Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Materials

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ALMOST every fabric that is good of its kind is suitable for a ground for needlework, and any thread of silk, linen, cotton, or wool, is suitable for laying on a web, with the purpose of decorating it. Yet these materials should not be wedded indiscriminately, every surface requiring its peculiar treatment; a loose woollen fabric, for example, being best covered with wool-work rather than with silk. Not that it is necessary to work in linen thread on linen ground, in silk on silk ground, and so forth; silk upon linen, silk on canvas, wool on linen, are legitimate, because suitable combinations; it being scarcely necessary to note that linen or wool threads should not be used on silk surface, as to place the poorer on the richer material would be an error in taste. Gold thread and precious stones will of course be reserved for the richer grounds, and the more elaborate kinds of work.

A plain or a figured (damask) silk can be employed as a ground for needlework, the broken surface of a good damask sometimes enriching and helping out the design. If work is to be laid directly on silk ground, it should be rather open and light in character; if closer stitches are wanted, the principal forms are usually done on a canvas or linen backing, which is then cut out and "applied" to the final silk ground, the design being carried on and completed by lighter work of lines and curves, and by the enrichment of gold thread, and sometimes even precious stones. These two methods are a serious and dignified form of embroidery, and were often used by the great mediæval embroiderers on a rich figured or damask silk, and sometimes on plain silk, and sometimes on a silky velvet. It is not easy to procure absolutely pure "undressed" silk now, and pliable silk velvet of a suitable nature is still more difficult to obtain. Satin is, to my thinking, almost too shiny a surface for a ground, but it may, occasionally, be useful for small work. A sort of imitation called "Roman satin" is sometimes employed on account of its cheapness and effectiveness, I suppose, as it cannot be for its beauty; the texture, when much handled, being woolly and unpleasant. No one taking trouble to procure choice materials will think of making use of it.

Floss silk lends itself particularly to the kind of needlework we are speaking of; there is no twist on it, the silk is pure and untouched, if properly dyed has a soft gloss, and a yielding surface that renders it quite the foremost of embroidery silks, though its delicate texture requires skilful handling. But avoid silks that profess to be floss with the difficulty in handling removed. If the old workers could use a pure untwisted floss, surely we can take the trouble to conquer this difficulty and do the same. Twisted silk, if used on a silk ground, should, I think, be rather fine; if thick and much twisted, it stands out in relief against the ground and gives a hard and ropy appearance. I am, in fact, assuming that work on so costly a material as pure thick silk is to be rather fine than coarse. Gold and silver thread is much used with silk, but it is almost impossible to keep the silver from tarnishing. Ordinary "gold passing," which consists of a gilt silver thread wound round silk, is also apt to tarnish, and should always be lacquered before using—a rather troublesome process to do at home, as the gold has to be unwound and brushed over with the lacquer, and should be dried in a warm room free from damp, or on a hot sunny day. Japanese paper-gold is useful, for the reason that it does not tarnish, though in some ways it is more troublesome to manage than the gold that can be threaded in a needle and passed through the material. It consists, like much of the ancient gold thread, of a gilded strip of paper wound round silk, the old gold being gilded vellum, when not the flat gold beaten out thin (as, by the bye, in many of the Eastern towels made to-day where the flat tinsel is very cleverly used).

For needlework for more ordinary uses, linen is by far the most pleasing and enduring web. Unlike silk on the one side, and wool on the other, it has scarcely any limitations in treatment, or in material suitable to be used on it. For hangings it can be chosen of a loose large texture, and covered with bold work executed in silk, linen thread, or wool, or it can be chosen of the finest thread, and covered with minute delicate stitches; it can be worked equally well in the hand, or in a frame, and usually the more it is handled the better it looks. A thick twisted silk is excellent for big and coarse work on linen, the stitches used being on the same scale, big and bold, and finer silk used sparingly if needed. White linen thread is often the material employed for linen altar cloths, coverlets, etc., and some extremely choice examples of such work are to be seen in our museums, some worked roughly with a large linen thread and big stitches, some with patient minuteness. It is hardly necessary to say how important the design of such work is.

Different qualities of this material will be suggested to the embroideress by her needs; but, before passing to other things, I should not omit mention of the charming linen woven at Langdale. For some purposes it is very useful, as good linen for embroidering on is not easy to obtain. We have, however, yet to find a web which will resemble the rougher and coarser linens used for old embroideries, rather loosely woven, with a thick glossy thread, and of a heavy yet yielding substance, quite unlike the hard paper-like surfaces of machine-made linens. The Langdale linen is, of course, hand-spun and hand-made, and the flat silky thread gives a very pleasant surface; but, owing to its price and fine texture, it is not always suitable for the purposes of large hangings. Many fine examples of Persian work, such as quilts and so forth, are executed on a white cotton ground, neither very fine nor very coarse, entirely in floss silk, a variety of stitches being used, and the brightest possible colours chosen. The cool silky surface of linen, however, commends itself more to us than cotton, each country rightly choosing the materials nearest to hand, in this as in other decorative arts. Both linen and cotton are good grounds for wool-work, of which the most satisfactory kind is that done on a large scale, with a variety of close and curious stitches within bold curves and outlines.

Canvas and net are open textures of linen or cotton, and can be used either as a ground-work covered entirely with some stitch like the old-fashioned cross-stitch or tent-stitch, or some kindred mechanical stitch, or it can stand as the ground, to be decorated with bright silks. The texture of canvas being coarse, the design for it should be chosen on a large scale, and thick silk used; floss preferably as the glossiest, but a thick twisted silk is almost equally effective, and rather easier to handle. This canvas is used frequently in seventeenth-century Italian room-hangings, either in the natural brownish colour, or dyed blue or green, the dye on it giving a dusky neutral colour which well shows up the richness of the silk.

Of woollen materials, cloth is the king; though as a ground for needle-decoration it has its limitations. It forms a good basis for appliqué, the groups of ornament being worked separately, and laid on the cloth with threads and cords of silk, gold, or wool, according to the treatment decided on. Rough serge gives a good surface for large open wool-work. Such work is quickly done, and could be made a very pleasing decoration for walls. See the delightful inventories of the worldly goods of Sir John Fastolf in the notes to the Paston Letters, where the description of green and blue worsted hangings, and "bankers" worked over with roses and boughs, and hunting scenes, make one long to emulate the rich fancies of forgotten arts, and try to plan out similar work, much of which was quite unambitious and simple, both in design and execution. "Slack," a slightly twisted wool, worsted and crewel are usually the forms of work used; of these slack wool is the pleasantest for large work, worsted being too harsh; crewel is very fine and much twisted,[1] often met with in old work of a fine kind. The advantage of wool over silk in cost is obvious, and renders it suitable for the commoner uses of life, where lavishness would be out of place.

May Morris.

  1. Crewel, crull, curly:—
    "His locks were crull as they were laid in press,"
    says Chaucer of the Squire in The Canterbury Tales.