All branches of artistic handicrafts are closely linked together in the arts of design. Material and method of production only separate them, and then the division is, in some instances, very subtle indeed. The technical line of demarcation between tapestry weaving and embroidery is distinct. With lace and embroidery it is not so defined, although there is a great difference between embroidery and the fine kinds of lace - these crafts do considerably overlap in parts. To embroider is to apply some kind of pattern to an already existent material, to express form by stitches, and it is the business of the worker to so arrange the stitches as to indicate by their direction the fibrous growth of the plant, and the varieties of the surface of the objects represented. The stitch method must not be concealed or disguised, but acknowledged and accepted as the principal factor, which cannot be separated from the art of embroidery.
The designer for embroidery has a comparatively free hand compared with the one who designs patterns for woven fabrics to be executed by the modern power-loom. He is evidently working in the wrong direction when he attempts to produce designs for hand work which can easily be imitated and the effect obtained by mechanical means.
The monotonous filling of little squares and geometrical forms in repeat, on specially prepared canvas with certain fixed colours, no longer satisfies the intelligent worker. The tameness of its appearance when finished tires one, the very smoothness and regularity is a defect. Such work should be left to the machine to produce. There is an embroidery machine invented of a most ingenious kind, which enables one person to embroider a repeating design with eighty and up to one hundred and forty needles. Several of these machines are now mounted in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and, with some modifications, in Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow, and Paisley. Those persons who control the work for machines are wide awake to the commercial value of machine-made embroidery that closely imitates hand-wrought needlework. It is therefore desirable that the designer for hand-work should defy the machine by varying the detail in his design, carefully observing that such change and variety does not destroy the sense of repose or make the work in any way assertive. Handwork to-day has a tendency, in all departments of human labour, to be superseded by machinery ; and while machinery has not sufficient self-restraint for the production of works of art, it is all-powerful for their suppression.
The embroideress of the early days was doubtless the designer of her work as well. She had no portfolio of designs to draw upon, but diligently studied the book of nature for her material. Not being hampered by whims and fashions as in the present day, her taste was original and pure. Unconsciously principles of order, balance, and construction were followed. The first thing we of to-day have to do is to learn to see and appreciate the beauties of nature, get a sound knowledge of plants and flowers, and by degrees we shall begin to see the beauties of art. Our taste has to some extent been handicapped by our association with badly designed patterns, furniture, etc., and it is difficult to avoid being brought into contact with these things in our daily journeyings.
Comparatively few modern embroideresses design their own patterns. They are frequently obliged to select a design that has little interest for themselves, and consequently they fail to produce work that interests others. There is no denying the fact that some knowledge and practice of the principles of design are needed in order to ensure success in the work. The embroideress ought, at least, to make herself acquainted with the common-sense conditions which govern the making of good ornament in order to be better able to render by the needle the ideas of the person who prepared the pattern. It is not a very great and serious undertaking; the worker is merely asked to learn a few elementary principles. She may be scared if she is asked to make a design. But possibly after a little intelligent study in the direction indicated, even the making of a design will be found comparatively easy.
The advantage offered by our museums of being able to examine old specimens of embroidery is not sufficiently appreciated by the modern needleworker. From these masterpieces we can learn all that is required to make good, sound design. Moreover, we can also see what to avoid, and the student is warned against blindly copying embroidery merely because it is old. There is another danger, and that is of collecting fragments of ornament from all periods and trying to stick them together into one scheme. This practice is obviously bad. There is no reason why an ancient pattern should not be adapted to modern requirements ; it is the mixing of material that is to be condemned. The adapting of a beautiful piece of decoration may prove a more compensating occupation than to spend time in making new ornament which might be only of moderate merit.
The ideal condition in the production of artistic handicrafts is that each article should be conceived and carried out by the same person. Embroidery is a very personal art, its charm lies in the individuality expressed by the worker; and to get design or adaptation, colour scheme and embroidery from the same hand and brain ensures a certain unity, whatever the grade of excellence may be. Furthermore, there is evidence of the application of the mind to the material, an expression of the worker's interest and intelligence. Embroidery offers endless scope and freedom to every degree of imagination. Unfortunately, the purest fancies often die unexpressed for want of the right kind of help and appreciation, while the strongest are allowed to run wild for want of proper guidance and control.
The first thing necessary to be taught is to see. The late William Morris said, "There are two things to be done by the seers for the non-seers: the first is to show them what is to be seen on the earth; the next is to give them opportunities for producing matters, the sight of which will please themselves and their neighbours, and the people that come after them - to train them, in short, in the observation of beauty and incident." The sooner the worker can be made to see how wrong it is to try to imitate the natural appearances of flowers and plants in embroidery, the better. The height of the ambition of many needle-workers is reached when they are able to render pictorial representations of flowers, by forcing the light and shade in such a manner as to make the flower resemble a natural one resting on the surface of the material. Such work does very little more than betray a desire to show off dexterity and ingenuity which may have been acquired at the expense of everything else. Vulgarity and bad taste in this form exist among all classes; it is favoured by the so-called educated, where one would least expect to find it.