Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stitchy Adventures in Couching!

EDIT: I had to repost this several times, trying to get the text to align properly. I'm very sorry if you recieved multiple notifications for this post!

A little while ago, I mentioned that I did a test project for the couching work that I need to do on my Twilight Angel. There are several reasons that I decided to do a test piece, the most important being that I wanted to try my hand at the technique.

Couching, put simply, is a method used to stitch down threads or ribbons or decorative braids (the "laid thread") with tiny tacking stitches (the "tacking thread") that may be the same colour as the material, so as to virtually disappear, or may contrast strongly with the laid material for decorative effect.

This is actually the first test piece I've ever done. Usually, I just forge ahead and see how it goes! But for trying out the look of a technique, and for getting experience in that technique,  it seems only logical to try some stitches out on another piece of cloth first. I really like the idea of doing a full test piece, using an actual pattern, because you then end up with a whole new work completed at the end of your trial process! I really enjoyed this project, and will definitely be doing testers again!

Now, couching can be used for various applications, and the way that you use it determines the result that you get, as does the materials you use. The couching in my Twilight Angel is done for the purpose of outlining her sash and the bottom band of her skirt; it is supposed to flow with the tiny curves and twists, and will add a 'ribbony' effect when finished. As this is a type of backstitch, the threads are much finer than the large braids or ribbons typically used for couching. The pattern calls for 1 strand of yellow and 2 strands of gold metallic to form the "laid thread" and for 1  strand of gold metallic to be used as the "tacking thread".

The gold metallic is not what we stitchers typically think of as metallic (e.g. the DMC Light Effects range). The Twilight Angel kit came with very fine thread that, after a lot of digging in my mother's thread stash, I was able to identify as machine embroidery thread. It is very fine, with a segmented look, and actually consists of layers of gold metallic material wound around a very fine white nylon core. It is quite strong, but can break (which I how I found out about the core, lol).

The gold that came with the kit was a bit greenish, and clashed horribly with the truer yellow gold in the star sequin embellishments and charms. So I substituted some gold machine embroidery thread that my Mother thankfully had (and kindly lent me), and used that same thread for this sample project, that I call Couched Rose, for reasons that will become obvious. Here is a picture of the threads that I used:

For this project, I used a 100% cotton fabric in a light pink, as I have been informed by my Stitchy Guru Mother that real cotton is much better for embroidery than the synthetic poly-cotton blend (of polyester and cotton). This fabric, as you can see from the photo, is rather thin (you can see the floral cushion pattern below it).

There are only two threads used: the gold metallic machine embroidery thread (Signature Metallic/Metallique, 42% Nylon, 58% Metallic, in shade 906 - colour number 36771 92906, brand Art. 92) and a thicker thread, burgundy upholstery thread (Guterman tapestry thread, 100% Polyester, in shade 450 - colour number 077780008694). Both are fairly strong threads, with the nylon and the polyester, and this is important since you will constantly need to pull the threads taught while stitching. I used a 6" inch hoop to hold my fabric tight.

For my pattern, I used a vintage couching pattern found free online at this blog. The pattern sheet includes several different designs in black, overlaying designs for stems and leaves in a light ink. I chose the rose for this project, but I am very taken with the swirly butterfly, and will be trying to couch him in the near future :)

To get my rose design on my fabric for stitching, I used an iron-on transfer method using transfer pencils. I tried two different brands, using artist's tracing paper (a little thicker than regular tissue tracing paper). First, I tried a newer pencil, EZ brand:

The lines were good, but were a bit thick. I found that this pencil lead quickly dulled and became rounded, and this was responsible for the thicker lines. It turned out a light magenta colour. Tracing depends very much on a steady hand, and I had a bit of trouble with that, especially at first. To trace, I placed the tracing paper - smooth side facing up (as it is in the artist's pad) - over the computer-printout of the couch designs, and then used the pencil to go over the design. It is helpful to keep an even and firm pressure that is not too hard, so as not to go through the paper.

Secondly, I tried a very old set of never-opened transfer pencils that my Mother had in her sewing stash. I was almost loathe to open them they're that antique :) These pencils are from the Aunt Martha's company, which is noted for their iron-on transfer pattern sheets (for household linens, clothing, pillowcases, etc.).

These pencils had much harder leads, that keep a sharp point easily, and that traced a much thinner line. This is essential since the threads to be laid are so fine. This is the final transfer that I used; the snippet taken out of the corner was a little test swatch that had a few pencil scribblings. Before I ironed the design to the fabric, I ironed the test swatch first to see that it would transfer. As this was my first time using iron-on transfer pencils for anything, I ironed test swatches from both pencil brands (as I feared the older pencils would not transfer); both turned out equally clear, with the Aunt Martha's pencils leaving slightly darker lines.

Here is a slideshow showing my progress from the design transfer to the completion of the stitching. After the slideshow, I'm going to share a few tricks I learned:

This was the first project in which I tried to take a photo during every major stage of progression, and I ended up with a ton of photos (almost 100!). Unfortunately, I was also trying to limit myself to one or two takes of each, and that resulted in some blurry pictures, and I apologize for that. In future, I'll have to try and remind myself to slow down and take the time to get multiple shots of each point.

When I first started my "laid thread" (1 strand gold, 1 strand burgundy, 1 strand gold), I brought in through to the back knowing that I would need to darn the tail in. However, with the fabric so thin and with no stitches to darn it back into, I needed something to hold the tails tight until I was ready to darn them. I tried making a few tacking stitches to hold the threads down, but they moved around.

I had done a bit of online research on couching beforehand, but I hadn't found any advice for this particular situation. So I borrowed a little trick from my beading experience, and used a "stopper bead" to hold the tails. Stopper beads are usually beads with a large hole, threaded onto the end of your stringing material to keep smaller beads (usually seed beads) from falling off before you fasten the clasps on. In this case, I used a burgundy wooden bead, a 4mm, that I had lying around from another project, and looped the tails of the "laid thread" through the bead hole twice, and then tying a loose overhand knot to keep them in place.

(You can see that I inadvertantly tangled my "tacking thread" on the back; I cut the strands and darned the seperately, so that error no long shows on the finished piece!)

This ensured that when I needed to pull on the "laid thread" strands that they were tight against the fabric. When the time came to start another section, I unpicked the knot, unlooped the strands from the beads, and then darned them carefully into the stitches on the back left from the "tacking thread". And I repeated the same process when starting the inner petal, that was not close to any of the other lines and that had to be darned into its own stitches. To keep the "tacking thread" tight, I looped it twice around the stopper bead, but did not knot it (as the 1 strand of gold was too fine); the first few tacking stitches kept the thread tight, and having it looped with the "laid thread" strands kept the tail out of my way until I was ready to darn it in.

By far, the most important thing I learned is that you need to keep your tension tight while couching. The hoop was a good choice, because you frequently need to turn the work in order to place the tacking stitches accurately and to follow the lines.

This is how I learned to keep the multiple strands of my "laid thread" together:

I started out by laying out the strands of my "laid threads" in order (left gold, center burgundy, and right gold), in the direction I was stitching. At this point, I just gently positioned them over the rim of the hoop (note: I found it very helpful to have a small pillow in my lap while working this project so I could rest the hoop on it while adjusting my threads). Next, I placed my finger over the strands and pulled them taut. Finally, I moved my finger forward against the hoop, keeping pressure on the strands, until they aligned closely together. It is essential, when working with multiple strands, that they lie even on the work and that they do not tangle underneath your tacking stitches.

While I was making tacking stitches with my "tacking thread", I kept the pressure on the strands. Between sections, I stopped holding the strands, as I found it was important to take occasional breaks to prevent cramping in my hand from keeping the "laid thread" in postion. Although I do not think you will need to keep as much pressure when using only a single strand for your "laid thread", you will need to keep that thread tight in much the same way.

Also, by instinct, I found it very helpful to add several extra tacking stitches wherever the design lines joined, as you can see in this extreme close-up:

I also did this when the "laid thread" strands came up through the fabric, at the start of a line, and went back into the fabric, at the end of a line, as you can see here:

This technique is also necessary when working closely angled curves; if you do not cluster the tacking stitches, you really can't get the point of curve in correctly:

As you can see from these extreme larger-than-life close-ups, it is possible to see the pink of the iron-on transfer line shadowing the threads every now and then, even though I took care to cover as much of the line as I possibly could. This doesn't really show up when viewing the piece at regular size, but it is something to be aware of if you try any surface embroidery pattern that uses an iron-on transfer method. Unlike other techniques, iron-on pencils leave a permanent line, which is usually covered up by your stitching. But since the threads used in this project are so fine, there is a bit of occassional 'bleed through'.

If I were to do this project again, I would possibly choose a thicker fabric. You can see some of the thicker lines resulting from the darning when the work is held up to the sunlight. However, I do intend to back the fabric when I decide what I would like to finish the work into, and so this will not be much of an issue. I am really pleased with the goldwork effect; in full light, the gold thread, although a simple synthetic machine embroidery brand, shines like molten liquid gold, and it is much more beautiful than I had ever thought it would be while working the project.

I do intend to try more couching in the future, and now feel that I can tackle the couching details on my Twilight Angel with confidence, which was the whole purpose of the project after all! But besides being a test sample, I have inadvertantly made a stitchery work in its own right and both techniques - couching and test works - are highly recommended :)

So, what so you think? Does a couching project like this appeal to you?

Honestly, I had no idea that couching existed as a stand-alone specific embroidery art; I thought it was just a stitching technique used for limited elements in different embroidery styles, like crewel work. It is a very simple stitch, but lends itself to making beautiful curves, and is wonderful for outlining any type of stitched work!

I really enjoyed this stitchy adventure, and am going to force myself to embark on more of them in the near future! There are so many stitchy techniques that I've wanted to try, and I've decided that now is the time to try them out :) Wish me luck!


Karen said...

What an excellent idea! I've never thought of doing anything like that with couching. It looks great!

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Thanks so much for your kind words Karen :) I'm glad you like the rose. I had no idea that there were actual all-couching projects either until I happily stumbled upon that vintage pattern sheet.

Unfortunately, the fad seems to have been short-lived, but I really enjoyed working with the rose, and can't wait to try some thicker threads on the butterfly :)

Flossy said...

This is gorgeous! I must definitely give this technique a go :D

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Thanks so much Flossy! I really think that you'll like couching - it's easy, adaptable and very quickly addicting :)

Rainy Day Crafter said...

What an interesting project - it's such a lovely and effective finish! I suspect though that if tried that I'd definitely end up in a right old muddle with all that thread! ;)

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Aw, you totally would not! I think you'd really like couching! It's super addicting, and very easy! The rose was just a bit complicated because the threads were so fine and, as you pointed out (LOL), there were so many of them.

Thanks very much for the lovely compliments :) I'm not sure what I'm going to finish finish it off as of yet, but hopefully I'll think of something!