way to get the maximum impact out of your threads.
I'm sure someone will be along ion a moment who knows loads more about early embroidery than me though, but those are the quick checks I use if I have to wing a design :)

Posted: Sun May 14, 2006 2:46 pm
by GinaB
historically, the 'prick and pounce' method is probably the best for transferring designs to linen. This method can be seen step-by step on the V&A website: ... person.php

It is best to check stitches before you use them, as some are known in some periods/areas, whereas others aren't. As Sally says, many do not have as much thread at the back, particularly if you're using metallic threads - these are always couched to the surface, in the same way that they are brocaded in narrow wares - far too expensive to be hidden! Stem stitch is really one of the safest, it was used on all types of work. Satin stitch is seen on many c15 purses, and used following the line of the linen, like counted work, and I've seen half cross stitch but cannot remember the date.

Posted: Sun May 14, 2006 4:33 pm
by Drachelis
I have used the prick and pounce method before - I use a chalk bag to transfer the image onto dark material

Shadowlight designs

Posted: Sun May 14, 2006 5:52 pm
by Jenn
depends what the design is as well for early geometric blackwork I tend to count the threads for later stuff which is free had I will normally draw the design on free hand with a piece of charcoal/pencil - and there are examples of half finished ones like this

Posted: Sun May 14, 2006 8:35 pm
by gregory23b
There is speculation that printed patterns to follow were used in the late middle ages, apparently a piece exists where the embroidery has worn and a printed pattern is shown. I will try and track down the relevant mention.

Not only that but some treatises mention producing preparatory drawings on the fabric with brish and weak paint, ie not always using pouncing.

Posted: Sun May 14, 2006 10:44 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
From Cennini's Libro dell'Arte:
  • CLXIV How to Draw for Embroiderers.
    Again, you sometimes have to supply embroiderers with designs of various sorts. And, for this, get these masters to put cloth or fine silk on stretchers for you, good and taut. And if it is white cloth, take your regular charcoals, and draw whatever you please. Then take your pen and your pure ink, and reinforce it, just as you do on panel with a brush. Then sweep off your charcoal. Then take a sponge, well washed and squeezed out in water. Then rub the cloth with it, on the reverse, where it has not been drawn on; and go on working the sponge until the cloth is damp as far as the figure extends. Then take a small, rather blunt, minever brush; dip it in the ink; and after squeezing it out well you begin to shade with it in the darkest places, coming back and softening gradually. You will find that there will not be any cloth so coarse but that, by this method, you will get your shadows so soft that it will seem to you miraculous. And if the cloth gets dry before you have finished shading, go back with the sponge and wet it again as usual. And let this suffice you for work on cloth.
When I do non-counted embroidery, I tend to draw it out on paper (or sketch it in Photoshop and then blow it up to the size I want), and then transfer it to the ground cloth with a lightbox (a bit more reliable than using a candle or a bright window, two of the pattern transfer techniques illustrated in Paganino's Il Burato, 1527) -- but I further cheat and use a water-soluble felt-tip marker sold here mostly for quilters.

Posted: Mon May 15, 2006 9:51 am
by gregory23b
There you go, thanks Karen, I should have recalled that as I read the book often enough...doh!

But it does give a nice cross-over of trades - hence my contribution, not wanting to enter the mystery of embroidery without good cause, he says humbly.

Posted: Mon May 15, 2006 11:50 am
by arianwen
ok thanks everyone its just what i need *trundes off to get material and needles*

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 1:00 am
by frances
It would seem that in Elizabethan times the rich ladies employed someone to draw out the designs onto the fabric so that they could then emboider over the top. The well-known drawing people, men I seem to recall, would travel from house to house performing this function. In some households anyone who could draw, whatever their day job, was pulled in to draw onto the household textiles. Copies of the plants and animals from natural history books were very popular.

It seems to me that this is not that different from buying a printed canvas and embroidering it as they did in Victorian times, and still do today. However the design is got onto the canvas, by hand or by computer printer, it is the skill of the embroiderer in the final result that everyone will see and admire. So, unless you are very historically authentic in what you do, just use the easiest method for you, and enjoy the creative process.

A thought: Where people can fall down is by using colours that were not yet invented. For example torquoise and flourescent green are very late 20th century onwards colours.

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 3:45 pm
by Jenn
Hurrah - where did you get the info for this? is there any more info on these people? i thought things like the cschooolbook etc where produced so that people could copy the designs?
Although that tends to justify what I do which is draw on the image freehand _ trying to remember to use charcoal or at least a pencil and not say red biro

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 9:00 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
See Margaret Swain's Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots for information about the draughtsmen that were hired to draw needlework patterns (presumably for the Oxburgh Hangings).

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 9:47 pm
by Jenn
d'oh I did know that - although I have to say I doubt it was common

Posted: Mon Jun 05, 2006 6:29 pm
by Ellen Gethin
I have a historical romance called Silk and Stone, by Dinah Dean. It's set in the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda. It's not terribly well written, but she does seem to have done considerable research on medieval embroidery and stone masonry. In one passage she talks about the heroine drawing the pattern onto the cloth using a sparrow's feather, for instance.

Posted: Tue Jun 06, 2006 2:18 pm
by Tuppence
Just to add my bit, traditionally pricking and pouncing was done with charcoal for light fabrics, and cuttlefish for dark fabrics.

Depending on when and where you are the design could be drawn on from the pounce marks with a brush and paint (or ink), or a pen and ink. There are extant examples that show both methods (in theory - assuming they're correctly identified).

Some designs may have bee drawn freehand, or on ocassion (possibly) traced, if using very very fine fabric.

Later on you could get printed textiles (or blocks to print the patterns onto the fabric) not sure when this came in, but it's around by the sixteenth century.

I have to be honest, though and admit that I don't prick and pounce that often - I tend to fall back on modern stuff like transfer pencils, and lightboxes, but hey ho!


Posted: Wed Jun 07, 2006 12:53 am
by frances
A lot of research has been done on extant embroideries and I have been to a number of talks by the researchers who have tried to find the original drawings used in tapestries and embroideries. The Oxburgh embroideries are one well-known example where most of the books have now been discovered.

There are a few books on the history of embroidery. You may be able to get hold of 'The Embroiderers Story'. pub David and Charles, by Thomasina Beck, 1995. I have a lovely little reprod of an early 16th century embroiderers/lacemakers pattern book called something like the 'Scolhouse' - does anyone have the details? My bookshelf with it on fell off the wall (onto my head) one day, because it was piled far too high. And I cannot locate this book at the moment. There are also occasional embroidery articles in the (UK) Costume Society's annual publications, based on recent research, which I find fascinating.

Posted: Wed Jun 07, 2006 3:15 pm
by Tuppence
The Embroiderer's Guild is another organisation that does a lot of needlework research. They have a website that comes up on a search.

There's also a book on historical needlework that was published by The Royal School of Needlework. I think it's unfortunately out of print, but I'm sure I've seen it on Amazon recently (though mine was from Paul Meekins).


PS - If you're planning on seriously looking into historical needlework, I highly recommend spending a day at the textile study room at the V&A - I spent about 7 hours there a few weeks ago, and now have (literally) hundreds of photos.

Posted: Wed Jun 07, 2006 8:14 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
frances wrote:I have a lovely little reprod of an early 16th century embroiderers/lacemakers pattern book called something like the 'Scolhouse' - does anyone have the details?
Maybe A Schole-house for the Needle by Richard Shorleyker? It is dated 1632, though. (I have a copy of it at home as well!)

There is a lady's smock at the V&A with embroidery motifs based on this book -- some more photos of that shirt here, or go to and search for T.2-1956 :)

I have a couple of other facsimiles (and/or rechartings) of 16th & 17th century pattern-books at home, as well -- Bassée's New Modelbuch (1568), Sibmacher's Modelbuchs (1597 and 1604), Vinciolo's Singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts (really a lacemaking-pattern book, 1587), and most of the embroidery designs from the Trevelyon Miscellany (1608).

You can find more lists of pattern-books at ... buchs.html and ... bpatbk.htm

Posted: Wed Jun 07, 2006 10:05 pm
by Neil of Ormsheim
Im looking into making my own designs and transferring them to the fabric in cross stitch and other basic embroidery stitches and im trying to figure out how to get the pattern onto the finer fabrics
I cheat horribly. I either use Dover (or some other publishers) iron on transfers or, and here is the sneaky bit, find the pattern I want, scan it in to my 'pooter, print it out in an ink jet printer then lay it face down on the fabric, spray the back with a plant mister and iron the water soluble ink onto the fabric for embroidering. I know that this is not really good if you are then embroidering infront of general public but it works for me.

Lurv 'n' Kizzez

Posted: Fri Jun 30, 2006 12:16 am
by Tuppence
can't you get some stuff these days (from dylon I think) that you spray onto a photocopy, and it turns the photocopy into a transfer

or something like that...

Posted: Sat Jul 08, 2006 10:01 pm
by frances
Yes, there is special paper that goes through the printer and then you iron it onto the fabric. It makes the fabric stiff until you wash it. It is designed to be used to transfer designs onto t-shirts.

Posted: Fri Jul 14, 2006 1:13 am
by Tuppence
talking more of cheats, for smaller designs, do linen, silk and cotton with a paper backing that's treated, so you can print on it with an inkjet printer.

Posted: Tue Jul 18, 2006 2:18 pm
by House of De Clifford

some of you know that i also do alot of embroidery, I sometimes use a transfer pencil that you can draw the design onto paper them iron it onto the fabric. You can get them from craft and art shops.

Also, if anyone wants to do the 'aufenty' thing we have squirrel (vair) in stock, which do have a bit of miniver ( 'mini vair' ( the white tummy of the squirrel)) on them, they make great paint brushes!!!! v historically accurate!!!

Posted: Tue Jul 18, 2006 3:00 pm
by m300572
Not having a cuttlefish to hand at the moment :cry: is the object used like a chalk stick and rubbed over the pricked pattern or is it crushed and used like powdered chalk?