Embroidery begins with the needle, and the needle (thorn, fish-bone, or whatever it may have been) came into use so soon as ever savages had the wit to sew skins and things together to keep themselves warm - modesty, we may take it, was an afterthought - and if the stitches made any sort of pattern, as coarse stitching naturally would, that was embroidery.
The term is often vaguely used to denote all kinds of ornamental needlework, and some with which the needle has nothing to do. That is misleading; though it is true that embroidery does touch, on the one side, tapestry, which may be described as a kind of embroidery with the shuttle, and, on the other, lace, which is needlework pure and simple, construction "in the air" as the Italian name has it.
The term is used in common parlance to express any kind of superficial or superfluous ornamentation. A poet is said to embroider the truth;
But such metaphorical use of the word hints at the real nature of the work - embellishment, enrichment, added. If added, there must first of all be something it is added to - the material, that is to say, on which the needlework is done. In weaving (even tapestry weaving) the pattern is got by the inter-threading of warp and weft. In lace, too, it is got out of the threads which make the stuff. In embroidery it is got by threads worked on a fabric first of all woven on the loom, or, it might be, netted.
There is inevitably a certain amount of overlapping of the crafts. For instance, take a form of embroidery common in all countries, Eastern, Hungarian, or nearer home, in which certain of the weft threads of the linen are drawn out, and the needlework is executed upon the warp threads thus revealed. This is, strictly speaking, a sort of tapestry with the needle, just as, it was explained, tapestry itself may be described as a sort of embroidery with the shuttle. That will be clearly seen by reference to Illustration 1 (Tapestry, Showing Warp), which shows a fragment of ancient tapestry found in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt. In the lower portion of it the pattern appears light on dark. As a matter of fact, it was wrought in white and red upon a linen warp; but, as it happened, only the white threads were of linen, like the warp, the red were woollen, and in the course of fifteen hundred years or so much of this red wool has perished, leaving the
white pattern intact on the warp, the threads of which are laid bare in the upper part of the illustration.
It is on just such upright lines of warp that all tapestry, properly so called, is worked - whether with the shuttle or with the needle makes no matter - and there is good reason, therefore, for the name of " tapestry stitch " to describe needlework upon the warp threads only of a material (usually linen) from which some of the weft threads have been withdrawn.
The only difference between true tapestry and drawn work, an example of which is here given, is, that the one is done on a warp that has not before been woven upon, and the other on a warp from which the weft threads have been drawn. The distinction, therefore, between tapestry and embroidery is, that, worked on a warp, as in Illustration 1 (Tapestry, Showing Warp), it is tapestry; worked on a mesh, as in Illustration 3 (Stitching On A Square Mesh), it is embroidery.
With regard, again, to lace. That is itself a web, independent of any groundwork or foundation
to support it. But it is possible to work it over a silken or other surface; and there is a kind of embroidery which only floats on the surface of the material without penetrating it. A fragment of eighteenth-century silk given in Illustration 35 (Lace Or Surface Stitch) shows plainly what is meant.
Embroidery is enrichment by means of the needle. To embroider is to work on something: a groundwork is presupposed. And we usually understand by embroidery, needlework in thread (it may be wool, cotton, linen, silk, gold, no matter what) upon a textile material of some kind. In short, it is the decoration of a material woven in thread by means still of thread. It is thus the consistent way of ornamenting stuff - most consistent of all when one kind of thread is employed throughout, as in the case of linen upon linen, silk upon silk. The enrichment may, however, rightly be, and oftenest is, perhaps, in a material nobler than the stuff enriched, in silk upon linen, in wool upon cotton, in gold upon velvet. The advisability of working upon a precious stuff in thread less precious is open to question. It does not seem to have been satisfactorily done; but if it were only the background that was worked, and the pattern were so schemed as almost to cover it, so that, in fact, very little of the more beautiful texture was sacrificed, and you had still a sumptuous pattern on a less attractive background - why not? But then it would be because you wanted that less precious texture there. The excuse of economy would scarcely hold good.
In the case of a material in itself unsightly, the one course is to cover it entirely with stitching, as did the Persian and other untireable people of the East. But not they only. In the Middle Ages Western embroiderers were hardly less industrious. The famous Syon cope is worked all over. Much of the work so done competes in effect with tapestry or other weaving; and its purpose was similar: it is a sort of amateur way of working your own stuff. But in character it is no more nearly related to the work of the loom than other needlework - it is still work upon a stuff. For all-over embroidery one would naturally choose a coarse canvas ground to work on ; and it more often happens that one chooses canvas because it is proposed to cover it, than that one works all over a ground because it is unpresentable.
Embroidery is merely an affair of stitching; and the first thing needful alike to the worker in it and the designer for it, is a thorough acquaintance with the stitches ; not, of course, with every modification of a modification of a stitch which individual ingenuity may have devised - it would need the space of an encyclopaedia to chronicle them all - but with the broadly marked varieties of stitch which have been employed to best purpose in ornament.
They are derived, naturally, from the stitches first used for quite practical and prosaic purposes - button-hole stitch, for example, to keep the edges of the stuff from fraying; herring-bone, to strengthen and disguise a seam ; darning, to make good a worn surface ; and so on.
The difficulty of discussing them is greatly . increased by the haphazard way in which they are commonly named. A stitch is called Greek, Spanish, Mexican, or what not, according to the country whence came the work in which some one first found it. Each names it after his or her individual discovery, or calls it, perhaps, vaguely Oriental; and so we have any number of names for the same stitch, names which to different people stand often for quite different stitches.
When this confusion is complicated by the invention of a new name for every conceivable combination of thread-strokes, or for each slightest variation upon an old stitch, and even for a stitch worked from left to right instead of from right to left, or for a stitch worked rather longer than usual, the task of reducing them to order seems almost hopeless.
Nor do the quasi-learned descriptions of old stitches help us much. One reads about opus this and opus that, until one begins to wonder where, amidst all this parade of science, art comes in. But you have not far to go in the study of the authorities to discover that, though they may concur in using certain high-sounding Latin terms, they are not of the same mind as to their meaning. In one thing they all agree, foreign writers as well as English, and that is, as to the difficulty of identifying the stitch referred to by ancient writers, themselves probably not acquainted with the technique of stitching, and as likely as not to call it by a wrong name. It is easier, for example, to talk of Opus Anglicanum than to say precisely what it was, further than that it described work done in England ; and for that we have the simple and sufficient word - English. There is nothing to show that mediaeval English work contained stitches not used elsewhere. The stitches probably all come from the East.
Nomenclature, then, is a snare. Why not drop titles, and call stitches by the plainest and least mistakable names? It will be seen, if we reduce them to their native simplicity, that they fall into fairly marked groups, or families, which can be discussed each under its own head.
Stitches may be grouped in all manner of arbitrary ways - according to their provenance, according to their effect, according to their use, and so on. The most natural way of grouping them is according to their structure; not with regard to whence they came, or what they do, but according to what they are, the way they are worked. This, at all events, is no arbitrary classification, and this is the plan it is proposed here to adopt.
The use of such classification hardly needs pointing out.
A survey of the stitches is the necessary preliminary, either to the design or to the execution of needlework. How else suit the design to the stitch, the stitch to the design? In order to do the one the artist must be quite at home among the stitches ; in order to do the other the embroidress must have sympathy enough with a design to choose the stitch or stitches which will best render it. An artist who thinks the working out of his sketch none of his business is no practical designer ; the worker who thinks design a thing apart from her is only a worker.
This is not the moment to urge upon the needlewoman the study of design, but to urge upon the designer the study of stitches. Nothing is more impractical than to make a design without realising the labour involved in its execution. Any one not in sympathy with stitching may possibly design a beautiful piece of needlework, but no one will get the utmost that is to be got out of the needle without knowing all about it. One must understand the ways in which work can be done in order to determine the way it shall in any particular case be done.
Certain stitches answer certain purposes, and strictly only those. The designer must know which stitch answers which purpose, or he will in the first place waste the labour of the embroidress, and in the second miss his effect - which is to waste his own pains too. The effective worker (designer or embroiderer) is the one who works with judgment. And you cannot judge unless you know. When it is remembered that the character of needlework, and by rights also the character of its design, depends upon the stitch, there will be no occasion to insist further upon the necessity of a comprehensive survey of the stitches.
A stitch may be defined as the thread left on the surface of the cloth or what not, after each ply of the needle.
And the simple straightforward stitches of this kind are not so many as one might suppose. They may be reduced indeed to a comparatively few types, as will be seen in the following chapters.