Friday, 25 June 2010

Detached Buttonhole Circles Part II and shaping generally

(This post continues on from the last where I discuss my investigations into shaping etc…should mention its also pretty lengthy!!)

Before I resume what I was saying, quite by accident I found this quote from the King James Version of the Bible, Isaiah, Chapter 19, verse 9, states:

'Moreover, they that work in fine flax and they that weave networks, shall be confounded',

On a blog I found here.  Rather fitting don’t you think!


Detached Buttonhole (DBH) is indeed a network.  A single stitch of DBH is simply a buttonhole stitch but put four of them together and you have the basic pattern for the complete stitch, or lattice.

Taking the term ‘net’ as my starting point I went back to look more closely at 3 excellent sources that discuss this subject online.  They are:

1. Tricia Wilson (Plimoth Jacket) who has produced a very detailed free pdf file concerning how to construct and shape DBH, that you can find here:

2. Herritage Shoppe is a site dedicated to embroidery that offers essays amongst them is a detailed discussion about single Detached Buttonhole that you can grab here.  You can download the whole thing or just relevant sections.  I’m looking at the sub-heading ‘Graphical Representation of Needlelace’.

3. Antique Patterns Online has uploaded vintage instructions on Battenberg that includes Point Lace (Needle Lace) instructions.  The section I’m looking at for this post is the one called ‘Network Stitches’ which can be found near the end of the booklet and you can grab a copy here.

If you recall, I said last time that to really try and understand what I was doing wrong with corded DBH circles, I said I felt I needed to ‘go back to the drawing board’. 

To do this I realised pretty quickly that I would really need to temporarily disregard the straight stitch return row, and just look at the formation uncorded DBH takes. 

The reason for this is that all the books tell you to start with the uncorded version of the stitch as crucially its referred to as the ‘basis for understanding all needle lace stitches’. 

Its a difficult stitch to work with and as we all know, its comparatively unstable, but essentially it holds the key to heaps of confusion and distortion.

The first article I found helpful was Tricia Wilson’s reference to the notion of “the expanding net”. 

If I can paraphrase this idea, the way I understand it it’s like this.  Because DBH forms a diamond shape and no two stitches sit side by side; there’s always another stitch between them, its tricky to maintain even sides because in normal working of the stitch, you end up making 2 stitches from every single stitch, like this:

one DBH stitch makes two on next row 

So it follows that the edges of, say a DBH square, will never be completely flush, (hence you need to frame the shape with some kind of outline, when working flat). 

Unlike knitting, for instance, where you go into a loop proper each time, with DBH you’re not doing this but rather into the spaces either side of it and so it will always appear staggered, like this:

DBH square diagram simplified

Because of this inherent characteristic this presents us with the opportunity of making two stitches for every one or to put it another way ‘an extra stitch’ each time, hence the net would widen out like this:

widening net

In order to correct this, Tricia Wilson’s suggest that: “To alleviate this problem for a square shape, the second row should drop two end stitches and then the third row would add the two end stitches.”

I found this explanation most helpful, however if you actually count the stitches in her accompanying diagram you see there is a starting row of 7 stitches, followed by a row of 6 stitches.  I simplify this notion for myself as needing to work the rows ‘odd and even’. 

Now here is where my confusion started.  If you “drop the two end stitches” as she directs, then why is only one stitch actually being lost on a count?  Obviously the “two dropped” stitches are not in fact whole stitches but two halves of one stitch, or ‘partial stitches’, that are split and ‘shared’ at either end….

So I continued with my experiments using this advice and ended up, unfortunately with gaps at either edge of every other row.  The other thing I noticed was that the gaps were not all the same size, in fact one of them was considerably larger than the other and most disconcertingly, it kept popping up in an unpredictable manner.

This made me decide to look more closely at what was actually happening with this ‘net’ idea and I saw for myself that the end stitches on the rows with gaps, did not actually constitute two halves of one (dropped) stitch after all, but rather ¾ of a stitch at one end and a ¼ at the other.  See diagram below:

alternating three-quarter end stitch

To demonstrate that characteristic more clearly I’ve blown it up below.  Now all of this is still looking at things from the ‘back and forth’ perspective of this uncorded version of DBH but even so, it does begin to explain why the end stitches of the corded version also need to be ‘shaped’ correctly. 

Another thing that’s worth noting at this stage is that as you can see below, the 3/4 stitch moves down the network of stitches in a predictable pattern on alternate rows.  So, what I thought had been stubbornly erratic turns out to have a sense to it within the context of the mechanics of this stitch.  More about that later…  


So then I recalled that on the website Herritage Shoppe there is another essay pdf file that looks further into the strange seemingly unpredictable behaviour of these ‘partial stitches’. 

If you go take a look at that file yourself and see the last 2 pages of the long explanation of how to do Needlelace you will see a section headed ‘Needlelace – A Graphic Representation’.

On that sheet you will see a detailed diagram of a large DBH network, into which a circle has been sketched. 

Essentially that article suggests that you need to understand squares thoroughly before you can even begin to understand how to make circles!  And their advice on how to make squares differs to that of Tricia Wilson. 

But the other important contribution I think the Heritage Shoppe essay makes is that it introduces the idea of looking at DBH not so much as a network of thread manoeuvres that you have to control in a dictatorial manner, but rather as a network of spaces within the thread units and that those spaces form very important shapes, according to whichever particular needle lace stitch you are making.  Furthermore, it explains that you have to try and maintain the ‘shape’ of those spaces in order to achieve the desired shape.

I found this exciting as I hadn’t really thought of needle lace in terms of spaces before.  I’d always been concerned with stitch mechanics and stitch length, it never occurred to me to look at spaces between stitches as a positive contribution to overall neatness, of course now I can see how imperative that is.

To demonstrate: the space between DBH stitches is like this:

shape of spaces in DBH

Its a kind of diamond or goblet shape.  What its called doesn’t matter, what matters is that all the spaces look the same and especially when the reach the margins and are partially gobbled up by them. 

In short, when you get to the edges these spaces have maintain their integrity and suggest that they are continuing, beyond the grasp of the greedy margin.  In other words the partial edge spaces have to look convincing! 

Then I remembered a very good set of patterns that are also available free on the internet from Antique Patterns Online, an educational website that has uploaded a whole heap of stuff about historical stitches.  

If you download that booklet you’ll see that apart from containing an exhaustive list of all the classic needle lace stitches (!!), most importantly, it too discusses how to handle the ‘widening net’ or lattice in a different way.

In that article, conversely, it does not tell you to drop any stitches on alternate rows!  (Yes you read that correctly, it shocked me too!).

antique pattern

If you count the stitches in those diagrams you see a first row of 6 DBH stitches that’s then followed by another row of 6 stitches and yet it maintains its square shape.  Although the diagram is quite small, if you look closely it demonstrates clever wrapping techniques (More about that further on).

So after reading all of that I had to stop and leave everything for a while because really, my head was pounding…. of course the old brain is working away at these conundrums in the background all the time.

When I came back to them I decided I needed to make my own diagrams of DBH and that’s when everything I had read started to slot into place.  The challenge with this stitch is how to shape the space, as already mentioned, so that it looks in keeping with the rest of the design.  That leads on to a critical understanding of the position the needle should be in at the end, and then the start, of each new row.  See below for what I’m trying to explain:


This is my diagram:

alternating three-quarter end stitch

Here you can see rows of plain DBH going off in their peculiar way.

I then decided to impose even sides on them by drawing two vertical lines at each end and placing them at a point where I think I should start each row, if I were to stitch it.

With this deliberate nitty-gritty diagram I found not only that I could properly identify for myself all the problematic end stitches but also to identify all the partial stitches and notice the unique shape of the spaces when anticipating the end of the row. 

This is when things finally started to become exciting.  First of all if you notice there are 4 stitches and 4 Spaces between stitches on every row.  (Antique Patterns was right)

So now the problem to address is where exactly to ‘expect’ the needle should go.

Here is a set of sequential diagrams that hopefully explain exactly what I’m referring to.  I started from the left hand side by the way:


Consider the entry point of the needle at the first stitch.

If you see how I took the very first ‘stitch’ in that row, by that I mean the stitch that you have to imagine begins outside of the margin, the needle would have to  emerge from the fabric at about roughly half-way up the length of the first stitch.  Simplify that to mean, you ‘start the first row near the top’.


Now here is the breakdown of what I’m trying to explain.  At the end of the first row, on the right above, you can see that the needle ends quite low down, lower down than the very first stitch.  This action maintains the shape of the ‘expected’ space, or how it would look if the edge were not there. 

Then, if you see the little note explaining what the needle does next, you will see it actually doesn’t travel at all, you emerge from just below where you ended the previous row and take the first stitch of the next row.  This action ‘closes’ the empty space and suggests that the next stitch happens just beyond the margin and continues for infinity.  


In this diagram the loops are further along, adopting exactly the same procedures as the preceding two diagrams.


Here’s the finished diagram. 

You’ll be pleased to know I’ve stitched this exact pattern, but alas I ripped it out as I was so excited I went on to do more complex stitches that I’d always wanted to do.  I’ll show them to you soon, as there’s a lot happening right now with regard to the repro bag.


Once I had finished the diagram above, I went back to the antique patterns pdf file and decided to try the thing again starting from the other end and this is what happened.


What’s interesting about the diagram above is that it proved to me that: had I started the square from the opposite end, the right hand side for instance, then I would certainly have had to make lots of wraps around the boundary line to get the needle back down to where it needed to be to start the next row. 

How fascinating!  This would suggest, in that case, that wraps are actually optional.  I would prefer not to use wraps but if the thread is very thin for instance and the end result you want is for it to be very lacy, then maybe that might be necessary, who knows, but at least I’ve worked out for myself that if I start the right side, I don’t need to make wraps.  I also realise now that wrapping doesn’t exactly solve the gap problem, it merely moves the needle down to where it should be.  Consideration for the exit and then entry position of the needle comes way ahead of wraps. 

I’m aware that wrapping can also suggest the position of last  stitch nearest the margin that is sometimes too cramped to be taken, but as you can see above, where there are wraps in this example, if that were their purpose, then they would imply extra stitches that would incorrectly bisect the all important suggested ‘space’.   

So I bet you’re wondering if all this groundwork helped me in the end…


I think it did, but as you can see, the last row has a  mistake in that because I was rushing there is one too many stitches - oops.  Also the start is a bit flat but apart from that, you can see I felt confident enough with what I was doing to keep my return rows nice and loose and thereby ensured that the horizontals remained true.  Oh and um, as you can tell, I abandoned the hexagon restraints, I prefer circles.


Can’t wait now to try some of the more complex needlelace stitches again (the conventional white thread variety) ….


Exciting things to report

I had a meeting with none other than Bill Barnes himself!  Yes people, the man behind ye olde Gilt Sylke Twist.  He was so helpful but alas he doesn’t really meet with people face to face and had made a special concession because I put it to him that “it remains to be seen if the bag can be reproduced faithfully with modern silver & gilt threads”. 

He was extremely helpful and encouraging.  The first thing he said was that the Lurex I had bought in England (£20) was not a good silver colour and looked too much like aluminium.  He gave me some Tambour stuff that was of equal thickness and I must say the colour is a lot nearer the real thing.  My main concern, as I explained to him, was not so much the colour but if it could form Trellis stitch as tightly as the Historical bag.  I showed him my experiments so far and he could see what I meant.  Its so nice to meet with someone that knows exactly what I’m talking about.  I came away with a darling goody bag that I can’t wait to try out.  Another thing he pointed out to me that I hadn’t quite spotted was that the motifs are not in fact edged with pearl purl, but rather with Lizardine, as the tops are flattened not curved!  TG for Bill Barnes! but now, whatever shall I do with £24.00 worth of pearl purl?  

I shall reveal more about our tete-a-tete on another occasion as I’m totally whacked out and I have to drive a long way tomorrow to get to Kentwell for their Tudor re-enactment weekend.  Apparently they have an embroidery section and I really need to meet up with people that I can discuss bag cords with. 




  1. Hi Beth, what an appropriate time for you to post this article . I am up to making some plate corals for my reef pic which I do on fine wire with the detached buttonhole stitch so I found the article really interesting.

    The difference with my effort is that from my pictures of coral they grow in a circular manner out from a central point,so I have to work round the "cordonnet" of wire. (I use wire so i can shape it on the embroidery).

    Also I can stitch the edges uneven to suit the way the coral grows.

    I have downloaded the pdf files so I can try out the various designs to see the most effective.

    Thank you for such interesting and informative articles they are such a help.

    regards, shirley

  2. Thanks Shirley,
    yeah, needlelace is very versatile. This is the tough one though, master this and you've kind of got the rest sussed. Elizabethan's tended to use the more stable needle lace stitches, like knotted buttonhole.

  3. This is a message to Linda:

    Linda if you are reading this. You left a comment a couple of weeks ago that was very interesting. You signed in as anonymous and so I couldn't get back to you. Why don't you email me by going to my profile page.