A recent visit to the Herringbone Stitch exhibition at the Embroiderers’ Guild of South Australia brings many surprises.
I was astonished by its diversity: the colours and design styles, variations of herringbone stitch, and cultural origins of exhibits – Australia, Italy, Greece, Portugal, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bali, China, Hungary, Mexico and Panama.
Basic herringbone is a simple embroidery stitch with neat and even placement of offset crosses, often used as a joining or border stitch. In some exhibits, it was used as a filler stitch – long threads closely applied, enabling the embroiderer to quickly cover areas with smooth blocks of colour. A large and striking Indian hanging with depictions of characters from the Ramayana was produced in this way.
Other examples showed variations: closed herringbone, reverse herringbone, interlaced herringbone. A small, scallop-edged table mat from Italy, made from fine, semi-transparent linen, had a design embroidered in cutwork and shadow work. While it looked like a design of applied fabric, a turned corner revealed herringbone stitch used to create the shadow effect. In interlaced herringbone stitch a second thread is passed through the crosses, creating a much more complex stitch structure. The colour, thickness and type of thread can be varied.
I was glad of the graphic labels illustrating these variations and, even more so, of the enthusiasm and assistance of Margaret Baxter, a member of the Guild’s volunteer museum team. Together we examined the embroideries to identify areas of herringbone stitch; when worked with fine embroidery threads of the same colour, on a very small scale, it was much harder to identify. The finest examples were two embroideries by master embroiderer Ghita Ahir, from North West India, now a very elderly lady. It is rare these days to see such detailed stitching on Indian embroideries.
A 19th century embroidery with an edge of broderie anglaise reminded me of some garments that I came across recently while attempting to de-clutter: white cotton Victorian petticoats and camisoles that had been stitched and worn by my grandmother. She lived in the days when all middle-class young ladies had to learn to sew and embroider, and made many of their own garments.
In the early 1970s, Laura Ashley recreated Victorian and Edwardian-style fashions which appealed to the romantic nostalgia of many young women. My sister, five years older, was able to buy Laura Ashley dresses but I, with just pocket money (double my age in pence – not nearly enough), could only crave such beautiful clothes. Then I inherited the real thing: white cotton lawn camisoles and petticoats with handkerchief hems — delicately hand-stitched undergarments made by my grandmother’s own hand! Fortunately, in my late teens, I was slim enough to wear them – for Granny had been renowned for her tiny waist. I wore them not as undergarments but as skirt and sleeveless blouse. (My grandmother would no doubt have been shocked by what she would have perceived as such a brazen display but it was, after all, the 1970s, and bare shoulders and ankles were nothing in comparison with mini-skirts and hotpants and the exposure of all that leg!)
Examining these today (I cannot bear to part with them), I admire the neat pin-tucks with ruler-straight running stitch; the lacey edging around the camisole’s neckline; the striking broderie anglaise decoration on the hem of a petticoat. I appreciate the skill and patience of my grandmother and the producers of the works in the Herringbone Stitch exhibition, for I simply would not have the patience to complete such neat and detailed work.
Members of the Embroiderers’ Guild also produce exquisitely stitched embroideries which can be seen in the Guild Shop and their annual exhibition and by doing so they fulfil an important role in maintaining traditional embroidery techniques in which neatness and uniformity are key elements.
In my own embroidery work, I use free-hand or machine stitching to make expressive and gestural marks — ‘drawing’ and ‘painting’ with thread. It’s a total contrast to the neat and detailed embroideries in the Herringbone Stitch exhibition, but it suits my personality. I remember at primary school having to stitch a sewing bag from gingham (the squares helped novice sewers to maintain straight lines of stitching), then a lap bag and finally an apron (we’d progressed by this stage to plain fabric). Our stitches were examined closely by the teacher and, if not perfectly uniform in length and distance apart, with no unwanted slant in angle, we had to unpick them and rework the stitches again until they were perfect — I think that’s why I hate gingham!
Embroiderers’ Guild of South
Australia, 16 Hughes St, Mile End
Open to non-members from 10am to 2pm on Tuesdays until end of March 2019
Broderie anglaise on the hem of a petticoat made by the author’s maternal grandmother, Maisie Simpson, late 19th century (Photo: Moira Simpson)