Goldwork 101

Initially goldwork may seem very scary, intricate, difficult, and other intimidating adjectives, but it is absolutely breath-taking and well-worth the efforts! This will be a primer into the beginning basics of goldwork plus some extra tips and hints discovered along the way.

Goldwork History

Like many very old needlework techniques, the origin of goldwork isn’t boiled down to a single location or person. There are many accounts of the technique being used in the far east and Japan roughly 2000 years ago. Funnily enough, some of the threads are still referred to as “Japan” gold (Japan gold threads are some of the finest types of gold leaf wrapped silk goldwork threads and are quite the staple when stitching goldwork pieces).

The technique then moved west through trade and travel and evolved, reaching a peak of use in the middle ages (~12th-14th centuries). This type of goldwork, coined Opus Anglicanum, is what many of us today recognize in the very ornate ecclesiastical tapestries and vestments. There are of course many other techniques where goldwork techniques are used to create absolutely astonishing pieces, backgrounds, and three dimensional masterpieces, and don’t worry, we will discuss those in additional articles eventually!

Materials

Threads

Goldwork is usually paired with traditional surface embroidery techniques using the finest of silks. Of course originally real precious metal materials were used, but today there are many more cost-effective substitutes available.

You’ll basically see two types of threads used: hollow threads that you stitch through as if attaching beads, and solid core threads that you stitch and couch over.

Japan gold was mentioned earlier, and it is one that has many uses. Japan gold is made of pure gold leaf wrapped around a silk thread core. There are many thicknesses available (like pearl cotton) for your desired effect. There are also many colors available (it doesn’t have to be gold!). There are also imitation Japan gold (T-numbers) which aren’t real gold leaf but simulate the appearance for a reduced cost. One major advantage to not using authentic gold or silver is that it will never tarnish.

The threads used in the project shown above should give you a good base when starting out.

There are many, many more types of threads including checks, plates (flat threads), twists, cords, and smooth purls. Plus there are additional materials like kid (shiny leather), beetle wings, and other shiny and opulent accessories that help create compositions as wide as the imagination. It is a very free-form type of embroidery so the use of all these different types of threads can really change a piece depending on what kind of texture, mood, and composition you desire.

Needles

When couching, use a very fine sharp needle (#8, #9). You may also want to use a larger chenille needle for sinking.

Fabric

Goldwork can be done on many types of fabric. Silk damask is popular for retaining authenticity, and it is a strong base for the heaviness of the technique. You can also use linen fabric, but you’ll want to make sure it’s a fine count (32 and above) so as not to create unsightly large holes when securing the gold threads.

Frame

When stitching you’ll want your fabric nice and taut at all times. You definitely want to mount your piece to a frame or stretcher bars! There are many techniques in how to mount fabric to a frame.

Felt Padding

There may be an area in your piece that requires padding before stitching down the passing threads. Try and get a nice stiff felt that doesn’t shed and can handle being pierced repeatedly during couching without falling apart.

Thimble

Thimbles are definitely fingertip-savers! When stitching your piece on stretcher bars passing the needle from one hand to the other, your bottom fingers will be much happier when using a thimble.

Thread Conditioner

Using Thread Heaven was also a major player in this project. Using a conditioner on your silk securing threads will help them slide through your fabric more easily, prevents knots and fraying, and strengthens the threads. You can also use beeswax.

Stiletto/Mellore

These tools will aid in creating holes in the fabric for sinking, handling and pushing the gold threads into place, and generally aid in keeping things in line. A mellore is a specialty tool that is shaped similarly to a stiletto on one end, but the other end is a flat paddle that is used to push and stroke metal threads.

Tweezers

A good pair of tweezers is also a necessary addition. You will use tweezers to create abrupt kinks in your gold threads, much like a jewelry smith or beader would use pliers to twist and kink wire into intricate shapes.

A great go-to pair of tweezers are the 3.5″ Precision Point Tweezers; this pair is excellent because the point is extremely sharp (perfect for Hardanger), but you can also press the body together even further creating a large surface area for grabbing and pressing the thicker, metallic threads.

Metallic Thread Scissors

Scissors made for cutting metal threads are a must. The Metallic Thread Scissors have a micro-serrated bottom blade to prevent slippage.

Beginning Basic Technique

Couching! Unfortunately this isn’t a verb for being a couch potato. :)

Passing threads are most often couched in pairs, and in a “bricking” pattern. (Figure M.) When couching, hold your needle at an angle to make sure the passing threads are as close together as possible to achieve optimal coverage. (Figure L.)

This will help each pair of passing threads achieve a snug position up against the previous set of couched threads.

You’ll notice that there is a piece of felt underneath the passing threads. A felt foundation helps create a more dimensional and strong platform for the goldwork. Attaching felt is very easy.

You can begin with securing a waste knot in the middle of the felt, take several back stitches to the edge, and then couch along the edge of the felt to secure. (Figures A. & B.)

There are various ways of beginning your passing. The easiest is to fold your passing in half (Figure C.) and couch over the loop. (Figure D.) Then couch the pair until the end of the shape. (Figure E.)

An alternative method is to still fold the passing in half, but leave the loop (and 1" tail) unsecured for sinking later (Figure G.). This method creates much more pleasing edges at the beginning and the end, but uses more passing since you will need at least 1″ tails on both ends for successful sinking. The additional passing that will be sunk on the starting edge also creates more bulk on the wrong side of the project, so keep that in mind as well when using this technique.

The illustration below showcases the differences in the two techniques. While easier, and more efficient, couching the loop leaves a much less seamless starting edge.

“Sinking both ends” method will aid in passing areas that touch each other and do not have any additional edging that would cover up the less seamless edge of a “couching the loop” method.

The starting position of your passing threads can also vary greatly depending on what shape you wish the passing to form. Drawing your shapes on a piece of paper and then experimenting is a great way to decide how you want to start and create the passing interior.

Take for example a leaf shape. Many of the leaves were started in the middle (simulating the vein of the leaf), some started on one side, alternating sides with passing threads, so that they met in the middle. It really is quite the work of imagination!

Sinking

Sinking is the method in which you will be hiding all those passing tails by pulling (sinking) them to the back of the piece. Sinking can be a lot of fun mainly because the threads and fabric give a satisfying “POP” every time you successfully sink the threads to the back. :)

Sinking is also where a good set of rubber pulling discs and a sinking lasso (see below) come in handy.

To create a sinking lasso, using a strong twisted silk is recommended. You basically want to create a strong loop in a large-eyed needle (chenille preferred). You will be capturing each strand of passing thread in the loop and yanking it down through the fabric with the lasso. (Figure N.) Fun!

When to sink your threads is also up to your personal preference. Depending on the size of your shape and passing thread, you may want to sink and bundle as you go, sinking every 3-4 pairs. The only problem with sinking as you go is that you’ll need to keep in mind where your “bundles” are on the back of your work so as not to get stuck in them as you couch. Bundling underneath already completed work will aid in avoiding that problem.

Sinking at the end involves finishing the shape entirely, and then dealing with all those pesky tails in one go.

A student actually devised an excellent strategy. She would sink every pair after couching them and utilized the turnaround of the bundling to begin her new passing threads at the beginning of her shape again. Quite inventive!

When bundling, make sure you do not use a “stab and stick” method, since you don’t want to catch your beautiful couched threads on the right side. Instead, stitch keeping your needle parallel to the fabric, stitching around the bundles, catching the fabric and felt only to secure the bundles down. (Figure P.)

Some stitchers recommended stripping the metal leaf from the silk before bundling to reduce the amount of bulk on the back of the work, but this also may create more frayed edges and flyaways making bundling and tacking more difficult.

Whew!

That wasn’t so bad, was it? :) We hope that helped begin de-mystifying this fascinating embroidery just a bit. We hope to continue adding installments to goldwork technique in the future since there are so many different and amazing materials and stitching methods involved!

In the meantime, we have some excellent reference books on goldwork technique that are not only informative, but just gorgeous to view!


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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