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This text comes from the book Art In Needlework by Lewis F. Day and Mary Buckle. The information has only been edited for clarity. It’s a lovely little book for anyone that does needle crafting.
The simplest, as it is most likely the earliest used, stitch-group is what might best be called Canvas stitch—of which cross-stitch is perhaps the most familiar type, the class of stitches which come of following, as it is only natural to do, the mesh of a coarse canvas, net, or open web upon which the work is done.
A stitch bears always, or should bear, some relation to the material on which it is worked; but canvas or very coarse linen almost compels a stitch based upon the cross lines of its woof, and indeed suggests designs of equally rigid construction.
That is so in embroidery no matter where. In ancient Byzantine or Coptic work, in modern Cretan work, and in peasant embroidery all the world over, pattern work on coarse linen has run persistently into angular lines—in which, because of that very angularity, the plain outcome of a way of working, we find artistic character. Artistic design is always expressive of its mode of workmanship.
Work of this kind is not too lightly to be dismissed. There is art in the rendering of form by means of angular outlines, art in the choice of forms which can be expressed by such lines. It is not uncharitable to surmise that one reason why such work (once so universal and now quite out of fashion) is not popular with needlewomen may be, the demand it makes upon the designer’s draughtmanship: it is much easier, for example, to draw a stag than to render the creature satisfactorily within jagged lines determined by a linen mesh.
The piquancy about natural or other forms thus reduced to angularity argues, of course, no affectation of quaintness on the part of the worker, but was the unavoidable outcome of her way of work. There is a pronounced and early limit to art of this rather naïve kind, but that there is art in some of the very simplest and most modest peasant work built up on those lines no artist will deny.
The art in it is usually in proportion to its modesty. Nothing is more futile than to put it to anything like pictorial purpose. The wonderfully wrought pictures in tent-stitch, for example, bequeathed to us by the 17th century, are painful object lessons in what not to do.
The origin of the term cross-stitch is not far to seek: the stitches worked upon the square mesh do cross. But, falling naturally into the lines of the mesh which governs them, they present not so much the appearance of crosses as of squares, reminding one of the tesseræ employed in mosaic.
To explain the process of working cross-stitch would be teaching one’s grandmother indeed. It is simply, as its name implies, crossing one stitch by another, following always the lines of the canvas. But the important thing about it is that the stitches must cross always in the same way; and, more than that, they must be worked in the same direction, or the mere fact that the stitches at the back of the work do not run in the same way will disturb the evenness of the surface.
What looks like a seam on the sampler opposite is the result of filling up a gap in the ground with stitches necessarily worked in vertical, whereas the ground generally is in horizontal, lines. On the face of the work the stitches cross all in the same way.
The common use of cross-stitch and the somewhat geometric kind of pattern to which it lends itself are shown in the sampler below.
The broad and simple leafage, worked solid (A) or left in the plain canvas upon a groundwork of solid stitching (B), and the fretted diaper on vertical and horizontal lines, show the most straightforward ways of using it.
5. CROSS-STITCH SAMPLER.
The criss-cross of alternating cross-stitches and open canvas framed by the key pattern shows a means of getting something like a tint halfway between solid work and plain ground. The mere work line—or “stroke-stitch,” not crossed, is a perfectly fair way of getting a delicate effect; but the design has a way of working out rather less happily than it promised.
The addition of such stroke-stitches to solid cross-stitch is not at best a very happy device. It strikes one always as a confession of dissatisfaction on the part of the worker with the simple means of her choice. As a device for, as it were, correcting the stepped outline it is at its worst.
Timid workers are always afraid of the stepped outline which a coarse mesh gives. In that they are wrong. One should employ canvas stitch only where there is no objection to a line which keeps step with the canvas; then there is a positive charm (for frank people at least) in the frank confession of the way the work is done.
There are many degrees in the frankness with which this convention has been accepted, according perhaps to the coarseness of the canvas ground, perhaps to the personality of the worker.
The animal forms at the top of Illustration 6 are uncompromisingly square; the floral devices on the same page, though they fall, as it were inevitably, into square lines, are less rigidly formal. The inevitableness of the square line is apparent in the sprig below. It was evidently meant to be freely drawn, but the influence of the mesh betrays itself; and the design, if it loses something in grace, gains also thereby in character.
There is literally no end to the variety of stitches, as they are called, belonging to this group, and their names are a babel of confusion. Florentine, Parisian, Hungarian, Spanish, Moorish, Cashmere, Milanese, Gobelin, are only a few of them; but they stand, as a rule, rather for stitch arrangements than for stitches.
What is known as tent-stitch (A in the sampler opposite) is a sort of half cross-stitch; its peculiarity is that it covers only one thread of the canvas at a stroke, and is therefore on a more minute scale than stitches which are two or three threads wide, as cross-stitch may, and cushion-stitch must, be.
It derives its name from the old word tenture, or tenter (tendere, to stretch), the frame on which the embroidress distended her canvas. The word has gone out of use, but we still speak of tenter-hooks. The stitch is serviceable enough in its way, but is discredited by the monstrous abuse of it referred to already. A picture in tent-stitch is even more foolish than a picture in mosaic. It cannot come anywhere near to pictorial effect; the tesseræ will pronounce themselves, and spoil it.
Canvas Stitch Sampler
Cushion And Satin Stitches
This kind of half cross-stitch worked on the larger scale of ordinary cross-stitch would look meager. It is filled out, therefore (B), by horizontal lines of the thread laid across the canvas, and over these the stitch is worked.cushion-stitch C.
Cushion-stitch consists of diagonal lines of upright stitches, measuring in the sampler (C) six threads of the canvas, so that after each stitch the needle may be brought out just three threads lower than where it was put in. By working in zigzag instead of diagonal lines, a familiar pattern is produced, more often described as “Florentine;” but the stitch is in any case the same.
The stitch at D (sometimes called Moorish stitch) is begun by working a row of short vertical stitches, slightly apart, and completed by diagonal stitches joining them.
Unless the silk employed is full and soft, this may not completely cover the canvas, in which case the diagonal stitches must further be crossed.
If the linen is loosely woven and the thread is tightly drawn in the working, the mesh is pulled apart, giving the effect of an open lattice of the kind shown at B, in which the threads of the linen are not drawn out but drawn together.
The way of working the stitch at E, when worked on canvas, has somewhat the effect of plaiting, and goes by the name of “plait-stitch.” It is worked in horizontal rows alternately from left to right and from right to left.
The stitch at F is a sort of couching. Diagonal lines of thread are first laid from edge to edge of the ground space, and these are sewn down by short overcasting stitches in the cross direction.
Admirable canvas stitch work has been done upon linen in silk of one colour—red, green, or blue—and it was a common practice to work the background leaving the pattern in the bare stuff. It prevailed in countries lying far apart, though probably not without inter-communication. In fact, the influence of Oriental work upon European has been so great that even experts hesitate sometimes to say whether a particular piece of work is Turkish or Italian.
In Italian work, at least, it was usual to get over the angularity of silhouette inherent in canvas stitches by working an outline separately.
When that is thin, the effect is proportionately feeble. The broader outline justifies itself, and in the case of a stitch which falls into horizontal lines, it appears to be necessary. This is plait stitch, known also by the name of Spanish stitch—not that it is in any way peculiar to Spain. It is allied to herring-bone-stitch, to which a special chapter is devoted.
Plait And Open Canvas Stitches
Darning is also employed as a canvas stitch. There is beautiful 16th century Italian work (in coloured silks on dark net of the very open square mesh of the period), which is most effective, and in which there is no pretense of disguising the stepped outline; and in the very early days of Christian art in Egypt and Byzantium, linen was darned in little square tufts of wool upstanding on its surface, which look so much like the tesseræ of mosaic that it seems as if they must have been worked in deliberate imitation of it.
Again, in the 15th century satin-stitch was worked on fine linen with strict regard to the lines of its web; and the Persians, ancient and modern, embroider white silk upon linen, also in satin-stitch, preserving piously the rectangular and diagonal lines given by the material. They have their reward in producing most characteristic needlework.
The filling-in patterns used to such delicate and dainty purpose in the marvelous work on fine cambric which competes in effect with lace, though it is strictly embroidery, all follow in their design the lines of the fabric, and are worked thread by thread according to its woof: they afford again instances of perfect adaptation of stitch to material and of design to stitch.
Satin and other stitches were worked by the old Italians on square-meshed canvas, frankly on the square lines given by it, for the filling in of ornamental details, though the outline might be much less formal. That is to say, the surface of freely-drawn leaves, &c., instead of being worked solid, was diapered over with more or less open pattern work constructed on the lines of the weaving.
A cunning use of the square mesh of canvas has sometimes been made to guide the worker upon other fabrics, such as velvet. This was first faced with net: the design was then worked, over that, on to and into the velvet, and the threads of the canvas were then drawn out. That is a device which may serve on occasion. The design may even be traced upon the net.