The Art of Shading in Embroidery

Jeanine in Canada is a blogger who specializes in Italian Needlework. In this particular blog post, she discusses Printwork Embroidery whereby engravings are imitated in handwork. Competition pieces were evaluated not only for the quality of stitches, but also, how well the piece made use of shading. Back then, I’m sure there was not the extensive availability of various shades for each color either in threads or materials, but there were enough options to challenge an artist’s creativity. Dyeing or staining of fabrics was one way and could have included the use of tea. Differences in shades of black or sepia (brown) colored threads helped to produce the shading in a two dimensional piece.

Today is no different, but we have many more options available to us. While thread colors are still used for shading, fabrics today can easily imitate marble or stone, or even bricks or grass. In free-standing lace embroidery we can make use of the following options to enhance our lace work:

  • changing the thread color
  • varying the density of stitches, or the openness or closeness of stitched areas
  • varying the stitch styles, such as satin vs. a general fill stitch
  • changing stitch direction
  • using variegated thread instead of solid colors
  • using three dimensional effects
  • using applique of fabrics within the piece in lieu of stitches
  • adding some embellishment, such as crystals, sparkles, or buttons

While it’s not lace, in my quilted nativity scene below, I made some deliberate choices in fabric and thread.

The fabric for the night sky has a marble effect to it. This fabric avoids a flat solid unrealistic look and gives my night sky the cosmic gas effect that one would naturally see.

Nativity Wall Hanging

The sheep are initially stitched in white, but an obvious layer of gray is added with the stitches changing directions to more accurately depict the various parts of the animal.

Nativity Sheep

The angel’s hair is initially stitched in one color in two directions, with another closely colored thread used for subtle shading.  The strands at the top of her head on the left are stitched horizontally, while the lower half of the strands are stitched more vertically.

Nativity Angel

The hay in the baby’s crib has a 3D fringe which causes shading underneath it and the thread used for the wood is variegated with another brown colored thread depicting the wood grain.

Nativity Crib

When using exclusively threads, one must be aware of the layers of stitches that are involved in creating a piece. Too many layers of thread can cause a piece to pucker in the hoop or cause thread breakage from the friction of having the needle push through several layers of thread. Digitizing software can help you remove the lower levels of stitches. Also, the bigger the piece being stitched, the easier it is to achieve the effects of shading. For small pieces, it may be best to forgo the shading altogether.

All this reminds me, I do have a Currier & Ives piece that has long remained unfinished. Maybe I should pull it out and finish it after I finish the bouquet of flowers sitting on my coffee table.


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