A Shadow Work Embroidery Primer
Written by Rissa Peace, all rights reserved.
Shadow work is a very subtle and interesting form of embroidery. As the name would suggest, the basic idea is to use sheer fabric where only the barest outline of the pattern appears on the surface and the crisscrossed threads underneath show through, thereby creating a "shadow" pattern. It is the opacity of the threads being worked on sheer fabric which defines this form of embroidery more than any single stitch or color combination. Shadow work is very versatile and looks both delicate and complicated, but it is really quite sturdy and easy to do. This effect can be used in a variety of ways with a wide array of designs and themes. The hardest part is choosing your design and laying out the way you will approach it.
White on white is probably the oldest and most prevalent form of shadow work, which is why it is often lumped in with white work embroidery. Although it is thought to have originated in other lands, this ancient textile art really flowered in India, where it is called Chikankari. As times and tastes have changed throughout the ages, so has shadow work. Much of it is still white on white, pastels on white, or tone on tone. However, brightly colored threads worked under sheer fabrics have tremendous eye appeal. In recent times, I have even seen red work shadow work designs, which demonstrates how difficult it is to classify embroidery techniques, since they are often blended. What fascinates me most about this type of embroidery is that incredible range of possibility for design sources and artistic expression. From sweet and subtle accents, to a subtle rendition of a vibrant design, to an eye popping realistic image, the only limitation is the amount of time you have in which to stitch. In all of the research I have done for this article, the one variation that I never came across was metallic threads on black sheer fabric, so I created a design and worked it that way and loved the result.
This small organza bag was embroidered with size 12 Silk Perle from Vikki Clayton in Midnight & Purple and Hunter to give a tone on tone effect The subtle shading of the hand-dyed silk is too subtle for a scanner, but very pleasing to the eye. The design is a slight variation from the Michler book cited at the end of this article.
Shadow work is most often done using the herringbone stitch on the reverse side of the fabric, leaving a clean back stitch outline on the top side. This is referred to as the "Reverse Herringbone" or "Closed Herringbone" stitch. The small stitches, usually less than one eight of an inch long, are worked evenly along parallel design lines most of the time, with back stitches filling in lines and oddly shaped places. There are several variations, the most common is working a backstitch on the topside of the fabric from one side to the design element to the other, which also creates a herringbone on the reverse, even though you are actually working the correct side of the design. This is sometimes referred to as the "Double Back Stitch" or "Inverse Herringbone." This is the method I use, since it is the only way I can make sure I am not meandering or missing stitches! In yet another technique, shadows can also be achieved by working the whole element in back stitch, then weaving the thread across the back side of the fabric to create the shadow. This method is sometimes referred to as "Indian Darning". If your design looks weak one you have finished stitching, you can always use this weaving technique to give the thread greater opacity. It all comes down to a matter of personal preference. As long as the shadow effect is the central design element, it does not matter which technique you choose to achieve it.
Shadow work can be done in most any thread, but I find that floche, flower thread, silk and cotton perle work best. I prefer a single strand , since it is easier to control and less likely to knot or catch. Also, the tighter the twist, the better the thread will pass through the fabric. Cotton, rayon and silk embroidery flosses are acceptable too and available in a huge range of colors, but you must separate the strands prior to use. One or two strands will work for most designs and fabrics. You should note that the thicker the thread, the fewer stitches will be required to obtain opacity. It is always a good idea to use short lengths of thread, no matter which type you choose, since any fraying would be more obvious when working with sheer fabrics. Several books suggest thread lengths up to one yard, but I have found that to be poor advice. Try a variety of colors, sizes and types to see how many ways you can interpret a single design.
Any fabric sheer enough to allow the thread to be seen can be used. The most common types are organza, organdy, voile and batiste. I have even used georgette. There is a wide range of fabrics with varying degrees of transparency for you to try. Fabric content is not critically important, but I seem to have a bias toward silk, especially for art items. Do not get locked into a white fabric mentality. You can use any color, provided you choose threads that will show through. It is best to pre-wash and dry all fabric before you use it. Shrinkage could possibly mar the design once stitched. Pressing the fabric prior to marking it or placing it in the hoop will help keep your design uniform. Since the fabrics are all delicate to a degree, you may want to use a pressing cloth.
Any fine needle with an eye big enough to accommodate the thread of your choice can be used, but I tend to prefer sharps and betweens in a size 10 or size 9 or even a crewel needle. Since I use a method that is worked all on top of the fabric, my needle needs to be just long enough to work between the two sides of the design element. Several resources suggest a size 26 tapestry needle, because it has a larger eye and a blunt tip. Oddly those are the two things I want to avoid, but this may be a better choice for your needs. A larger hole will make it easier to learn the stitch, but a smaller one will give a better over all appearance to your finished design. This is not an exact science, experiment with a few needle choices to see which works best for the technique you prefer.
A small hoop is considered essential for this method, but there are times when one is impractical, such as on small ready-made items. This is one time that I do not recommend using a Q-Snap® or a spring tension hoop. Shadow work needs to be firmly and evenly stretched to work small even stitches and have your design stay true to the tracing! You may want to wrap your hoop with soft cloth or gauze to protect the delicate fabric from any imperfections or snags. If I use a hoop, I almost always use removable stabilizer, such as Sulky Solvy®.
Design Transfer Methods
Transferring a design is easier with shadow work than just about any other type of embroidery, since the fabric is sheer! I have two favorite methods. One is to trace the design directly onto the back side of the fabric, using a pencil or chalk. Make sure your lines are accurate and clean and thin. Most water soluble pens do not have a fine enough tip for this type of precise work. Remember if your design is not well drawn, it will probably not be well stitched in shadow work, since you follow the lines precisely. The other method I use is tracing the design onto a temporary stabilizer like Solvy® with a fine tip permanent marker. The stabilizer should always be on the herring bone side of the fabric, to prevent you accidentally piercing the stabilizer, but not the fabric.
Design sources are plentiful for this particular form of embroidery. Shadow work patterns are available, but there are many other sources available. Since the whole concept is an outlined design with subtle shading, almost any line drawing can be used. Stencil patterns also work well and require little planning, since the design elements do not share sides. Many punch work, red work and black work designs can be utilized with this technique. There are entire books devoted to design elements which translate well into shadow work. Some of my favorites are Art Nouveau floral designs and Art Deco geometric designs. Just remember to begin on the inside of the pattern and work out, so that the threads do not cross over an area before you have been able to work it directly and plan ahead on any area where two design elements meet.
Another design source that I have recently discovered works quite well with this form of embroidery is stained glass patterns. Since the idea is very similar, it makes sense that these patterns would work. The added bonus is that many of the more complicated patterns have color keys, or at least a color photo of the finished product, so that you are not left to guess which shape was meant to be the flower petal and which the leaf! The minute I saw the elaborate stained glass windows done by Louis Comfort Tiffany, I knew that this would be something that could be reproduced in shadow work.
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