When the &Stitches team decided to dedicate a month to single-color-stitching, we knew we had to give some love to the grace and elegance of whitework embroidery! And who better to talk to about whitework than Yvette Stanton, whitework stitcher and writer extraordinaire?
Yvette Stanton is an Australian author of several books on historical forms of whitework. She teaches embroidery widely for guild groups, community groups and shops. Yvette is currently working on a book on a form of counted whitework from Italy. She adores whitework embroidery, and is constantly drawn to it. Her website is www.vettycreations.com.au.
We've asked Yvette to teach us a little about whitework and what makes it special!
Close up of historical Mountmellick embroidery nightdress case, featuring blackberries.
If you were describing whitework embroidery to someone completely new to it, what would you tell them?
Whitework embroidery is done in white thread on white fabric. Apart from that, there can be many different aspects to the embroidery. Sometimes it has holes worked into the fabric, sometimes the stitching is counted, sometimes it is not. But the thing that groups all whitework together is white thread on white fabric.
What different types of embroidery fall under the heading of ‘whitework’?
There are many different types from all over the world! To name a few: Hardanger embroidery (Norway), Schwalm embroidery (Germany), Mountmellick embroidery (Ireland), Richelieu work (Italy), hedebo (Denmark), broderie anglaise (England), Ayrshire embroidery (Scotland), candlewicking (America), Guimarães embroidery (Portugal), Lefkara lace (Cyprus), and drawn thread work and pulled thread work both of which are found in many cultures’ embroidering traditions. Some of these embroideries are nowadays done in colour as well as white, but the traditional form of the embroidery was always whitework.
Traditional style Hardanger embroidery. Hardanger is a counted thread embroidery.
Tell us a bit about the threads and fabrics that are most often used in whitework.
Because there are so many different types of whitework there are also many different types of thread used. However, because many of these are very old forms of embroidery, the most common type of thread used for whitework is cotton, ranging from very fine thicknesses, such as is used in Ayrshire embroidery, through to very thick, such as is used in Mountmellick embroidery. Some are shiny, and some are completely matt, with no shine; it all depends on which type of whitework.
Fabrics also vary widely, from fine batistes, through to evenweave linen, and on to cotton satin jean. Because these are historical techniques that have been around for generations, most of the fabrics would be made from natural fibres, principally cotton and linen. The fine embroideries use suitably fine fabrics, and the heavy embroideries use appropriately heavy fabrics to take the weight of the stitches. Counted thread embroideries such as Hardanger and pulled and drawn thread work require evenweave linen, where there are the same quantity of threads over the same distance across both the warp and the weft of the fabric.
What keeps you coming back to whitework over other types of embroidery?
It is the simple elegance of white on white. When there is no colour to distract, the pattern and texture formed by the stitching really comes to the fore.
We could think of it like this: Imagine a band with many musical instruments playing a piece of music, while their vocalist sings. In the music there is lots of “colour” – loud/soft, full/empty, high/low. There is also the interplay of the voice with the various instruments, and the instruments' interplay with each other. Then imagine the same piece of music, stripped right back, with just the vocalist and a guitar. The stripped back version would really allow the guitar playing and the vocalist’s use of their voice to come to shine.
In the same way, when you remove colour, the stitches, the design and the pattern really are able to shine.
Schwalm embroidery designed by Luzine Happel. Schwalm embroidery incorporates both counted embroidery and surface embroidery.
Do you have any tips for stitchers who would like to try whitework for the first time? What’s a good place to start?
Pick one and try it! Because of the wide range of embroidery styles, there should be something that appeals to everyone. If you usually enjoy counted embroidery, try a counted style, such as Hardanger or pulled thread work. If you usually enjoy surface embroidery, try one of the surface types such as candlewicking or Mountmellick. If you’re scared of cutting threads, then choose one which doesn’t have cut threads.
Make sure you have the right supplies. If you’re going to try a new style of embroidery, then do it right. Use the traditional threads and fabrics (or as close to them as you can possibly manage) as that will give you a more accurate feel for the real style of the embroidery. You can’t learn to ride a bike without a bicycle, so don’t try to learn an embroidery which traditionally uses cotton with wool or rayon thread. Don’t try to use a satin weave fabric when you’re supposed to have an evenweave linen – it just won’t work out in the way that you hope it might!
Books on whitework techniques by Yvette Stanton.
If you are comfortable learning from books, get yourself a good reference book with step by step instructions from which to learn. You could borrow books from your local library or guild library, or purchase the book. If you prefer instruction from a teacher, then find a class that teaches the type of embroidery that you would like to learn. Guilds, community colleges, community groups and needlework shops are places where you might find such classes. You may even find an online class in this digital age!
An excellent article on whitework with many photos can be found at: lacismuseum.org/exhibit/whitework/Whitework%20Catalog.pdf
Thank you so much for sharing some of your expertise with us, Yvette! If you'd like to know more about whitework or Yvette's work, be sure to visit her at her website, her blog, or her Facebook page.