Stitching Pretty

Often when we think of embellishment in the 17th century, we think of bobbinlace.   It conjures up images of young women sitting working with pins on cushions, manipulating myriad fine threads and producing lovely lace.   But bobbin lace wasn\’t the only form of embellishment in the 17th century.   One of the ancient forebears of lace, needlelace (sometimes called whitework embroidery), was widespread.  This type of embellishment is found as far back as ancient Egypt and continues to the present day.

Needlelace differs from bobbinlace or other types of lace in that it is worked with a needle on a fabric ground.   It is really just an arrangement of stitches, some pulled tightly, some left slack, that creates a white-on-white pattern.   Sometimes threads are removed fomr the ground and the resulting form is labelled drawnwork.   Other variations involve sewing around certain areas and then cutting out the fabric between the stitches. &nsbp; This is called cutwork.   Pulled, drawn and cutwork were all commonly used as decoration in the early to mid-17th century.

The wonderful thing about needlelace is that you can try a little or really go crazy with it.   You can use it to add a little interest to the edge of a handkerchief or embellish an entire garment.   I recommend starting with the hankie and working your way up.

To start, decide what you want to embellish.   I started on a foot square handerchief I threw together for my use at events during allergy season.   It\’s just a white square, 12\” x 12\”.   Most needlelace books insist you buy even weave linen, but that\’s not necessary for this simple project. It really doesn\’t matter if you have the exact number of stitches on each side of the hankie.

Since my handkerchief was an existing article, it already had a hem, so I cheated.   If you\’re starting from scratch, the proper way to do this is to hem as you put in the needlace stitches.   In the enlarged picture below, you can see the hem stitches and they do seem to interfere with the look of the lace.   But at actual size, they aren\’t noticable.

To start from scratch, count ten threads from the edge of the piece and insert your needle between the 10th and 11th threads.   Now you must decide if you want to remove a thread from the ground to enhance the stitches.   A removed thread creates a more dramatic effect, but it also weakens the fabric.   My handkerchief will be used and laundered often so I chose not to remove any threads.   If you wish to remove a thread, put your needle under the tenth thread and pull it up so that it makes a loop.   You can do this at intervals all along one side of the piece and withdraw the thread gently.   It\’s also okay to use a little bit of force and pull the thread out in one place.   Be careful with how hard you pull so that you won\’t skew the grain or create a gap in the weave where you withdrew the thread.   If this happens, work the fabric gently with your fingers until the gap shrinks.   Do this on all four sides.

Fold the edge of the piece up to where the thread was removed and crease it with your fingers.   Now turn the edge inside the fold so that you have a small hem ready to be stitched down.   Give it a crease with your fingers so it keeps its shape.

To start after you\’ve hemmed, insert the needle a thread or two away from the hem.   I tie a knot at the end of my thread and hide it in the hem, but some people like to secure the thread with a few backstitches.   Both techniques can be seen on 17th century examples.

backstitch
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three-sided stitch
a cap edged in backstitch and picots (\”mice teeth\”)
Antique Cutwork (punto reticello)

© 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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