As a hand embroiderer working out of a home studio, making new friends and contacts can be challenging. Social media is wonderful for this, but can at times be overwhelming. When I first saw that the University of Kent School of English was promoting a stitching project with historic patterns, I became so excited as this was a perfect opportunity for them to create a sense of community along with the chance to do some historic stitching. I cannot begin to tell you how much fun this has been, and how many wonderful new people I have met online. There was so much joy in working the same pattern as one of your friends, but in a different way.
The pattern I chose was the left shoe from Penny Gore‘s set, from a 1775 Lady’s Magazine, as I knew I wanted to work with gold and silk. Goldwork is a type of embroidery using metal threads that is used in combination with silk shading. For the most part, the gold is couched over the surface of the fabric instead of stitched through.
Most embroidery stitches have been used for centuries. There are new combinations and new uses with materials, but the stitches have stayed relatively unchanged. Some stitches, however, are less common, such as the detached buttonhole stitch that I used for the center pink flower and the strawberries. Both have metal thread returns, instead of silk, which is also uncommon. Other stitches used in my piece with silk threads were outline and stem, couching, silk shading. The goldwork stitches are bricked couching, outlining and chip work.
I chose to work on a hoop for this project, as it was going to be worked quickly. Normally, goldwork is done on a slate frame to stretch the fabric as tightly as possible. The linen had to be taken off the hoop every time I stopped working so it did not leave a ring.
I did try to plan out the project as much as possible ahead of time, choosing stitches and threads beforehand. Nearly every thread and stitch choice changed as I started stitching! The top flower was stitched five times in five different ways to ensure that it went with the rest of the piece. I’ve found that for me at least, part of the process is seeing how things look as they are created. I don’t get upset anymore if what I planned doesn’t work out – generally what I take out can be used in a later project. One of my embroidery friends always tells me that if you feel something should be taken out, go with your gut and do it. I do take photos before I rip something out though, so I can keep a record of it for later use.
The embroidery was worked with the silks done first, then the goldwork. I chose to outline each leaf with a single strand of gilt passing thread, and then filled in with shaded stem/outline stitches. The couched circles were fun to do, and I believe I counted nearly 80 of them. I saved the ornamental gold couching for the end as that is the part of any project I enjoy the most.
After the embroidery was finished, I spoke to Jennie Batchelor and we decided that it would be best to mount my piece on illustration board. I wanted the piece to be able to be picked up by the tour staff, and eventually to be framed. If I’d have made it into a household item, it might become worn or get damaged. After the mounting process is finished, I found a nice fabric to cover the lacing on the back as that part always looks messy to me, and stitched it on. It was then brought to the post and sent on to Chawton House Library.
One of the biggest challenges for me in this project was time. I found out about the Stitch Off and made the decision to participate one month before the show opened. I knew I’d need 1-2 weeks for shipping over to the UK from Houston, and really wanted my embroidery to be there on time. Overall, I spent around 75 hours from the initial plans to the finishing, over a ten-day period. Actual stitch time was 60 hours. I don’t normally work this quickly, especially not with goldwork. What kept me going and working at that pace was the constant encouragement from my fellow stitchers on Twitter and Facebook, and I cannot thank them enough.
Mary Martin is a contemporary hand embroiderer who works out of her studio in Houston, Texas. She has more than 40 years of experience in all forms of needlework, embroidery and sewing, and specialises in hand embroidered jewellery featuring goldwork and blackwork.