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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. I share this info so that it is more freely available to embroidery beginners!
Chain and Tambour Stitch are in effect practically the same, and present the same rather granular surface. The difference between them is that chain-stitch is done in the hand with an ordinary needle, and tambour-stitch in a frame with a hook sharper at the turning point than an ordinary crochet hook.
One takes it rather for granted that work which was presumably done in the hand (a large quilt, for example) is chain-stitch, and that what seems to have been done in a frame is tambour work, though it is possible, but not advisable of course, to work chain-stitch in a frame.
Chain-stitch is not to be confounded with split-stitch, which somewhat resembles it.
To work chain-stitch (A on the sampler, Illustration 17) bring the needle out, hold the thread down with the left thumb, put the needle in again at the hole through which you brought it out, take up ¼ of an inch of stuff, and draw the thread through: that gives you the first link of the chain. The back of the work (18) looks like back-stitch.
A playful variation upon chain-stitch (B on the sampler, Illustration 17) is effected by the use of two threads of different colour. Take in your needle a dark and a light thread, say the dark one to the left, and bring them out at the point at which your work begins.
Hold the dark thread under your thumb, and, keeping the light one to the right, well out of the way, draw both threads through; this makes a dark link; the light thread disappears, and comes out again to the left of the dark one, ready to be held under the thumb while you make a light link. This “magic stitch,” as it has been called, is no new invention. It is to be found in Persian, Indian, and Italian Renaissance work. An instance of it occurs in Illustration 64.
A variety of chain-stitch (C on the sampler, Illustration 17) used often in church work, more solid in appearance, the links not being so open, is rather differently done.
Begin a little in advance of the starting point of your work, hold the thread under your thumb, put the needle in again at the starting point slightly to the left, bring your needle out about ⅛th of an inch below where it first went in but precisely on the same line, and you have the first link of your chain.
To work what is known as cable-chain (D on the sampler, Illustration 17) keep your thread to the right, put in your needle, pointing downwards, a little below the starting point, and bring it out about ¼th of an inch below where you put it in; then put it through the little stitch just formed, from right to left, hold your thread towards the left under your thumb, put your needle through the stitch now in process of making from right to left, draw up the thread, and the first two links of your chain are made.
A zigzag chain, of a rather fancy description, goes by the name of Vandyke chain (E on the sampler, Illustration 17). To make it, bring your needle out at a point which is to be the left edge of your work, and make a slanting chain-stitch from left to right; then, putting your needle into that, make another slanting stitch, this time from right to left—and so to and fro to the end.
The braid-stitch shown at F on the sampler (Illustration 17) is worked as follows, horizontally from right to left. Bring your needle out at a point which is to be the lower edge of your work, throw your thread round to the left, and, keeping it all the time loosely under your thumb, put your needle under the thread and twist it once round to the right.
Then, at the upper edge of your work, put in the needle and slide the thread towards the right, bring the needle out exactly below where you put it in, carry your thread under the needle towards the left, draw the thread tight, and your first stitch is done.
A yet more fanciful variety of braid-stitch (G on the sampler, Illustration 17) is worked vertically, downwards. Having, as before, put your needle under the thread and twisted it once round, put it in at a point which is to be the left edge of your work, and, instead of bringing it out immediately below that point, slant it to the right, bringing it out on that edge of the work, and finish your stitch as in the case of F.
These braid-stitches look best worked in stout thread of close texture.
In covering a surface with chain-stitch (needlework or tambour) the usual plan is to follow the contour of the design, working chain within chain until the leaf or whatever it may be is filled in. This stitch is rarely worked in lines across the forms, but it has been effectively used in that way, following always the lines of the warp and weft of the stuff.
Even in that case the successive lines of stitching should be all in one direction—not running backwards and forwards—or it will result in a sort of pattern of braided lines. The reason for the more usual practice of following the outline of the design is obvious. The stitch lends itself to sweeping, even to perfectly spiral, lines—such as occur in Greek wave patterns: it was, in fact, made use of in that way by the Greeks some four or five centuries b.c.
We owe the tambour frame, they say, to China; but it has been largely used, and abused indeed, in England. Tambour work, when once you have the trick of it, is very quickly done—in about one-sixth of the time it would take to do it with the needle. It has the further advantage that it serves equally well for embroidery on a light or on a heavy stuff, and that it is most lasting.
The misfortune is that the sewing machine has learnt to do something at once so like it and so mechanically even, as to discredit genuine hand-work, whether tambour work or chain-stitch. For all that, neither is to be despised.
If they have often a mechanical appearance that is not all the fault of the stitch: the worker is to blame. Indian embroiderers depart sometimes so far from mechanical precision as to shock the admirers of monotonously even work.