BLACKWORK: A blast from the past

The Victoria & Albert Museum textile collection is superb, but one piece really takes the cake – a blackwork jacket from the early 17th Century, embroidered all over with flowers, birds, insects, and fantastical beats. The design is worked free-form in backstitch and tiny straight stitches, to imitate the woodcuts of the period.

The embroidery is disintegrating because of the dye used on the silk, but you can still appreciate the beautiful patterns from the thread holes left behind.

 You can view more images of the jacket by visiting  

The museum object number is T.80-1924.

Stitched textiles: seascapes

Authors: Hislop, Amanda

I have reviewed most of the books in this series and most have inspired me to think outside the box – not that much of that thinking has resulted in actual embroideries!

The author trained in woven textiles at a tertiary college but has since moved on to become a textile artist and tutor with an especial affinity for the sea and coastal environments. Amanda prefers to use natural fibres and materials, including dried plant material, which she stores with silica gel packets – such a good tip. She also utilises found papers and materials to add textural interest to her art. Most embroidery is done with her trusty Berninas. She lists the paints, dyes and other materials needed. Some of these will have to be purchased from an art supplier. They may not be part of our usual embroidery supplies. A dedicated studio may also be useful. For inspiration, the author spends time at the ‘land’s edge’, with her sketchbook, soaking up the sounds and smells as well as sketching her observations; she includes several exercises using different mediums should you need to improve your sketching prowess. Amanda also reads works about the sea for further ideas. There is a section on colour and light, where the author discusses her preferred palette. There is an extended discussion of using and practising stitch, and although most stitching in her striking art is done using her sewing machines, she does also use hand stitching. How to create and practise seascape textures using stitch is explained and illustrated. 

Ready to start your own seascape? Amanda encourages with copious and detailed ideas to overcome any insecurities you may feel. She then explains how to create mood and atmosphere- from a calm sea on a sunny day to stormy seas to a moonlit seascape. She takes the reader through each stage of the processes, building confidence as she works through the different stages logically. Natural forms and other elements are then described and discussed. Amanda is truly an artist and truly a teacher. This book is copiously illustrated with coloured photos, including many close ups of just how to go about the various techniques used. I really like that after each technique described, there is a photo of how your work should look so that you can be confident that you are on the right track to go on to the next stage – or not! Even if you have no particular urge to create embroidered seascapes, do have a look at this book if mixed media embroidery is something you either enjoy or are curious about. It really is a gem. 

The copy I reviewed is from our fantastic Auckland Libraries or you can buy it locally for $40.00 plus postage or from Book Depository for $31 (NZ). 

Amanda’s website is 

Erica Marsden

Cat Lady Embroidery: 380 ways to stitch a cat

Authors: APPLEMINTS Creative Publishing, Minneapolis

Review:  2018 ISBN: 978 1 58923 964 7 120 pages 

Originally published in Japan two years ago, those of you who love cats will be grateful that someone picked it up and decided that it was worth translating into English. Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore Daisy and Fumi, cats who are very much-loved members of our extended family, and there are neighbourhood cats who come and chat with me when I am out walking but although I find some of the embroidered cats on offer in this book quite delightful, I find many on offer a bit naff or twee. A kinder person would maybe use the word whimsical.  

The book is divided into themes, each theme getting a two page coloured photo spread of the embroidery designs on offer; some examples are alpha cats (cat alphabets), curious cats, folk cats, feline faces, heads and tails…you get the idea? Each two page theme refers you to the page numbers where clear, full sized templates and pictorial diagrammatic instructions are given, along with the Olympus brand floss colours used. There is an Olympus to DMC chart included in the book just after the ‘how to use this book’ page. The motifs are quite small. The projects are therefore not at all daunting.  Tools and materials needed are clearly set out at the end of the themed section. As well there are four useful pages illustrating possible projects to use the embroideries on. There are comprehensive and well thought out instructions on getting started with the embroidery. This includes a stitch guide of the very basic but varied, stitches used.  I do find some of the stitching rather unsophisticated, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Younger embroiderers won’t be put off by thinking it all looks a bit hard when browsing through the book. My personal reservations…cats are dignified animals, who if caught in an undignified moment, look very pained and pretend everything is ok. I therefore find motifs with cats wearing clothing not merely anthropomorphic but somehow distasteful; for example, there is a Christmas theme in which one cat is wearing a Santa hat with reindeer antlers, another, a Santa hat and cloak. Several themes have cats indulging in cute cat behaviour and I don’t have an issue with that. I do have an issue when that behaviour is sentamentalised, as it is quite often. However, there are many appealing motifs, so if you love cats, this book is well worth seeking out, especially if you would like some small motifs to work up quickly.  

P.S. I see that Auckland Libraries now also have a book called. ‘I love my dog embroidery: 380 stitch motifs for dog moms and dads’. I will not be borrowing it. I have however, lifted the first words of an online review for anyone interested, and copied it below.  
“I Love My Dog Embroidery is a collection of 380 adorable dog-themed stitch motifs for pooch parents and their beloved fur babies, with project ideas, how-tos, and templates. Created by embroidery artist MakikoArt and six other amazing embroidery artists, this “dog fanciful” collection of stitch motifs celebrates all things canine . “

Up to you!                              

Erica Marsden   

Embroidered Boxes: Techniques and projects

Authors: Broughton, Emma

Review: Ramsbury, Marlborough, Crowood Press, 2019 ISBN: 978 1 78500 563 3 192 pages

I wanted the last review for 2019 to be a positive one. I was beginning to despair. A book on appliquéing was, I thought, too technical. One on stumpwork, made by an Australian, now deceased, I did not find particularly inspiring. Then, thank goodness, I had an email from the library, letting me know that ‘Embroidered boxes’ was on the hold shelf for me.  

Emma Broughton is a Royal School of Needlework graduate apprentice. In the preface, she recounts the journey which took her there and a little about where she is now. This story explains how she came to be interested in embroidered and embroidering boxes. Prefaces are often skimmed over but I suggest you read this one. It sets the scene beautifully for the rest of the book.   

In the introduction, Emma recounts the history of embroidered boxes. There is a photo of the stunning needlework she designed for the lid of the box which she made during her RSN apprenticeship. Chapter one explores materials and equipment,  which Emma has restricted to those items needed to make the boxes in this book. I do like that she explains (simply) why she has recommended the particular materials recommended. The next chapter describes the basics of box construction. It is clearly written and beautifully illustrated with many coloured photos. Chapter three describes various styles of lids while the next chapter details how to construct trays, stacking boxes and dividers. Although to someone as spatially challenged as I am, this looks really daunting but, it is amply illustrated with clear, numbered, step by step instructions.  The first projects are for open sided boxes (etui), moving on to shaped boxes (round and pentagonal). This is followed by a chapter with projects requiring somewhat more advanced construction – a false bottom in a delightful jewellery box and a simply gorgeous, lockable box. Chapter eight has detailed instructions for the embroidery used on the boxes made in the previous chapters. 

After all this, are you up for a really advanced project? Boxes with multiple levels? Larger boxes? How do you go about designing your own boxes? No worries! It’s all explained in this book.  The book finishes with a stitch glossary, a glossary of terms and a list of (U.K.) suppliers for the products needed if you are going to launch into box making (some of these products may be difficult to source here in New Zealand, but most won’t be a problem) and a brief index.  This is a lovely book. The writing is engaging and clear. The photographs are excellent and plentiful. Hints and tips are highlighted throughout. If the thought of making a box has been daunting for you, but something you have thought you would like to do some time, I think this is a great place to start. It may even be the start of a whole new passion!  

Erica Marsden

Needleweaving Picots

These wee picots form the sepals for the Bluebell scissor fobs some of you will make for sale at the Display in October. The link below is very clear and makes it look easy, which it is, however I found I needed a little practice in order to get my tension right stitching on a small felt item. Try it out 😀

How pretty! Thank you, Raewyn Aprea, for suggesting this stitch.

The intentional thread: A guide to drawing, gesture and color in stitch

Brandeis, Susan
The intentional thread: A guide to drawing, gesture and color in stitch.

Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 978 0 7643 5743 5
224 pages

Susan Brandeis is a Distinguished Professor Emerita and a member of an academy of outstanding teachers. As well as being a studio artist, she holds graduate degrees in both art education and textile art. So, as a writer, is she a good communicator? Does she enthuse her readers to push their personal boundaries? I am pretty sure I’ve not reviewed a book for AEG before, written by such a distinguished academic! How does her book stack up?

This is definitely not a project book but I do think it could inspire projects for anyone willing, and with the time, to truly explore the concepts and suggestions the author makes to stretch embroidery skills and grow confidence. The book is divided into two main sections. The first is entitled The Elements of Line. That sounds a bit scary but as I perused the chapters, found it not so daunting after all – some of the chapter titles are ‘Line Weight’, Line Direction’, ‘Large Scale Gestures’. This is just to give you an idea that elements of line is not an overwhelming subject but one which can be broken down into bite sized, useful pieces.

Part 2 is sub titled ‘Shapes and Spaces: Fills and Shading’. Here Susan gives easily digestible ideas about colour, followed by four chapters on ‘fills’ – transparent, opaque, shaded and textured. The book ends with a useful glossary but what I think is really useful, are the three appendices between that and the end of Part 2. In fact, having avidly perused this book, I would recommend reading those appendices first. They all start with ‘Getting Started’. The first is Getting Started: a guide to stitching. It’s a stitch dictionary for both left- and right-handed stitchers. The second is Getting Started: help from samplers and the third is Getting Started: matching expression and technique. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the whole book, you can learn an awful lot from these three appendices, which, if you put the suggestions into practise will greatly enhance your abilities to both design and stitch. By the way, there is no counted thread embroidery here but you will encounter much surface stitchery, both hand and machine.

To sum up, I think this is a brilliant book. The writing style is clear. There are so many easily followed instructions and inspirational ideas, accompanied with copious and beautiful photographs (mostly taken by the author’s husband) of examples which, if you practise them will absolutely enrich your embroidery and textile art. Every so often, throughout the book, is a page or more, headlined ‘Try This’. One example of these encourages the reader to abstract their own writing, to research and experiment with ancient scripts, to create a contemporary sampler after examining a traditional one. And that’s just one example of many. Be aware though, that this is abstract rather than realistic art. At $68 from Book Depository, it’s not a cheap volume. At the time I write this review, the book is not available to buy in New Zealand. However, you can borrow it from Auckland Libraries. I also suggest you look up Susan online where there are examples of her textile art which you can admire – or not, depending on whether her style appeals to you. It definitely appeals to me.

Erica Marsden

Blackwork pattern of the month – ‘Facing Tortoiseshell’

Sashiko, a traditional form of Japanese embroidery using the running stitch, is a great source of inspiration for blackwork. Both techniques employ geometric patterns, and both rely on the contrast between the embroidery and the ground cloth – although Sashiko is not counted and typically uses white thread on indigo fabric. This month’s blackwork pattern was adapted from a Sashiko pattern called Mukai kikkō (facing tortoiseshell), which gives an almost 3D effect. In the diagrams, 1 grid square equals 2 threads on evenweave / linen. The repeat is highlighted in yellow.

While there’s no “right” way to stitch blackwork, you can make it easier for yourself by taking the time to understand how a pattern is constructed and planning a “route”. Here is the route that worked well for me, with new stitches shown in red.

1. Work a row of vertical lines over 4 threads.
2. Work little squiggles in-between the vertical stitches.
3. Work a line of zig-zags over the top (counting 2 threads up/down and 4 threads across).
4. Repeat.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">As you’ll see from this stitched sample, I’ve been experimenting with colour this month. Here I’ve attempted a transition from orange to copper to terra cotta, using six shades of floss (DMC 721, 720, 920, 919, 355 and 3777). Whenever I wanted to change colour I worked the vertical stitches in the old colour, then the squiggles and the zig-zags in the new colour. I then stitched the next row entirely in the new colour.As you’ll see from this stitched sample, I’ve been experimenting with colour this month. Here I’ve attempted a transition from orange to copper to terra cotta, using six shades of floss (DMC 721, 720, 920, 919, 355 and 3777). Whenever I wanted to change colour I worked the vertical stitches in the old colour, then the squiggles and the zig-zags in the new colour. I then stitched the next row entirely in the new colour.

Bethany Wilson

Jane Austen Embroidery

Book Review: Jane Austen Embroidery

Authors: Batchelor, Jennie and Alison Larkin
London, Pavilion, 2020
ISBN: 978 1 911624 40 0

160 pages

One of my daughters-in-law loves Jane Austen’s novels, even naming their daughter Cassandra – after Jane’s sister. I have to confess I am not a fan of Jane’s writing. I am though, a fan of Alison Larkin’s embroidery. Who could forget her visit to us after she had been researching Captain Cook’s waistcoat at Te Papa? And the exquisite embroidery she brought with her to show us? Although Alison is not the lead author of this book, she has done all the embroidery featured in it.

Jennie Batchelor is a professor of English at the University of Kent with a particular interest in the 18th century. She has written the introduction to this book (Embroidery in Jane Austen’s Britain) as well as brief, fascinating essays at the beginning of each of the sections into which this book is divided. Both Jennie and Alison have a deep knowledge of the period. Especially pertinent is the importance of The Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex published from 1770 until 1832. The magazine covered a huge variety of topics, many of them intellectually stimulating, many quite domestic. One of the reasons the magazine sold so well, was its inclusion of free patterns which women could adapt to embroider on their clothing and domestic items. There were no instructions or suggestions provided – no colour charts or stitch suggestions. It was assumed that women had the skills to select these for themselves. The patterns were often quite small and would be enlarged using the grid method. Jane Austen is thought to have used some of these patterns.

Preceding three project sections, is a comprehensive one, ‘Materials and Methods’, which gives guidance on tools needed, fabrics, threads and beads and an adequate dictionary of the stitches used. It also explains how to go about doing the embroidery. After each of Jennie’s essays at the beginning of each project section, are five needlework projects, adapted by Alison, from patterns in the Lady’s Magazine. I am unsure how the projects were chosen, as the first section, ‘Embroidered Clothes: Dressed to Impress’ has only one clothing project in it – an apron. The others are a pencil case, a clutch purse and a hussif as well as a pretty sprig pattern which could be used to embellish any fabric item. ‘Embroidered Accessories’ – which included one item I would call an accessory, and ‘Embroidery for the Home’, follow. The embroideries all use modern fabrics and threads and have a practical end use, although I think the aforementioned elaborately embroidered apron, is far too beautiful to ever use! There is a jewellery pouch, a shawl, a work bag, a cushion, a mobile phone pouch and tablet sleeve included. All are beautifully embroidered with what appear to be clear, comprehensive and easily followed instructions, both for the needlework and the making of the end product.

This is a lovely book. There are delightful photographs of the projects and beautiful reproductions of illustrations from The Lady’s Magazine. The actual needlework, although very traditional, is pretty. The essays give fascinating glimpses of middle-class women’s lives in the 18th century. This would be a lovely addition to any embroiderer’s library.

Erica Marsden