THE basis of the many elaborate stitches which would be included under the head of couching is, as the name denotes, a laying down of the threads covering the surface to be filled in. Some writers on the subject limit this name to work executed in gold and silver threads, but I prefer to give it a more general application, as it is often executed in less costly materials. Thus I should include the simple flat laying of threads, either passed down and up through the material or fastened at either end and caught at regular intervals over the surface thus formed (see diagram), and also the raised and moulded work which is built up of various thicknesses of soft linen-thread or of cotton, or sometimes string, and finally covered with closely-
Fig. 14. - Flat Couching.
packed threads of gold ; that is to say, I include the simplest form of this method of work, and the most elaborate. This is a particularly fascinating kind of embroidery, 46 as it allows of much play of colour and invention and variety of stitching. Colour may lie upon colour, and be caught down with spots of yet another shade, and the silks or gold, spread out flat and untwisted, shine and show to their best advantage. A network of one shade of colour over another is often produced by employing this final stitching in various diaper patterns over the loose surface of silk or gold, such effects being often very elaborately worked out. The above diagram (Fig. 14), gives the simplest possible way of using the stitch, and one which is constantly seen in Oriental and Italian hangings of the seventeenth century. The design is filled in by long threads stretching from side to side, either passed underneath and up again, as in satin-stitch, both sides similar, or the needle going down and up again on the same side as close as may be, the silk being thus all on the surface. Next, threads are laid at right angles to the direction of these lines, are also passed from edge to edge, then caught down at regular intervals by little stitches placed alternately so that they form lozenges or squares over the form which is being worked upon. The usual method of laying down the stitches in this form of
couching will be seen in Fig. 15. It will be familiar to many who read this in the old and modern Eastern embroidery we see so much of nowadays. In the work alluded to, the filling and the crossing lines are usually all wrought with the same colour. The surface thus produced is admirable in its shining texture, but one feels the want here and there of a little more play of colour, to which all these couching stitches are, as aforesaid, particularly adapted.'
So far our work is very simple, though care and attention will be needed to keep the threads beautifully flat, and, if floss-silk is used, to keep even the suspicion of a twist from it; care also in laying the crossing threads at moderately even distances. Variety can also be made by crossing the threads lattice-wise, first one way and then the other, and catching them down with any little stitches that occur to the worker. But the next stage of elaboration will require more skill and attention, and, being more valuable artistically, will repay the extra trouble taken. Instead of covering the design with threads laid directly on the ground, it (the design) is stuffed or raised to a certain height by one or two or more layers of linen thread loosely caught down at intervals, or even by cotton wool, which would then, however, have to be covered with a thin muslin to keep it neat; the work thus prepared is then covered with its final layer of silk or gold thread or what not. This moulded and raised work is best adapted for applique work, which is cut and ' applied ' to another ground, of which more anon. It is a rather stiff and formal method of work, unless done on a large scale for bold decoration to be seen at a distance. If executed on a small scale, the materials should be chosen very fine and pliable, and the work itself be extremely minute and raised ; for we never get with couched work that graceful flow and sweep of one stitch on another which those methods give us in which the needle follows the curve and swing of the design. The characteristics of couching lie chiefly in richness of invention in the stitching, and in beautiful colour and materials. The diagram (Fig. 16) will show how the stuffing threads lie, with the sharply marked lines for indicating the veins sewn on over them. These, again,
Fig. 16. - Raised Couching.
are hidden by the threads of silk or gold, which must always be laid at right angles to the direction of the last layer of stuffing. The veins can be clearly defined by a line of stitches either side, or can be left merely indicated in the course of sewing down, which will be enough if the vein line be well accentuated.
This sufficiently characteristic method of couching' will be guidance for other varieties, and it will be borne in mind that ' gold couching ' is no special stitch which has to be learnt anew, but simply couching as described here, worked with gold thread and cord, and only far more difficult to master because of the stubborn nature of the gold itself. There is some very pretty work of the sixteenth century (Italian), in which the ground is couched in long lines, the leaves also couched flat, the flowers worked in tapestry stitch following the curves of the design, but outlined with a very thick, close, raised thread, which carries out the stiff character of the couching. The stems are in raised work, and some shields with the arms of the owners of the work are introduced in very thick raised gold, heraldry having been always a favourite form of decoration in needlework.
Precious stones, most frequently seed pearls, are often used in rich couched work. I have recently seen a very pretty richly-designed and richly-worked glove that once belonged to Henry VIII., on which are portrayed the lion, the rose, and the crown. The lion, a harmless and amiable looking animal, though drawn as rampant along the wrist of the glove, is thickly wrought in gold, with a pearl eye, if my memory serves me. The crowns are also gold, and the roses highly embossed and laid thickly over with a multitude of fine seed pearls. There is a little old book with an embroidered cover in one of the museums wherein is inserted in the place of honour in the middle of the front board a large flat garnet or ruby. The work is further enriched by gold and pearls, but the isolation of this pale pink stone gives quite a peculiar value to the bit of needlework. This is all by the way, however, and I do not advise learners to tamper at all with pearls and stones until they feel that they have reached a stage of excellence which renders their work capable of bearing the weight and accentuation that such a striking addition gives to needlework. Poor work thus adorned looks yet poorer, and is pretentious to no purpose.
It must be remembered that these and other couched stitches, as well as applique, are all admirably suited for decorating materials which are to be displayed flat ; and that for any textiles which are destined to hang loosely in folds such work is impracticable, unless, indeed, it is laid on as a powdered pattern, scattered at intervals over the surface of the cloth. For small objects on which, owing to their size, much work can be lavished, and which usually need to be enduring and firm, the stiffer forms of couching are peculiarly suitable. It wears well, and gives scope for great ingenuity and variety; without which, I need hardly say, a small piece of work becomes insignificant, and merely a toy of fashion for the moment.
I include under the name of applique, or 'applied' work, every sort of embroidery which, being worked solidly on one material, is then cut out and laid down upon another, and secured by various ornamental stitches. This is rather a rough-and-ready definition, and requires amplification. Suppose, for instance, that a certain material is to be ornamented by having a group of flowers repeated over the surface at regular intervals. The group of flowers, or what not, is worked on some stout ground, such as holland or coarse linen; when finished so far, the work is cut out carefully, the scissors following round the edge of the work about a quarter of an inch or half an inch away, according to the size and nature of the work ; the work is then laid upon the ground material, which is readv stretched in a frame. When a spray is well in its place, care being taken that every leaf shall be duly laid and no curve pulled the least out of shape, the raw edges are secured by firm stitches, and the whole design is edged with a gold thread, or a twist of silk or wool, or with a gimp or braid, according to the nature of the materials which are being dealt with. This method of work is, in fact, considerably modified by the materials employed. For a great bold wall-hanging in wools on serge we should not show the same nicety of finish that would be required for a delicate piece of work in fine silk and gold thread, to be laid on a choice bit of satin. In the former, the cut edges would be covered by the broad gimp or cord surrounding the design, whereas in the finer work the edges, wherever possible, must be dexterously tucked away underneath ; for the slim outline will not hide any uneven-ness here, and nothing looks so clumsy and ugly as a thick outline too heavy for
Fig. 17. - Suitable for Applique.
the design. This turning-in of edges and sewing down very neatly is the most troublesome part of the work, and requires deft fingers ; one has to be careful not to cut too near the work, nor too deep into the corners ; but the broader the margin left, the more tiresome it is to turn in neatly, especially if the design is small or the least bit intricate. The design for such work should be of the simplest and broadest; leaves should have a simple outline, or if serrated the serrations can be shown by two or three little stitches within the outline. Compare, for instance, Fig. 17 and Fig. 18, in which two different forms of design are shown, the one, as I take it, suitable for this work, and the other unsuited to it. In Fig. 17 a conventionalised bud and leaf are drawn simply and even crudely, but drawn in a way that suffices for our purpose. In Fig. 18, on the other hand, a chrysanthemum with its deeply serrated leaf is drawn, also conventionalised. There would be nothing
Fig. 18. - Unsuitable fOr Applique.
elaborate or troublesome in this if worked in some stitches ; but in the form of work we are treating of now it would be almost impossible to do neatly, and I do not believe in trying to conquer impossibilities when there is a straight and simple way of doing what we want. Now, the very fact that broad and simple forms are a sine qua non in this method, makes the work very well adapted for decoration that is intended to catch the eye at a distance ; but for richer work to be admired and handled more elaboration will be wanted in finishing. Flourishes and tendrils can be added, or a whole back-ground pattern introduced behind the solid applique groups. This sort of ' tracery ' seems to give a coherence to the heavier parts of the design, and is very helpful in enriching and lightening it.
Applique is not a stitch or series of stitches, but a certain method of work, irrespective of the stitches employed therein. But certain stitches are more adapted than others for working the groups and sprays to be applied. The more solid stitches will, of course, be used, and the various sorts of raised couching, especially gold couching, are perhaps the best for this purpose, and the stiffer worked the better. Botticelli, the Florentine artist, is said by his historian, Vasari, to have been specially fond of this work, and to have made designs for it. Vasari, indeed, said that he invented it, but I suspect this of being a flight of the historian's imagination, which was lively at times, and not likely to err on the side of understating the case.
A simple form of applied work that is far from costly so far as concerns time and material, and yet effective, consists of cutting out shapes in coloured cloth or silk, and laying them directly on the material to be ornamented, and then connecting the whole with outlines and what veining and marking of leaf and so forth the design seems to require for its completion. Even this simple work should be put into an embroidery frame ; it is so much easier to manipulate the work when both hands are at liberty.