Pinning The Past – Shadow Embroidery


Pinning The Past with Ruth Singer

Shadow work is a delicate but simple technique that makes use of sheer fabrics to great effect. It was hugely fashionable in the 18th century and had a little burst of fashionability in the 1930s but seems to have all-but vanished since then.

In the middle of the 18th century, it was fashionable for wealthy women to wear fine white gauzy aprons made from silk and fine cottons such as muslin or lawn, embroidered with white thread. Designs were usually nature-inspired with flowers, scrolling vines and leaves. Fine white cotton fabrics were imported from India along with the fashionable style of whitework embroidery on sheer fabrics which had long been popular amongst the wealthiest in India.

18th century women's outfit © V&A
Apron 1720s-40s, part of 18th century women’s outfit © V&A

Shadow work in English embroidery seems to have been inspired by Indian chickankari embroidery from Lucknow where fine fabrics were embroidered with white thread to create a delicate shadow effect of scrolling lines and curved patterns.

Chikankari embroideru © V&A
Chikankari embroidery © V&A

 

The technique works beautifully in silk fabrics, such as this pair of Edwardian sleeves stitched in white in delicate shadow-work petals alongside other embroidery stitches.

 

Reverse side of shadow embroidery.
Reverse side of Edwardian shadow embroidery.
Front of shadow embroidery
Edwardian shadow embroidery

A similar technique has been in use in Italian embroidery for some time too, often used more as a relief stitch on heavier fabrics. There’s a good site on this here.

Shadow work became popular again in the 1930s for tray cloths, napkins and the almost endless variety of home textiles and baby clothes created from patterns in women’s magazines. Coloured threads were used to give pastel colours to the work although white on white remained popular. Fabrics used include sheer, slightly stiff cotton organdie.

Shadow embroidery (front)
Vintage shadow embroidery (front)
Shadow embroidery (back)
Shadow embroidery (back)

Today Chickankari is still produced in India, although finding the quality to match that made in the 18th century is difficult. Shadow-work seems to have almost entirely fallen out of favour with contemporary embroiderers now, and is mostly limited to patterns for baby wear and domestic textiles with imagery of flowers, ducks, monograms and other tweeness.

Encyclopaedia of Embroidery Stitches
Encyclopaedia of Embroidery Stitches

The stitches used to create shadow-work are incredibly simple – it is a herringbone-type stitch worked from the back of the fabric, with the back-stitch outline created by the herringbone stitch. Sheer fabrics are essential, such as cotton organdie, fine lawn or silk organza. I’ve done a quick survey of my (quite large) collection of embroidery and needlework manuals from the 20th century, and the stitch appears in pretty much all of them up to the 1970s. Why it should have fallen out of favour is a mystery to me as it is such a lovely effect and so simple. I’m definitely planning to make a piece using, or at least incorporating, this technique. I hope that it will get a new burst of stitch fashion soon.

 

Shadow embroidery (front)
My (very quick) sample of shadow embroidery on silk organza. Front

 

Shadow embroidery (back)
My (very quick) sample of shadow embroidery on silk organza. back

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Ruth Singer Books – Get yours from our Amazon store!

Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques by Ruth Singer
Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques

Sew Eco: Sewing Sustainable and Re-Used Materials by Ruth Singer
Sew Eco: Sewing Sustainable and Re-Used Materials

Sew It Up: A Modern Manual of Practical and Decorative Sewing by Ruth Singer
Sew It Up: A Modern Manual of Practical and Decorative Sewing


Ruth Singer
Ruth Singer creates detailed and intriguing textile artworks inspired by historical textiles, museum objects, personal heritage, memory and stories. She uses natural and recycled textiles combined with hand stitching as well as fabric manipulation techniques to create detailed surface texture. She also writes books on textiles and sewing and teaches in her own studio as well as freelance.
Ruth Singer

@ruthsinger

Artist, maker, researcher, creative projects, consultancy, mentoring. #acesupported Projects: @mcfarlandsinger @criminalquilts @interlacecollab
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Ruth Singer
Ruth Singer
Ruth Singer

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4 thoughts on “Pinning The Past – Shadow Embroidery

  • Thanks so much for sharing this! I never knew the name of the technique and had only seen 1930s examples in linens from my grandmother. I definitely will be trying this, and I love the idea of making a sheer blouse using this effect.

  • I’ve done shadow work before! I have this great italian book that my mum picked up at a church fete that has the most gorgeous designs in it. It’s called Il Punto Ombra and it was published in 1978. I made a set of serviettes as a gift for my brother and his wife for their wedding three years ago. I really like the style shadow work with the outlines with just a hint of colour.

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