Most of you girls have some knowledge of crewel work, the mania of the day, both from the instructions you have received and from your own practice, but I daresay that very few amongst you have ever tried your skill in the white embroidery, or white work, as it was once called. This style, however, should be quite familiar to young ladies who have any ambition to wear tidy and dainty linen, and more so now when there is such a return of worked muslin gowns, fichus, and collarettes of all kinds.
I will therefore give you a few hints on this branch of stitchery of modern introduction, specially when compared with the long stitch of almost unknown origin. To confine my remarks to the two fundamental varieties, button-hole and satin-stitch, I must first make you observe the great contrast between the formal regularity of their direction and the broken, dove-tailed surface offered by the embroidery stitch. This very uniformity of stitch prevents any shading, and to be set off at its best requires the richness of relief. The swelling or undulating appearance is obtained by padding or stuffing. Taking coarser cotton and needle than those intended for embroidery, you commence by running the outline of the flower, leaf, &c. Do not make the stitches too long, for the nicety of curves and angles – indeed of the entire shape – rests on this careful outlining. Proceed to fill in the vacant space by row after row of long loose running stitches, piercing the needle through the merest trifle of the ground in order to leave nearly all the cotton above the surface. Guided by the shape you increase or decrease the rows at will, in such a way that they merge into one another (fig.1) and form a soft compact underlay.
Quicker modes of padding are resorted to when special rapidity is imperative, but these, like all other makeshifts, require the skill of an adept to manage them satisfactorily. Hence I will simply mention them: stuffing by chain-stitch, herringbone, tacked braid, and loose strands of cotton, guided by the hand whilst working. The chief object of the padding is to give the embroidery a slight convexity or gentle rise to the centre, and as a general rule the stuffing runs in a contrary direction to the overlaying stitches, as will be proved by a glance at our illustrations. So in fig.1 the running stitches are horizontal and the feston vertical in the spots, the filling is circular, whilst the sewing over crosses it. Again, in the leaf (fig.7) the padding runs lengthways, and the covering widthways. In the case of delicate scallops the tracing and stuffing reduce themselves to three, two, and even a single line, as seen in fig.2.
These preliminaries well understood and followed, you will have mastered the greatest difficulty and can proceed to the concealment of the underlay either by button-hole or satin stitch. The former is sometimes wrought in a straight line either for ornament or flat seaming so invaluable in patching, in hiding two overlapping edges, or in bringing two edges face to face, thus avoiding ridges or imparting a width of a few extra threads. It also shapes entire letters, leaves, and flowers; in the latter case padding is dispensed with. Edging, however, constitutes the real use of the button-hole stitch purposely called in France feston, i.e. festoon. The word at once explains itself and brings to your mind scallops, loops, semicircles, &c. The first three illustrations afford good specimens of the diversity in single festoons.
Fig.3, the "wolf's teeth," is decidedly the most difficult of execution on account of its sharp Vandyke, which has so much resemblance to the teeth of a wolf.
The crescent-shaped scallop of fig.1 can easily be drawn out, either with the help of compasses or a coin of the desired size. To make the stitch itself, begin on the left hand at the extreme point, and secure the thread by passing it through the few stitches of the stuffing, for remember no knot is ever allowed in any kind of embroidery, still less in delicate white work. Pass the thread downward and hold it firmly under your left thumb, while you pierce the needle just above the upper outline to slip it underneath, and bring it out just beyond the lower outline, opposite the thumb, and in the centre of the loop formed by the cotton. With the thumb and forefinger pull the needle straight towards you, gently raise the left-hand thumb and draw the thread to tighten the knot, at the same time inclining it to the left by the little finger. Practice alone will teach you how to turn your work and to regulate the stitches with the perfect evenness indispensible to the task; they must lie against each other, neither too closely nor too far apart, in order not to disclose a single under thread. The outline should be as bold and undeviating as if pencilled by an expert hand. Keep the work well stretched on the fingers of the left hand in such a manner that the embroidery itself rests on the forefinger. When the border is finished, with sharp embroidery scissors shave off the superfluous material, cutting into every crevice yet without snipping any of the stitches. If the work has to go to the wash before being worn I should advise you to leave this cutting out until it has returned from the laundress.
Often very large scallops are prettily pinked out into festoons of all shapes and sizes, some resembling the notches of a cock's comb, others peaked or gradually rounded, like the petals of a rose, &c. In olden times, when feston was very much used for the muslin embroidery employed on net, the worker had the trouble of making the picot or purl whilst button-holding; this she did by working round a long horsehair, which served as a mesh. Now industry spares us the most fidgety details, and ready-made purls are sold by yard.
I believe these few particulars on the button-hole stitch are all you require, so we will pass at once to the satin stitch, so called from its smooth sheeny surface. The previous remarks on tracing and padding apply equally to this stitch, but here only the darned stuffing, or occasionally the chain-stitched, is admissible. The satin stitch, in its origin, was invariably worked in horizontal lines; later on an exception was made for the petals of the rose, wrought perpendicularly as shown in fig.4.
In many cases the two directions are combined, as in fig.5.
To execute this flower, pierce the eyelet-hole with a stiletto, and closely overcast it; then darn straight rows of padding, and cover them by sewing over, commencing at the widest part and carrying the cotton right round at the back to bring it up again in front. By this means the wrong side will be like the top one, except that the stitches will lie flat. Next shape the oval frames, previously stuffing them in the same way as in fig.6.
On the underlay I cannot put too much stress, and for this very reason I have taken care that you should have plenty of examples, which convey more than any description of mine. If nicely done, your embroidery will be softly rounded off, and the leaves, &c., will bear being bent without the stitches showing the least tendency to separate.
The veining of a leave is generally traced first, but is only marked out by the twist stitch as the finishing touch. See figs.7 and 8.
In delicate foliage you will find the lightest plan is to merely suggest the midrib by a furrow, produced by working the two sides of the leaf separately. Outline the veining, pad on each side, and start with the sharp point for a few stitches until you meet the midrib; then cover one side, only working from edge to centre, turn the work and proceed to the opposite side (fig.9).
It requires some knack to define the centre hollow, which is of frequent occurrence in satin stitch embroider, not only for veining, but also for Vandykes such as figs.1, 3, 4 and 10.
The stitches must just meet without interfering or encroaching in any way with the opposite one, else the beauty of the line will be spoilt. When scallops are in this way fitted into one another, the outside one is properly padded, while the others, necessarily, are much less so or not at all. Another difficulty of this straight stitch lies in the proper shaping of the spikes of the leaves; some just out in triple leaflets as in fig.6, or in a series of teeth, as exemplified by fig.11.
This jagged edge you have all had the opportunity of noticing in the petals of the bluebottle and the foliage of the vine, the daisy, and the rose, &c. There is really no rule to give you as to the clear defining of the various dents; your eye will be the best guide for the gradual increase and decrease of the stitch as well as its correct tightness. Here, too, I find the supporting touch of the little finger a great help when drawing out the thread.
To lighten the general effect leaves are often satin-stitched on one side, whilst the other is filled up with straight rows of back-stitch, the notches and midribs having beforehand been outlined by twist stitch (fig.12).
But a still lighter and truly artistic ornament would be to cut out this part and fill it up with lace-stitches, a variation which would charmingly enhance the centres of figs.4, 6, 10 and 13.
Long ago, in my schooldays, crewel stitch was little known, and all the attention was directed to satin stitch, or plumetis. My needlework teacher, a dear old maid, would have everything learned systematically, and never swerved from her established rules, which obliged the pupils to conquer each stitch in its own rotation. We first learned the twist or stem-stitch in all its meanderings, then we passed to the straight plain leaves, after this to the spots, next roses and all blossoms, &c., wrought with the perpendicular stitch, and last the efficient ones were privileged to venture upon the jagged foliage and a few elect pupils on the lace frilling. This routine was not completed in one year, I can assure you.
I just perceive that I have spoken very little of the spots. Their direction varies to harmonise with the annexed design. When very small they are termed "beads," or "dots," and need no filling; if very close together you had better not break your cotton at each, but pass from one to the other, not drawing the connecting thread too tight for fear of puckering the fabric.
Open spots are called eyelets, some being quite round, as I have already mentioned in figs.5 and 13, and others rather berry-shaped (fig.14).
These eyelets are button-holed all round, but the wide part alone has any padding, the narrow edge merely being worked over a double outline. To form the whole you slit the material with scissors, four times describing a cross, and with the needle you turn back the four underpieces, which will eventually disappear beneath the over-sewing. The ribs of the leaves are wrought in satin-stitch, but I will recommend you a much quicker mode, fitly named point de poste, or railway stitch. For this bring your needle out at the base of the stem, carry it across to the extremity of the rib, slip it underneath, to emerge again at the starting point, and before you draw it out coil the cotton ten or twelve times round; press the thumb on this, coiling sufficiently to keep it in place, yet not so tightly as to prevent the needle from sliding through; then with thumb and forefinger carefully bring the thread and coil up, along the place of the rib; again prick the needle into the point of this rib, and pull it out a thread above the first starting-point. This time draw needle and thread gently together, and your coil, if well made, will e a very good imitation of the real stitch. The needle is now ready for the second ascending rib.
I hope you will thoroughly practise my instructions, because I intend to give you soon a nice collection of such pretty letters that will at once tempt you to immediately set to work and lavish your elegant stitchery on all your surroundings.