Thursday, 4 February 2010

Embroidered 3-d leaves

Last week I paused work on the orange
orange 5
orange 6
to research leaves.

The investigations I did into the wide variety of Elizabethan leaves that there are was very exciting as  I’ve wanted to tackle leaves for a long time.  In fact, looking back over previous posts, I can see that way back in November I was asking myself questions about leaf design and construction.  So none of this was wasted time as The Bag itself has at least 4 leaves from what I can see.

I think leaves are terribly cute things and an endless source of inspiration throughout the ages and cultures.  So looking at nature’s own embroidery like here with this tiny Cyclamen leaf: 
is all part of it.  Isn’t it the cutest thing. 

I must have looked at 100 period leaves or more but I couldn’t find the leaf I wanted to make until I saw this:
3-d floppy leaf
What I like about these particular leaves is that they’re symmetrical and have a naturalistic central vein and curling. 

If you look closely at the image you can see that there are in fact 2 layers of leaf.  The outer ‘floppy’ or ‘curly’ one that I like is semi-attached in a way that reveals the bolder identical leaf lying directly beneath. 

I asked myself why they would work in this way and I think that apart from it being a neat way of representing 3-d effects, in my view, this double-layering system also ensures that a void isn’t left in the the design.  (Don’t know what Digby has to say on this issue, if anything?)

So once my mind was made up, I then set myself the task of investigating several challenges involving leaf construction and design that had been gnawing away at me. 

Perhaps, looking back, I took on too much and I should’ve done a simple wired leaf in an all-in-one colour and just surface embroider some veins and be done with it.  Well, all I can say is, I wish I could think like that, but I’m a little too obsessed/enthusiastic to settle for the speedy option  - it’s not the arriving; it’s the journey! -  So the questions I posed myself were these: 

1. Wire or no wire?
2. How to do the central vein construction – surface or integral?
3. How to do convincing symmetrical colour changing to signify a leaf’s bilateral structure and which stitch would be best suited to this?

First I thought I could work the leaf in my hand using trellis stitch.  I found this too uncontrollable.  I worked out that at least some part of it needs to be anchored to the ground fabric.  So I worked on a separate piece of ‘waste’ linen, as the leaf I’m concentrating on here is the detached one that will just rest on top of the orange, if you recall.  Furthermore,  I don’t need to worry about the shape of the edge, it’s just straight forward lance shape in this case.

At this juncture, I’m going to put forward something a little controversial on the subject of wire.  In my opinion, and that’s really just what my eyes seem to tell me, I’m not convinced the Elizabethans used wire in their work.  For sure wire was used during the stumpwork revival a couple of hundred years later, but I’m really not sure Elizabethans used it.  I’m certain they used gold pearl purl to edge and thereby support the shape of the work, but did they really wire their work invisibly as we are given to believe?  The reason I hold this view, and I am prepared to change my mind on this if I’m presented with unequivocal evidence by someone who has handled these 400-year-old items and can vouch that they pulled them apart slightly to reveal the wire, is, that there does not appear to me, to be the classic discolouration affecting the stitches that you would expect to see as the wire oxidises and degenerates with time.  (Comments most welcome!)

So given that I would not be using a wire cordonet, next I needed to find a stitch that would provide a strong foundation or edge, and one that could be cut away at the end without disrupting the structure. 

I chose backstitch to anchor a chain stitch foundation (that would not pierce the fabric except at beginning and end) for the entire shape as well as the central vein.

You might wonder why I didn’t tie a thread cordonet down and buttonhole the edge?  My answer to that is I have seen that the Elizabethans did not adopt ‘one size fits all’ in terms of close buttonholing all the edges of things.  There are some pieces that do exhibit this generalised treatment, but in my view the more varied a piece of work, the greater variety the needleworker has given to concerns such as this.  I have also noticed that some leaves because of their choice of stitch, suggest a serrated edge and that’s so much more interesting that it must have been deliberate, and in my view, they probably added that at the end. 
So here’s how I did it:

1.  Back stitch entire shape.  (Remember, if you want a really small backstitch, its best to turn the work round and simply work stem stitch in the usual way.  When you turn it back you’ll see a very compact back stitch has formed – I learnt that from looking at the way they stitch in Morocco).

2.  Next go over each back stitch with a chain stitch by carefully grabbing each back stitch as you go along.  I found the easiest way to do this is if you work towards you, holding the needle horizontally.  Make sure none of the back stitches are missed and remember you’re only to pierce the fabric at the beginning and end.  

3.  Now turn to the diagram below to see how I created the necessary sweeping diagonal for the colour change to work.

leaf instructions 2010

Creating sweeping diagonals
My solution for this step was a serendipitous discovery I made when I was making the padded hearts (see earlier post).  One of the hearts didn’t go that well, or so I thought.  I even considered ripping it out because I’d made a mistake at the pointed start.  I didn’t realise at the time but when I began at the sharp pointed end I must have gone into the second stitch twice and ended up accidentally creating a sweeping diagonal.  I corrected this as I went along, but for the leaf, I maintained that system of steering the stitches upwards sharply.

Colour changing the fast way
For the colour change of DBH, I loaded the needle with extra long thread and left the tail hanging waiting for next time.  The threads didn’t get in my way because I wrapped them round the screw of the hoop. 

I wanted to start all the new threads underneath the central vein, as the back of the work will be seen and I wanted to keep that neat.  Unfortunately, I got carried away and my threads ended  all over the place.  Next time I hope to do that properly. 

I also decided at this stage that if the leaf wasn’t stiff enough, I would attach a little wire to the back of the central vein and overcast it. 

And finally, here is the little prototype leaf:
leaf prototype
Please disregard the left-hand edge as that incorporates  a further experiment of mine (I can't even remember what I was trying to do then? – by that time it was so late!!).  If you can see, the chain stitch edge (right-hand side) is also wide enough for gold to be whipped round or a contrasting thread perhaps?

Notice also how it it curls slightly as a real leaf would, to me that was the whole point; to mimic the nature of real leaves. 

I’ll just add, its quite firm to handle and does actually maintain its shape from the tension of the DBH stitches and the thickness of the thread.  The only thing I would say about improving the construction is that I would make sure all threads are left hanging only from the central vein, in order to be concealed eventually by weaving in.  Also, as I held it up to the light, I could see that the central vein presented merely as a series of spaces in the work, as both sides of the chain had been used as the starting point for each subsequent row of DBH.  I think the central vein could be embellished with metal to really bring it out, ooh, that bit will be fun to do... 

I think this leaf opens a lot of possibilities for uses with corsages & appliqu├ęd modern items…yum yum

*I would like to give special thanks to Elmsley Rose, as without her assistance I would not have been able to arrive at my personal conclusions. 

Update:There has been a major development on The Bag front !!!


  1. Wow your stumpwork leaf looks fantastic. Wonderful stitching. Thanks for all the information about it. Much appreciate. I have enter a International Online Fiber Art Exhibition. Please go to my blog to read more about it and to go directly to the site to view all the lovely creations; Please vote before you leave. Hugs Judy

  2. Hi Judy
    Thanx for your kind words, much appreciated!
    Will head on over there, very interesting...
    You know, it was from looking at your amazing blog that made me decide I needed to change the look of mine..
    Beth :)