Saturday, 24 July 2010

Detached Buttonhole Faces

A final word on my (long) post about DBH circle shaping

I hope like me, you derived some useful insight from that jumbo 2-part post and all the links included therein. 

I would just like to clarify that the collection of stuff included in Part II primarily dealt with flat and loosely worked Uncorded Detached Buttonhole and only related to DBH in so far as the expanding net idea.  

You’ll also be pleased to know that for the purposes of Elizabethan embroidery, you don’t really need to go into all that complicated stuff, as they tended to use the more stable needle lace stitches, and simply take the succinct advice I received from the author of stitchingwithkittens where she very kindly summed it all up by saying:

“Either way works but if you have gaps at the margins of your DBH stitching, that means you are not pulling the thread tightly enough OR that your thread is too thin for the fabric”. 

She also added to:

“view DBH as a grid”……

(If you haven’t already done so, you should wander over to that blog and look at the quality of her stitching in close-up…)


And there you have it, sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you think about a certain thing again in a whole new light – so with that clearer way of looking at DBH I decided to revisit the specialist blog Italian Needlework and obtained kind permission to show you a gorgeous example of a particular type of DBH lacework called Aemilia Ars:


Aemilis Ars

This is an example of Renaissance Aemilia Ars needle lace.  I’m sure you’ll agree, its an amazing piece of work and pushes the virtuosity of DBH to new limits. 

Surprisingly few stitches go into making up this complex design and if you really study it, you can see its not actually that complicated. 

What’s especially interesting about Aemilia Ars is the way they lay the foundation cordonnet.  For this they use a simple loose whipping stitch over a backstitch which is comparatively flexible and is further enhanced by the addition of a series of  special tensioning ‘spokes’ that enable you to create naturalistic curves as well as sharp points and even right angles. 

What all this has to do with me

So, as a way of testing out my new-found-‘flat’ DBH clarity of purpose, I’ve set myself the challenge of making this doily. (I call it a doily because I’m going to stick it on my dressing table eventually.) 


From the photograph you can tell that in Renaissance times they used quite a fine thread and of course a large part of the fascination is how small they managed to make this design.  I’m not, however, considering miniature this time round, as I have quite enough problems with scale in relation to my main project. 

Instead I’ve chosen to use the modern, readily available medium weight crochet thread.  I think I will learn a lot from setting myself this task and regard it as a worthwhile precursor.  As it happens, I don’t have any books on Aemilia Ars but coincidentally I came across the wonderful work of a fellow member of a forum I belong to.

Patricia Girolami

Before I continue I should explain, Aemilia Ars lace has always been shrouded in mystery but it just so happens I recently came across the work of Patricia Girolami who makes Aemilia Ars lace.  Patricia is a British lady living in Italy who is also a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework and now teaches Aemilia Ars.  She has kindly posted a fascinating set of sequential photographs on how to work typical Aemilia Ars techniques. 

She is also about to publish a book on this art form stemming from her dedication to uncovering its closely guarded working methods.  Like me, she feels keenly that we have a duty not to allow these historical, wonderfully creative ways with thread to die out. 

You can find Patricia Girolami’s work here, if you scroll down the page and look at her photos you can find the Aemilia Ars ‘how-to’ sequence.   

More Links to Aemilia Ars

If you would like to see more examples of Aemilia Ars you can also take a wander over to The Textile Blog, where you can see lots of examples of Historic designs.  I think you’ll agree with me, its proof that with ubiquitous DBH, really ‘anything goes’….


Repro Working of the Profile view of an Aemilia Ars Lady

So, down to work:


Above is my first toe-in-the-water type sketch.  Getting to know the main contours and the unusual profile.

6   What really struck me about this face is not so much that it’s done in DBH, but if you look closely you can see that the lines of stitching follow the contours of the face.  This idea is what attracted me most, because the stitching becomes similar to direct ‘drawing’…


Above is my stitch plan.

I realised after making 2 smaller attempts, that I would need to make the design much larger as my thread is comparatively chunky, so I made a print of the image and did a simple tracing.

The hair looks massively complicated but actually its not (famous last words..).  I’ve done that stitch before, its a very stable knotted back and forth commonly used in Elizabethan embroidery and all those sticky-up bits are basically whipped cords (more about that later) and buttonholing over 2 laid threads.  Again, the needle lace stitching of the windswept hair follows the meandering contours. 


Here you can see my trusty paper template idea over the image to check everything.  It looks nice e.g. I’ve preserved the prettiness of the face but I found out later that you cannot sew directly from that shape. 

It needs to be exaggerated first, so that you don’t lose the important definitions when it comes to the final stage of buttonholing the edges and then (hopefully) everything shrinks back into place.


Here I’m checking the hair and the junction where both sections overlap. 

I’ve decided to make this piece in 2 sections and stitch them together from behind because I think that’s how it was originally made (?) and if it wasn’t, then I know my limitations…


Whipped Cordonnet

Here’s the ‘flexible’ whipped ‘cordonnet’ on my ‘cartonne’ (cardboard).  You need to make the holes first, by working straight down with the needle, use a thimble and protect your work surface.  Then you backstitch the whole thing. 

Next, with a single long length of thread you whip the whole lot.  When you reach the spokes, you need to do something slightly different by just hooking the thread round them, using them as anchors.  Notice the smooth curve of the chin that you can achieve using this system. 

The spokes used to tension the corners of the lips and nose, are added last of all.  Notice I have not tensioned the very tip of the nose but rather the lower edge.  Refer to the original image to see why I did this. 

The ‘flexible’ aspect of this foundation thread is very important when you come to do things like stitch the nose, because as you can see further along, when the rows of stitching that makes up the nose meets the corner of the eye, the thing pulls together so you achieve the vital contour of the bridge of the nose.


Because the first one I made was so unsatisfactory, I felt I had to keep re-checking all the angles and relationships of the features very much as you would a drawn portrait.

Oh, I should mention, I now realise that I’ll be able to replicate this procedure on the Repro Bag, as I found out when I went to visit Bill Barnes, that the Museum’s website image – that’s the one available for all to see at the publically accessible website (the link is at the side here) - can be printed out and it emerges pretty well life sized!


Above you can see off I go and Thankfully, the nose now has a bridge!

When I first started stitching, I began from the opposite end but quickly realised the lines of stitching would never behave as I needed them to round the eyes etc.  So this time I started from the top left hand corner of the forehead and watched very carefully where I was supposed to go next by following the line map of DBH.  

The eye as you can see, is very large.  I worked out that it would need to be so,  in order for the final eye to be the right size, as that too will shrink back with the whipped edges. 

It was so revealing to follow the line map of DBH like a little maze, as only then did I really understand all the choices the stitcher had made to suggest the modelling of the face.


Now on this image you can see things start to get interesting. 

I needed to come down to the bottom edge of the top lip in order to join the lip to the nose, instead of gradually working my way down.  The reason for this is you want clean inside right angles, as well as outside. 

If you look closely you can see, I’m about to go under the cordonnet, then simultaneously under the return row, which is wrapped round the side, at right angles, in order to catch the apex of the top lip. 

I knew I could do this from my earlier experiments with 3-d type DBH.  This manoeuvre is a very significant one because it means you can extend DBH outwards, anywhere, anytime, flat or 3-d!

This is what I really love about Aemilia Ars, because you can create good straight edges as well as curves,  you can probably stitch virtually anything you can draw… exciting is that !


Here I’m well into the top lip by now.  It looks too big for sure but the end result will be much reduced after the buttonholed edge is applied over 2 laid threads….


On this row, above, you can see that soon I’m going to need to make several stitches into the lower eye lid in order to join up with the next row of stitching.  This looks wrong but if you look at the original image you can see this is exactly what they’ve done.  It means you get to very cleverly suggest an eye socket, as opposed to just a hole for an eye, e.g. you suggest the contour of the top of a cheek bone at work underneath!  


Just to check that its going OK and that it looks like a lady…



Have a great weekend!

g2g cya !



  1. Beth, You are not only an amazing person, sharing so much of your knowledge, but an amazing embroiderer. This is a wonderful piece of work. We are so fortunate to have the privelege of knowing you and your work through your blog.

  2. Shirley you are too kind but I do appreciate it!

  3. Hi everyone,
    I just wanted to say that I feel really bad that I haven't given this poor Amelia Aars lady her crowning glory yet. The project is neatly packed in a transparent zipper bag (along with all the others) and the area at which I was stuck, hence the hiatus, has finally been cleared up in my mind. Well, in fact I sorted the problem out about 10 months ago but it just goes to show how life marches on, that I still have not managed to return to it. But as I'm making the little maritime scene project now, it reminds me so much of how badly I wanted to make this lady's wonderful hairstyle....

    For interested parties, my problem was the use of cotton for the project, I thought halfway through I should switch to Rayon. Well that did not work because the Rayon I have, although it has the most wonderful sheen, it is much thicker, so I will continue with the cotton...