IN every form of art the thing which is of primary importance is the question of Design.
By Design I understand the inventive arrangement of lines and masses, for their own sake, in such a relation to one another, that they form a fine, harmonious whole : a whole, that is, towards which each part contributes, and is in such a combination with every other part that the result is a unity of effect, so completely satisfying us that we have no sense of demanding in it more or less.
After this statement and definition let me proceed to touch briefly upon four points in relation to the matter, as it concerns itself with the art of Embroidery ; and the first of these four points shall be this. Before you commence your design, consider carefully the conditions under which the finished work is to be seen. There is a tendency in embroidery to be too uniformly delicate and minute. To be too delicate, or even minute, in something which is always to be seen close under one's eyes is, it may be, impossible ; but in an altar-cloth, a banner, a wall-hanging, this delicacy and minuteness are not merely thrown away, but they tend to make the thing ineffective. For such objects as these I have mentioned, the main lines and masses of the design should, it would seem in the nature of the case, be well emphasised ; if they are well emphasised, and of course fine in their character and arrangement, there is produced a sense of largeness and dignity which is of the highest value, and for the absence of which no amount of curious workmanship will atone. In making your design, let these main lines and masses be the first things you attend to, and secure. Stand away at a distance, and see if they tell out satisfactorily, before you go on to put in a single touch of detail.
For the second point : remember that embroidery deals with its objects as if they were all on the same plane. It has been sometimes described as the art of painting with the needle ; but it necessarily and essentially differs from the art of painting in this, that it, properly, represents all things as being equally near to you, as laid out before you on the same plane. It would seem, therefore, to be a sound rule to fill the spaces, left for you by the arrangement of your main lines and masses, with such forms as shall occupy these spaces, one by one, completely ; with such patterns, I mean, as shall appear to have their natural and full development within the limits of each space : avoid the appearance of one thing being behind the other, with portions of it cut off and obscured by what comes in front of it. But in this, as in so much else, an immense deal must be left to the instinct of the artist. Thirdly : aim at simplicity in the elements or motives of your design ; do not crowd it with a score of different elements, which produce a sense of confusion and irritation, and, in reality, prove only a poverty of invention. A real richness of invention, as well as a richness of effect, lies in using one or two, perhaps at most three, elements, with variety in the treatment of them. Make yourself thoroughly master of the essential points, in whatever elements you choose as the basis of your design, before you set pencil to paper ; and you will find in almost any natural form you fix upon more than enough to give you all the variety and richness you require, if you have sufficient natural fancy to play with it.
Lastly : return again and again, and for evermore, to Nature. The value of studying specimens of old embroidery is immense ; it makes you familiar with the principles and methods, which experience has found to be true and useful ; it puts you into possession of the traditions of the art. He that has no reverence for the traditions of his art seals his own doom ; he that is careless about them, or treats them with superciliousness, or will not give the time and pains necessary to understand them, but thinks to start off afresh along clean new lines of his own, stamps himself as an upstart - makes himself perhaps, if he is clever, a nine days' curiosity - but loses himself, by and by, in extravagances, and brings no fruit to perfection. The study of old work, then, is of the highest importance, is essential; the patient and humble study of it. But for what end? To learn principles and methods, to secure a sound foundation for oneself; not to slavishly imitate results, and live on bound hand and foot in the swaddling clothes of precedent. Learn your business in the schools, but go out to Nature for your inspirations. See Nature through your own eyes, and be a persistent and curious observer of her infinite wonders. Yet to see Nature in herself is not everything, it is but half the matter; the other half is to know how to use her for the purposes of fine art, to know how to translate her into the language of art. And this knowledge we acquire by a sound acquaintance with the essential conditions of whatever art we practise, a frank acceptance of these conditions, and a reverential appreciation of the teaching and examples of past workmen. Timidity and impudence are both alike fatal to an artist : timidity, which makes it impossible for him to see with his own eyes, and find his own methods; and impudence, which makes him imagine that his own eyes, and his own methods, are the best that ever were.