After years of experimenting with different arts and crafts, I have settled on embroidery as my favoured form of artistic expression, specifically hand embroidery. It is basically a form of drawing with thread and allows for much creative freedom in interpretation of subject matter, as well as a degree of three-dimensionality if desired. As can be expected, I own many wonderful books on the subject, which I have divided into four groups (and hence posts) from basic embroidery (this post) to more specialised how-to guides and stitch dictionaries (next week); beautiful volumes showcasing the work of other talented embroiderers, as well as those from the past and different cultures (third post on embroidery books); and a plethora of pattern books and designs (last post). Here is another simple example of drawing with thread: Please note that while some of these books may briefly mention machine embroidery, it is not really my thing, so there are very few books on this subject in this post.
How-To Guides For Hand Embroidery
The Essential Guide To Embroidery Murdoch Books 2002
Written by a number of contributors, this is a good basic introductory guide to the wide range of embroidery techniques and styles from counted techniques (cross stitch, blackwork and canvas work) and openwork (pulled and drawn work, Hardanger and cutwork) to surface stitchery (whitework, shadow work, silk shading, crewel work, free embroidery and machine embroidery) and embellishing the surface (stumpwork, ribbon embroidery, goldwork and beadwork). Here is a photo of my cool colour palette threads.There is also a good introduction with information on needles; sewing machines; embroidery frames; tools; fabrics; threads; embellishments; basic techniques; working from charts and diagrams; making up; sources of inspiration; developing design ideas; exploring colour palettes; and painting fabrics. Below is a photo of more tools of the trade: Pins and needles, scissors, ruler and embroidery hoops of varying sizes. Each section on the different techniques includes its history, characteristics and different forms; stitches and techniques, including sources of inspiration and helpful hints; and projects based on the specific technique. This is an excellent book for beginners, as well as showing the wide diversity of embroidery styles and applications.Anchor Complete Embroidery Course by Christine Marsh 1998
A very useful practical guide for beginners, starting with a discussion of materials and equipment (needles, fabrics, threads, frames and other equipment); preparing and transferring designs (soluble pen, transfer pencil, dressmaker’s carbon or tacking); working with patterns, charts, and embroidery hoops and frames; starting and finishing; and mounting work, before providing a teaching course of increasing complexity. Beginning with Just Five Stitches (backstitch, French knot, lazy-daisy stitch, satin stitch and blanket stitch), it progresses from chapters on stems and outlines, knots and dots, and chains and loops through to solid and open fillings, borders and bands; and mix and match (combining techniques, adapting designs and changing materials and colour schemes). This sampler shows the use of chain and running stitch.
Each stitch is well-described with three clear and easy-to-understand step-by-step diagrams and explanatory text and is complemented by attractive practice projects with creative options. This is an excellent book for the beginner embroiderer!
While there are a huge number of embroidery books written by some very talented artists, these are a few that I have found particularly useful.
Winsome Douglass (1919-2016)
Winsome was a very talented artist and a wonderful teacher, who wrote three books on embroidery and toymaking in the late 1950s, which have all since been reprinted.
Discovering Embroidery 1956/ 2010
This is my embroidery bible ! Not only does she describe and teach all the stitches (basic, more complicated and filling stitches) well, but she has delightful designs and patterns for projects from pincushions, tea cosies, wall pockets, cushions, boxes and cloth trays to bags, belts, caps, and toys like my felt embroidered balls, shown in the photo below. She has notes on colour schemes and design, designing with cut paper, appliqué and shadow work, needle weaving, quilting and smocking, and finishing (hems, edges, cords, tassels, fringes, handles, fastenings).
This book is so inspiring, as is her other book in my craft library: Toys for Your Delight 1957/ 1973. I would also love to buy her book: Decorative Stuffed Toys for the Needleworker 1984.
Barbara Snook (1913-1976)
Another favourite embroidery teacher, who wrote a large number of books on embroidery; soft toys and puppets; fancy dress costumes and masks; and children’s clothes and stitching in the 1960s and 1970s through to the 1980s. I own two of her books:
The Creative Art of Embroidery 1972
After an excellent introduction to the history; the different national styles of embroidery (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Roumania and Yugoslavia); tools and equipment, especially threads and fabrics; and a library of basic free embroidery stitches, Barbara discusses lettering, alphabets and monograms; beads and sequins; and designs and finishing touches, as well as other techniques like cutwork, counted thread work, drawn thread work and machine embroidery. Throughout the book are designs and patterns for projects including Christmas decorations , tablecloths and mats, sheet and towel sets, aprons, pictures, bags, spectacle cases and children’s clothing.
Learning to Sew 1962, 1985
Aimed at 9 to 12 year-olds, this is a terrific book for teaching children to sew. Part One covers the basic equipment, material and stitches, as well as making seams, hems and bias binding, while Part Two examines pattern and colour, sources of inspiration, and the development of basic designs. The majority of the book is devoted to Part Three and the provision of working diagrams for a number of projects from aprons and bibs, table cloths and tray mats, tea cosies and oven cloths, towels and cushion covers to cases, pin cushions, bags, toys and children’s clothes. Text is minimal with the tuition provided by wonderful simple sketches and fun designs, which make it a very attractive book for the beginner embroiderer as well!
Like Winsome, she also wrote books on soft toy making, which I would dearly love to own one day: Bird Beasts and Insects 1974 and Creative Soft Toys 1985.
Another excellent book for teaching children to embroider is :
Simple Embroidery by Marilyn Green 2003
This spiral-bound book, complete with threads, needles and an embroidery hoop, teaches 11 basic embroidery stitches: Straight stitch; couching stitch; whip stitch; cross stitch; satin stitch; stem stitch; back stitch; split stitch; chain stitch; lazy daisy stitch; and French knots. It provides instructions on materials and tools; getting started; and transferring designs, as well as including iron-on transfers and lots of inspiring ideas and examples of work using these stitches. It is colourful and fun and very child-centred!Jan Messent (1936-)
Jan is a very talented embroidery artist and textile teacher and also writes historical romances under the pseudonym, Juliet Landon. I love her style and own three of her books, the others being listed on her website: https://www.janmessent.co.uk/janmessent.
The Embroiderer’s Workshop 1988
When this book was first published, it was not always possible to attend embroidery courses due to distance or time constraints, though today’s internet has come a long way in rectifying this problem. This useful book acts as an embroidery primer, as well as encouraging lots of experimentation through a series of practical exercises. It examines pattern, colour, drawing, the development of design and themes in great detail, as well as discussing fabrics, stitches, and display and presentation.
Embroidery and Animals 1982
This book features one of my favourite subject matters: animals and nature. Chapters look at the historical depiction of animals in embroidery; sources of design (nature, books, museums and natural history museums) and collecting materials; types of design (realistic or naturalistic, stylised or decorative, symbolic, abstract); pattern and colour; and ways of presenting a design, before focusing in on the animals (and their associations) themselves:
Fantastic beasts, heraldry and Christian symbolism;
Tiny creatures (butterflies and moths, bees and wasps, beetles, worms and snails);
Underwater life (microscopic organisms, sea anemones and sea urchins, jellyfish, starfish, shells and fish );
Amphibians and reptiles (frogs and toads; lizards, geckos and chameleons, snakes, crocodiles and turtles, tortoises and terrapins);
Birds (waterbirds, tall birds, domestic fowl, owls and parrots); and
Mammals (wild animals, domestic animals, ceremonial animals, African animals, circus animals).
Each chapter includes wonderful illustrations for design, cross stitch interpretations and examples of other artists’ work, as well as suggestions for the development of themes and the use of the design in projects. A very inspiring book!
I would also love to own her books titled: Design Sources For Symbolism; Design Sources for Pattern; and finally, Jan Messent’s World of Embroidery 1996.
Thanks to all the previous artists, embroidery is now considered to be a very valid contemporary art form. The next two books are written by contemporary embroidery artists and teachers to help embroidery students achieve their creative potential.
The Art of Embroidery by Julia Barton 1990
After a brief introduction to the history of embroidery, materials and equipment are examined in great detail: papers, pencils, conté and pastels, paints and brushes, fabric paints and dyes, fabrics, threads, needles, fabric markers and frames. Design sources (nature and museum studies) and approaches are examined next with discussions on landscapes, enlarging designs, textures and colour, followed by chapters on drawing and painting and transferring the design to fabric (fabric paints and markers; transfer paints and crayons; and design transfer methods (prick and pounce; and tacking through tissue).
Stitchery forms a major part of the book with exercises and projects based on linear, textural, and pattern stitches. Other techniques are also examined: Cut paper designs, quilting, appliqué, machine embroidery and the use of embroidery for jewellery and ornamentation. In the back is practical information on using a embroidery frame or hoop; damp-stretching; mounting and framing; and making a cushion cover.
Jan Beaney (1938-) and Jean Littlejohn
A very creative, productive and influential partnership, known as Double Trouble (formed 1997) (http://doubletrouble-ent.com/), both women are highly respected and internationally known textile artists and teachers, who have been members of the 62 Group of Textile Artists for many years (Jean since 1963).
It is also worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZdfqRXBkZY and visiting https://www.textileartist.org/jan-beaney-and-jean-littlejohn-interview/.
The Art of the Needle: Designing in Fabric and Thread by Jan Beaney 1988
A very comprehensive guide to developing a design from its initial inception (observation, drawing, repeat patterns and border designs, circular patterns, scale and proportion, designing within shapes or out of context, themes, texture and colour) through to its completion with chapters on fabric paints (silk paints and gutta, permanent fabric paints, masking techniques and transfer fabric paints) and embroidery techniques (transferring design to fabric, applique, darning, machine embroidery, openwork on water-soluble fabrics, patchwork, quilting and making an embroidered panel) and stitches. It again is a very inspiring book with beautiful colourful photographs showing the huge potential of the medium.
Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn have also written a book on Constance Howard, an embroiderer born in 1910, whose work I also love and who also taught and who wrote a number of books on embroidery (Conversations with Constance Howard 2000).
Another old book I would love to read is: Contemporary Embroidery Design by Joan Nicholson 1954/ 2011. Joan was a leading figure in the revival of stitch crafts from the 1950s to the 1970s, inspiring many future embroiderers, including her daughter Nancy, a contemporary embroidery artist and teacher with a strong online presence (https://nancynicholson.co.uk/), who has written her own book Modern Folk Embroidery 2016. I recently bought a tin decorated in Nancy’s distinctive style!For more about the book, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEuMKlK1fXc and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZxsJcvJOuQ.
And to see more of Nancy’s work, it is also well worth visiting: https://fishinkblog.com/2014/04/18/nancy-nicholson-embroidering-nature/.
The internet is a great source for embroidery tutorials and inspiration, including Pinterest, the websites of embroidery guilds, courses and other embroidery artists, as well as being able to access very old needlework books on sites like: https://archive.org ; http://openlibrary.org ; https://library.si.edu/ and http://www.gutenberg.org.
Some old books worth chasing up are:
Album de Broderies au Point de Croix by Therese de Dillmont 1890 (https://archive.org/details/albumdebroderies01dill or https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/albumdebroderies02dill
An Embroidery Pattern Book by Mary E Waring 1917 (https://archive.org/details/embroiderypatter00wari or https://openlibrary.org/books/OL25215987M/An_embroidery_pattern_book) and
Art in Needlework: A Book about Embroidery by Lewis F. Day and
Mary Buckle 1900. Reprinted 2018 (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/28269)
Next week, I will be discussing a selection of stitch dictionaries, as well as some more specialised embroidery guides.