Starting silk shading

In my last post I told you about how I started my journey at the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) and how rediscovering embroidery helped me to better deal with stress during some challenging times.

I was obviously keen to continue my journey!

Through my readings and discoveries about the RSN I saw an amazing breadth of embroidery techniques, utilised in so many stunning ways. One of the techniques that really stood out for me was silk shading (also known as thread painting or needle painting). I loved the level of detail that could be achieved, and was especially impressed by some of the silk shaded animals that I came across.

Looking at the finished embroideries, it seemed like quite an advanced technique that might be better to build up to. However, browsing through the list of RSN day classes I kept coming back to a gorgeous silk shaded flamingo design. The class was pitched as mixed ability and I was feeling more confident after my first class so decided to dive in!

I’m very glad that I did as I loved the two day class and there were plenty of other students who were quite new to the technique. The tutors are great at breaking things down and offering encouragement so you are in very good hands.

Fundamentally, silk shading is just one stitch called long and short. Check out my long and short stitch tutorial here. It is so named because you start by working stitches of different lengths to create an overall block of smooth stitching. Sometimes you first work a split stitch foundation around the edge – this helps to create a smooth neat edge.

Work in progress silk shaded leaf. The long and short stitches are worked over a split stitch foundation.
Detail of working the long and short stitches over a split stitch outline.

At its simplest, silk shading can be worked in a single shade to fill up a large block of colour. Although it is often worked using multiple colours and shades in order to create a photo realistic or detailed piece.

For this design we used multiple shades of pink for the flamingo in order to create the realistic 3 dimensional shading as well as multiple shades of green for the leaves. I was very pleasantly surprised that with the excellent design and instructions provided by our tutor Zina Kazban, we were able to create such a beautiful embroidery, even as silk shading novices.

The things I struggled with most were judging the right spacing between stitches so that you get an even coverage without having to go back and fill in the gaps. I did plenty of filling in the gaps! But I don’t think this is a big problem, especially when starting out, as long as you don’t end up over working the piece. It also took a while to get the distribution of the long and short stitches feeling right, as at first you could quite clearly see the rows of stitching that I’d worked. The things that helped me to correct this were going much more extreme that I thought I should on the start points of some of the stitches. And to focus more on a good staggering of the stitches than on big variations in the stitch lengths.

In addition to the silk shading, this design has a couple of stumpwork (raised) leaves, so that was another new technique that we were taught on the second day. You work lots of tiny stitches for the outline that secures your wire to the fabric, so good lighting is essential! It was a bit nerve wracking to have to make a hole in my fabric after hours and hours of stitching, but it worked out fine and I do think the raised leaves really elevate the final piece.

Silk shading with a single strand of cotton is quite slow going, so I still had a lot of work to do after the class to finish this piece. But I found it all very enjoyable and really love my final flamingo so absolutely worth it!

The flamingo's beak and part of his neck have been completed.
Progress at the end of day 1 of class
A silk shaded leaf is nearly complete, cretan stitch has been worked on a large leaf and the buttonhole stitch outline of a stumpwork leaf has been completed.
Progress at the end of day 2 of class
Detail of buttonhole stitching around the edge of a stumpwork leaf.
Lots of tiny buttonhole stitches are used to outline the stumpwork leaves and secure the shaping wire to the fabric.
Completed leaves worked in silk shading, one has some additional beading detail.
The stumpwork leaves are ready to be cut out
Completed flamingo embroidery, worked in silk shading with stumpwork leaves.
The finished flamingo!

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